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.


Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, I can't say for sure where would I go, but nowadays I'm already somewhere between challenge 1 and 2, since I already done my fair share of canibalizing decrepit bikes and of using non-classical materials ( say, wood planks ) to retrofit some bike-esque creations. But if I dare say, I can only see someone coping with challenge 3 or even somewhere between 2 and 3 in some very specific geographical areas, simply because the "traditional" bike has a lot of competition ( wheelbarrows, chariots, mounted, walking ) and it is needed a very specific set of conditions ( abundance of iron and fuel ( for welding and/or smithing, a flat area with little wind, prefereably not close of the sea ( saline mists eat metal in decades or less, especially exposed and mechanically suject to friction, parts, like gears orbrakes ) to a bike to be a clear superior alternative, even if we do not consider sunk costs ...

In resume: IMHO challenge 2. Not more, and possibly a lot less.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Ricardo, it's definitely about costs vs benefits under different deindustrial scenarios, and that is a topic worth exploring further. I tend to personally feel that it is quite possible for bicycles (or tricycles) to be useful enough to a wider range of future scenarios than you do.

But to know that we really would need to get a realistic idea of what is involved. That is the purpose of someone actually attempting to build a bicycle under simulated deindustrial conditions. Hopefully, this will also give some ideas about how bicycles could be adapted to different regional resource availability, as well as on how to optimise the construction process to make use of what little energy is available. In this post, I am trying to provide a framework for someone (possibly me) to go about doing that.

Edde said...

Hey Kieran,

I was a boy scout - be prepared was our motto.

Start with a few smart moves at baseline, and at least the next two and likely even ecotechnik challenges can be much more easily met. So how far down the pike is Challenge 3 - half a dozen centuries?

That'd be far enough for me.

So I'll get started on the links list, and suggest some "smart moves" at baseline.

Stay tuned...

Best regards,

Kieran O'Neill said...

Hi Edde. Funnily enough so was I. And I believe JMG has mentioned having been one too. Gives you a good foundation.

And yes, the ecotechnic would likely be somewhere well beyond 500 years in the future, but I still think it's worth thinking about, and maybe even trying a little historical pre-enactment.

It's also potentially useful in the sense of JMG's basement tinkerers, exploring possibilities and refining technologies to be ready to be put in place as the fuel runs out.

GingerSnap said...

Hi Kieran
In terms of bike usefulness in economic activity.
I have been to India a couple of times and a legacy of the British Empire is the trike. These trikes, built solidly have individually been running for years being used a tools of the economic fabric of India. Some uses:
public transporter
goods van
mobile fruit and veg shop
mobile generator with lights for weddings
mobile juice shop with extractor

The bikes are used in highly populated areas and the terrain is relatively flat which is why they endure as a vital transport mechanism

Kieran O'Neill said...

Hi Gingersnap

Thank-you for the examples. And yes, I'm well aware that bicycles find a great deal of utility in the less developed world. It gives me plenty of hope for their future with us, at least for the next century or two.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Hi Kieran – I found my way over here via the Archdruid Report.
I live in Copenhagen and there are all manner of cargo bicycles here. I’m planning to do a blog post on the different types soon, so although it doesn’t quite fit the key purpose of your blog it might still be interesting for you.

The other thing I wanted to say is that there is a Brazilian guy living here who makes bike frames out of bamboo. It turns out that bamboo is incredibly sturdy – although of course all of the components would still be seen to be made of steel.

His site is here


Kieran O'Neill said...

Jason, welcome!

A discussion of cargo bicycles is definitely on the agenda, and I would be most pleased if you would consider posting it here as a guest post.

Bamboo is definitely an interesting material (as is recycled cardboard and wood). As you say, however, the componentry remains metal, as in most cases do the joints. But low-metal construction may be what's needed to make bicycles worthwhile farther into the deindustrial future.