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2007's Best: Sustainable Design
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

John Thackara is one of my heroes. The Man Who Mistook a Concrete Pillar for a Global Threat might show you why

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.

Pay As You Throw: More Interest in Zero-Waste Efforts

We talk more and more often these days about the potential danger of half-steps toward sustainable practices. Now that the idea of being greener has infiltrated most corners of the business world, we're at a critical point where thinking only part of the way to a true solution means settling for something that may never get us all the way there.

What are some of the all-the-way solutions we're talking about? You could call them "The Zero's" -- zero-energy, zero-carbon, zero-emissions, zero-waste. The only way to surpass total elimination of the harmful byproducts of our lives is to create ways to suck up our own waste and reverse the damage. But acknowledging that there are enormous hurdles between halting our current momentum, and getting the pendulum to swing the other way, going for zero is probably the best combination of a solution that is both high-impact and quickly-attainable for the average individual, city or business.


Karl's awesome speculative piece, Colonizing Planet Earth, a classic Worldchanging perspective-bender

We should have been colonizing Earth as though it were a planet with no ecosystem resources to exploit.

Look at the difference between what we do when we settle a new area on Earth, compared to what we'd do on a planet like Mars. On Earth we'd take advantage of the free air and water, ready-made soils provided by local fauna, pollination provided by the local bees, all to minimize the costs of building and maintaining our colonies. This process is documented expertly by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel; he points out that the conquest of the Americas was really the invasion of one ecosystem by another, rather than a simple matter of moving human populations. North America is the greatest success story of European expansionism because its ecology was most similar to that of Europe, more than for any political or social factors.

On Mars most of those services are unavailable. Mars is the most attractive local planet precisely because it does have some services, most notably a 24 (and-a-half) hour day, potentially fertile soil, and ready water from underground sources. Still, that's not much compared with even the Gobi desert. Our assumption on landing there has to be that the 24-hour day is about the only service we're going to get. Everything else--from air to agricultural production--has to be provided by us.

If we knew how to live on Mars, we'd know how to reduce our footprint on Earth. Space colonization is the Rosetta stone for earthly sustainability because it's entirely about living in the absence of ecosystem services. The Moon, Mars and the asteroids are a great experimental laboratory that we're ignoring at our own peril.


My Use Community: Smaller Footprints, Cooler Stuff and More Cash

If we're going to have a bright green future -- if we want to avoid living out the rest of our lives in one long emergency, a kind of constant Katrina -- we need to reinvent our lives now, immediately, on a radical scale. British researchers found that in order to reach sustainable prosperity, Londoners would have to shrink their ecological impacts 80% in the next four decades. For affluent Americans, the number may be more like 90%. And the more we learn about the extent of the damage we're causing the planet, the shorter our timeframes for change become. I suspect that we need to be thinking more along the lines of cutting our impact in half in the next ten years.

I believe that three main barriers present themselves.

First, we must learn to see the damage we already do....

Second, we need to make better things...

Third, we need a revolution in how we think about the things we have...

Jer's What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe?

We've all heard claims of green inventions that are too good to be true: the zero-point energy generator, the water-powered car, the device for talking with dolphins to achieve world peace. Sometimes they amuse us; sometimes they confuse us, as we try to determine whether they're legitimate or not; and sometimes they just annoy us. But can they ever help us? Yes: by keeping our imaginations open, and by honing our evaluation skills -- skills which are useful both when deciding between existing technologies, and when thinking about technologies on the horizon.

...We need a basic understanding of physics, of course, but moreover we need to ask the right questions. The best list of questions I've seen is at From The Wilderness:

1. How Much Energy is Returned for the Energy Invested (EROEI)?
2. Have the claims been verified by an independent third party?
3. Can I see the alternative energy being used?
4. Can you trace it back to the original energy source?
5. Does the invention defy the Laws of Thermodynamics?
6. Does the inventor make extravagant claims?
7. Does the inventor claim zero pollution?
8. Can I see blueprints, schematics or a chemical analysis of how it works?
9. Infrastructure Requirements: Does the energy source require a corporation to produce it? How will it be transported and used? Will it require new engines, pipelines, and filling stations? What will these cost? Who will pay for them and with what? How long will it take to build them?


Jon's Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben on Blessed Unrest and Deep Economics

Bill: Maybe one answer is that the kind of calm and unforced rhetoric that engages people comes out of large amounts of reporting. People can tell if you've earned your conclusions. For instance, you're right to describe both the grace and the inexorability of Paul's writing -- and one of the effects of the long appendix in "Blessed Unrest" is to give the book a kind of overwhelming authority. It allows him to write the rest of it without raising his voice, I'd say.

Paul: Money and economics are among the most talked about and least understood facets of human civilization. Just as most people speak without giving a lot of thought to what they say, most of us open our wallets in the same way.

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Comments

Your insights promise enlightening conversations, Alex. Please accept an invitation to participate in my latest project, a book for Taylor-Francis, "Sustainable as Wisdom." It is a primer to encourage the evolution of sustainable thinking as core to world wisdom using wisdom as our mutual repository for active nouns and verbs of change. I ask you and your ever growing number of conversationalists to share notions and adventures on wisdom, what it is, what we do to and with it, how to nurture and sustain it.

Me. Nuclear actor since the first Woodstock, currently providing quality assurance for first US nuclear construction project in 30 years, southeastern New Mexico. Spent some years teaching environmental management after first book, "Inside ISO 14000." Now, see environmental maintenance the more sustinable way to pay it forward.

Pleasure and a privilege to visit World Changing.


Posted by: Don Sayre on 1 Jan 08

Your insights promise enlightening conversations, Alex. Please accept an invitation to participate in my latest project, a book for Taylor-Francis, "Sustainable as Wisdom." It is a primer to encourage the evolution of sustainable thinking as core to world wisdom using wisdom as our mutual repository for active nouns and verbs of change. I ask you and your ever growing number of conversationalists to share notions and adventures on wisdom, what it is, what we do to and with it, how to nurture and sustain it.

Me. Nuclear actor since the first Woodstock, currently providing quality assurance for first US nuclear construction project in 30 years, southeastern New Mexico. Spent some years teaching environmental management after first book, "Inside ISO 14000." Now, see environmental maintenance the more sustinable way to pay it forward.

Pleasure and a privilege to visit World Changing.


Posted by: Don Sayre on 1 Jan 08

Your insights promise enlightening conversations, Alex. Please accept an invitation to participate in my latest project, a book for Taylor-Francis, "Sustainable as Wisdom." It is a primer to encourage the evolution of sustainable thinking as core to world wisdom using wisdom as our mutual repository for active nouns and verbs of change. I ask you and your ever growing number of conversationalists to share notions and adventures on wisdom, what it is, what we do to and with it, how to nurture and sustain it.

Me. Nuclear actor since the first Woodstock, currently providing quality assurance for first US nuclear construction project in 30 years, southeastern New Mexico. Spent some years teaching environmental management after first book, "Inside ISO 14000." Now, see environmental maintenance the more sustinable way to pay it forward.

Pleasure and a privilege to visit World Changing.


Posted by: Don Sayre on 1 Jan 08



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