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An Elevator Built for One

Embed from Getty Images

Could post-pandemic distancing bring back the paternoster? No, I’m not talking about the Lord’s Prayer.

One of the (many) daily parts of our lives that may be upended is the elevator because, unless we’re talking about museum freight elevators – or the one in the Starrett Lehigh building that allowed trucks to directly deliver to each floor – it’s pretty much impossible to maintain social distancing in a typical closet-sized elevator. So, we may have to be riding solo.

The paternoster elevator solves this problem by only being large enough to hold one person. Paternosters are a type of elevator that, unlike the Otis elevator system that we are all familiar with, involves a continuous belt with side-by-side shelf-like platforms running up on one side and down on the adjacent side. Sort of a vertical conveyor belt for people. Passengers step onto a small moving platform going up or down, depending on the side, and then step off again as the platform approaches the desired floor. The really interesting, or scary depending on your point of view, part is that there are no doors, you just step on and off, timing it to the continuous movement of the platform. If you were especially brave – I say especially because you had to be a bit brave to use them in the first place – you could ride the platform as it reached the top, ran sideways for a few feet and then started downward.

Pater noster images

Two paternosters. Left image: Ludek – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Of course, there are some safety issues to be considered. Specifically, the fact that they’re unsafe. They were fairly common throughout Europe but are now banned. Everywhere, that is, beside Germany where for some reason they are revered. I rode one once and, yeah, they’re pretty cool. (And I survived.)

Why, you may well ask, is this called a paternoster? The Latin origin means “our father.” One definition of the term, in addition to the Lord’s Prayer, refers to “a muttered prayer or incantation.” One can only assume that riding one requires a crossed-fingers type of tempered fearlessness.

Here’s a working paternoster in Alvar Aalto’s National Pensions Building in Finland

The platforms are just large enough for one or maybe two people: just what we could use for social distancing. Could they be redesigned to be safe from both viruses and gravity? Perhaps, though it’s hard to imagine a redesign that also satisfies ADA requirements and even harder to think of installing one in a litigious society. But tough times demand inventive, maybe even risky, solutions. Just maybe not this one.

We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)

In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.

The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.

Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.

The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.

The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.

When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)

So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).

Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem.  There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”

I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.

We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it.  And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.

I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

Keeping Tabs on Plastics Bans

EcoOptimism has addressed plastics issues a number of times, including here most recently. With the current news focus on plastic waste accumulating in the oceans, restrictions and bans on plastics are rapidly growing. And China’s decision to no longer accept plastic waste will serve to further force us to deal with the issue.

It’s a thoroughly EcoOptimistic topic, an example of what we’ve been labeling “good news disguised as bad news.”

To draw attention to the breadth of the movement, we’ve compiled an updatable spreadsheet of bans. To make it as useful as possible, the tabulation is organized by countries, municipalities and companies as well as by types of plastics: bags, straws, packaging, broader single-use and microbeads.

We’ll attempt to keep the page as up to date as possible, but if you know of new legislation or movements that we’ve missed, or corrections to what we’ve posted, please let us know! There’s a contact link on the page.

Pascal’s Wager: The Climate Change Version


The prevailing view among conservative politicians and their funders (though not so much among actual conservative voters) is that responding to climate change is either unwarranted because it doesn’t exist or unaffordable and undesirable because of the costs and the supposed sacrifices entailed.

Both of those positions, of course, are not valid. I don’t need to go into the falsehoods and disinformation in climate change deniers’ arguments. That’s been dealt with exceedingly well by many others. And in terms of the deniers’ second path of objection – cost and sacrifice – the rebuttal to that is the very basis of EcoOptimism: the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

This latter point brings to mind a famous philosophical argument for believing in God whether or not God actually exists. It’s a type of gaming argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, and it goes like this:

  1. If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to remain in hell forever: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded: thus a finite loss.
  4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded, but you have lived your own life: thus a finite gain.


There’s no way I want to get into a discussion of the existence of God, but the great thing about Pascal’s Wager is that it pretty much says you might as well believe in God since three of the four conditions say it’s in your best interest.

