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Thinking Globally, Acting Locally – And Vice Versa

Buckminster Fuller described the world’s nation states as “blood clots” that interrupt or prevent the circulation and recycling of resources vital to the provision of adequate life support aboard Spaceship Earth.  In fact political boundaries in general – especially those in the United States – share little in common with Earth’s natural systems. Bioregionalism, an approach to planning based on watershed boundaries gained popularity in the mid-1970s, but faded. There have been recent encouraging signs of resurgence.

Humans and our fellow passengers are kept alive by a regenerative life support system sustained by Earth’s finite supply of resources (the 92 naturally regenerative elements) and one source of incoming energy (our sun).  Everything in our physical world (from guns and butter to microchips and the air we breathe) is composed of one or more of the occupants of the periodic table.  These elements are unevenly distributed among the planet’s landmasses that Fuller’s revolutionary Dymaxion Map reveals as a single necklace-like island surrounded by one ocean  – in total disregard of political boundaries.

One Island/One Ocean Earth

The sources of all of our geopolitical tensions are rooted in imperialism, colonialism and nation states’ efforts to control resources. Early on, the focus was on precious metals like gold and silver.  Today’s competition is over the more pedestrian cobalt, neodymium and other metals critical to satisfying consumer appetites for smart phones and other high tech gadgets.

Executive Order 13817: A Federal Strategy To Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Materials was issued in December 2017.  The emerging international completion for critical minerals and economic leadership portends a neo-Malthusian era wherein humanity’s dependence on an exponentially expanding information technology infrastructure is outstripping nationalistic strategies to maintain and manage it.

Fuller believed that Nature is trying very hard to make a success of humanity. The human race possesses the collective resources and know-how capable of creating a world that works for everyone.  It is a synergetic potential that can only be realized if we come together and travel the uncharted -path of global cooperation. That is the geoeconomic promise of globalization – a promise that has been coopted and obscured by its evil twin geopolitics.

In fact, integration of a subsystem of a global energy network with bioregionally based local economies is arguably the clearest path to a just and sustainable world. The question is: how to merge the two?

In a 1974 essay entitled Appropriate Currency, Schumacher Center for a New Economics co-founder Bob Swann proposed that energy is best suited to serve as the world’s universal measure of value.  Energy is, after all, the common denominator for all economic activity everywhere. This view was shared by many others including Fuller.

During the Jimmy Carter Administration when the U.S. and the then Soviet Union were still very much engaged in the Cold War, Fuller became aware of a technological development that provided an opportunity to optimize the generation of electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar.

With the U.S. having just overcome the technical barriers to economically transmitting electricity across distances approaching 1,500 miles Fuller proposed creating an integrated world electric grid by connecting the U.S. and Russian systems via the Bering Straits.

We must integrate the world’s electrical-energy networks. We must be able to continually integrate the progressive night-into-day and day-into-night hemispheres of our revolving planet. With all of the world’s electric energy needs being supplied by a twenty-four-hour-around, omni-integrated network, all of yesterday’s, one-half-the-time-unemployed, standby generators will be usable all the time, thus swiftly doubling the operating capacity of the world’s electrical energy grid.

To the World Game seminar of 1969 I presented my integrated, world- around, high- voltage electrical energy network concept. Employing the new 1500- mile transmission reach, this network made it technically feasible to span the Bering Straits to integrate the Alaskan U.S.A. and Canadian networks with Russia’s grid, which had recently been extended eastward into northern Siberia and Kamchatka to harness with hydroelectric dams the several powerful northwardly flowing rivers of north-easternmost U.S.S.R. This proposed network would interlink the daylight half of the world with the nighttime half. 

The Dymaxion Map perspective clearly illustrates the feasibility of a global electric grid.

In the early years of Trudeau’s premiership of Canada when he was about to make his first visit to Russia, I gave him my world energy network grid plan, which he presented to Brezhnev, who turned it over to his experts. On his return to Canada Trudeau reported to me that the experts had come back to Brezhnev with: “feasible . . . desirable.”

