The Rationale for a Low Energy Alternative EDITED




Ken Newcombe

     One of the great drives which led people to participate in the Aquarius Festival at Nimbin, which subsequently added some sizeable communes to those already in the area, was expressed as the need to escape from the bondage of the city. It was not

only the pervasive environmental degradation in the cities, but the powerlessness to effect the changes which seemed so essential in one's own life, and absolutely, obviously imperative amongst the cities' dispossessed minorities. To participate in contemporary city life one has inevitably to become a consumer, to be subservient to its materialism, and to simultaneously jettison personal principles of conservation and equity in order to survive. Unknowingly, in most cases, the search for an alternative was a search for a low energy society, a mode of existence where the impact of the energy controlled by anonymous institutions and individuals was not of such magnitude that it could severely restrict the options of mobility, recreation and creative work available to each person in his everyday life.




     One underlying and fundamental variable in contemporary human society is the flow and end use of somatic and extrasomatic energy*. Man, by virtue of being part of the earth's ecosystem, is as reliant as are all living things on solar energy as the fire of life. Initially man's mechanical muscle power of up to one horsepower per day was the measure of his impact on his environment, and his ability to do work. This energy, as now, was derived from the metabolic conversion of plant and animal converters at about twenty per cent efficiency. Plants are the prime converters of solar energy and the rate at which they converted energy ultimately determined the carrying capacity for the human species. Solar radiation represents an energy source far, far higher than the demands of industrial man, but his ability to harness its energy has been minimal to date. Total solar radiation entering the earth's atmosphere is about 10000 per year and man's entire demands are currently about 225mQ1 

     During the nineteenth and twentieth century man has built himself an immensely complex industrial society by exploiting solar energy stored as fossil fuels over geological time. Now the power that can be wielded by one man over his fellows and his environment is no longer measurable by his muscular strength and that of his subordinates, but by the sophistication of the technology he possesses to convert this stored solar energy into work at a given place and point in time. Given the hierarchical nature of industrial and post-industrial institutions, fewer and fewer people control greater and greater amounts of energy. The ultimate example of this is the capacity of the American president to bomb a nation state, Cambodia, for more than eight months before either the American people or their representatives knew about it.

     The search for a radically different life style should be made quite consciously in terms of a low energy alternative for at least three reasons, given here in order of increasing importance.

     First, the store of convenient oil-based fuels which now make up sixty-one per cent of the world 's total consumption are limited to perhaps thirty years at current and anticipated consumption levels.2 In that time shortages will probably result from imbalances in production and demand created by international politics and in tapping the known reserves and making them uniformly available in relation to global demand. The technology to use direct solar energy is not well developed. The inevitable establishment of nuclear generators is proceeding slowly because of fears of their long term environmental impact. There is a marked imbalance in the distribution of abundant coal reserves and so too the technology to convert them into liquid and gaseous fuels. Given these situations, the energy crisis we have already experienced may be a common feature of the future.

     A dependency on a high energy life style is unwise in such circumstances, but even aspirants to a low energy life style are to some extent caught in the network of dependency on centralised energy systems and are therefore equally affected by the brown-outs caused by the demands of those who have chosen to consume regardless of the resource situation.

     Secondly, the use of energy in particular forms and in particular ways has a proven biological impact on the human species. The combustion of coal, fuel oils and middle weight oils releases sulphur oxides which act as irritants for sensitive membranes in the eyes, throat and lungs often causing severe respiratory problems. The combustion of motor transport fuels gives rise to carbon monoxide, lead oxides and various unburnt hydrocarbons and particulate matter. Dangerous emissions of these by-products of energy use can come especially from major points of high emission such as power stations, public incineration plants

and so on. Combined with emissions from motor transport, they give rise to the familiar photo-chemical inversions in Australian cities and the admixture of gases which can form dangerous levels of ozone and complex carcinogens. The urban climate is significantly modified by the generation of artificial heat from human activities.3 In Sydney on a mid-winter's day the heat generated by human activities is often more than half the total incoming solar radiation.4 


* Somatic energy: That energy which is utilised, through the metabolic processes, within a living organism.'  Extrasomatic energy: That energy which flows through or is utilised by a human community and which is not utilised through metabolic processes within a living organism.'