As others have observed [some of the top ones in a quick Google search: 1, 2, 3], we can make a similar argument regarding climate change. (Note I’m using the prevailing term, but I prefer to refer to climate disruption or, better yet, climate chaos.)


But the EcoOptimism take on this is slightly different. The “conventional” environmental version of the wager is that we could lose out in some of the scenarios. However that argument omits the non-environmental benefits of responding to climate change. The argument here comes down to the observation that, as I wrote above, the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

Another important point about this variation on Pascal’s Wager: the original wager merely referred to believing in God; not on doing anything to follow through on the belief. My climate change variation requires action. It’s not sufficient to merely phrase the argument in terms of believing in climate change; the validity of the argument is also predicated on acting on climate change:

  1. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be rewarded with both sustainability and thriving lives and civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be condemned to either greatly diminished lifestyles or human extinction: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will still be rewarded with thriving civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  4. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will not be rewarded, but we will not have gained anything either: thus a finite loss.


Basically, the climate change “wager” says we’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.


Scent and Non-sensibility

Hana Yakiniku-1

Our Wrongest Product Award nominations have featured several products based on dubious additions of media, notably shower heads, toilets and even coffins that add speakers. But this may be our first nomination for a product that adds scent. The Hana Yakiniku (which apparently translates as “Nose Grilled Meat”) follows a long tradition of odd mashup devices from Japan, including the aforementioned toilet with speakers.

It works by means of a scent-filled accessory that plugs into your cellphone’s earphone jack, enabling you to smell two choices of red meats. A purpose of the device, they say, is for students on tight budgets so they can eat something cheap like rice while smelling savory roasted animal.

Hana Yakiniku-2

Perhaps, then, there is a better, more environmentally-minded application in aiding meat lovers to go vegetarian: it might enable those tofu or seitan meat substitute dishes to seem more satisfyingly meat-like.

via LaughingSquid

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations 

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at)

Space Missions: the ultimate disposable packaging?

I love the space program, having grown up steeped in it. (Those of you who know me, know it’s “in my blood.”) But it occurs to me on this anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission – and the Blue Marble photo*  that has been credited with increasing our environmental awareness of the Earth’s fragility and loneliness in space – that space missions are an unintentional analogue for our methods of manufacturing and consumption.

*OK, that was really Apollo 17, but Apollo 8 was the first time humans saw the Earth from a distance as an entire sphere.  And the Apollo 17 photo’s anniversary was December 7. Image: NASA via Wikimedia

* The Blue Marble photo was taken during Apollo 17, but Apollo 8 was the first time humans saw the Earth from a distance as an entire sphere. And the Apollo 17 photo’s anniversary was December 7. Image: NASA via Wikimedia

If we focus on the Apollo lunar missions, they started with this:

Image credit:

Image credit:

Mere minutes after launch, the majority of the “stack,” as the Apollo capsule and lander sections combined with the Saturn 5 rocket were called, was ditched into the sea after the stages of the rocket had done their work — a lot like the packaging that many of our products arrive in: used briefly and thrown out after shipping is complete.

Saturn 5 First Stage separation. Image: Wikimedia.

The three stages of the Saturn 5 were jettisoned after each did its job in lifting the Apollo spacecraft into orbit. Image: Wikimedia

The Apollo components of the stack were encased in a protective housing for launch. Inside it were the Command Module, the Service Module and the Lunar Module. Think of it as that little packet of critical parts that comes inside the Ikea package.

Image: Wikipedia

The housing was left in Earth orbit and the modules rearranged for transit to the Moon.

Image credit:

Upon arriving in Lunar orbit, they separated again and the Lunar Module descended to the Moon. To return to the Command Module (which remained in orbit with one astronaut aboard), the Lunar Module Ascent Stage blasted off from its landing base Descent Stage. The base remained on the moon as, essentially, discarded waste. (I’m imagining a Moon alien with a tear running down one – his only? – eye.)

Lunar liftoff. Image credit: Wikimedia

Lunar liftoff. Image credit: Wikimedia

The Ascent Stage, meanwhile, was abandoned after the two astronauts transferred back to the Command Module. (Except in the case of Apollo 13, where it served as the survival craft.) Lunar Modules were then either sent into solar orbit or crashed into the Moon, and only the Command and Service Modules remained for the transit back to the Earth.

