Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

The Man Who Mistook a Concrete Pillar for a Global Threat
Article Photo

John Thackara is the Director of Designs of the Time and Doors of Perception, the author of In the Bubble, and a valued Worldchanging ally.

Some of you may know Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It's about people afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations - and in particular a man who looks at something familiar (his wife) but perceives something completely different.

Well, I’ve become one of those people!

It happened to me most recently at Madrid’s new airport. One minute I was admiring Richard Rogers’ gorgeous roof, and the play of light upon curves.

But I suddenly stopped perceiving these effects as aesthetic. In place of elegant forms and vistas, I started to contemplate the vast amount of energy embodied in the artefacts, structures and processes that surrounded me.

A big new airbus, taxiing in to park, made me wonder how many thousands - millions - of pounds of matter and energy must have been used to build it.

Beside me was an elegant concrete pillar. It looked benignly tree-like with a gently curving trunk and branches, higher up, that supported a soaring roof.

But how many carbon dioxide emissions were generated during its fabrication? A ton of CO2 is emitted for every ton of concrete that ends up in a pillar - or the miles of concrete apron that stretched, in Madrid, in every direction.

Millions of tons of concrete visible to the eye. Millions of tons of emissions out of sight.

Then there was the noise. I don’t usually notice the background hiss and hum of these great modern spaces. But this time my cognitive filters seemd to fail. I became aware of an ambient, angst-inducing roar.

All that air-conditioning, cooling huge volumes of empty space, blowing gales of out hot air to goodness knows where in the sky.

Eight per cent of the world's total electricity supply is used to cool buildings in the United States.

Then there was the light! There was a bank of large plasma screens. On the screens, ads were playing - but all I could think about was their greed for electricity.

Did you know that flat screens use five times more power than the bulbous ones they replace?

And that’s just the power they use. Cathode ray televisons contained mostly air. These new plasma screens are packed densely with complex materials whose manufacture is highly energy intensive.

So I’m the man who mistook a concrete pillar for a threat to the world! But do you know what? I reckon my cognitive confusion in Madrid had just cause.

I read a text by Rafael Buitrago about our aesthetic and visceral responses to landscape. The ways we respond aesthetically to our environment, Buitrago (and Anne Spirn) argue, may be derived from psychology that evolved to help hunter-gatherers make better decisions: when to move, where to settle – to chase or not to chase - in varying situations.

Environmental stimuli as diverse as flowers, sunsets, clouds, thunder, snakes, and predators, activate response systems of ancient origin.

I’m a frequent flyer, not a hunter gatherer. But I’m sure now that feeling the creeps in Madrid was some residual survival instinct being triggered. Not by an inherited fear of snakes - but by a learned fear of degredation to the biosphere and the threat it poses to us all.

Many climate change activists complain that "climate pornography? - the promotion of apocalyptic climate change scenarios - is counter-productive. Climate porn, for one British think tank, “offers a thrilling spectacle, but ultimately distances people from the problem."

These critics are right. To do things differently, we have to perceive things differently - but not be immobilised by fear, or guilt. We need to be startled out of our complaency, but in such a way that we feel motivated to take meaningful action.

A lot of people seem to have started. Paul Hawken reckons that over one million organizations, populated by 100 million people, are engaged in grass roots activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues. This worldwide movement of movements flies under the radar, he believes, but "collectively, this constitutes the single biggest movement on earth?

These one million grass roots organisations are just one part of the story. Many big organisations, too, are re-thinking fundamental principles of their business. For many multinationals, the consequences of climate change for the very existence of their business has moved from the realm of “future scenario? to be a real and present danger.

Let me give you some examples I’ve heard about just during the last month:

I heard about a top five logistics and parcel delivery company for whose CEO sustainability is the key driver of the company’s future.

I was told that one of the world’s largest shipping ports has decided it must render its operations carbon neutral within a decade. How, I have no idea – but it sounds as if they are completely serious.

A major European airport, I learned, is studying how it might feasibly prosper if air travel ceased to be an important part of its business.

