Category Archives: Uncategorized

Lines in the Earth

(In a previous post, I mused about the idea of assigning the rights to the Earth’s resources to the Earth itself, similarly to the way rights are assigned to people and to corporations. The post here is more or less the opposite. It’s about the artificiality of our current concept of property rights: dividing up and assigning the rights to pieces of the Earth, not to the Earth but to people and other legal entities.)

Several of my teenage summers were spent working for local surveyors. In many ways, it was an ideal summer job (if you ignored the poison ivy factor). We started work early and got off early, in time for a swim or a bike ride. If it was a nice day, we were “in the field” running surveys and, if it rained, I sat at a drafting table and manually plotted the numbers from the surveyor’s notebook, in essence recreating the land I’d just walked from the mathematical version of it.

This was in the early seventies, in or after the tail end of the baby boom, but there was still plenty of land subdivision going on in my increasingly suburban county.  A few orchards remained, though most now bore cul-de-sacs rather than apples.

On several occasions we were surveying in dense wetlands, perhaps the closest thing the northeast has to a rainforest. A clear sightline had to be created between the guy with the theodolite on a tripod (the “instrument man”) and each point to be measured. Being the new guy, I was usually the “rodman” – the one who walked out to each of those points and gingerly held a rod balanced upright between my fingers so that it was exactly vertical.

Those wetland areas were certainly not my favorite locations during the hot and sticky NY summers. (The best places, it turned out, were inside large sewer pipes that were kept cool by the ground above them. It took more than a little convincing before I acknowledged the fact that the, um, fluid didn’t smell when it was moving and that, in fact, the pipes were cool and shady places to eat lunch.)

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing the sightlines involved using a tool I never thought had a place in suburbia: a machete. We’d hack away at tall weeds and reeds, hoping nothing had a stem or trunk too thick to survive the machete, advancing in the straightest line we could from the seemingly arbitrary point where the tripod had been set. The instrument man would tell us if we were “off course.” It could often take half an hour of hacking to get to each point.

I recalled this experience recently while reading a chapter in The Agile City in which the author discusses the evolution of property rights here and abroad. On more than one occasion, I had thought about the “nature” of property rights and how, given a different cultural view, the idea of individuals possessing parts of the Earth could be seen as strange and unnatural.  Why should our freedom to walk – to be — anywhere be curtailed by the artificial concept of property rights.

The manifestation of property rights seems, in retrospect, to be particularly artificial in those wetlands where we were carving straight lines – human geometry — into the landscape. Straight lines, I’ve often heard, do not exist in nature; they are a creation of our minds, necessitated by our need to, among other things, define borders. Look, for instance, at the border dividing Canada from the United States. Parts of it are “natural,” defined by the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes (what happens if a river border meanders over time?), but then there’s a huge distance through most of the western half of the continent demarked by nothing visible: just the 49th Parallel, an artificial construct derived from geometry that didn’t even exist when the Earth was still thought to be flat.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source: places.designobserver.com

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source: places.designobserver.com

 

 

 

 

 

The property lines we were “staking” in those wetlands, or through the soon to be ex-farms and orchards, were just as artificial. This became especially clear to me when one day we were sent out to confirm the locations of the corners of a new house’s foundation. The numbers weren’t making any sense until we realized that the foundation had been poured in error on the adjacent property. So artificial were the divisions overlaid on the terrain that you couldn’t tell one piece of property from another. (I never did find out how the problem was legally resolved.)

In a recent online thread, an architect inquired how to find a property corner stake that had disappeared underground. Some of the replies were straightforward: presuming the stake to be metal, borrow a metal detector. (At significant survey points, a concrete post with an indent on top is often placed to mark the precise survey point. I always thought it interesting that those markers were called “monuments.” Though they bore no human figure in the sense that a conventional monument might, they surely were monuments to man’s claim to nature.)

 A survey monument. Image source: landsurveyorsunited.com

A survey monument. Image source: landsurveyorsunited.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the stake was wood, though, the answer as much more complicated. First, of course, there’s no such thing as a “wood detector.” Moreover, if the stake was in the soil and had been there for a while, it might have decomposed. What could be more appropriate? Nature devouring – digesting – man’s attempt to define and claim it.

