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Why Our Bright Green Futures Will Be Weirder Than We Think
Alex Steffen, 4 Feb 10

I've been thinking about how weird the future is getting.

One of the most creatively interesting aspects of zero impact as a goal is the way in which it transforms our understanding of many of the "solutions" now on the table. When we see our goal as eliminating our ecological impact -- or at least eliminating any impact beyond a globally equitable share of the total impact the planet can absorb (for climate, that appears to work out to about one metric ton of CO2 per person per year, for instance) -- and we're committed to achieving that in a set time frame (like, now, or 20 years, or 40 years), we have to judge the steps we take in a new light.

Some solutions that sound great fail to be able to deliver sufficient change quickly enough to be very important. Others deliver change -- perhaps even lots of change -- but are dead-end paths: beyond a certain point, they can deliver no more benefit, and they also don't make the next solution set any easier. Still others may offer some level of benefit but actually impede progress beyond that level, to the point of being harmful distractions. It's not at all clear that every little bit helps: some solutions can get in the way.

A few thought-experiment examples, in the context of climate change:

1) Local food. Given that a fairly small percentage of the actual carbon footprint of food comes from transportation, emphasizing local food is not a very important solution, in terms of lowering our climate impacts. Indeed, in some cases, less efficient local production means that local food actually can come with a higher carbon footprint than imported food. There are other excellent reasons for buying local (like protecting your foodshed), but a world of people eating local food would still be melting the ice caps.

2) Electric cars. Electric cars are clearly better than gas-burners, no matter what kind of gas they burn. Electric cars are inherently more efficient, getting as much as four times more mobility out of the same amount of energy. If that energy is wind, solar or hydro, their driving emissions are very, very low (not zero, because clean energy is not completely zero-impact itself). The hitch is that the problem with cars isn't just what's under the hood: it's everything, from manufacturing, maintenance and disposal, to the entire system of infrastructure they demand and the social/environmental effects of auto-dependence on our towns and cities. By some rough reckonings, even cars that are produce no emissions still have about 2/3 the total systemic lifecycle impacts of internal combustion vehicles.

Cutting one third of our auto-related emissions is still a big win, but it's a long way from zero. And it's not at all clear that driving electric cars helps us make the larger transitions (towards walkable transit-oriented development, for instance), that zero-impact cities clearly demand. Electric cars may (or may not) be a critical stop-gap technology, but that doesn't make them a transformative one.

3) Clean coal. Coal plant carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) may or may not reduce CO2 emissions from coal plants (it's still an unproven technology). But even if it does, it will only reduce, not eliminate, the impacts of coal-burning; worse, it gives political cover to dirty coal power today, and helps keep in place massive coal subsidies around the world, making it tougher for clean energy solutions to compete fairly in the marketplace. I'd argue that investments in CCS may reduce emissions somewhat, but actually make getting to zero less likely.

Targeting zero, or any other ambitious-but-necessary goal, forces us into direct, uncomfortable contact with the degree of unsustainability manifest in nearly every system around us. Zero slams us right up against the reality that the Swap won't work.

Neither will any other solution we're familiar with. The conventional human responses -- relocalism (draw in, bunker down, look to survival, plan for community in the aftermath) and nostalgic retreat (embrace a return to some vision of pre-post-industrial society; go back to a time when, we imagine, things were more sustainable, or more, if you're a fundamentalist, more righteous) -- are both completely understandable, but they're forlorn hopes. I've explained why we know this in great detail elsewhere.

The world we need is one we've never yet seen. That's terrifying for many people, but it can also be exhilarating: though it is true that the sort of solutions we need are probably non-intuitive, radically innovative, downright weird, that also means that we have an opportunity to re-examine the broken fundamentals of our current model of prosperity and redesign them. We could well end up, yet, with a future that is far better than our present.

If we do end up with a bright green future, it will not look like today's world, but with light rail, gardens and solar panels slapped on top (it may include all those things, but those things are nowhere near enough by themselves). It's already emerging as very different than the Futurama fantasy of cars full of happy consumerist nuclear families driving through gleaming modernist landscapes; Futurama plus green roofs will not do. The new urban landscape we're building will by necessity need to be structurally different than suburban modernism, but the biggest changes may be not in the physical systems, but in the cultures and economies that birth them. The weirdest thing about a bright green future may even be how different we ourselves are, once we get there.