1 Peter L. Auer, 'An Integrated National Energy Research and Development Program', Science, Vol. 184, April 19, 1974, p. 301.

2 J. Darmstadter, et al: Energy in the World Economy, (Baltimore and London, 1974), p. 13. M. King Hubbart, 'The Energy Resources of the Earth' Sci. Am 224, 1971, p. 60–70.

3 H. H. Lansberg, in the study of climatic changes in the new Washington suburb of Volumbia, as cited in Mordy, WA.; 1972, 'Energy and the Hydrosphere' presented to 'Energy, Man and Environment' seminar, February 3rd-5th, 1972, Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute for Economic and Social Studies, Zurich, Switzerland.

4 J. D. Kalma, A. R. Aston and R. J. Millington, 'Energy use in the Sydney Area' in 'City as a life system' Ed. H. A. Nix, Proc. Ecol. Soc. Aust., Vol. 7, Canberra. 

     A full review of the studies relating air pollution to health problems in the United States concluded that twenty to fifty per cent of morbidity and mortality from bronchitis twenty-five per cent from lung cancer, twenty pecent from all other respiratory diseases and twenty per cent from cardiovascular disease could be alleviated by a fifty per cent reduction of air pollution at a public health expenditure saving in 1971 of a minimum of SU.S.2,080,000,000*.

     A useful guide to the environmental degradation of an area is the intensity of energy use per unit area. Certainly the more energy used per unit area, the higher the rate of change in the environment is likely to be. I propose a further index which is perhaps of greater significance to the biology of man and that is the ratio of population density to energy use per unit area. In Hong Kong over an urban area of roughly the same energy intensity as the peak intensity found in Sydney, the ratio of population density to intensity of energy use is over five times higher.1

     Thirdly, the social impact of energy use is little understood, and may have the most serious long-term effects. Contemporary industrial societies have developed institutions which have a stifling momentum, are resistant to change from within and are of such great proportions that change from without requires considerable concerted, selfless, effort which makes the task an improbable one to achieve. They have created a social environment which Emery calls the 'turbulent environment.'2  He describes them as environments 'that are likely to follow their own lines of action regardless of the size or shape or direction of the input of the ind vidual organisation'. In regard to the bureaucratic exploitation of inanimate (extrasomatic) energy Emery states 'it has sapped and undermined our ability to resolve the business, to map and determine our own futures'3. Emery's thesis is supported by Mich who says that 'high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy physical milieu'.4 


* B. L. Lave, and E. P. Seskin; 'Air Pollution and Human Health', Ekistics 185, April 1971, p. 295–303.

1 As yet unpublished research by K. Newcombe on the spatial distribution of artificial heat generation in Hong Kong as part of the Hong Kong Human Ecology Programme of the Urban Biology Group, Australian National University.

2 F. E. Emery, 'An Industrialised Society—Australia', presented to UNESCO Seminar 'Energy and How We Live', May 16, 1973, Adelaide, p. 12. 

3 F. E. Emery, An Industrialised Society—Australia', presented to UNESCO Seminar 'Energy and How We Live', May 16, 1973, Adelaide, p. 13.

4 Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, Ideas in Progress. (Calder and Boyars, 1974), p. 15.

     High energy societies deny equitable participation and deprive the energy-less members of the population the right to effect changes meaningful in terms of their own life styles. It elevates the traditional edict of consumerism, viz. 'a second car and a colour television will enhance my personal well being', one order of magnitude higher or 'what fuels the production and drives the mechanical  genius of the products I believe I need, it is necessary to have now, and to proliferate in perpetuity'. Unthinkingly they are justifying the politicans' quest for more energy despite its unproven worth and disproportionate social costs.

     The acquisition of one more appliance is the acquisition of one more 'energy slave to do work which to most do people work can already competently handle. The purchase of the energy slave implies a commitment to purchase its energy requirements, which means a vested interest in the continued supply of that energy and an implied dependence for well-being on the continued exploitation of energy resources. As each family gains possession of another energy slave, not only do they become

more reliant on its energy requirements, they become potentially subservient to the services it provides. For the danger exists that they will lose the tools and information to undertake the task it performs when it is unable to be employed.