Finally, when the crew prepared to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the Service Module was jettisoned and all that remained and returned to the Earth was the tiny Command Module.

Base diagram credit:

Base diagram credit:

If you want to look at this in an even more extreme sense, you could think of the whole thing, from the Saturn 5 booster stages down to and including the Command Module, as packaging for the round trip of three people to the Moon and back. Almost makes you see that UPS package, the one that contained a single Christmas tree ornament within a gallon of foam peanuts in a shroud of cardboard bound together with plastic packing tape, as efficient.

The final frontier of garbage. A depiction of debris in low Earth orbit by NASA

The final frontier of garbage. A depiction by NASA of debris in low Earth orbit

More relevant to my somewhat dramatic point, though, is the comparison to our modern industrial manufacturing methods combined with our often non-essential consumption of short-lived products: the processes by which raw materials are crudely excavated out of the Earth, then subjected to “heating, beating and treating” involving energy and more materials to transform them into a product that may be used for only a brief period before being discarded itself.

The difference — because I don’t want to equate the Apollo program with a disposable razor blade — is that the space program yielded immense amounts of knowledge while embodying the optimistic nature of humanity. The products in our landfills and in the recesses of our closets and garages, and the industrial waste created along the way, do neither. They may seem optimistic in their moment of purchase – that brief sense of happiness and fulfillment we get from, say, that new cellphone, before it becomes old hat and we want a newer one – but they aren’t actually optimistic, let alone EcoOptimistic, in their legacy.

Towers in the Block

A street in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

A street in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

My longtime neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, represents for me some of the best qualities of urban living. Among its defining characteristics:

A Walk Score of 96 (out of 100, meaning I can happily exist without that American appendage, the automobile),

Density high enough to enable a richness of community and cultural vitality but not so high as to lose a sense of local identity,

Ethnic and economic diversity due to preservation of many of the low-rise century-old buildings, Street vitality and community arising from the varied possibilities for human interaction, and

A structural resistance to chain and big box stores due, again, to the existing building stock.

So I’ve been following with great interest the influx around us of high-rises in the past decade, a movement that will reach a crescendo with the proposal to finally build out a long contemplated – and long fought – massive redevelopment in the center of the LES.

For most of the previous 50 years or so, since the last of the post-Robert Moses urban renewal projects were completed, the LES retained most of its low-rise urban fabric of tenement buildings with mom-and-pop stores at the street level. True, the neighborhood was hit hard by the one-two punch of NYC’s fiscal crisis of the 70s followed by the epidemic of crack in the 80s. Though not as severe as the South Bronx, there were plenty of abandoned, sometimes burned out buildings interspersed with garbage strewn vacant lots. Both of the LES buildings I’ve lived in during my 31 years here had been empty and scheduled for demolition until early gentrifiers like me came in and gut renovated them.

The newer buildings, the mid-20th century urban renewal projects, generally adhered to the much maligned and discredited “tower in the park” approach to urban design in which high-rise apartment buildings were set back from the street and surrounded by open space. While there are some successful versions of this, such as Stuyvesant Town, the majority of them became characterless semi-isolated towers embedded in sometimes unsafe public space. The worst of them, like the infamous Pruitt Igoe project in St. Louis, had to be demolished because they were so dangerous. And from an urban vitality point of view, this concept of urban design abandoned the street, eliminating the activity, safety and community that looked messy and outdated to planners but, we discovered, are the backbone of urban neighborhoods.

Lower East Side "towers in the park." image credit Wikimedia Commons

Lower East Side “towers in the park.” image credit Wikimedia Commons

The more recent influx of development has taken the forms of both conventional towers fronting on the major streets (Houston and Delancey streets, and the Bowery, for the most part) and mid-block “sliver towers.”  The latter have been very controversial for their practice of buying up the “air rights” of surrounding older buildings and transferring the square footage to the mid-block site, thus allowing these new buildings to be far higher than the zoning would have permitted. More on that in a moment.

