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Solutions & sustainability - Aug 2

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

The Logic of Sufficiency

David Pollard, How to Save the World
Thomas Princen's The Logic of Sufficiency builds on the sustainable economics theory of Herman Daly, which I've written about before on these pages. In this book, sufficiency is suggested as the underlying organizing and decision-making principle for economic activities, replacing efficiency. After laying out the theory in Part One of the book he illustrates its application (and how it came to him) through a series of real-life case studies taken from very different economic situations around the world.

...the principle of sufficiency (again my paraphrasing) is:

Through collective, networked community-based self-management, allow an understanding of what would optimize the well-being of all life in the ecosystem, balancing all interests and appreciating natural constraints, to decide what is needed.Agree to produce only, but generously, what is needed, accepting and addressing all costs of production. Collectively, distribute what is needed to those who need it.

Much more complex, and vastly more difficult to scale. As Princen shows, this works fine, in the absence of efficiency-cult competitive pressure, for family farms, locally owned hardware stores, owner-operated fishing boats, and timber companies with no place to expand. But sufficiency, unlike efficiency, requires broad, decentralized, consensual, networked decision-making to assess what is needed, who needs it, and how best to produce and distribute it.

...I confess the elements of the theory of sufficiency come across as a bit incoherent to me, and Princen says specifically that the book offers only some 'possible directions' towards such a theory. But here is a catalogue of some of these elements, that presumably have a place in such a theory:

  • the principle of restraint (changing one's own behaviours to adapt to changes in constraints -- 'absorbing the problem' rather than trying to 'solve' it)

  • the resiliency principle (creating buffers, cushions and reserves to reduce vulnerability and fragility)
  • the principle of resource primacy (valuing a resource as a part of a functioning, self-managing system, not as a consumable for liquidation)
  • decision criteria that resist overharvesting, depletion, waste accumulation, incomplete costing, uncontrolled 'positive feedback', irreversibility, nonsubstitutability, overconsumption, excess throughput, and limited regenerative capacities
  • the principle of respite
  • mechanisms that enable 'negative feedback' to be introduced to counter and rebalance unsustainable 'positive feedback'
  • the precautionary principle
  • the polluter pays principle
  • the principle of selectively permeable boundaries
  • the principle of zero tolerable limits on and virtual elimination of persistent toxins
  • the reverse onus principle (burden of proof of safety and sustainability is moved to the proposed resource developer/user)
  • the principle of self-determined and self-directed work
  • a long-term decision-making orientation
  • self-acknowledgement of humans and human activity as part of (not apart from) the ecosystem -- we are part of the environment, it is not 'out there' (giving a whole new much broader meaning to self-management than merely management by humans)
  • the principle of information preservation (appreciation of the value of long-standing, proven human practices, techniques and preferences)
  • appreciation that in complex adaptive systems, predictability is highly limited

These elements together are not only practical, but inherently rational -- they create a coherent economic framework that is sustainable and that works.
(28 July 2006)

Given enough minds...: Bridging the ingenuity gap

Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey, First Monday
Peak oil. Climate change. Air pollution and top soil depletion. Water shortages and intractable conflicts. Disease, poverty, hunger, terrorism, natural disasters, and anomie ... the world is full of tough problems. What would a sustainable open infrastructure dedicated to finding solutions look like?

For many of the toughest problems, it will have to lower financial, disciplinary, and bureaucratic boundaries to make more use of non–specialists — interested citizens who are willing to share their knowledge, expertise, connections, and commitment to confront common challenges. This implies that the investment required per citizen to get involved must be relatively low, whether measured in money, time, or technical expertise. Our goal in this paper is to demonstrate how to start building an effective open system to support such sharing today.

Many of the tools exist already, both technical and social. Many of the requisite technical tools exist as inexpensive or free software, e.g. for information sharing, discussions, audio conferencing, small–scale video conferencing, and simultaneous editing. Social tools are often more difficult to master than technical ones. They include filtering contributions and contributors to separate the wheat from the chaff, building a sense of community and shared goals, motivating contributors to stay involved, making the link from smaller to larger efforts, and keeping the whole process fun and productive. Different “collaboration modes” can be identified, each with characteristic interaction topologies and scale of people involved.

