Jeff Vail’s Call for a Scale-Free Energy Policy

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An excerpt from a fascinating policy proposal by Jeff Vail:


“Scale-free design describes a process that operates similarly at any scale, at any level of organization, that is fractal in structure. It is neither grass-roots nor top-down, but rather consciously, simultaneously “all of the above.” More than that, rather than merely a collection of separate national, local, and individual programs, it strives to develop programs and practices that operate simultaneously at all these levels. A simple example would be the achievement of 25% energy self-sufficiency—that is, for individuals to produce 25% of their energy needs domestically, for communities to produce a further 25% of their energy needs locally, etc.

Scale-free policies provide all the benefits listed above. A scale-free energy policy does not reinforce a top-down structure of society, but rather builds resiliency by increasing self-sufficiency at all level and eliminating single points of system failure and the potential for cascading failures. For those who have read my writings on rhizome, it is a process that is fundamentally compatible with both our present political structure and with a rhizome alternative, and that can help to foster just such a “diagonal.” Rather than increasing the hierarchal nature of our civilization, it presents the potential to facilitate a more networked, peer-to-peer version of society—critical in an age of resource constraints because this at least reduces our structural need for perpetual growth. Additionally, scale-free processes abandon the antiquated, serial method of innovation and information processing favored by traditional politics (the “cathedral”) and instead leverage parallel processing, a “bazaar” of innovation. The result is that, rather than trying one solution until we can confirm that it fails to meet our diverse demands, we simultaneously develop thousands of solutions that are tuned to our many separate needs, and then share what works, what doesn’t, where, and why for the next iteration.

Scale-free energy policy promises all of these benefits. Such a policy will also focus on renewable sources and simple, vernacular technologies where possible. While renewable, carbon-neutral sources are not a strict requirement, any honest search for resilient solutions must avoid those “solutions” that actually do nothing more than shift the timing or mode of our crisis. Similarly, a solution cannot be truly scale-free, and does not provide the promised resiliency, if it does actually enhances an individual’s or community’s reliance on technologies or materials that it cannot itself produce. This is not an orthodoxy that individual solutions must not use metals they cannot mine and smelt themselves, as an extreme example, but rather suggests a guiding principle that simplicity—of materials, construction, operation, and repair—appropriate to the level of organization is yet another means of enhancing long-term resiliency.”


“A scale-free energy policy should, at a minimum, invoke simultaneous actions at the individual (household), community, regional, and national level. It should not focus exclusively on only conservation or generation at any of those levels, but instead realize that 1) generation (in whatever form) is necessary on every level, 2) conservation is similarly necessary, but 3) conservation must be approached with an understanding that picking the low-hanging fruit first (the highest elasticity demand) is counter-productive in that it actually reduces the overall systemic elasticity. These ends can be achieved through tax-breaks, direct subsidy or works programs, and (not to be neglected) simple explanation and coordination (public-private partnership, state-federal cooperation, etc.). More important than describing specific programs at this point (at least in a post intended to explain the scale-free design process) is the statement of a simple imperative: every action, at every level, should be conceived and executed within this scale-free framework. What that means is that people don’t need to wait for their government to get with the program: any level can independently implement a scale-free solution.” (