By connecting and integrating geographically disperse wind farms across Europe, each experiencing a different phase of the region’s weather system, electricity is produced wherever the wind is blowing and transported to regions of demand, ensuring a reliable and predictable source of energy.

An interconnected globe-spanning grid would connect everyone to the same energy-accounting system. The universal grid could be connected modularly to regional, local and micro-grids.

Bob Swann pointed out that

Renewable energy can be used to improve money’s key functions: a unit of account, medium of exchange and store of value.

Redesigning money can also be a driver of change within the energy system by creating targeted currencies that incentivize more ecologically sustainable consumption, mobilize investment in renewable energy, and encourage energy efficiency.”

Earth’s Energy Income

There is no energy crisis…there is only a crisis of ignorance  –Buckminster Fuller

The following chart makes it clear that our energy income is plentiful and dependable.

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4.5 x 1053 kWh = Approximate amount of total energy as mass and radiation in Universe.

8.33 x 1025 kWh = Sun’s daily output of energy.

4.14 x 1015 kWh = Earth’s daily receipt of energy.

1.59 x 1011 kWh = Humanity’s daily conversion of energy.

58 x 1012 kWh = Humanity’s yearly conversion of energy.

58 x1012 [58 trillion] Kwh = 15,700 kWh per person on Earth = approximately 20 100-watt bulbs burning 24 hours per day for one year for each person on Earth.

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Energy Earth and Everyone by Medard Gabel with the World Game Workshop © 1975

The Art of Energy Revolution: From Ultra-High-Voltage Power Grid to Global Energy Interconnection

China has apparently accepted the challenge to unite the world around energy. It has established the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) whose mission is to promote the worldwide interconnection of power grids by 2050 with the ambitious goal of optimizing the use of electricity from every power plant on the planet. The Global Energy Interconnection (GEI) will employ UHV (ultra-high voltage) lines to achieve fast, long-distance power transmission as well as smart grids to boost end-use efficiency.

GEIDCO chairman, Liu Zhenya, formerly oversaw the operation China’s electric grid. At GEIDCO he oversees an effort that seeks to achieve local energy independence through global interdependence.  His strategy makes the case for the potential and need for a worldwide smart electric grid, where power production costs from renewable sources can be reduced through efficiencies and the savings shared with consumers.

Since 2004, Liu has been working with colleagues on ultra-high-voltage (UHV) electricity transmission. Initially proposed to solve energy shortages in his rapidly growing country, such transmission is, in Liu’s words, “a key technology for ultra-large energy grids,” several of which are now functional in China. Highly efficient, the technology can transport more electricity over longer distances, effectively revolutionizing the practicality of green power and enabling outreach to underserved areas. 

China is positioning the Global Energy Interconnection as the backbone of a decarbonized world economy by enabling the fully realized potential of renewables to, among other things, electrify the transportation sector.

The idea that authoritarian-led China might lead the world to a renewable energy future seems to have blindsided many in the West, for whom It seemed a given that the U.S. and Europe would take charge and shape the global green energy agenda. However, China clearly has developed and is implementing a comprehensive strategy establishing it as the world leader in the renewable energy and electric vehicle sectors – motivated by both economics and science.  I have yet to figure out exactly how the Global Energy Interconnection is related to their ambitious infrastructure undertaking, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

I monitor the BRI pretty much every day.  Reviews of its progress are literally all over the map ranging from it being demonized as a debt trap for poor, desperate countries, to being hailed as a revolutionary approach to development based on Eastern perspectives and values.  China makes no secret that it is intended to reclaim its place at the center of the world’s economy.

And so it is that China’s global ambitions may set the stage for a kilowatt-hour based monetary system and help create more equitable local economies in New England.

Global Energy Interconnection Development Corporation presentation at Harvard University.

 

Publication By

Greg Watson

Greg Watson is Director of Policy and Systems Design at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. His work currently focuses on community food systems and the dynamics between local and geo-economic systems. Watson has spent nearly 40 years learning to understand systems thinking as inspired by Buckminster Fuller and to apply that understanding to … Continued

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