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Managing Energy: A Summer Perspective

Paul Kando

A walk in the woods and garden inspires hopeful alternatives. Here there is plentitude yet zero waste. Nature recycles everything. There is great diversity: leaves, flowers, trees, ponds, bugs, salamanders, are at once beautiful and functional. Every handful of soil is rich with tiny organisms working together: nature banks on cooperation.

Bumble Bee on Red Clover
Bumble bee exchanging pollination services for nectar and pollen.
photo credit: Topher Belknap

Green leaves convert sunlight into the chemistry that combines carbon dioxide and water into sugars. Flowers proffer the sugar to bees and hummingbirds which, in return, pollinate the next generation of plants into new life. There is no need for imports: nature relies on local expertise. There is growth everywhere, part of repeated cycles of birth, growth, death and re-birth, but no overload. Where milfoil or kudzu vine take over, it is a sign of human meddling – nature knows how to curb excesses. Nature inspires. Its economy -- one of abundance, not austerity -- is consonant with nature. There is plenty to go around.

Isn’t there a model here to follow? Everything runs on sunlight and nothing uses more energy than it needs. By the time winter arrives, some creatures of the woods and garden will have traveled farther than I ever will, yet won’t run out of energy nor run up a bill. Trees will have gone to sleep, as will bear and marmot. Squirrels will have built warm nests filled with a winter’s supply of food. Deer and moose will sport new winter coats. Yet no one here will worry about costs, nor will they warm the planet with greenhouse gas emissions.

Is not our own challenge to emulate nature’s ways, simply because they work? Born with the capacity to think, analyze, imagine, and create, this should not pose a problem for us. We even have the technology: to build houses 90% better than conventional dwellings, snug as a squirrel’s winter nest; to create transportation systems that use a small fraction of the energy private cars require. We know how to capture and store solar and wind power and integrate them into power grids.

It is not lack of know-how that holds us back, but lack of political will. We humans are beholden to things never found in nature. Markets and money come to mind. Nature has plenty of exchanges -- of materials, energy and services – without them, Between tree-roots and fungi, flowers and pollinators, shade trees and shade loving plants, for example. But there is no invisible hand, only plain-spoken laws that everyone in nature must obey. We have hierarchies, centers of power and centralized suppliers of expensive energy. Nature is decentralized, without hierarchs, and energy is locally sourced and free.

With our burning of fossils threatening catastrophic changes to our life supporting climate, we must change more than our expensive winter bills. We must rethink what we are beholden to and address our needs as pragmatically as the rest of nature does: sticking to what works, jettisoning the rest. Life, after all, is constant change, only nature’s laws remain in charge, unchanging.