Monday, September 21, 2009

A Bit of History

Tonight I thought I'd write a bit on the history behind my interest and activity in carbon reduction.

The 70's was a good time to get reflective about energy. 1973 and 1979 saw the oil shocks during which energy became so expensive, even more expensive when taking inflation into account than 2008. I finished college in 1974. Nixon resigned, the stock market tanked so far that they considered closing the New York Stock Exchange because almost nobody wanted to buy stocks, and there were no jobs to be had*. My interest in renewable energy and ecology was high while in college, I took all the ecology courses I could get at my liberal arts university, though there were not many because the Biology Dept. was oriented towards pre-meds. When I finished college, I had a short period before I went in the Peace Corps when I was living at home. I did some primitive experiments with solar thermal collectors, which didn't amount to much, designed to see whether a collector incorporating ceramic elements could be used to store energy in addition to collecting it. While in the Peace Corps, I looked into Savonius rotor windmills for the project I was working on (building a fish pond) but I couldn't find much use or funding for them. I subscribed to the New Alchemy Institute newsletter and, of course, got all the updates for the Whole Earth Catalog.

After I returned from the Peace Corps, I decided to enroll in a graduate program offered by the University of Arizona for training people with non-engineering degrees to become engineers. It was love at first sight, and I've been doing engineering ever since. When I graduated in 1984, I wanted to go into renewable energy. I recall a job interview in 1983 I did with a company in Albuquerque where the on-campus interviewer told me they were working on solar energy. During the on-site interview, they briefly showed me their tiny solar lab, then took me out to the real thing: a huge wooden structure in a Faraday cage  on which they were simulating the impact of EMPs from nuclear weapons on B-52s. Reagen's military build-up of the 80's was underway, and the US solar energy research program was eliminated later that year.

Needless to say, I didn't take the job. Though IT was my second choice, it looked interesting enough and I figured I could earn a living at it so I took a job in Silicon Valley. From about 1984 until the mid-1990's, my primary contribution to energy conservation was that my wife and I only owned one car, and we mostly commuted to work and around town by bicycle or train (in graduate school and college, I had no car, I got my first car at 28). This lack of any action on energy conservation wasn't due to lack of interest, it was primarily due to lack of any real, visible options as to what I could do to make it happen.

In the mid-1990's, we bought a second car because our lives started becoming busier and, as we got older, it became increasingly more difficult to hop on the bike when the temperature was in the mid to low 40's in the winter. I still commuted to work mostly by train and shuttle bus, and though I liked the SUV form factor, I couldn't justify the gas mileage so we got a small compact. During the 1990's, we pursued some energy efficiency improvements around our townhouse (which will be the subject of a later post). We wanted to get solar panels but the homeowners' association put such restrictions on it that we decided against. In 2003, we bought a single family house, and I've been using that as a basis for my experiments in energy conservation and renewable energy, which will hopefully be reported in more detail here in the future.

*I'm always amazed when people claim that the last period of economic deprivation in the US prior to the "Great Recession" of the last 3 years was the Depression of the 1930's. The general poverty level during the 1930's was probably higher, but I believe the level of economic suffering was similar in the 1970's. The country went from a decade where the impossible was accomplished (the moon landing, civil rights) to a decade where even the most mundane accomplishments seemed impossible. In a certain sense, the political system seems to have been mired in that state ever since.


  1. Ah, another fan of the Whole Earth Catalog! Did you continue reading after it morphed into Co-Evolution Quarterly?

    I was particularly interested in your comment about the recession of the 1970s. When people talk about the end of the '60s, they rarely seem to take note of the fact that in 1973 or thereabouts there was an economic collapse. In my recollection, this more than anything else put an end to the '60s. I often wonder why that particular recession gets so little attention, particularly when it brought about a dramatic cultural shift.

  2. Hi Wild Flora,

    Yes, I did follow the CoEQ. I was also a member of the New Alchemy Institute and though I never got a chance to build any of their cool fish raising greenhouses, I looked forward to their monthly magazine (especially when I was in the Peace Corps). I was sad to hear of their collapse around 1980 in embezzlement and lack of ability to put their ideas into deployment.

    My feeling is that the 70's were to the boomers like the Depression was to our parents, at least, that was my experience. I remember getting out of college in 1974 and there being no jobs. And I'm told they almost closed the New York Stock Exchange because nobody wanted to buy stock.

    The last few years of "The Great Recession" as it is now being called, have felt familiar to me for this reason. I am therefore quite puzzled why the media continues to gloss over the experience many boomers must have had in the '70's. Perhaps my recollection is unique and other people either had a different experience or choose to forget it. It is almost like the Reagen/Bush/Clinton years resulted in "The Great Amnesia".