Indeed, I've often paraphrased Bucky Fuller that we shouldn't aim for beautiful solutions, but if our solutions aren't beautiful once we've found them, they're probably not fully developed. Now I think as well that if our solutions aren't really weird, they're probably not ambitious enough.

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I think it's hard to remember and impress upon people that regardless of whether we succeed or fail on the climate front, we are headed into uncharted waters. The future world will be bizarre from our point of view, period. It's just a question of what kind of bizarre do you want to aim for. But this is actually the way things have been for a few hundred years now in many ways. It's just gotten to where the rate of change is now high enough that instead of inter-generational confusion, we can actually end up getting weirded out on an intra-generational timescale. At the same time, the contrasts between different portions of the global economy are getting ever larger. We still have a few people on Earth living essentially hunter-gatherer lifestyles, while others fly hundreds of thousands of miles a year, and are continuously connected to the global information networks via a tiny computer in their pocket. Like, WTF? As the top end of the consumption and technology curve runs ahead, it just stretches the distribution out, it doesn't shift the thing as a whole.

I'm not entirely sure we'd like everything about a closed-loop economy. If net material resource flows were really to come down to nearly zero, with lots of distributed energy generation, and only information being widely exchanged, how would that affect the way nations, or even cities, interact with each other? Would they feel, and behave, more autonomously, or with less regard to how the rest of the world thinks about them? Especially given how easy it is to "steal" (copy) information?

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 4 Feb 10

"the rate of change is now high enough that instead of inter-generational confusion, we can actually end up getting weirded out on an intra-generational timescale"

nicely put.

And yes, people on Earth already live within a multi-thousand distribution of development stages.

And yes, some things about a bright green future will suck compared to our lives today, no doubt - big powerful cars, cheap giant houses and weekend trips to Vegas all unlikely to make the cut for average people - but it's also likely that fewer things will suck for many more people, if we do our jobs right.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Feb 10

Think about the following:
1. Phoning someone up, and asking where they were.
2. Presenting to people in 3 different time zones while they're all in their own office.
3. Complaining because you can't read the hours news from your back yard.
4. The device in your pocket can only hold 40,000 songs.

#1 was inconcievable before mobile phones. Of course they were at home, where their phone line was. Maybe, with a cordless they were in their back yard.
#2 It wasn't too long ago there was no LiveMeeting, GoToMeeting, or equivalent. Presentations were made in person. It still freaks me out to telecon with people for whom it's already tomorrow.
#3 I whine when my wireless internet can't get as far on my netbook as I'd like. But to read news that happenened an hour ago, transmitted via global network, and then locally wirelessly...
#4 I didn't think it possible that my wife could fill up her 80 Gb iPod. She proved me wrong. But having a lifetime's worth of music in your pocket is normal.

These things would have been inconcievable 20 years ago. As Yogi Berra put it, "The future ain't what it used to be".

I try to imagine what things will be like in 20 years, and I know I'm nowhere close to what it'll be.

Posted by: Alex on 4 Feb 10

The idea is not zero resource flows but flows where systems eat sh*t. Where the sh*t depends entirely on your perspective. Where waste=food among many, many other ecological truths. Think of the most beautiful and healthy ecosystem you ever saw. Did it have zero resource anything?

No. It has massive interdependencies where everything is better off because of their codependent neighbors, not that they just leave them alone.

The future will be weird indeed. I don't want to lessen my footprint, I want a great big giant positive footprint. I wnat everything to be better for my having lived. I want to be a keystone species that supports a whole ecosystem of existence.

Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 4 Feb 10

What should we do without the plastic economy? Even if we stop pollution by CO2 cars and all petrol combustible, what should we do to substitute the plastic from our lives? It´s a very grim question, you know. Look around you, and you will see that everything that you buy, use, discard have plastic components in itself. We can´t substitute plastic. it´s a grim future.

Posted by: Akikonomori on 4 Feb 10

Removing the plastic industry from the face of the earth, as well as all other oil based products, is, as a member of the world defining generation (3 decades, 2 centurys and 2 millinea and i'm not even 20), a challenge I look forward to. See you in the future.

Posted by: Joe on 4 Feb 10

"Removing the plastic industry from the face of the earth, as well as all other oil based products, is... a challenge I look forward to. See you in the future."

