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Transmaterial, Transtudio and Seeing the Big Picture
Alex Steffen, 16 Apr 06

We dig smart, committed people who relentlessly follow their geeks. At our particular little moment in history, the ability of individuals and small groups to rapidly expand the boundary of a key debate or practice is one of the most powerful forces around for changing the world. We cover people doing just that nearly every day here, and we plan to do a lot more of it.

A great case in point is Transmaterial, Blaine Brownell's one-man crusade to find, evaluate and report on new sustainable materials. It's great stuff. Even if you're a design civilian like myself, you'll find Blaine's book Transmaterial: A Catalog of Materials that Redefine our Physical Environment gripping reading, overflowing as it does with stuff that's being put to use on projects today but feels set dressings for a science fiction movie about a bright green future. As Dawn describes it:

The soft forms covering the walls clarify voices in a room. Outside, Australian-engineered concrete quietly sucks carbon dioxide out of the air, while on the fa├žades, rainwater is repelled by paint reverse-engineered from Lotus petals. Plants snake up recycled steel trusses, covering whole walls in biomass protecting brick and mortar from being devoured by roots. Once the sun goes down, photovoltaic windows stop collecting solar energy, and start displaying graphics. Interior windows glow with electroluminescent vines embedded in silk.

A big chunk of our book takes on sustainable design, energy, materials and building, but of all the myriad projects and resources we cover, Transmaterial remains one of my favorites.

And in true sustainability storm-trooper style, Brownell continues his frontal assault on the future of materials online in a Transtudio and Transmaterial blogs (the latter has a mailing list which ally Christian French particularly recommends). Plenty of good stuff there, for instance, this post on Plantic:

Cost competitive biomaterials are in demand by industry as they are usually sourced from renewable resources. Plantic is a new and developing type of biomaterial based on starch. The first commercial application of Plantic technology is in packaging and display trays. Plantic trays look, feel and function the same as traditional plastic trays except that Plantic trays are made from renewable resources, are compostable and, most interestingly, dissolve when in water.

There's lots more where that came from -- a steady stream of innovative, provocative, even revolutionary substances. (By the way, I got to play with some Plantic and talk with the folks involved at the party for the Saatchi Awards for World Changing Ideas, and it's cool stuff.)

Consider, too, this work on graphically portraying the realities of our energy use:

Energy Slave Equivilent

So what do we measure our energy diet against? How do we perceive its magnitude? Geologist Walter Youngquist suggests that we correlate energy consumption to "person-power." One individual can contribute approximately .25 horsepower, so 1 PP = .25 hp = 186 watts = 635 BTU/hr. The energy diet described below would require us to employ fifty-eight energy slaves working 24/7 without taking a break. Moreover, if "we purchased the energy in a barrel of oil for the same price we pay for human labor ($5/hr), it would cost us over $45,000."

When I was in graduate school, I spent some time researching Chinese environmental history, which took me on a recon mission through the history of Chinese technology, which, for several centuries, was quite the most advanced in the world. One cannot do that work without at least attempting to wrestle with Joseph Needham's massive, mind-bending, mutli-volume Science and Civilisation in China. I remember being stunned by an off-hand observation that the vast majority of the work done by human civilizations for most of history was done by human or animal muscle-power. It was one of those tiny insights -- like learning that it is possible that a majority of the people ever born live today or that for most of history, the world was lit only by fire -- that send a sudden powerful bolt of illumination through our brains, showing us in the most fundamental senses what modernity means in practical terms: a lighting flash of information that sheds light on when we are. Energy slave equivilancy is one of those lightening strikes, for me.

It does make me wonder though, how much of the work done by energy genies is wasted -- if there are 58 of them on the job 24/7, but as much as 90% of the energy we use is wasted (or at least misspent on machines, infrastructure and practices which are wasteful compared to the best-known alternatives) how many of them are metaphorically sitting around in the breakroom eating doughnuts?

Put another way, if we were operating nearer to the efficiencies we know now are at least possible, how many energy slaves would we need to lead an exciting, prosperous bright green lifestyle?

Free Energy in the Food Chain

And what does it mean to talk about energy, in the first place? How much of it is embedded in our lives in other ways?

If we consider energy in a very broad sense, we recall that the first and second laws of thermodynamics state that "the total energy content in the universe is constant, and the total entropy is continually increasing." The idea that there is a set and finite amount of energy in the universe is something we may comprehend, but the fact that this energy continually moves to a less usable state is more difficult to understand. Moreover, we find that the more advanced the species, the more free energy is required for its survival. Because 80-90% of stored energy is typically lost in the translation from prey to predator, the food that reaches our table comes at an exorbitant cost. Chemist G. Tyler Miller describes a sample food chain in this way: "Three hundred trout are required to support one man for a year. The trout, in turn, must consume 90,000 frogs, which must consume 27 million grasshoppers, which live off of 1,000 tons of grass.

When we talk of ecological footprints, and sources and sinks, and "net primary productivity" and in general attempt to describe the bedrock challenges facing our civilization, basic (but little-known) understandings of how the world works are at play. I don't know how best to convey those, but I suspect graphics like these have a role. The planet operates within essentially non-negotiable laws and systems: making those visible and understandable is a key piece of worldchanging work.

Anyways, I've gone off and turned a review of a cool site into a Sunday morning rumination on seeing the Big Here and the Long Now. Sorry. Just check out Blaine's work: it's good.

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As early as 1940, Buckminster Fuller began to answer at least part of your question: "how many energy slaves would we need to lead an exciting, prosperous bright green lifestyle?

It appears Fuller was mostly interested in the question of how many energy slaves (net of energy slaves dedicated to military power)would be required to support "have nots" at a "really comfortable standard of living" ( like the "haves").

The energy slave question certainly needs to be asked and carefully answered today while refining the definitions of have and have nots.

You can read a fascinting synopsis of Fuller's energy slave concept in an article he wrote entitled "Accelerating Acceleration" (date unkown)

Posted by: Joshua Arnow on 17 Apr 06

" learning that it is possible that a majority of the people ever born live today..."

I'm not sure in what sense that can be considered a possibility. The Population Reference Bureau estimated that 106 billion people have ever been born, to today's 6.5 billion. Am I misreading you?

Posted by: mara on 17 Apr 06

Well, opinions on the subject vary wildly, Mara, as has been debated here before. I've seen total historical population estimates pre-1950 ranging from 3 billion - 120 billion.

The citation is from Lester Brown though, in his PlanB.

Whether or not it's true, I can't judge well (though would be happy for some numbers people feel are accurate, with explanations of why). But given that we've been around for hundreds/thousands of generations (depending on where you draw the line about who "we" are) and some where between 5% and 50+% of all humans ever born are part of the generation now alive, I find that remarkable however you slice it.

To me, the very fact that some smart, informed people have not insane arguments that it could be true is shocking enough.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 17 Apr 06

The Population Reference Bureau has provided information their reasons here:

Here's a second analysis, more conservative, that comes up with only 40 billion.

I would be interested in seeing your authoritative sources that say 3 billion.

Posted by: mara on 18 Apr 06



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