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Design in the light of dark energy

[ This text is a shortened version of my talk at last month's conference in Philadelphia on Architecture & Energy; proceedings of that event will be published as a book later this year. Whilst preparing the talk, and this text, I also prepared this Reading List for Mr Monti. ]

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When the new Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Mario Monti, gave his acceptance speech to the Italian Senate before Christmas, he used the word "growth" 28 times and the word "energy" - well, zero times. Why would this supposed technocrat neglect even to mention the biophysical basis of the world's economy? Energy, after all, is at the heart of industrial growth society: industrial production, our cities, our transport systems, our buildings and infrastructure, food and water flows, the internet - they all critically depend on oil and gas

Mr Monti is not the only politician promoting growth over common sense and the laws of physics. They'e all at it. President Obama, in his State of the Union message, stated soothingly that "we don't have to choose between our environment and our economy." Mr Obama was not lying, because a choice has already been made. 'We' have chosen the protection of business-as-usual over any pretense that we will leave the world better for our children.

Mr Obama, for his part, has in fact committed to leave the world a much worse place. Asserting that the US needs to develop “every available source of energy” - including oil and gas - he then announced that he will “sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects”. Frack, Baby, Frack.

Mr Monti and Mr Obama are better described as theocrats, than technocrats. Their principal job is to keep us in thrall to a myth: an economy that expands to infinity in a finite world.

When our leaders talk about change, but implement the opposite - as is happening now - they often use technology optimists as cover. This happy clan scoffs at the very mention of resource constraints. By 2050, they assure us, the world's energy needs could be met painlessly by a montage of wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and sustainable forms of bio-energy All that's missing is the will and determination to make it happen.

Over to you, Mr President.

Our predicament is far deeper than that. Mainstream renewable energy strategies suffer from an existential flaw. They take rising global energy ‘needs’ as a given; calculate the quantity of renewable energy sources needed to meet them; and then hand the job of implementation over to governments and the market. Typical of this approach is Britain’s environment minister. Last week she stated that the world “needs" 50% per cent more food, 30 per cent more water, and 45% more energy, by 2050 - and announced that she's going to the Rio+20 earth summit in June to put those demands on the table.

Her not-so-hidden message? Suck on that, tree-huggers.

If our leaders were leaders, rather than politicians, they would ask how important all these 'needs' are, anyway. Instead, they plough ahead as if the transformation of international energy systems can be achieved without environmental or social cost. Poor countries are expected to 'share' their energy resources without complaint. Expensive and heavy energy arrays are to be dumped into wilderness areas - such as arid lands in Spain and France, or the deserts of North Africa - on the false assumption that these lands are 'empty' or 'useless'

The political class, and its techno-optimist courtiers, also ignore a logical inconvenience: it takes a lot of energy and money to harness energy. Even in a booming world economy, the required resources would be hard to mobilize. In the deflationary global crisis unfolding now it is implausible, to put it mildly, that even a fraction of the needed costs will be found.

Only a theocrat would have the nerve to suggest that the same growth-at-all costs global economy, that caused today's multiple crises, can be the engine for their resolution.

As a clean-energy future remains steadfastly on the far horizon our capacity to set priorities is further handicapped by wildly under-estimating the task at hand. In all economic activities, energy that you can measure - such as the utilities bill of a building, the cost of filling up a car, or the overheads of a hospital - are only one cost within a bigger picture. A new technique called Systems Energy Assessment (SEA) measures the total energy demand of business and daily life activities. Phil Henshaw, a pioneer in SEA, describes as "dark energy" the many energy uses, that businesses rely on, that are kept out of view by by a combination of hidden subsidies and so-called environmental services, supplied by nature, that nobody pays for. Henshaw calculates that "less than one fifth of the true total is traceable, even when the most careful analytical efforts" are deployed. For every barrel of oil equivalent that's counted today - if they are counted at all - four times that number are consumed invisibly in and by the system-at-large.