Amidst this, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), one of the largest development sites remaining in Manhattan, is finally moving ahead. Following an RFP this spring, the NYC Economic Development Corporation awarded the entire project to a developer team (the EDC could have chosen to award any of the nine sites to individual developers, which might have resulted in a less monolithic look) and the proposed design was revealed a few days ago.

SPURA (Seward Park Urban Renewal Area) site. Image source NYC EDC

SPURA (Seward Park Urban Renewal Area) site. Image source NYC EDC

In some Op-Ed pieces (here is one of them) I wrote during the RFP period, I expressed concern about the urban aspects of the project’s criteria as developed by the EDC. While the local community board did heroic work in demanding affordable housing and limiting big box stores, my fear was that the design proposals would follow the common contemporary formula: whole block buildings with uniform street walls and slightly set back anonymous looking glass towers.

(This was in addition to my other objection – the EDC’s insistence on providing an additional 500 parking spaces beyond the maximum allowed by the zoning. This approach reflects a long-standing and outdated car-oriented policy of theirs. One result of it is the empty and soon to be demolished brand new parking garage at the new Yankee Stadium.)

The primary architect of the SPURA proposal is the hot firm SHoP. Their work is often fresh and interesting, as evidenced by local designs such as the Barclays Center. (Interestingly, that project could be seen as the opposite of SPURA in that the controversy there mostly revolved around demolition of existing housing and the dramatically increased density of the not-yet-built buildings that will adjoin the arena. Back here, most of the sites have been long vacant since the existing housing was torn down 50 years ago, and the open parking lots have been what I’ve termed the “black hole” of the Lower East Side. Since those sites are empty, no one is objecting to building there. The questions centered on how it would relate to the surrounding area and how it could improve the community.)

Renderings of SHoP Architect's SPURA proposed design. Images source.

Renderings of SHoP Architect’s SPURA proposed design. Images source.


SHoP’s renderings, while not as bland as the other nearest redevelopment project, Avalon Bowery, still succumbs to the whole-block building syndrome which, in spite of amenities like roof gardens, results in unrelenting forms that are devoid of relationship to their surroundings.

Bowery Avalon. photo David Bergman

Bowery Avalon. Photo by author.

Which begs the question: what’s the alternative? Many would say (as in fact I have in other situations) that the approach should be to take the best of adjoining neighborhood – presuming there are positive aspects to the neighborhood – and improve upon them. This would have the effect of strengthening local roots rather than inserting a wholly new and out of character “intervention,” as this is sometimes called in archispeak.

The problem with this approach, of course, is money. Urban land is valuable and construction is expensive, so developers insist on density. On the community side, limiting the amount of housing inexorably pushes up prices, often forcing existing residents to leave.

So, as desirable as it may be from a contextual point of view, low density development is not realistic in urban cores. Is there a way to accommodate the economics without forsaking community character? There is and, though it may evoke outcries at first, it’s not far different from the sliver tower concept.

I first contemplated this conundrum – how to increase density without losing the appeal of older urban streets – in a design competition back in 1985 for urban infill housing in Harlem, “Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Approaches to Infill Housing.” My entry proposed filling in the vacant lots with new buildings similar in scale to the existing walk-ups, and then adding what in essence was a new layer of shallow towers above. The concept was that the lower level buildings would be primarily for families and the upper levels would focus on smaller apartments for singles, couple and seniors. Multigenerational buildings were not yet a topic, but it was implicit in the idea.

Competition Entry by David Bergman Architect for "Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Approaches to Infill Housing," 1985.

Competition Entry by David Bergman Architect for “Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Approaches to Infill Housing,” 1985.

Interestingly, the day after the SPURA design was released, I received a copy of the Yale School of Architecture’s annual publication Retrospecta in which the previous year’s student work is shown and discussed. One of the studios was taught by Gregg Pasquarelli, a partner in SHoP. The studio assignment was called “Bob and Jane Are Dead: Re-examining the Superblock.”  Bob refers to Robert Moses and Jane, as you might surmise, is Jane Jacobs, the two figures advocating opposite poles of 20th century urbanism. The first project immediately caught my eye. Titled “The Shroud and the Cloud,” the cloud represents the towers favored by Moses and the shroud is the contextual approach of Jacobs. The two students claim that either alone creates “architectural monotony.”

