Human-nature relations in Czech Republic – Part 2

Day 1
Stina and I arrived in Olomouc at noon, checked in at our hotel and met with the assistant from STL that introduced us to the lecturing room. I was being told that twelve students had signed up for the course, but only seven showed up which was less than I’ve anticipated and hoped for. On the other hand, the fewer participants, the easier it is to manage a group process and give everyone room for sharing, discussing and personal feedback.

The course as a whole was scheduled into nine 90-minute lectures, or sessions, and in below I will describe what we did and what happened at the respective session.

Session 1 – Introduction. After people got settled in we did a presentation round of me and Stina, and of the participants with their background, reasons for following the course and what they were expecting. Then we started the first exercise, which was the brainstorming about Issues – what issues around sustainability can we come up with? I only had a small whiteboard so we used Post-It notes that I put up on the wall. I sorted out, summarized and divided them into four clusters: Energy, food, material (stuff), human (needs and interaction).

Photograph: Stina Deurell

It’s important to yet again emphasize that this was a course more about the overview and interrelations between the issues than it was about going into details on the specific issues. It was about keeping it as simple as possible without making it trivial and about understanding the world around us rather than building expertise. Further, my focus as a teacher in this context is not just to give them information that they are supposed to memorize or learn, but rather to as much as possible build from what they already know and help them to organize that knowledge so they can decide what to do or what to learn next.

From the clusters of Post-it notes I could describe the outline of the course or workshop: First we focus on the present problems with energy/climate, food production, material flow (stuff) and economy. Then we turn to the human side, with some history, values, worldviews and perspectives. Finally we focus on some specific problems, solutions and principles, and on who we are.

Session 2 – Energy. Starting with energy was a very deliberate choice and although there was mainly lecturing I tried to engage the students as much as possible by having them list energy sources, fundamental differences between fossil fuels and renewables, and guess how much we use of each and for what (building, transport, industry). Few reflect on these questions. Here are some key facts:

– 80-85% of total global energy production comes from fossil fuels, 1/3 of the total is from oil that dominates the transport sector.

– Each person consumes about 40 kWh per day as a global mean (double if you live in EU and double again for US). 40 kWh per day is about 20 times more energy than what we can produce by ourselves with hard physical labor for 10 hours per day which we demonstrated with some basic calculations.

– Energy today is very cheap: One liter of gasoline that can produce 2-4 kWh of mechanical work (about 10 hours of hard physical labor) costs about € 1.5. (Half the price in the US)

– We have probably passed global Peak oil, the global export market for conventional oil peaked in 2005 and we have for the last 30 years extracted more oil than we have found new resources. The low hanging fruit has been picked and we now look for oil under the Arctic ice and chase it by hazardous deepwater drilling. The oil prices have increased and this is likely a main driver behind the current economic crisis.

– We are developing new and more sustainable ways of producing (extracting) energy, but the increase in coal, which we have been burning since the dawn of industrialization, has in absolute numbers increased more than renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. Thus, so far alternative energy sources have not been alternative or complementary but rather just added to the ever-increasing contribution of fossil fuels.

Diagram from Swedish blog Cornucopia on global energy consumption (losses included) showing from the bottom and up: wood, coal, oil, fossil (or natural) gas, water power, nuclear and other renewables (wind, sun, geothermal, biofuels, wave, etc).

These are some facts that are quite easy to introduce and just as hard to deny. Not only do we have serious problems, nothing indicates that we are moving in a sustainable direction and we seem to lack all sorts of political leadership around these issues. We are not on a sustainable path! There are alternatives and possibilities in the future, but scaling them up to meet and replace the vast volumes of the fossil fuels we are burning today seems unlikely, or at least have been so far.

I finished the day by giving them the tasks of reflecting on how they use energy in their everyday life but also to think on what would happen if we were to solve the energy problem, if that would solve all of our problems.

After this first day we wondered if we were going to see any students for the second day. Luckily, they all showed up. Here is one of the reflections from the course evaluation:

“…As for the things that I’m bringing out of this course: a completely different view on global problems on a human-nature comparation level AND I have to say that we’re in a SERIOUSLY DEEP SHIT and if we don’t do something ‘bout it we’re gonna have really big problems. And I say WE – my generation.”

Some references and further reading:
Richard Heinberg: Searching for a miracle. The concept that captures the discussion on low hanging fruit is called EROEI, Energy return on energy invested. Available for download at:

The growing gap between extracted oil and  found:

The discussion on energy usage is sometimes referred to as how many energy slaves that are working for us. This gives different results depending on the way you calculated it and the assumptions you make, e.g. on energy loss and efficiency in the human work output:

and here is an illustrating demonstration of the principle of energy slaves where 80 cyclists are powering a family house in UK:

Here is a chart on The global energy system, 2010 is from Kjell Aleklett’s blog and where he criticizes the IEA’s World energy outlook:

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