In The Agile City, James Russell notes that during the constitutional convention, there was a debate between Jefferson and Franklin as to whether the Constitution should guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or “life, liberty and property.” In spite of happiness (and Franklin) winning out, property rights in this country have an extraordinary place in law and in our ethos. For some, property equates to happiness, especially in a material society. But perhaps we should refocus on the decision to emphasize happiness versus property. It stands to reason that we would be happier.

Resilience – 2012 Word of the Year?

Even before Sandy, the word ‘resilience’ was on its way to becoming a meme. Then, when a “natural disaster” struck the political and financial powers of New York City – along with countless others – the idea started to take on some urgency.

Ironically, urgency is not a typical approach to resilience. The idea of resilience, in short, is to have the ability to survive and bounce back from “bad things,” whether they be natural or man-made. The reason urgency often doesn’t apply is that, as many have observed, we humans are not well equipped to plan for future possibilities. Especially ones that seem less than imminent or less likely to affect you personally.

Sandy both proved the immediacy of a formerly more or less theoretical threat and showed that it can bring a major American city to its knees. (Katrina’s hit on New Orleans should have accomplished that, but it didn’t, perhaps because NOLA has long lived with the possibility of flooding or because Wall Street is not in New Orleans.) Enough so that resilience is now even a US Senate topic in the form of the STRONG (Strengthening the Resiliency of Our Nation on the Ground) Act introduced post-Sandy by senators from NY, NJ and Massachusetts.

Increasing resilience has long been a reaction to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Building codes are updated; procedures for the aftermath are put in place (though never adequate for a worse-than-the-previous event). They tend, though, to lose out to complacency. In some of the areas devastated by the tsunami that hit Japan, there were century-old stone markers placed after a previous tsunami warning people not to build closer to the shore. But when no tsunamis occurred for a while, the stones were ignored and forgotten. Resilience itself may not be resilient, at least not to the effects of time.

"High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants," the stone slab reads. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point." Source: Huffington Post

“High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the stone slab reads. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.” Source: Huffington Post

 

 

 

 

 

Sandy-type disasters are not likely to fade with time. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos and the like generally don’t have patterns to their frequency or scale. And it used to be that climate disasters like drought or flooding didn’t either. But where the former are truly natural – “acts of God” – we can no longer say the same is true of the latter.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that Sandy or the Midwest drought wouldn’t have occurred were it not for our environmental “sins.” (Hmm, there must be a religion somewhere that believes these events were indeed acts of God in response to those sins.) But without several anthropocenic multipliers, their effects would certainly have been less. And as there is no foreseeable diminishment of those influences (CO2 levels are not falling, marshes and mangroves are not being re-established, shore development is not abating), it’s apparent that, unlike truly natural disasters, the frequency and scale of climate-related disasters will only escalate.

Which brings us back to resilience and the question of how we deal with the prospect of future disasters. The EcoOptimist in me has somewhat mixed feelings about emphasizing resilience. My  reservations derive from two related issues. The first is that the pursuit of resilience can be seen as the equivalent of throwing in the towel and conceding defeat to the inevitability of climate disruption. The second is that, in our binary either-or thought process, an emphasis on resilience is all too likely to occur at the expense of actions and investments that might diminish the causes of climate disruption (thus in fact leading to that same defeat). The costs of adapting cities will surely divert funds from programs to curtail CO2 emissions.

In a recent talk, I divided climate actions into three categories: prevention, mitigation and adaptation. Prevention is the primary path we’ve been pursuing. Though there’ve been some successes (for example, acid rain), there have been far more failures, mostly in the form of opportunities not taken. This is highly unfortunate because, aside from the obvious reasons, virtually every study has shown that prevention is the least costly approach. It’s going to cost a fortune to build seawalls to protect NYC. If we (or had we) spent that kind of money on cutting greenhouse gases, we’d be far ahead of the game – especially since that investment would provide future returns that seawalls don’t.

Storm surge barrier locations proposed for NYC starting in 2004 after a study predicting the flooding from a “superstorm.” Image is from New York Sea Grant.