And so they set out to combine them in a “best of both worlds” approach that, strikes me as quite similar in concept to my proposal from almost 30 years ago: a street level urbanism Jane Jacobs might approve of with inventive and exciting new urban forms rising above it.

Yale School of Architecture student design "The Shroud and the Cloud," by Benjamin Sachs and Dinah Zhang.

Yale School of Architecture student design “The Shroud and the Cloud,” by Benjamin Sachs and Dinah Zhang.

shroud cloud 3Db

Which brings me back to sliver towers. They are generally attacked as uncontextual and unwanted intrusions, and both criticisms are usually accurate. But disallowing new construction and not providing needed new housing is not realistic. Except perhaps in the most significant of historic districts, it simply isn’t feasible to preserve neighborhoods in landmark stasis. Nor is it desirable. Cities cannot be stuck in their pasts as people, cultures and economies evolve. Even Paris, often cited as either the quintessential example of the ideal low-rise city or, conversely, as a tourist destination disguised as a city, is allowing high-rises.

A "sliver tower" under construction in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

A “sliver tower” under construction in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

So if new construction and increased density is inevitable, how can it be accomplished without sacrificing communities? And let’s go one better. How can it be designed to improve communities? We have a model at hand, and it involves using the often criticized “transfer of development rights” process to preserve the strong urban fabrics while allowing encouraging positive growth.

A friend of ours was approached a few years ago to sell his air rights to a developer putting together a mid-block high-rise a few doors away from his building. He held out as a matter of principal while his neighbors sold, and at the time we complimented him roundly. Now I’m not so sure I agree.

Yes, the building that resulted is architecturally heavy and, far from adding to the neighborhood, has become a nuisance in that it is a hotel with no connections to the community and its second floor rooftop parties can be hideously noisy. Indeed, a slightly earlier nearby high-rise hotel has exactly the same issues. (Who’d have thought we’d see glass tower high-end hotels in the Lower East Side?) But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Mid-block high-rise hotel in the Lower East Side

Mid-block high-rise hotel in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

What we can have, I’m suggesting, is what I term “towers in the block.” Much as the Yale students recently proposed, and as I proposed much earlier, we can modify the towers in the park idea to correct its faults and simultaneously incorporate the wisdom of contemporary post-Jacobs urbanism.

But how does this work in the (increasingly rare) case of whole-block construction? SHoP’s renderings for SPURA are basically towers in the block. But, glass tower esthetics aside, by proposing block long buildings, they fail to create a good base over which to put the towers. The street is, to use Pasquarelli’s students’ words, architecturally monotonous. Its nod to contemporary urbanism, beyond some gestures to amenities, is present only in the setbacks on the plinths. Look at any new building like this, whether nearby in the LES, uptown on Broadway on the Upper West Side, in downtown Brooklyn, or any number of other cities, and the street level is devoid of local character and mindless of community.

This is, I want to stress, at least in part an architectural problem. Though zoning may mandate ground-level commercial spaces and setbacks (and hopefully may start to regulate the proliferation of chain stores and big box retail), in the end zoning is not the same as design, and it is designers who have the potential – and the responsibility – to provide the architectural bones in which street vitality and community can grow.

Architects need to study (and force their clients to look at) the banality of most new urban buildings, the unfriendly and unrelenting monotony of their creations. The towers in the block concept provides two related models for moving beyond this, one for blocks with existing strong urban fabric and one for larger scale blank slate sites. The latter needs to be informed by, without directly copying, the former.  For the latter to work, it needs to look beyond the expedience of large scale uniformity and the architectural hubris of the megablock. It’s not that Bob and Jane are dead. The lessons of both are very much alive and need to be combined.


If Overpopulation Isn’t the Problem, What’s the Question?

Overpopulation in the future? (image from Star Trek)

Overpopulation in the future? (Image from Star Trek)

In a commercial for Doritos some years back, the consumption-encouraging slogan was “Eat all you want; we’ll make more.”* That guilt free line, with some minor alteration up front, could also be the subtitle for Erle C. Ellis’s New York Times Op-Ed “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem.” Basically he says we can have as many people on the planet as we want because we’ll always find ways to make more food.