Whole countries are getting serious about massive transformational change.

Sweden, for example, has made it national objective to be independent of oil within a decade.

Switzerland has set a target of becoming a "2000-Watt society." That’s one third of the 6000 Watts of energy consumed by each of its its citizens today on food, goods, heating and cooling buildings, mobility and so on.

The most dramatic shift, for me, is emerging in Britain – until now, a byword for of wasteful consumerism.

The recent publication of the Stern Review Of Climate Change Economics - by a former World Bank chief economist - marks a step change in government responses.

It’s not just that Stern's conclusions correspond broadly to what environmentalists have been saying for fifteen years. The fact that the report was commissioned by The Treasury, which control’s the nation’s taxation and money - is also key. Money is at stake: Something must be done!

Stern paves the way for so-called “external? costs to be counted properly for the first time.

(Notoriously, economists describe as?external? costs things like energy, water, minerals, the biosphere as a whole - that, until now, have not been properly counted as part of the game. We used energy to exploit resources – but did not pay the full price of the energy or the resources).

A government can use fiscal measures to make these so-called “external? costs internal costs, payable by the producer. Matter and energy flowing through the economic system will have to be paid for at full price - rather than taken for granted as a freebie. The Stern review provides an economic justification for dramatic changes to the ways we live.


There’s a truly gigantic design opportunity here. We have to re-design the structures, institutions and processes that drive the economy along. We have to transform material, energy and resource flows that, unchecked, will finish us.

In this new design space, the boundaries between infrastructure, content, equipment, software, products, services, space, and place, are blurred. Compared to physical products, or buildings, sustainable services and infrastructures are immaterial. They are adaptive in time and space.

So it’s a huge opportunity, but a new kind of design practice is needed to exploit it.

First: This new design practice is more about discovery, than blue sky invention. Many of the answers we need already exist. We need to become global hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that have been learned by other societies, over time. We have to find those examples. Adapt them. Recombine them.

Just as biomimicry learns from millions of years of natural evolution, we can adapt the social innovation of other times and places to our present, ultra-modern needs.

For example, a lot of people already know how to live more lightly than we do. Hundreds of millions of poor people practise advanced resource efficiency every day of their lives. That’s because they are too poor to waste resources like we rich folk do.

Design schools should relocate en masse to favelas and slums. These informal economies are sites of intense social and business innovation.

A second key feature of the new design practise: it is less about control, more about the devolution of power. A good test is whether a design proposal will enable people to retain control over their own territory and resources.

A third feature of the new design practice: it does not have to think Big,or act Big, to be effective. On the contrary: we have learned about the behaviour of complex systems that small is not small. Small design actions can have big consequences, and these can be positive.

If someone builds a bus stop, in an urban slum, a vibrant community can sprout and grow around it. Such is the power of small interventions into complex urban situations. Read Small Change by Nabeel Hamdi for more inspiring examples of the power of designing small.

Item four: The new design practise looks for ways to replace physical resources with information. The information part is knowing where something you need to use, is. If you can locate a thing, and access it easily, you don't have to own it.

Think of cars. Most of them are used less than 5% of the time. It’s nonsense. 600 cities now have carsharing schemes? The same goes for buildings. In a light and sustainable economy we will share resources - such as time, skill, software, spaces or food - using networked communications.

We don’t have to design sharing systems from scratch. Many already exist. Local systems of barter and non-monetary exchange, such as Jogjami, have existed in India for at least 500 years. A cooperative distribution system called Angadia, or "many little fingers", enables people to send goods over sometimes vast distances without paying.

They just need to be internet enabled.

The fifth and hardest aspect to master of the new design practice is whole systems thinking.

The best example I heard recently is from an entrepreneur called Paul Polak, who helps people in developing countries develop more effective water distribution systems. Paul reckons the design and technology of a device, such as a pump, or sprinkler system, is not much more than ten percent of the complete solution. The other ninety percent involves distribution, training, maintenance and service arrangements, partnership and business models. These, too, have to be co-designed.