Storm surge barrier locations proposed for NYC starting in 2004 after a study predicting the flooding from a “superstorm.” Image is from New York Sea Grant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, there’s a fundamental question now of whether it’s too late for prevention. If we somehow found the political resolve, could we actually obviate the need for remedial steps? In other words, could the train of global warming be stopped in time? There is a built in lag factor, a delay between the time greenhouse gases are released and its impacts are felt. So the warming of the next bunch of years or decades is preordained.

Hence the need to turn to the next steps: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is finding ways to diminish the impact (versus preventing it). In the case of flooding events like Sandy and Katrina, mitigation would involve efforts such as preservation or recreation of wetlands that can absorb the water. Even oysters, it turns out, can have a role. In addition to their ability to cleanse polluted waters, oyster beds can also slow tidal surges.

“Oyster-tecture” reefs proposed by Scape/Landscape Architecture for storm surge protection in NY harbor. Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Rising Currents” in 2010.

“Oyster-tecture” reefs proposed by Scape/Landscape Architecture for storm surge protection in NY harbor. Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Rising Currents” in 2010.

 

Mitigation can also involve less natural methods ranging from porous pavement to the further extreme of storm-surge barriers or seawalls. Here in NY, the stage is being set for a classic environmental battle, with a group led by Governor Cuomo promoting construction of a many-billion dollar barrier and opposition led by Mayor Bloomberg questioning the feasibility of a seawall. (The third camp, deniers, holds little sway here.) The Bloomberg camp points out that, even if the barrier worked when needed, it would have very large environmental impacts of its own and would also merely deflect the water elsewhere, perhaps increasing the damage in neighboring areas. Stalemate.

Hierarchically, mitigation is the path necessitated by the failure of prevention. Adaptation, then, is required when both prevention and mitigation fail. Focusing again on Sandy and NYC, adaptation responses range from elevating buildings (or at least their necessary services) to abandonment of low-lying areas. It would include making our electricity supply better able to endure partial interruptions and our transit systems able to stop flooding or at least recover faster (and cheaper) from it. In larger terms, we’d make our food supply less dependent on transport over long distances.  It’s making our human support system more resilient, in short.

It also is pretty much writing off the idea of returning our planet – and us – to some semblance of sustainability. Andrew Zolli, often called a futurist, wrote recently “Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.” The problem with resorting to resilience is that, if the world is still imbalanced, you have to keep moving the goal posts. If we don’t stop global warming, how high will sea levels rise and will the barriers we construct in this part of the century be adequate for the future? Similar questions arise concerning food supplies (or food security, as it’s coming to be known) or, say, infectious diseases spread by climate-driven insect migrations. And those are only some of the impacts that we can try to foresee; how many other side effects might we not have the smarts to anticipate?

EcoOptimism, with its implicit assumption that solutions are available, would have us focus on prevention. It’s much smarter to spend money on ‘front of tailpipe’ solutions — actions that nip the problem before it occurs — than on much more expensive and likely less predictable end of tailpipe reactions. But at this stage in our non-committal response to climate disruption, we’ve almost certainly committed ourselves, by default, to a mix of both positive actions, ideally taken by choice, and necessary involuntary reactions: an all of the above combination of prevention, mitigation and adaptation.

That’s a key point; resilience is undertaken when we realize we have no options left. The seas are going to rise. Crops are going to be disrupted. Storms are going to get stronger. We will have to take responsive measures. (We may call them precautionary, but there’s no “pre” involved. We’re past that.)

Not that resilience is bad. It’s just unfortunate that we’ve come to the point in terms of climate disruption where there’s a strong case to be made for it: for adaptation rather than prevention. We’re talking about building the bomb shelters instead of defusing the bombs. And those bunkers were never going to help much in a post-nuclear war world.

EcoOptimistic solutions are ones that deliver benefits both ecologically and economically, and leave us in a better place than we started. Carbon fees are a perfect example. Assuming the fees are revenue-neutral, we end up with a productive reallocation in which we tax and disincentivize the “bads” while promoting the goods.