Sounds like music to the ears of an EcoOptimist, or at least an optimist: evidence that centuries of fears of overpopulation have been wrong and the idea of a “carrying capacity” is irrelevant. Problem is it’s neither correct nor an example of EcoOptimism.

In a previous post, I refuted an EcoPessimist. Now I need to refute a false optimist.

Since the end of the 18th century, when Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, there’s been controversy regarding the concept of “carrying capacity,” or the maximum population that an ecosystem (or the planet as a whole) can support indefinitely. Carrying capacity can refer to any species, but what we’re usually talking about is humanity – how many people the planet can support.

Malthus and his followers concluded that, largely because the Earth is a finite system, there are only so many people who can be fed by its resources. The 1972 book The Limits to Growth expanded upon this and predicted, as population and consumption grew, we’d run out of other necessary resources as well as food.

When the estimated dates passed without the shortages and human calamities the authors described, opponents claimed that it proved the concepts of finite resources and carrying capacity were wrong. Economists had an economic explanation – that scarcity would drive up prices which would, in turn, create demand for more expensive or alternative sources. This is, in fact, what is happening with fossil fuels; “unconventional” fuels like tar sands used to be too expensive but now are becoming viable as cheaper sources of oil run out. The problematic assumption here is that there will always be interchangeable alternatives. Some resources are simply not replaceable. Try living without oxygen or water.

Other opponents had a different take. Scientific and technological advances, they said (and still say), will continue to bring us new solutions which will allow us to increase efficiency as well as find alternatives. Natural resources may be finite, but that doesn’t matter because our intelligence will always yield new ways around those limits.

This in short is Ellis’ thesis. “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” he writes.

The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future…. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

This inherently optimistic and appealing view has, though, a couple of fatal flaws. It is based on a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that technology will always come to the rescue. While it’s true that human history has largely been one of advances leading to immense growths of population (as well as living standards), it’s a huge leap to assume that, unlike natural resources, our potential to think our way out of problems is limitless. Yes, technology has in the past changed the planet’s carrying capacity for humans (provided, that is, we ignore the long and continuing history of famines and overcrowding). Banking our future on this, however, is a form of blind faith.

But let’s take that leap and suppose that technology will always come to the rescue and provide ways to ever increase the amount of food we can eke out of the planet. Food is not the only limit on human population growth. The technologies that comprise modern industrial food production, and that have allowed us (or perhaps encouraged us) to increase the human population from 1 billion to 7 billion in little more than 2 ½ centuries, demand vast amounts of not just land, but other finite resources, most notably fossil fuels for energy, fertilizers and pesticides, along with fresh water. (Let’s leave the highly debated question of whether organic agriculture can feed us to another post.) Sure we’ve figured out how to make land more productive, but it’s involved adding a lot of additional energy and resources. Plus there are the crucial issues of pollution from the runoff of those fertilizers and pesticides, and soil degradation from intense monocropping.

And then there’s the not-so-small point that Ellis’ entire outlook concerns only human carrying capacity, not the ability of any of the other billions of species on the planet to survive. This isn’t just an altruistic concern; many of those species are essential to the functioning of ecosystems – the same ecosystems that enable human survival. Even in this newly-crowned Anthropocene Age, it’s not just about us. We may have the unique ability to alter the planet, to “transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves,” but that doesn’t mean we have either the right to do so for our sole benefit or the intelligence to do so with enough foresight.

Ellis’s rationale is both hubristic and dangerous. He’s betting that an historic pattern will continue, without acknowledging that the game has changed so the pattern no longer applies. A strong competing view says that the Industrial Revolution and the agricultural revolution that resulted from it were a once-in-a-species-lifetime event, enabled by a world that had a combination of relatively few people and plentiful, easily accessible resources. Neither of those conditions exists anymore and the latter will not happen again in any conceivable human future.

It’s not that we, the anthros of the Antropocene, are powerless. We have the ability to alter both the planet’s path and our own. On that, we agree. Is he advocating, though, that we should continue increasing the human population because, well, we’ll always have the ability to innovate and “make more” so it’ll all work out?