I began this morning by describing the curious perceptual delusions that I experienced, whilst staring at a concrete pillar in Madrid Airport.

I may be nuts, I said, but could there be method in my madness? The ability to perceiving disorders in the environment has helped a lot of creatures survive.

Besides, millions of people seem to share my unease. I suspect there are quite a lot of you in this room.

Big companies, and governments, are also readying themselves for transformational change. I promise you that strange bedfellows will be teaming up in the near future.

Eugenio Barba calls this “the dance of the big and the small?.

I don’t mind if you choose to dance. I’l be satisfied if, just once this week, you slap a concrete pillar and start to wonder...


Bookmark and Share


This post shows beautifully why Worldchanging is here to stay. The 2007 corollary to "small is beautiful"?

"Small is not small. Small design actions can have big consequences, and these can be positive."

Yes. Bravo!

Posted by: Ted on 9 Jan 07

Great post, John. I think a simple and useful tool on the way to this new design culture would be to completely recalibrate the criteria used in many design competitions, in schools and in magazines.



Posted by: Serge de Gheldere on 9 Jan 07

"Did you know that flat screens use five times more power than the bulbous ones they replace?"

Does anyone have a link to substantiate this claim? I was under the impression that LCDs and Plasmas consumed less power than CRTs... unless this is not what is being talked about here?

I did a quick google search and found one or two documents talking about incorrect power consumption measurements being used for LCDs and plasmas. Anyone know?

Posted by: Bolo on 9 Jan 07


A really good post. The concrete pillar and the correlation you've made between it and the energy and materials (and the subsequent CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts on natural capital etc etc,.)that have gone into creating such a thing is very interesting indeed.

I recently read in Wikipedia about a seemingly new concept called 'Emergy' or Embodied Energy. To quote Wikipedia: "Embodied energy is the quantity of energy is necessary for the fabrication of a specific material. When measuring embodied energy, all energy inputs, from raw material extraction, to transport, manufacturing, assembly, installation and others are considered. Embodied energy as a concept seeks to measure the true energy cost of an item."

Whilst I don't think the materials themselves are accounted for in Emergy (apart from the energy associated with those materials), resource efficiency also plays a part in that every day items, structures, systems and sub-systems can be designed closer and closer to its pure design principle. The 'thing' that is designed to use less material, less energy in its operation, less energy used to actually make the 'thing', that still successfully performs its function begins to approach a state of Ideality.

To approach this ideal state, we definitely need to begin to rethink our designs. As with anything, whether goods or service, big or small, it all stems from design. From the outset of conceptual definition of a 'thing', the energy and materials definitely need to be accounted for from the outset - clearly, using less to get more; this would make that 'thing' truly sustainable for the longer term.

Posted by: Bond on 9 Jan 07

Beautiful! Ideality (from Triz) is the ratio of good stuff (benefits) divided by bad stuff (energy use, end-of-life, material impacts). So you can make products better either by increasing benefits or by decreasing detriments.

At MCAD we use John's book for our innovation class.


Posted by: Curt McNamara on 9 Jan 07

Fantastic article. It really makes me think of something though:
All this design change....requires designers. Designers are people who have invested in thier own human capital. Not people who stitch together shirts or pick agave plants, but people who go to college and grad school.
This is really the perfect opertunity for America's growing surplus of college grads. If we see it. I'm not saying everyone should major in Enviromental something (business, engineering, etc) because everything will have to change anyway. Managment majors are going to need to learn a new lingo about systems. All architects, not just the hippie ones, are going to have to learn low-impact building.
People worry about minimum wage workers. It's going to be a hell of a lot bigger problem when someone with a college degree makes Minimum wage. We need to explore new careers and these are the people that need to take them

Posted by: Marty Walsh on 9 Jan 07

Great article but the title is misleading. There's no confusion - the point of the article is that the concrete pillar is emblematic of the global threat we're facing.