...Peak oil

We will reach a point in the relatively near future (less than 10 years, perhaps) where the rate at which we pump oil out of the ground will reach a peak (Goodstein, 2005). Although we won’t run out of oil for a long time, a peak in oil supply combined with increasing demand implies that the price of oil will rise dramatically. That’s bad, because much of our essential infrastructure is made from or maintained by petrochemicals, including fertilizers, medicines, industrial and farm machinery, as well as a large part of the transportation sector. Some economists argue that as oil prices rise, substitutes for oil will be found through market mechanisms, but it’s not clear what those substitutes would look like, how much oil it would take to create them, or what degree of disruption would take place in the crossover period.

Another worry is that we might not have enough easily extractable oil to create the infrastructure to run civilization on non–hydrocarbon fuel sources. We need oil to build the pebble bed reactors, carbon–sequestration facilities, off–shore wind turbines, and photovoltaic arrays that would be needed in massive numbers to replace the energy the world now gets from oil. Since rates of transition to new energy sources may be relatively slow, we’ll have to think of clever ways to downsize our energy needs, like moving transportation to rail and growing food locally. And using coal as an oil substitute would have to be carefully thought about and managed, since burning hydrocarbons is a significant factor in climate change.

Given the massive reliance of modern civilization on petroleum and the relatively short time scale to find alternatives, managing the transition to a post–petroleum economy will requires vast amounts of ingenuity, making it an appropriate case study for large–scale problem solving. Many citizen–led efforts are already underway, such as the excellent Energy Bulletin, at (“designed to be a clearinghouse for current information regarding the peak in global energy supply”) and Global Public Media, at (“formed to help existing public service information organizations ... give a broader, deeper and more interactive public information service”).

A small but scalable piece of the answer: Crude Awakening

How do you start tackling a problem of this magnitude in your own neighborhood? Just start. Mark Tovey, one of the co–authors of this paper, was instrumental in initiating “Crude Awakening” — a process spawned by the Environmental Advisory Committee for the City of Ottawa, Canada (see It seeks to develop solutions to impacts of peak oil at a local level, and to encourage other municipalities to start similar processes of their own.
(July 2006)
An exciting online paper with enough ideas for a dozen books. Highly recommended. -BA

Something exciting is happening in Britain's suburbs

The Economist
TWO miles west of the central English town of Northampton, amid the roundabouts and cul-de-sacs, Utopia is under construction. A terrace of tall Georgian-style houses looms over the surrounding landscape. Next to them sits a row of Arts and Crafts homes, each with its own majestic, pointless chimney. “Mayfair in Upton” is how Sue Cutts, a sales manager for Paul Newman New Homes, describes the miniature town that is emerging on what used to be farmland. If it is not Mayfair, Upton is certainly odd.

In time, though, it may come to seem as normal as the tracts of two-story, semi-detached homes that dot Britain today. Upton's site is owned by English Partnerships, an official agency that regenerates disused government land. In a country in which planning permission for large housing developments is hard to obtain, the agency wields great power. Together with the Prince's Foundation, an outfit set up by the heir to the throne, it is using Upton as a template for future suburbs. Many are already under way.

The principles behind Upton are more than a decade old—indeed, proponents argue they are hundreds of years old. Traditional architecture, densely packed houses, geometric street plans and the attempt to create communities rather than just tracts of houses are hallmarks of the American “new urbanist” movement that began in the 1980s. Poundbury, a traditionalist village in western England championed by Prince Charles, was started in 1993. ...

Everybody scoffs, that is, apart from those who matter. Home buyers like Poundbury's houses...
(27 July 2006)

So Big and Healthy Grandpa Wouldn’t Even Know You

Gina Kolata, July 30
...The Keller family illustrates what may prove to be one of the most striking shifts in human existence - a change from small, relatively weak and sickly people to humans who are so big and robust that their ancestors seem almost unrecognizable.

New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”

The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

Even the human mind seems improved. The average I.Q. has been increasing for decades, and at least one study found that a person’s chances of having dementia in old age appeared to have fallen in recent years.

The proposed reasons are as unexpected as the changes themselves. Improved medical care is only part of the explanation; studies suggest that the effects seem to have been set in motion by events early in life, even in the womb, that show up in middle and old age.
(30 July 2006)
Not sure under which category to post this intriguing story. Let's hope that the average IQ has increased, as the article suggest. We'll need the brainpower to tackle what's coming. -BA

Related: Study: Surroundings play key role in diet.

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