Bottom line: Even as their replacement remains perpetually out-of-reach, our true demands for liquid fuel energy are much higher than previously thought. And the production of primary energy is peaking, right now, if it has not done so already.

This is not doomer speculation. In a report last year called Sustainable Energy Security , Lloyds of London, the epicentre of global risk management, warned that "an oil supply crunch is likely in the short-to-medium term”. Another capitalist hotspot, the World Economic Forum, described peak oil this year (2012) as one if its "Seeds of Dystopia". And the US Army, itself no doomer hotbed, stated in its most recent Joint Operating Environment Report that "by 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear...we simply aren't going to replace this with renewables”.

If that is the case - and who would argue with the finest minds in global finance, or with the most sophisticated military ever known? - then our energy-intensive global economy has entered the phase of decline. The point about peak oil is not that we’re going to run out of the stuff completely. The point is that "we will henceforth have to use a bit less oil every year in a world whose growth-based economies are wholly dependent to a bit more each year".

And that’s why Mr Monti incanted the word “growth” with such fervour.


Resource efficiency is not a lifestyle choice. We’ve splurged on energy for 200 years because we could. The growth-at-all-costs economy grew because it could. We drove two ton trucks to collect a pizza because we could.

Now that we can’t, the nature of our playing field is changing. John Michael Greer describes this process as 'catabolic collapse'; this is what happens when a society, by the time it realizes the scale of the changes that have to be made, has exhausted the material, financial and cultural resources needed to make them. In all probability, this long-form implosion is already under way.

For design, this means letting-go of the idea that our energy crisis is some kind of practical problem to be fixed. But the long descent of industrial society is not the only show in town. Rather than dream of a global switch to renewables that cannot and will not happen, the wiser course is to focus our creative efforts on low-energy replacements for today’s gas-guzzling support systems. Our focus should be services and infrastructures that require five per cent of the energy throughputs that we are accustomed to now. That's the energy regime we're likely to end up with, so why not work on that basis from now on?

Is five per cent impossible? On the contrary: For eighty per cent of the world's population, five per cent energy is their lived reality today. Their situation is usually described as poverty, or a lack of development, but there are numerous ways in which the South's five percent delivers the same value as our 100-per-cent-and-rising.

Healthcare is one example. In Cuba, where food, petrol and oil have been scarce for 50 years as a consequence of economic blockades, its citizens achieve the same level of health for only five per cent of the health care expenditure of Americans.

A key principle of Cuba's five per cent system is that health and wellbeing are not something ‘delivered’, like a pizza, by distant suppliers based in complex organizations and a dysfunctional market. In Cuba's version of a caring society, health is a quality of a social ecology. People who enjoy mutually supportive relationships tend to be healthier than people who have to pay for daily life necessities.

Another example of five per cent systems that work is food. In the industrial world, the ratio of energy inputs to the system, relative to calories ingested, is 12:1 the ratio of energy inputs to the system, relative to calories ingested, is 12:1 In subsistence economies, where food is grown and eaten on the spot, the ratio is closer to 1:1. This is not news to those involved; in the global South some 800 million people, who live precariously in cities, are involved in urban agriculture


Howard and Eugene Odum have explained how, in ecological terms, the city is as an organism that feeds on its surroundings. Could this be the task of design in the light of dark energy - to put the city on a strict diet of life-support systems, such as community health, or food, that rely on five per cent of the energy they use now?

At the level of big ideas, top-down design along these lines is much in demand. In 2010, for example, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, asked ten architects to project 20 years into the future and dream up "the world's most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis"

Later, an enormous exhibition, also in Paris, entitled The Fertile City: Towards An Urban Nature, explored nature in the city from multiple perspectives: historical, social, cultural, botanical, ecological. The most evocative proposal came from a team of Italian architects who proposed to enlarge the city and lay it out as a "porous sponge" wherein waterways are given pride of place

Turning our cities into sponges would certainly make it easier to grow food in them. Sponge-like cities would need less heating and airco. Energy would be saved by treating water on the spot, rather than in far-away treatment facilities. But nether Paris-as-a-sponge, nor Fertile Cities elsewhere, are plausible scenarios if they can only be realised by vast investments by the state. Remember that catabolic collapse of the old economy has started: vast resources will simply not be available in the five per cent energy future that awaits us.