Multi-billion dollar seawalls that play catch up with ever-rising oceans are not optimistic endeavors in any sense. Nor is diverting Missouri River waters to the west. These are last ditch efforts that only provide temporary fixes. Zolli writes “Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves.” Resilience, by this description, incorporates both mitigation and adaptation. But it assumes the waves and ignores prevention. I despise metaphors (it always seems there’s a metaphor to prove any point), but it’s the equivalent of adding life preservers rather than making the boat more seaworthy. Or, better yet, altering course to avoid the storm. More life preservers might make sense if you’re already in the storm. We’re probably encountering the outer rings of the storm, and it may or may not be too late to change course. The smart thing to do is choose a new heading, while there are still some choices available, and while holding drills and battening down the hatches just in case.

Here Comes the Stuff

Don’t buy me any gifts for the holiday season.

Not that you were planning to (I assume!), but that’s not the point. I’m “consumed,” as it were, by the quantity of things surrounding me and by emotions like garbage guilt. I look around at most of the stuff in store windows and catalogs, and realize that, not only do I not need most of it, I don’t even want a lot of it. Our place is full. If anything, we need to shed possessions. Clothes we rarely wear. Books we rarely read. (Why is it so hard to get rid of books?) Sentimental things we’ve been given but don’t know where to put. Unthinking things we’ve been given and would rather not find a place for.

I’m happy that we have no hamburger-patty-maker type kitchen appliances, and not only because we don’t have anywhere to store them.

When I look at those things, I can’t help it: I see all the materials and energy that went into making them, and I see the space indefinitely occupied in the landfills that they’ll end up in, often sooner rather than later. That’s what I mean by garbage guilt.

Yeah, I know that’s no way to look at a festive season, or at the well wishes and good intentions of those who give gifts. Bah humbug, Grinch and all that. But really I’m happy with – and prefer to have – those well wishes of my relatives and friends, just without the material encumbrances. Let’s have a meal or go to a movie together. Or send a donation to a charity.

Plus I’m picky and hard to buy for, but that’s another topic entirely.

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr. Seuss

 

 

 

Our apartment is decent sized by NYC standards, though tiny, I’m sure, compared to many a suburban home. It’s certainly much larger than Graham Hill’s Life Edited apartment ten blocks away or many of the other micro digs featured these days in TreeHugger and Inhabitat. But it’s overflowing with stuff, as is our storage space crosstown. Factor in that I’d much rather be a minimalist, and it really doesn’t (or does!) add up.

And this is without venturing into the even more guilt ridden point that there are others who need things far more than I do. So I don’t think I’m being a killjoy in dampening the consumer wave.  (You know, the one that’s supposed to rescue the economy.) What’s the point in having (or being given) something you don’t need – or worse, don’t like? Actually, I think the concept is quite positive.

When you start looking at stuff this way, it quickly becomes a weight on your shoulders. I don’t want go all Buddhist or something on you, but I truly think I’d be happier with fewer material things. I’m not alone in that either. On Grist.org this week, a post is titled “Married father of two seeks Best Christmas Ever. No presents allowed.” But Greg (the author of the post) and I are apparently far from the norm. His idea was deemed so unusual that it warranted not one, but two, film crews and interviews.

Like Greg, I grew up with a mountain of gifts, piled in our case beneath a “Hannukah bush.” (In my teen years, we developed early eco traditions of using the Sunday “Funnies” for wrapping paper and buying live trees, which I would lug out the patio door and plant in the back yard on New Year’s Day – having dug the hole at Thanksgiving.) I remember not being able to sleep on the Christmas Eve when I strongly suspected there was a train set awaiting me on sawhorses in the basement. For theoretically Jewish kids, we made out great. Of course the holidays should be joyous for kids and gifts are part of that. But let it be things with meaning, not plastic throw-aways. I loved that train set and spent many a weekend building elaborate landscapes for it. There were many other gifts, though, whose longevity could be counted in hours.

Fortunately I don’t work in a company where we have Secret Santas. If I did, would it be acceptable for the wrapping to enclose a card acknowledging a charity donation? Or perhaps a gift certificate to a local business? I’d be plenty happy receiving either.

However, if you’re still unconvinced, there are of course things I covet. (That enlightened I’m not.)  But they tend to be expensive and electronic, so I’ll settle for a fun dinner at a local joint.

A Thanksgiving Cornucopia of Wrongest Products

We could almost throw in the 1000 thread count towel and just admit we’ve been insurmountably topped in the Wrongest Product Awards competition.  First came the suggestion from a reader following our nomination of the lighted pillow spied in a local outpost of a chain store. (local chain store = oxymoron?) He noticed the proud and iconic “As Seen on TV” logo and mentioned he’d once survived a visit to the As Seen on TV store. (We didn’t even know there was such a thing. Is everything displayed on TV’s?) For our awards, he said, it was a “target-rich environment.”

Then along comes a post from one of our favorite blogs, Unconsumption, linking to a thoroughly justified lampoon of the Williams-Sonoma catalog. In it one can apparently find such necessities of life as a waffle batter dispenser (in what I can only assume is a related post, Unconsumption points out a suggestion by Real Simple for a free one), an acorn shaped wooden container for twine (they squandered, though, the opportunity to call it a twine cozy), and my own

$29.95 from Williams-Sonoma vs free as suggested by Real Simple via Unconsumption

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

favorite gift for an instant greenie: a “reclaimed rustic chicken coop” that costs $759.95 with a painted chicken on the side or $599.95 without. The site’s author notes “and honestly, if you’re buying a goddamn chicken coop from a catalog, why NOT spring for the painted chicken?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As far as our simply conceding defeat here and now in the search for the Wrongest Product, we prefer to take it as a sign of just how many candidates there are out there.

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

 

Wrongest Product Award nominations are open! Send your nominees to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

Are we scared yet?

Scary things I’ve experienced or heard in the past couple of weeks:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the bright side, I guess, we’ve a re-elected president who actually mentioned climate change (though barely) and, here in NY, a governor and a mayor who are willing to go further than just mentioning it. Whether that will amount to more than lip service is yet to be seen.

Among the many issues this quadfecta of scariness raises is one that starts with the question: is it time to be scared? Once you get past the basic question of whether this truly is scary stuff — the dead canaries before an imminent disaster — it’s actually, I think, a matter of several more complex questions.

The primary one I’d pose asks whether getting societally scared is useful. This is an old question in the environmental movement. Will we be more successful and persuasive if people fear for their lives? Historically this has been true, but there are risks in that approach: backlashes, accusations of crying wolf and/or hysteria and, conversely, the possibility – which seems to have proven the case so far – that there’s no way to create an imminent enough and sustained environmental fear. Climate disasters and oil crises come and go. Most of the country has long moved past Katrina and the BP oil spill, and Sandy is already all but gone from the headlines.

Can one be scared and optimistic, too?

For a blog incorporating the word optimism in its title, a further question is whether fear is antithetical to optimism. I don’t want to get embroiled in language or psychology definitions; certainly one can be afraid while hoping for the best. But EcoOptimism is based on the idea that we neither want nor need to make the eco argument on an “end is nigh” approach. We know that hasn’t worked with previous warning signs. Perhaps it might this time. We don’t, however, know whether there is a tipping point of warnings, in terms of either frequency or scale. In other words, even if we wanted to, we can’t count on it.

Many of us have also been reluctant to make our case hinge on such a tipping point because it’s entirely possible that by the time the public perceives that we’ve reached that point, it will be too late. That fatalism would seem to be even less in keeping with this idea of EcoOptimism, but here’s where I think some clarification is needed. E-O (I’m tired of typing it out) isn’t about a belief that the worst won’t happen. We’ll leave that head-in-the-sand delusiveness to the James Imhofes, Koch brothers and other Friends of Fox.

Rather, the optimism in E-O is the belief that, yes, there are solutions to our environmental issues, but additionally those solutions are also compatible with (or the same as!) solutions to our economic travails AND, furthermore, implementing those solutions will result in improved well-being and improved life styles. This is counter to both the usual notion that environmental solutions are a drag on the economy, and that environmental solutions require sacrifices in the quality of our lives. (Apologies if you’ve been a regular reader of E-O; you’ve heard me say this innumerable times.)

So what this means is you or I can be an EcoOptimist and yet be concerned or even pessimistic about our future. Phew, so in my moments of eco despair  I’m not contradicting myself after all. Nor do we have to be delusional or unrealistic; we can comprehend that we’ve got a nasty situation here, and we may or may not be too late. (More on that in an upcoming post.) The point is that you don’t have to agree that doom is imminent (plus or minus a century or two) in order to pursue the same steps and policies advocated by the Chicken Little greenies when those policies are also beneficial in non-enviro senses…and, oh by the way, might also save humanity. As any number of Jewish moms would say:

What’s not to like?  

What we have here is the environmental analog of Pascal’s Wager. (What’s the term – other than “plate of shrimp” –used to describe when something comes up multiple times in a short period? Pascal’s Wager has done that to me this week.) Blaise Pascal argued that one might as well believe in God because, in doing so, you’d have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s just, he says, the rational thing to do. And so it is with environmental policy.

Is 3D Printing Part of the Path to Sustainability?

Virtually in the shadow of the Unisphere and directly adjacent to a display of actual NASA rockets, the NY Maker Faire set up tents, tables, robots and fire-breathing dragons this past weekend. While the task of grading 50 student essays kept me tied to my desk, I did attend last year’s Faire and marveled at the diversity and inventiveness of the creations.

The whole maker movement – and the NY Faire represents only a tiny fraction of the group which could be said to include DIYers as well – presents, I think, an interesting dilemma in the context of environmentalism.

On the one hand, there are those greenies who promote what has lately come to be called “resilience” – the idea that we need to be able to adapt to and survive in a future that may include major climate changes, resource shortages and food scarcity. One way to do this, they maintain, is by becoming more self-sufficient. This would engender being able to, as individuals or communities, grow more of our own food and make more of the things we need. Those trained in resilience would make good candidates for a remake of Lost or for the current TV series Revolution, set in a near future in which nothing electric works.

Implicit in self-sufficiency is the notion that we should (or must) own fewer things, that we have to become less materialistic. I have no argument with that even though it connotes the unpopular concept of sacrifice and equates environmentalism with giving things up, which might at first be seen as not in keeping with the concepts of EcoOptimism. But as has been observed by many, materialism – once one is past the point of having necessities – does not add to happiness.

Much of Maker Faire, as well as a rapidly growing new industry, now revolves around 3D printing. As you might surmise, 3D printing is the capability of “printing” 3-dimensional objects. The technology is evolving incredibly fast and what, only a few years ago, required a commercial stove-size piece of equipment and a sizeable investment, can now be accomplished, in some cases, by something not much larger than a home microwave and around the same cost as a decent refrigerator. (I’ve no idea why this became a comparison to kitchen appliances.)

(Image source: MakerBot.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, the technology is bringing us that much closer to Star Trek “replicators.” One can now input a 3D model computer file instructing the machine (the popular available one is called a MakerBot) to print a piece of intricate jewelry made of stainless steel, a replacement part for your car – or a recipe. It’s not quite that advanced yet – don’t expect a soufflé – but just a few years ago, the only things you could output were objects made of plaster-like materials. The media – the “ink” – available now includes metals and even organic matter to make meat.

Clothing aside, I could see this shot from Star Trek as an ad in a mid-century (20th, that is) magazine. (Image source: 3dprinterreviews.blogspot.com/2011/04/star-trek-replicator-roots.html)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is great EcoOptimism potential in this disruptive, as it’s termed, technology. It will enable us to make virtually anything anywhere on demand. That funny shape screwdriver you need to open your iPhone? Well, you’ll no longer have to special order it from somewhere halfway around the world. (Predictably, one of the major markets for 3D printed objects is iPhone accessories.) You will download the 3D file (or if you’re really handy, create it yourself) and then print it out perhaps in your garage or your home office, or if it’s a larger piece than your printer can handle, have it sent to a Kinkos-like service in town. Resources will be saved (stores wouldn’t have to stock – or overstock — things), less transport energy will be incurred, more things may be repaired rather than thrown out. And the whole process of design and fabrication should become more accessible and egalitarian.

But there’s a potential conflict here between the environmentalist goal of being less materialistic and the increased ease with which we’ll be able to make things. That conflict is analogous to the non-appearance of the predicted paperless office. The reality turned out to be that it was so easy to print things, in multiple drafts and widespread copies, that people ended up going through vast reams of paper even more than before.