Posted by: Dave Brook on 10 Jan 07

That is an awesomely wonderful piece of writing, but what really impresses me is the sensibility. Yeah, I know exactly, *exactly* how that feels: that survival instinct and that mounting sense of dread. It's an existential sensation that sweeps all else before it. It's like this decade's answer to Sartrean nausea.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 10 Jan 07

Nice example of poetic scientific analogy inspired by passion. I feel something similar about the Christmas custom of lighting up billions of bulbs in every building: such a cherished tradition with such unnecesary (and often kitsch) waste of energy.

Posted by: Oscar Suescun on 10 Jan 07

I know that feeling of existential dread, too. More and more new developments, mostly condos, are going up in my neighborhood. At first glance, these are non-offensive, modern looking buildings that sometimes replace an empty lot or an eyesore. Until I realized the "emergy" involved in building them, and that their good attributes(higher density living spaces) might not outweigh their bad ones: depressingly bland architecture, higher rents pushing out independent business and former residents of the neighborhood, and design that will be obsolete in a decade or two because the concept of sustainability wasn't taken into account.

The good news is that my neighbors and I have at least a nominal chance of influencing the design process. If we can't get them to bring down prices, we might be able to make these buildings a source of design inspiration and an aesthetic resource for the neighborhood. Maybe. If anyone has good affordable green and community friendly design ideas for condos, I'd love to see them posted.

Posted by: Jen Power on 11 Jan 07

Do large plasma screens really use more energy?

Well, it's complicated and difficult to resolve.
First, you have to consider the energy used in manufacturing each type of screen, including all the components.
I haven't a clue about this aspect.

The other consideration is energy use of the three types of television while in use. (CRT, LCD and plasma).

There are wide variations in energy consumption, even between different models from the same manufacturer. And energy consumption changes with every new model produced. So you have to check carefully every individual model.

Another point to watch is energy use on standby, when the TV is waiting for you to click the remote. Some TVs use vastly more power on standby than others.

Overall, I would guess that typically they all use about the same energy for the same screen size, in the large screen models.

LCDs and CRTs are usually rated about the same, though CRTs are dying out nowadays. Large plasma screens are usually rated as having up to double the energy consumption of LCDs. But, there are three provisos with this.
1) Some people think a good large plasma TV gives a better picture than a same size LCD screen.
2) Large plasma TVs produce a lot of heat and you can probably turn your living room heating off!
3) LCD TVs use the same energy all the time. Plasma TVs show dark pixels by switching off the current to these pixels. So the more dark area on screen, the less energy is used. Overall, it probably comes out about the same.

Posted by: BillK on 12 Jan 07

three cheers! at long last the facts are organizing themselves into critical mass. this gladdens my heart. sincerely, ilsa

Posted by: ilsa bartlett on 12 Jan 07

I query the claim that the environmental movement is the "single biggest movement on earth". I'd be interested to know how the figure of 100 million was approximated, and also suggest that organised religion is perhaps still the biggest movement on earth.

Nevertheless, this is a fantastic piece of writing and I was so inspired I sent it to several of my friends and family. Cheers!

Posted by: Dan on 15 Jan 07

It is true that the Stern Report provides an economic framework for discussing climate change. However, it's a piece of work at the very early stages of a new subject and already the target of intense debate in economics circles. Now, that debate is a good thing, but we should beware becoming complacent about quoting Stern as "truth" when in fact it isn't, necessarily. The Economist magazine featured 2 or 3 articles on the report in late December, but the web versions are subscription only. You can get the links from here:

Posted by: John Kazer on 23 Jan 07

I love the article, but I feel it is lacking in sources. Unsubstantiated facts are not useful because we cannot trust them. I admire your passion and awareness, but passion is only half the game - i.e. wikipedia is a great tool, but it's not accepted as a reference in an academic or corporate setting. An article with references and links is much much more effective and useful. Researching these facts is a LOT OF WORK. If the author does not do it, then it is unlikely the readers will. In the course of researching the facts you may find that some of your numbers are wrong, but admitting to this and changing your ideas based on facts is what the rational person will do. Cheers.

Posted by: fafa on 24 Jan 07



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg