Thursday, August 9, 2012

Framing the Problem

(of building a bicycle in a deindustrial world)

The day after writing the opening post on this blog, I was volunteering at my bike co-op's tuneup and information stand at the local farmers market, with Marv, another regular volunteer. Marv used to work in a machine shop building and repairing heavy duty forestry equipment, but recently retired, and spends a good fraction of his time helping out in the bike shop. His knowledge of the practical end of making and adapting mechanical devices is vast and deep.

I posed the problem to him of actually building a prototype post-peak oil bicycle today, and although the day was pretty busy and we didn't get much time to talk it over in depth, he got pretty interested. Of course, one of the first things he said was, "well, to begin with, you have to frame the problem". I'm very much inclined to agree -- indeed, before even attempting to solve a problem, the problem has to be unambiguously formulated. So, although I'm still not sure whether I want to have a go at the actual physical project, here goes my attempt at problem formulation.

To begin with, I would use the model proposed by John Michael Greer over at the Archdruid Report, which he has elaborated in a series of posts and his book, The Ecotechnic Future. Briefly, the model is that the deindustrial future will travel through a succession of ecological seres of society. The first sere is the modern world -- the age of abundance industrialism, where vast energy supplies make previously unimaginable feats like crossing a continent in a day commonplace. As the energy runs out, the age of scarcity industrialism will dawn, characterised by the end of economic growth and a significant contraction in available non-renewable resources and energy. As the the non-renewables gradually become economically infeasible to continue exploiting, we (or our ancestors) will end up in the age of salvage societies, running on the remnant technologies and products of the industrial past. Finally, after many more centuries, the products of the industrial past will be exhausted, and society will stabilise in a state capable of running on renewable resources only -- an ecotechnic society.

Now of course these seres are unlikely to happen evenly, and several can be argued to already be in place in parts of the world, but they do make a good framework for framing the problem of bicycle building in the deindustrial future. What I would propose is imagining that there was a design competition, with the goal being to design and build a bicycle under conditions emulating the deindustrialising seres. Note that I currently have no plans to actually run such a competition, but if it came together, I would be very pleasantly surprised. The rules for such a contest might look something like this:

Baseline: Abundance Industrialism
Build a bicycle using all of the tools, energy and resources available today. This problem is, of course, largely solved.

Challenge 1: Scarcity Industrialism

Build a bicycle using no non-renewable energy in the primary construction. Materials and tools may be produced using non-renewable energy, but must run strictly on renewable energy sources. For example, welders would be allowed, but must run on renewable electricity or non-fossil-sourced fuel.

Challenge 2: Salvage Society

Produce a bicycle using no non-renewable inputs at all, but the materials for the tools and the bicycle itself may derive from industrial production. However, the tools and materials should not be in a bicycle-ready form. For example, salvaged steel may be reforged into tubing, saws and wrenches, but a salvaged piece of tubing or saw blade may not be used in its original form.

Challenge 3: Ecotech

Produce a bicycle using no fossil fuel inputs at all, including the production of the raw materials and tools. Salvage is explicitly prohibited. Want steel tubing? Smelt some bog-iron or iron oxide yourself, and forge the tubing using charcoal or biogas. The same goes for tools. This would, of course, be fairly difficult.

These are just a first attempt, and likely leave at least a few questions unanswered. For example, how far back would you go with challenges 2 and 3? Could the tools used to forge the tools to build the bicycle be products of modern industrialism, or should you have to bootstrap a forge up from scratch? Nevertheless, I think  they provide a good starting point.