     It is in this manner that the so-called energy crisis creates the illusion of a real energy crisis and there seems to be only one option to find more energy.

     The biological significance of the individual use of energy slaves is either unknown or poorly understood. It may be that in the greatly changed environment of some urban areas the use of particular energy slaves may be adaptive for the individual. In Hong Kong a television and a phone facility may maintain the otherwise disrupted family communication and serve to psychologically expand the otherwise extreme physical densities. At the same time the use of a combustion engine for transportation which releases toxic emissions in a densely populated area, creates additional noise, and competes for space with the human beings, may be maladaptive. 

     Even though the impact on the individual of various patterns of energy use is not well known, the historical trends show an ever increasing per capita consumption of energy.

     Paleolithic man, some 500,000 years ago, repeatedly lost and found and finally secured, the ability to make fire, which raised the per capita energy consumption from no more than 2500 Kcals per day from food energy to 4500 Kcals per day with the combustion of firewood* The neolithic revolution of 6,000 to 8,000 years ago brought about the domestication of plant and animal converters of energy and probably raised the level of per capita consumption to 12,000 or 15,000 Kcals per day. It is suggested that at the height of the low technology industrial era around 1850, the daily per capita consumption was 70,000 Kcals in England, Germany and the United States.1 Now the United States consumption of fossil fuels is 224,000 Kcals per capita per day and Australia's is 109,000 Kcal per capita per day compared with that of the non-industrial states of Burma and Nepal with only 1,300 Kcals per capita per day and 196 Kcals per capita per day respectively.2 The growth rate in energy consumption in Australia is currently greater than two and a half per cent per annum.

     The efficiency of food production follows the same sort of trends. Hunter-gatherers and early Neolithic peoples obtained a return of up to twenty units for each unit of energy invested in food gathering or swiddenist agriculture.3 Contemporary Western agriculture requires an investment of four to five units of energy to provide one unit of energy available for consumption at the

consumer's table.4

     It is obvious that an exponential growth in energy consumption is not sustainable in the long term. Nevertheless, the proponents of increased energy consumption consider that the temporary energy crisis we have suffered was simply a delay in fulfilling the ultimate goal of a doubling time in energy consumption of ten to twelve years.5 The long term impact of such exponential growth begins to look foreboding when estimates are made about the amount of energy consumed in proportion to the total flow of energy in the biosphere. If one only considers the current growth rates of United States electricity consumption, assuming that the heat it generates upon utilisation is distributed evenly over the U.S., then in one hundred years the rate of heat release per annum from this source alone will be equal to the incoming solar radiation from the sun in the same period.6 With the dramatic changes in urban climate from artificial heat sources already documented, the release of heat of this magnitude could have far-reaching effects on the global climate.


* Kenneth Oakley, 'Fire as Paleolithic Tool and Weapon', The Prehistoric Society, No. 4, 1955, p. 36–48.

1 Earl Cook, 'The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society', Sci. Am., Vol. 224,(3) 1971, p. 135–144.

2 United Nations, World Energy Supplies 1968–1971, Statistical Papers, series J. 1973, No. 16.

3 See Roy A. Rappoport: Pigs for Ancestors, Yale University Press, 1967 and Carruthers et al; 'Historical Aspects of energy use by Mankind' paper presented to UNESCO 'Energy and How We Live' seminar Adelaide, 16th May, 1973 (available from Urban Biology Unit, Australian National University).

4 See M. J. Perelman, 'Farming with Petroleum', Environment 14, (No. 8), 1972, for U.S. data and R. M. Gifford, and R. J Millington, 'Energetics of Food Production with special emphasis on the Australian situation' presented to UNESCO 'Energy and How We Live' seminar, Adelaide, May 16, 1973 (available at CSIRO, Canberra, ACT).

5 Richard Love, with reference to his statement on the return to a 10–12 year doubling time', N.Y.T.S. in South China Morning Post, 12th November, 1973. He was then Chief Adviser on energy matters to President Nixon.

6 Claude M. Summers, 'The Conversion of Energy', Sci. Am. 224(3), 1971, p. 160.




      After documenting potential sources of energy and providing an optimistic picture of future energy availability, Hubbart concludes that an exponential growth is impossible, if only because of the limiting factor of places to locate power plants*.