Suppose, in our 3D printer world, you feel like you want a new salad server set for your dinner party tonight? Just print one out. Want a different color earring to match your (newly printed?) hat? You might have it printed and on your ear in an hour or so.

In fact, MakerBot is opening a store near me in few weeks. Will it be full of things I didn’t know I wanted? Will it enable me to make things that I couldn’t previously afford because it would have been too expensive as a one-off? Is that a good thing or bad? (Hint: it’s both.)

An architect friend of mine, with whom I often have, ahem, political differences, says the most important people around are “Makers of Things.” The service economy? Not for him. Unsurprisingly, I’m not convinced he’s right. For one thing, I’m not sure that self-sufficiency is that great a goal. We’re far past the point, barring apocalyptic events, of returning to rural agrarian living. It’s more likely that we will see major increases in the costs of energy and transportation, to the point where we will choose or be forced to make changes in how and where we make things. 3D printing raises the possibility of removing much of the transportation costs and perhaps even encouraging making things differently in different parts of world (as we used to before globalization).

But is it a problem that it will also make it easier to satisfy immediate desires, to make or buy things as we, perhaps impulsively decide we “need” them? We already shop and acquire too impulsively. Perhaps 3D printers need to come with an admonishing voice that says, in a HAL-9000 tone: “Just what do you think you’re making, Dave?”

What’s an architect to do?

Some not-so-startling news – at least to those of us directly affected – was released last week by the American Institute of Architects.  The gist of the sobering report: architectural firm billings have dropped 40% since 2008 and more than 28% of positions have disappeared.

(We always, by the way, seem to be one of the professions hardest hit by economic cycles. In a previous period, I recall a newspaper headline that went something to the effect of “In This Recession, Be Glad You’re Not an Architect.” I couldn’t find that despondent headline in Google just now. But, searching the New York Times, I turned up apparently similar articles from other downturns: “Recession is Ravaging Architectural Firms” (1992), “Many Architects Are Losing Jobs in the Recession” (1983), among others.”)

 

 

 

 

The situation assessed more bluntly at planetizen.com

I brought this up in my return visit on Curtis B. Wayne’s radio show “Burning Down the House” this past Sunday (archived here) in which we were discussing ecodesign and economics. While our larger topics concerned the origins of suburban sprawl and how that subsequently became the “American Way of Life,” I used those statistics as a segue to talk about what it is that architects and other designers can or should be doing in a future that is likely to preclude making things – buildings and objects – on the same material scale as in the previous century.

On the face of it, there’s a conflict of interest in a designer advocating a less materialistic world. Are we, in effect, talking ourselves out of jobs? (You know, the jobs that don’t exist in the first place….) Certainly we have to spurn McMansion commissions, or at least urge our less eco-minded clients to adhere to the advice Sarah Susanka provides in the Not So Big House. And it’s rather hard to justify designing yet another chair or teapot when the world is not exactly lacking in those.

But – and here comes the EcoOptimist’s sunny side of the storm – architects and designers are particularly well suited to the imminent task of advocating for and persuasively cajoling us into the “better place” that can be the outcome of our dual eco crises. As I’ve mentioned previously, designers are, virtually by definition, optimists; “Designers look at a thing or a problem and immediately start imagining what could be.” And as my blog’s alter ego might say, “problems, have we got problems.” So that optimism has plenty of targets to address.

Designers, obviously, also have to be visionaries. How else to see to possibilities amidst the economic and ecological rubble? Or to envision potential utopias where others fear post-apocalyptic dystopia? Accompanying that, most designers have the ability, developed through years of sometimes contentious client and public agency meetings, to communicate their visions. (One hopes, of course, that they are not so good at communicating that they are able to white- or green-wash a less than visionary idea. I’m looking at you, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Plan Voisin and Broadacre City, as enticing as they may have looked at the time, did not help.)  Environmentalism and ecodesign have long-standing PR and image problems, with most people connoting the movements with personal sacrifice. Designers, working in teams with others as they often do in their projects, can both devise positive solutions and create imagery that allows the public to envision how our lives would be affected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s often been stated that architects are “Renaissance men” (apologies for the gender specificity), with their endeavors encompassing math, physics, sociology, psychology – and sometimes, for those designing private residences, couples counseling – as well as, of course, the expected 2D and 3D arts. This generalist background, which unfortunately is becoming less the norm in architectural education, is necessary for dealing with complex, multidisciplinary issues in a systems manner. Specialists, on the other hand, are not usually equipped to synthesize the factors outside their expertise; consciously or subconsciously they focus on what they are familiar with. (Old medical joke: What’s the difference between a general practitioner and a specialist? One treats what you have; the other thinks you have what he treats.)