Large changes can also be made by a multitide of small steps. One such sponge-designing step would be to multiply the ecological interventions into the built fabric that are already happening. The Blue-Green Corridor idea, for example imagines a network of components across an urban water or food catchment in which a variety of green spaces are linked with river corridors and associated tributaries. The concept incorporates aspects of sustainable urban drainage, river restoration and flood management.

Chicago's Eco-Boulevard proposal takes the blue-green corridor idea further. Their idea is to transform existing roadways, sidewalks and parks, which comprise more than a third of the land in the city, into a holistic, distributed, passive bio-system for recycling water. The Eco Boulevards project re-conceives the city as an ecological treatment system that make use of natural bioremediation processes to remove contaminants from storm-water and wastewater sources.


Blue-green corridors and eco-boulevards are much cheaper than the interstate highways and Hoover Dams that President Obama says he wants to build. The question nonetheless remains: in a five per cent energy future, how will we get such things built? and who will pay for them?

An alternative to federal mega projects is what one might call sweat equity infrastructure. This is where the metabolic energy of people is harnessed on a large scale to get the ‘green infrastructure' that we need, built. There are precedents, after all. Wonders of the world from ancient times, such as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, were built without fossil fuels. Their solution, it’s true, was to use tens of thousands of slaves- and this is not (yet) an acceptable approach today. The willing collaboration of groups of citizens is the more promising approach.

Green infra is not about building huge new structures. Turning our cities into sponges involves more dis-mantling of obstacles, or digging up hard surfaces. "Our problem is concrete" states Depave, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon. There are between 100 million and two billion on- and off-street parking spaces in US cities alone. These impervious surfaces prevent rainwater from entering the soil and instead divert it to nearby waterways.

So what to do? Depave promotes the removal of unnecessary pavement from urban areas to create community green spaces and mitigate stormwater runoff. Tod Littman, author of the Pavement Buster's Guide, writes that "road and parking pavement area can often be reduced significantly in ways that are cost effective and maintain adequate levels of accessibility".

Where new structures do need to be built, we can again learn a lot from the global south. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where many millions of people live in precarious economic conditions, housing has started to be improved by the rediscovery of an ancient architectural technique, the Nubian Vault (NV). The NV building process uses raw materials that are cheap, locally available, and ecologically sound. The procedure is easily learned. The major cost of the buildings is labour. And because much of of the work is done by the future occupants of the house, costs are kept low and money remains in the local economy.

The Arizona-based Watershed Management Group (WMG) is based on a similar model. The organization gets green infrastructure built that uses living, natural systems to provide environmental services. (These include the capturing, cleaning and infiltrating stormwater; creating wildlife habitat; shading and cooling streets and buildings; and calming traffic). Like La Voute Noubienne in Africa, WMG uses a barn-raising model to get the work done. Typically, 15 volunteers might transform someone's back garden from a sterile, black-plastic and rock-laden heat island into a runoff-capturing garden of native plants, organic mulch, and, in time, living soil. WMG programmes provide citizens with the skills and resources they need to manage the natural resources within their own watershed. Success of development is measured by the health of ecological systems, the prosperity of people, and the strength of communities. (WMG's excellent guidebook, Green Infrastructure for Southwestern Neighborhoods, is available online.

In France, artists and designers have been involved in similar ground-breaking projects at a local level for many years. In Lyon, for example, the designer Emanuel Louisgrand creates productive gardens on abandoned sites in different parts of the city. Understanding what makes each place unique, and then defining tools and infrastructures that can be adapted to it, is what makes this true sustainable design.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter, mobility, clothing - alternatives are being innovated. What they have in common is that they create value without destroying natural and human assets. In practical ways, these five per cent solutions re-connect city dwellers with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water, and energy sources on which all life depends.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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