That’s an incredibly huge gamble and, furthermore, begs the question: why should we take it? Even if he’s correct in his wildly unsubstantiated claim that “There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature,” why would we want to continue to increase the population? What’s the upside? Wouldn’t it be much wiser and more beneficial to not go down that questionable road and, instead, apply our unique innovating abilities to ensuring that future generations can not only exist, but be better off?

Overpopulation may not be the problem, but it certainly is a part of the problem. The famous (in some circles, anyway) equation I=P*A*T states that environmental impact is a function of the population times the amount and types of things people consume. What we have now is a rapidly growing population with a rapidly growing per capita consumption rate. Whether or not the planet’s ecosystems can sustain the exponentially increasing levels of environmental impact we are inflicting on it – and I can’t believe Ellis would say they can – diminishing that impact has to be a good thing. Maybe, maybe we can manage to figure out ways to feed everyone, but what about all the additional demands that accompany a larger and more affluent species.

If we extrapolate from history as Ellis claims we can, it’s obvious that the demand for “stuff,” whether it be basic food and housing or designer jeans and the latest electronic gizmo, is increasing at least as fast as the number of people demanding that stuff. How that can possibly be construed as anything sustainable or “not the problem” is incomprehensible. The two-fold solution involves reducing both consumption and population growth, resulting in a wholly desirable scenario that, as EcoOptimism espouses, leaves us all better off and happier.

As with the Doritos line, Ellis says we’ll just “make more.”  He’s almost certainly wrong — we can’t continue infinitely to make more, no matter how imaginative and innovative we are – but moreover, making more is the wrong response. It’s not the route to “creating a planet that future generations will be proud of.” We need to make better – better things, better food, better education, leading to better people — not more.

* Fact checking this slogan, it appears that it may have been “crunch all you want”, not “eat,” but hordes of people including me remember it as “Go ahead. Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”

Almost Good Advice on Consumption


This CNN article, headlined “Parents, you don’t need to buy more stuff,” seemed promising. Though it’s pretty basic and obvious to EcoOptimism readers, my first reaction was that it’s great to see this type of post-consumer attitude in the “lamestream” media. However, it didn’t end as smartly as I’d expected.

I’m contentedly “childfree,” so the examples mentioned in the article aren’t all that applicable to my relatively small ecofootprint urban lifestyle, but still the advice in the closing paragraph caught my eye: “Focus on buying better time instead of buying better stuff.”  That sounded right for a second until I realized they were a bit off the mark in advising against buying better stuff. What we’re really talking about is buying less stuff. Despite the expensive and less functional high chair example they dwell on, a general rule should be buy less stuff, but when you do buy, aim for durable, high quality (as well as ecologically and socially responsible) stuff.

So I’m all for the advice to “accept every hand-me-down you can find and let your toddler put a vegetable colander on his head rather than hitting the store for the latest Hot Wheels Monster Truck” — even though my favorite toys were my Matchbox (non-monster sized) trucks. But if that colander is getting handed down because the cheap material has broken, don’t replace it with another cheap one that will just break again.

Holy (grass-fed) Cow, It’s Been a Year

tag cloud2

First anniversary gifts are traditionally supposed to be made of paper. That seems thoroughly inappropriate, though, for celebrating an eco-blog’s one year mark.  Which is, in EcoOptimism’s case, today.

I suppose it might be interesting to look at how much paper would have been used to create, edit and distribute the year’s worth of posts were this a pre-digital age. (68 posts, not counting this one! And, for what it’s worth, the only paper consumed was a handful of in-office recycled pages and a few Post-Its. Electrons sacrificed, though? That’s another thing entirely.)

I think a different kind of tally is more interesting — and more useful as a type of gauge indicating where the focus and direction has been. To do this, I had to go back and set up something that, had I known, I should have been doing from the outset: creating “categories” and “tags” for each post. SEO is not one of my strengths.

Turned out that having to reread each post in order to create the list of categories and tags, and then analyzing the stats on tag usage was a great way to do a bit of a mission check or, in the famous words of the late Mayor Ed Koch, ask “How’m I doin’?”