      So at best the quest for more energy from all the potential alternative sources is filled with hazards and contradictions. We must ask, as does Luten 'Is the correlation between increasing energy use and human welfare good enough and is the hypothesis that more energy means a better life plausible enough to warrant any hopeful extrapolation?1

     In the Hong Kong Human Ecology Programme we developed an hypothesis early in 1973 which reads 'that above a certain level of per capita energy consumption for a given environment, any additional amount of energy consumed will not be of additional benefit in terms of the health and well being of the individual concerned' or alternatively 'that the additional amount of energy consumed will be of positive disadvantage to the individual and his society'.2 More recently Illich came to a remarkably similar conclusion when he says 'that beyond a certain median per capita energy level, the political system and cultural context of any society must decay. Once the critical quantum of per capita energy is surpassed, education for the abstract goals of a bureaucracy must supplant the legal guarantees of personal and concrete initiative. This quantum is the limit of social order'.3

     It is abundantly clear that at some time in the future the per capita consumption of energy must fall or obtain a constant sustainable level in line with the environmental parameters that will restrict a further growth in its consumption. It would seem absurd to blunder on into the middle distance in the hope that we will arrive at such a level by trial and error, for the cost of a higher energy society in physical and social terms is already demonstrably high. What must be done is to assess the real and illusory seeds of an energy subsidy to muscle power in each of the changed environments which man has built and from which he cannot easily retreat, and to base the criterion of energy use around the goal of equity in a genuinely participatory democratic society. The determination of a desirable level of per capita energy consumption for each human environment will not only be difficult to obtain but difficult to implement. This is particularly so given the compulsive urge of the Western populace to follow the seductive wooing of the industrial complex and participate in overt materialism that is neither conservative of matter nor energy. However daunting the task may be, it is necessary to make a start.



     In Australia, many rural communal life styles resulted from a feeling that a shift to the land was essential in order to develop an alternative in an unharried, less intense environment. Although I participated in the Nimbin experience and have visited small communes in the Mullumbimby area, I have not been able to follow up the post-Nimbin festival developments and therefore am unable to discuss actual commune practices. Nevertheless, a general approach to low energy alternatives should still be applicable and viewing the specific example of alternative food production in energy terms may be instructive.

      The Table is a comparison of intensively-farmed crops using high energy subsidy western agricultural techniques. Data from the production of potatoes in the United Kingdom4 is presented along with data for corn production in the United States.5 The energy subsidies applicable to Australia n agriculture are available from quite detailed research6 but are applicable to the entire agricultural production rather than solely intensive farming methods, hence the U.K. and U.S. data are of more use for this exercise. In both cases the inputs for transportation from the farm gate to the consumer's table have been deleted from the comparison. The examples are compared with the energy subsidies required from a commune farming an acre of ground sown with mixed vegetable crops. The season is taken to, be four months and the inputs and yields are considered for that period. Footnotes explain the entries in the alternative farming column and explain the potential saving for each item of inputs.


* M. King Hubbart, 'The Energy Resources of the Earth' Sci. Am. 224, 1971, P. 70.

1 Daniel B. Luten, 'The Economic Geography of Energy' Sci. Am. Vol. 224(3), 1971, p. 175.

2 S. V. Boyden, et al; unpublished Concepts and Hypotheses: Hong Kong Human Ecology Programme, May 1973, C/— Urban Biology Group, Australian National University.

3 Mich, Op. cit., p. 18–19.

4 Gerald Leach; 'The energy costs of food production' in Arthur Bourne, ed. The Man-Food Equation, (Academic Press, 1973), Table I.

5 David Pimental, L. E. Hurd, et al; 'Food Production and the Energy Crisis', Science, Vol. 182, 1973, P. 443–449.

6 M. Gifford and R. J. Millington, 'Energy and How We Live' Seminar, Adelaide, 1973.


1.1 Taken as labourers needing 21,770 Kcals per week and working for forty hours. At that rate one hour of work requires a somatic ener gy input of 544.25 Kcals. Assuming that 120 hours of manual work are required for manual preparation of one acre of ground and three hours daily for 120 days to irrigate, weed, protect and otherwise maintain and finally harvest the crop then 480 hours x 544.25 Kcals = 261,240 Kcals.

