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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sixbears hierarchy of technology

At the top of the heap are things like: clotheslines, sailboats, and solar panels. Windmills might make the list but I'm can't honestly say as I've little experience with them. What puts this tech in the top is that it works without a lot of energy inputs. Clotheslines dry clothes using the sun and wind. With a sailboat you can circle the globe using nothing but free wind. Solar electric panels quietly turn sunshine into electricity. Solar thermal panels fit here too. They can warm your house or heat your water.

The second tier down contains: canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and bicycles. They require energy inputs, but are so efficient that human power is sufficient.

The third level: woodstoves and diesels powered by biodiesel or waste vegetable oil. These technologies take a lot more work. Wood has to be cut, split, piled and then constantly loaded into the stove. Home brewed biofuels require a lot of handling and some processing. However, the economic and environmental payback is good with third tier tech.

On the opposite end of things are: gasoline powered anything and fossil fuel burning furnaces. Their attributes are complexity, reliances on non-renewable resources, and heavy system dependency. For example, take an oil burning furnace. It burns a processed fossil fuel. There's a long complicated supply line to get it to your house. You've little control over that. It takes electricity to run the furnace. That's two energy sources just to provide heat. The electric grid has to be running properly for the furnace to fire. Complicated electronic equipment must be working properly. The equipment requires periodic servicing by trained, equipped people. I know; I tried to work on one years back. There are some things I'll do: change fuel and air filters and bleed air out of the fuel lines. When it comes to adjusting electrodes or troubleshooting, forget it.

Picture a pyramid. Turn my list upside down. As much of tier one as you can manage goes on the bottom. Use as much as this tech as you can. Then move on to tier two and so on. At the very tip of the pyramid is the category of fossil fuel powered things. Keep the top layer of this pyramid as tiny as possible.

How would this look in the real world? One example. Take a sailboat with solar panels and perhaps a small windmill for power -tier one. On the boat is a dingy for rowing to shore and a folding bicycle for traveling around on land -tier two. There's a small woodstove for heat and cooking -tier three. Heck, while I'm at it, the sailboat might also have a biodiesel powered motor -also tier three. Then there are the things on the opposite side of the hierarchy: instead of a biodiesl powered motor, there could be a gasoline engine. However, it's only used when absolutely necessary. Cooking might be done with propane when it's too hot to light the woodstove.

Now this guy might look pretty good on the hierarchy scale, but there's room for improvement. Maybe he can add enough solar electric to power a strong electric motor. Instead of the propane stove, he could be using a solar oven.

It's not really necessary to be totally pure here. The gas motor may cost a lot less than the expanded solar electric system. You could go crazy waiting for that solar oven to heat water for your coffee. For me, it'd work if I set things up the night before and got up at the crack of noon. I want that hot java first thing. If I've got to burn a tiny bit of fossil fuel to do it, so be it.

Of course, once you've reduced your reliance on the fossil fuel tech dependence, the tiny tip of the pyramid, then it's easier to go without. The sailboat could be moved completely without fossil fuels. It's been done for thousands of years. Poles and and oars, plus sailing skill could fill the gasoline gap.

Ideally, as much tech as possible is done on the local level. Solar electric panels are built in high tech factories. However, the installation and maintenance of solar electric systems are done locally. The high tech parts, once on-site, keep working for decades.

Bicycles are in this shady area. Servicing and repair are local operations. However, many parts are hard or impossible to duplicate in a small shop. The components can be repaired and reused a long time; so that's a plus. Tires are a weak point. Pretty reliant right now on the petrochemical industry to produce tires. The thing is, it only takes a small amount of high tech parts and non-renewable chemicals to get a huge amount of service and value.

Of course, things like clotheslines, sailboats, rowboats, kayaks, and canoes have been built for thousands of years using local materials and skills. Solar thermal panels are often built with salvaged materials in home shops. How hard is a clothesline? It's a rope. Humans have been making rope since prehistoric times.

That's a short into in my hierarchy of technology. The list can go on forever. It's a way of looking at things. For example: using a Linux based computer operating system is higher up the list than using Windows. Linux is free, widely distrubuted, and easily modified for local needs. Windows goes away if just one company fails. They keep their secrets, and charge a lot of money for it too.

Want to have so fun? Apply the hierarchy rules to things like social systems like government, health care, and entertainment. Think about it. What makes tier one and tier two systems so useful???

-Sixbears.

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