In the blog-as-book metaphor, categories are sort of like the table of contents. Creating tags, I learned, is somewhat akin to creating an index – something I was spared in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, where the publisher thought a glossary would be more useful for readers. (FYI, a glossary is much harder to do, but also much more fun. Creating definitions is a bit like playing God.) Once I’d created the “index” and logged which posts referenced the topic or person, the blog software kindly gave me the stats indicating how many occurrences there were for each entry. The software also provided me with a “tag cloud” – apologies if you already know this stuff – that graphically renders the stats by type size.

So here’s what I learned. I have a tie for the number of posts referencing “win-win-win” and “consumption.” That first one is a decent indicator that I’ve been pretty good about staying on topic since win-win-win is a reasonable synonym for EcoOptimism. (I didn’t index the term EcoOptimism, by the way. That seemed a little redundant, since pretty much every post includes it, not to mention it being a bit self-referential.) The tying term, consumption, is more useful to ponder. In the post “Answering the Wrong Question,” I discussed the formula I=PxCxT, which says environmental impact is a result of population, consumption and technology. (The formula is more often rendered I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but the term affluence strikes me as both judgmental and not as accurate as looking at consumption.) This post started out addressing the flawed (as I see it) argument for nuclear power, but then went on to discuss the demand for energy and its relationship to consumption. That, in turn, brought up a point I often drill into my students: “It’s not just about climate change.” Quoting myself further (hey, it’s my anniversary so let me indulge):

[S]imply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources … won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from industrial farming …. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Thinking about this some more, that last point seems to indicate that something is missing from the I=PxCxT equation. It doesn’t take into account the sources of energy consumed and their relative effects. Environmental impact may not be only about climate change, but climate change as a result of using carbon-based energy is certainly a major – if not the major – factor. Perhaps then a better formula would be I=PxCxTxEC, where EC is short for energy from carbon. (Anyone got a suggestion for a single letter instead of EC? Maybe F for fossil fuels?)

Hmm, I thought this post was just going to be self-reflective. Now it seems to have expanded to propose revising a basic tenet of environmentalism. As my mother-in-law would say: “Go know.” My slightly more current version is “who’d a thunk.”

Returning to the stats on tags, the next tie is a neatly correlated one between “happiness” and “GDP.” Actually, the correlation between happiness and GDP is not a “neat” one, but is more like diminishing returns. As a poor country’s GDP increases, happiness in the form of wellbeing tends to increase with it. Basic needs like food and shelter become more available as do education and medicine. But that doesn’t continue to hold true. After a point, one which we in the US have surpassed, rising GDP fails to accompany increased wellbeing and, in fact, has the opposite effect. Gauges of Western wellbeing and happiness show decreases since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. Often this is explained in terms of the “hedonic treadmill.”

I’ll spare you a line by line further analysis of the tags; you can get a visual idea from the tag cloud above. Of note, I think, is that so many of the highest ranked tags relate not to design, but to economics. In addition to the ones already noted, there’s carbon pricing, ecological services, externalities, free market, economic growth, and true cost. As an architect and ecodesigner with a background in economics, I’d like to see more emphasis here on looking at the relationship of the quality of our built environment on environmental impact as well as the quality of the environment on human wellbeing.

It’s worth noting that Superstorm Sandy rates a large font in the graphic above, ranking only slightly below the top two ties. Perhaps relatedly, if you were to tally the categories (as opposed to tags) that each post falls under, the clear leader would be “Messaging.” Several of the 68 posts thus far have pondered why environmental issues and causes are having such a difficult time garnering public support: is it a matter of taking the wrong tactics to communicating the problems? How we approach this question goes to a core of EcoOptimism’s purpose. One way that climate disruption or other eco topics will rise to greater attention is when the reality, the fear, sets in. Sandy was seen by many as a harbinger.

But clarion calls may come too late. The disruptions set in motion by then may, like the proverbial train, take too long to stop, let alone reverse. EcoOptimism says, rather than build the demand on fear, build it on desire by establishing that the actions we need to take are actually steps that we want to take because, aside from the environmental benefits, they will improve our lives.