1.2 Assuming that 120 lbs of metal implements are required to work one acre of land: that they have a life of use or loss of ten years; that they require 9,400 Kcals per pound to manufacture based on (*) and that maintenance is part of the labour costs, then one crop of four months requires one thirtieth of the energy network inputs, or 9,400 x 120/30 = 37,600 Kcals.

1.3 Assuming no mechanisation involving motor driven equipment no gasoline will be utilised in the agricultural production.

1.4 Assuming that no electricity will be used in agricultural production other than minimal domestic requirements.

1.5 Assuming that composting of organic wastes from the household with added leaf mulch and so on is used to add humus to the soil. Assuming that wherever possible poultry, pig, cow and other animal manure is used as fertilizer and that sensible rotational practices are applied so that nitrogenous legumes are grown at least one crop per year. Also assuming that sewage sludge and compost from Swedish 'Clivus' systems and the like are utilised where possible (1).

1.6 The figure given for corn seed was applied roughly to the seed input to a densely cropped acre of vegetables of mixed variety, from leafy greens to roots and tubers.

1.7 Assumes that in an alternative system water catchment is carefully worked out through damming using keyline systems (2) or that wells, streams and recycled waste water from domestic recycling plans are used for surface and sub-surface irrigation. Also that where trickle irrigation, or the like, is not able to be practised, water is carried manually as in Asian small plot systems.

1.8 There are various methods to be exploited to try and keep pests down without pesticides, e.g. growing plants in particular combinations (3), using non-persistent home-made sprays, such as boiled down cigarette butts for nicotine, and so on. (4) Inevitably, however, insects will take about seven to ten per cent of the crop in accordance with the usual take in a stable ecosystem and with domesticated plants are bound to take more if they are abundant. The maintenance of a monoculture is always at additional energy costs, either in direct food loss or in insecticide production to save the food that would be lost. See the discussion in the text restricted use of pesticides. Herbicides can be replaced by continual weeding and present less of a problem in a highly labour inretensive situation for intensive farming. The swiddenists' approach to non-food plants in the crop area is to let those grow which will ultimately provide part of the regenerating forest. They do not usually sow plants of a particular kind together, rather distributing them randomly about the plot creating a mixture. This technique could also be practised as an alternative to endless weeding, but yields will probably be lower.

1.9 If drying of foods is required, it is assumed that solar energy is used and not artificially heated rooms or kilns.

1.10 Assuming that a mixed vegetable crop in one acre of land over a four-month period can raise about 7,085 Kgms of vegetables, taking average data from Chinese vegetable gardening in Hong Kong, and that twenty per cent of this will be lost to insects or reduced yield because of weed competition. Assuming that mixed vegetables will have an average value of sixty five Kcals per one hundred grams portion (5) and that this gives a total of 3,684,200 Kcals.


* Leslie White, The Evolution of Culture (New York, 1959).

1 See Al. Hammond_ 'Individual Self-Sufficiency in Energy', Science 184, 1977, p. 278–282, all editions of Whole Earth Catalogue: and for technical data, potential yields and availability and cost from various suppliers see Gerry E. Smith, Economics of Water Collection and Waste Recycling, Autonomies Housing Study, University of Cambridge, Department of Architecture, Technical Research Division, 1 Scroope Terrace, Cambridge CB2 1PX (1973). 

2 P. A. Yeomans, Water for Every Farm, (Sydney, 1968).

3 H. Philbrick and R. B. Gregg: Companion Plants (London, 1967).

4 See Lawrence D. Hills, Pest Controls Without Poisons, Henry Doubleday Research Association, 20 Convert Lane, Bocking, Braintree, Essex, England.