Go get 'em, tiger!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 5 Feb 10

Glad to see people are beginning to think about zero emissions as a standard. One case study, for good or ill, might be DuPont which has an expressed standard of zero emissions, zero defects, and zero injuries. Whether that is real or just accounting tricks and outsourcing of production is another question.

Zero emissions where waste equals food and on a throughput basis. It might be good to look at ecological systems as our model. Here are John Todd's set of rules:

Twelve principles fundamental to the practice of ecological design:

1. Geological and mineral diversity must be present to evolve the biological responsiveness of rich soils.
2. Nutrient reservoirs are essential to keep such essentials as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available or the pants.
3. Steep gradients between subcomponents must be engineered into the system to enable the biological elements to evolve rapidly to assist in the breakdown of toxic materials.
4. High rates of exchange must be created by maximizing surface areas that house the bacteria that determine the metabolism of the system and facilitate treatment.
5. Periodic and random pulsed exchanges improve performance. Just as random perturbations foster resilience in nature. in living technologies altering water flow creates self-organization in the system.
6. Cellular design is the structural model as it is in nature where cells are the organizing unit. Expansion of system should also use a cellular model, as in increasing the number of tanks.
7. A law of the minimum must be incorporated. At least three ecosystems such as a marsh, a pond, and a terrestrial area are needed to perform the assigned function and maintain overall stability.
8. Microbial communities must be introduced periodically from the natural world to maintain diversity and facilitate evolutionary processes.
9. Photosynthetic foundations are essential as oxygen-producing plants foster ecosystems that require less energy, aeration, and chemical management.
10. Phylogenetic diversity must be encouraged as a range of aquatic animals from the unicellular to snails to fish are as essential to the evolution and self-maintenance of the system as the plants.
11. Sequenced and repeated seedings are part of maintenance as a self-contained system cannot be isolated but must be interlinked through gaseous, nutrient, mineral, and biological pathways to the external environment.
12. Ecological design should reflect the macrocosmos in the microcosmos, representing the natural world miniaturized and reflecting its proportions, as in terrestrial to oceanic and aquatic areas.

from _A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design_ by Nancy Jack Todd
Washington: Island Press, 2005
ISBN 1-55963-778-1

Posted by: gmoke on 5 Feb 10

I agree with most of this article. But point (1) is dangerous rubbish. Local food IS the way to go. The argument that local food is more carbon-intensive depends on that local food being grown in hothouses, with lots of fertilisers etc. REAL local food, from permaculture, from allotments, from seasonal organic farming, etc., would slash our collective carbon emissions.
So, there's one solution that ISN'T weird. :-)

Posted by: C'llr. Rupert Read on 7 Feb 10

As we redesign the way we get ourselves around, the switch to electric transportation can be dramatically improved by thinking two wheels instead of 4. Electric cargo bikes for kids, groceries, deliveries etc., will not only use about 1/20th the energy of an electric car but will also get us healthier and happier.
We are planning a cross country electric bicycle ride to prove our point!

Posted by: Oliver Bock on 8 Feb 10

If you'd told me in 1980 that in 2010 I would be networking worldwide as I am right now, effortlessly, it would have been beyond my comprehension - or totally weird.

I'm hoping that by 2040 we've developed some transportation and energy systems that equally weird. Maybe we've worked out how to harness the gulf stream or found a really easy way of using wave power, or a multipurpose wind/wave/solar station that sits out in the ocean collecting whatever energy passes by. Maybe we use driverless vehicles that arrive when we want them, take us where we want to go, and then move on to "deliver" the next person.

The biggest challenges, as always, are circumventing the many powerful and deep-pocketed vested interests.

But I'm optimistic that this world will be an even better world than the one we already have. Ingenuity, community and dedication will get us there.

Posted by: Sophie Garrett on 12 Feb 10

Glad to see a reference to Bucky Fuller here. Revisiting his living machine (dwelling) designs 'still' look pretty "weird" but his focus and purpose far outpace any real efforts available today.
Somehow radical housing seems to have completely fallen off the radar. Ecologically sound shelter has never been needed more and I'd love to see some movement in this space.
Local food, in home composting and recycling to the degree possible and of course in-home energy production are huge priorities.
Our imagination is the limiting factor.
Please anyone tell us where truly evolutionary thinking is being done en-masse.

Posted by: omdesign on 12 Apr 10

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