5 Thomas and Corden, Tables of Composition of Australian Foods, (Canberra, 1970).


     It can be seen that a considerably higher labour input is allocated for the alternative form than for the others. This is based on the assumption that a communal farm will engage most members of the commune in agricultural production, making for a labour-, rather than machine-, intensive system. The alternative communal farming has been projected as a 'purist' model in that no artificial chemica ls are added as fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide. In this case the assumption has been made that yield will be reduced by about twenty per cent because of the natural toll on plant matter by insects and possibly a reduced growth rate as a result of their onslaughts, even though it is assumed that the crop will be closely tended. If one did not want to follow a totally 'purist' approach to farming, then considerable savings in insecticide treatment have been found by only treating the ravaged areas, and giving significant reduction in energy subsidy*. Portable equipment has also developed which can give highly selective spot treatment.1 If one adopted these methods, the yield should be the same as for high energy subsidy agriculture and the ratio of input to return in energy terms still about the same.

     The Table shows that by this necessarily crude comparison the energy input to energy return is at least five times as high as that obtained by current agricultural techniques. In general the principle applies that such labour intensive agriculture will not generate the surpluses of food which go to support the materialism of the urbanised populations, but does support the highest population on the land itself. Probably small amounts of food will be surplus after communal consumption and by bartering or by utilising the food cooperative system, trade-offs for other essentials can be made. In that sense the alternative form of production is in tune with the philosophy espoused by the 'alternatives' movement.

     A commune can make a number of decisions about its modus operandus which will considerably reduce its energy consumption and add to its autonomy. The many architectural innovations which populated the Nimbin fields in May 1973 exemplified the creative potential of the counter culture. Combined with an understanding of self sufficient energy systems, structures which combine a minimum of materials, simplicity of construction and a high standard of convenience and sanitation can evolve.

     Solar collectors and windmills for power generation have been a special feature of Australian research and related research is now booming in the U.S. and Europe.2 Direct solar energy can provide the reduced requirements of a communal situation with water heating, space heating and even air conditioning. The range of alternatives and examination of their potential is now commonlace.3

     Solar energy can assist the operation of water recycling units, utilising algae tanks and digestors for effluent, which in many cases are commercially available and are ideal for the pooled skills of the commune to put into operation. At the same time operative systems have been developed which revive the ancient Chinese practice of using organic wastes from household and sewage to generate methane for cooking.4

     Apart from the initial capital cost which varies in proportion to the amount of technical skill available for construction and installation, most autonomous housing plans have minimal recurrent costs. Outside of the use of innovative technology to recycle, conserve and collect useful energy and materials, a personal commitment to consume less energy-expensive transport is a major component of a low energy life style.

     The private car is the most energy expensive and socially destructive energy slave yet manufactured. In this respect a disappointing aspect of the Nimbin Festival was the reluctance of people to abandon their motorised transport even during the festival itself.

     The spread of urbanisation, the isolated one-storey structure on a 1000 square metre lot and the vast reticulation of roadways has not only been constructed with the use of a motor car in mind but it makes the motor car virtually the only acceptable form of transport to get to and from place of employment or leisure activity. The more private transport there is, the less efficient public transport becomes, almost to the point of its extinction as a viable alternative. A person who chooses not to

own a car is condemned to relative immobility in a society where private cars dominate the roads and the transport system. Equity of energy use with particular reference to transport systems is dealt with lucidly by lllich.5 


* J. S. and C. E. Steinhart, 'Energy use in the U.S. Food System', Science, Vol. 184, April 19, 1974, p. 307–316.

1 Personal communication with R. Coffee, Electrical Engineering Department, University of Hong Kong, regarding his development of hand held electrostatic sprays which give highly localised spot treatment saving probably more than fifty percent of energy inputs in this category.

2 Australian company is Beasely Solapak for solar water heaters. See also Annual Reports of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Mechanical Engineering Division, Highett, Victoria, regarding development of solar energy technology (1970–73).

3 See an excellent discussion in Allen L. Hammond, Science, 184, 1974, p. 278–282. For mechanical details names and types and operational features of solar energy devices, see Gerry E. Smith, Economics of Solar Collectors, Heat Pumps and Wind Generators, Autonomous Housing Study, University of Cambridge, Department of Architecture, Technical Research Division, 1 Scroope Terrace, Cambridge, 1973.

4 See note B p. 229.

5 Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity. Ideas in Progress. (Calder and Boyars, 1974), p. 18–19.


     It has been estimated that the family car in the United States demands 278 million Kcals per year in direct cost*. In Australia I calculate that the direct costs would be 445 million Kcals; including the capital costs and maintenance of the vehicle about 450 million Kcals per year. This gives a per capita cost of about 112 million Kcals per year for a four member family, not including the cost to society of maintaining the network of road systems, engineering projects to facilitate traffic flow, the space allocated to garages and sales departments, production plants and public and private car parks, to mention just a few of the obvious overheads.1

     The alternative for a commune is either to go without motorised transport or to obtain a heavy duty utilitarian vehicle which is used for the business of the commune, rather than for pleasure jaunts, and to provide backup transport for individuals with pushbikes and a lot of walking and hitchhiking. Preferably the commune members should be able to maintain the vehicle themselves. In this manner, by making certain assumptions about its use, the per capita energy costs should be reduced to about 3 million Kcals per year.2 The transport options of pushbikes or very low powered motorised vehicles and much walking are worthy changes to implement in the city environment as well.



     Finally we must face the stark reality that the real thrust for alternative low energy life styles must come in the city environment. As much as it may seem desirable to come back to 'our roots' and till the land, this can never be more than a fading vision for the majority of people in a heavily urbanised post-industrial age with the prospect of population growth well into the twenty-first century. It is easy to be convinced that the only alternative is the rural commune based largely on human energy, and to agree with White who says 'the type of social system developed during the human energy era was unquestionably the most satisfying kind of social environment that man has ever lived in that the institutions of primitive society were the most congenial to his return and temperament'.3 But there can be no universal return to the human energy era and though the rural commune movement can be a rewarding experience for increasing numbers of people, it would be dangerous to offer the illusion that this was 'where it could be' for everyone. Rather, the rural commune can be a vital testing ground for alternatives that must find root in the city environment. They must recognise this obligation and not become distant outposts for down-trodden escapists.

     The contemporary city environment is dominated by high energy coercive institutions making universally enforcable decisions which have far-reaching behaviour modifying effects, e.g. housing authorities, transport authorities and state planning authorities. The tendency is to limit the spectrum of alternatives largely by cutting out the low-energy options and instilling confidence in hierarchies of power, where unaccountable high energy employment is a matter of status rather than blatant manipulation, e.g. schools, training colleges and corrective institutions.

     It is generally recognised that a degree of social re-organisation will be necessary to cope with the multi-dimensional impacts of energy use. This re-organisation must be extended to cope with the social impact of energy use and to contain it within a framework of participatory democracy. Already the individual's power to effect change is pitifully small in comparison to those high in a political or industrial heirarchy, whose power is being enhanced and exaggerated out of all proportion to accepted public confidence and accountability by the long-lasting impact of the energy use they have at their disposal.

     Since energy is fundamental to the operation of all living systems, and since man has comparatively recently learnt to harness large energy subsidies to do his work, the relationships between energy use and contemporary institutions have come under close scrutiny.4 Energy use therefore presents a valuable entry point to an examination of the contemporary social structure and to the ongoing search for alternatives.


* S. Fred Singer, 'Human Energy Production as a Process in the Biosphere' Sci. Am. September 1970, (p. 109 of The Biosphere', a Sci. Am. book produced from that issue).

1 Assumes 15,000 miles per year, a vehicle life of ten years, fuel consumption of 20 mpg. Consumption of 750 gallons/year at 7.3 lbs. per gallon and 81,349 Kcals/gall = 445 x 106 Kcals. Capital costs calculated from Stephen R. Berry and Margaret F. Fels, 'The Energy Cost of Automobiles', Science and Public Affairs, December 1973, pp. 11–18; 58–60. Gives 31,968,000 Kcals for construction of automobile of 3,400 lbs. Take ten per cent additional energy for maintenance and divide by ten for life of vehicle in years. The estimate of 3 million Kcals was made assuming a mileage of 7,000 per year in a heavy duty vehicle of fifteen years life for a twenty member commune. Other assumptions remaining the same.

2 See note f above.

3 Lesl i e White, The Evolution of Culture (New York, 1959).

4 H. T. Odum, Environment, Power and Society (New York, 1971), discusses such aspects as power and politics of religion apart from basic ecology of energy. An excellent introduction to the study of energy and institutions.


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