Here, then, is the upside of that AIA survey. Yes, conventional building and object design, along with their attendant jobs, are going away. That’s a good thing in terms of environmental solutions. Turns out it’s also a good thing for architects and designers, as well as the world at large, in that their abilities can provide a much-needed service as we all search for and develop those solutions.

A post in The Atlantic Cities about the AIA survey asks: “Where are all the out-of-work architects going? Possibly to jobs in real estate and city government. And that could be good news for everyone.” In past recessions, architects, especially recent grads, have often found their careers re-routed. Coincidentally, a few years back, the AIA embarked on an initiative to encourage architects to run for public office, observing “architects learn creative problem solving and other skills that can make them effective community leaders.” The emphasis there is on architects’ strengths in listening and consensus building. Fair enough and important enough, but the potential goes beyond that I think, to employing those multidisciplinary, generalist skills mentioned above into a – and I use the word hesitantly – holistic synthesis.

So designers have both an opportunity and a responsibility to redirect their talents. For reasons of both necessity and choice, we designers need to apply ourselves to developing and communicating our constructed futures. We need the work, and it’s good work to be doing.

The EcoOptimist’s Alter Ego — More News of Impending Doom

[EcoOptimism is not blind. We have our moments of despair. Occasionally, we’ll post a story that tries its damndest to ruin our day raise the alarum.] 

The Interwebs have been flooded, as it were, with articles and posts about the record melting of the Arctic icecap. In case you’ve missed the “deluge” (sorry), here are a couple of links – both from the respected site ThinkProgress.org — along with some bullet points added by me to emphasize the significance of this:

‘Astounding’ Record Arctic Ice Melt May Make Weather Extremes More Likely

Earth’s Attic Is On Fire: Arctic Sea Ice Bottoms Out At New Record Low

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extent of Arctic sea ice, at a record low on Sept 16. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center via ThinkProgress.

This is not the same issue as the previous post from the EcoOptimist’s alter ego on the melting of the somewhat nearby Greenland ice cap, but is in many ways more insidious in the feedback loops it creates. It’s several-fold:

  • As the ice cap melts, it reflects less heat and, because ocean water is dark colored, absorbs much more heat, which in turn causes more melting … and you can see where this is going.
  • But it’s more than that because the warmer air over the arctic causes changes in the jet stream and contributes to an increase in extreme weather and “climate events” like drought, flooding and extreme temperatures.
  • The melting ice cap is also theorized to disrupt the Gulf Stream as colder, fresh water infiltrates the North Atlantic, but you all knew that, of course, if you saw “The Day After Tomorrow.”
  • And don’t forget that the melting Arctic makes drilling for the oil under it easier. It’s another “positive” feedback loop: melting allows drilling, which allows more burning of fossil fuels, which creates more warming, which….

The EcoOptimist’s first – -and very superficial – reaction is that we need to change the phrase “positive feedback loop” into something less, well, positive.

The more substantial and useful reaction is that environmentally frightening news serves to emphasize still more the need for optimism. The Alter Ego provides the stick and the EcoOptimist brings the carrot (organic, non-GMO, of course).

We return you now to EcoOptimism.

Optimism = Possibility

Can it be coincidence that, only two months after the launch of the EcoOptimism blog, Ode Magazine has changed its name to The Intelligent Optimist?

Uh, yeah, it’s coincidence. Much as I’d love to think we’ve already had that kind of influence, they’ve been around a lot longer than we have, and co-founder Jurriaan Kamp writes about the name change here. He relays a discussion about the renaming he had with Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, in which Zander says “I think of intelligent optimism as a discipline, the rigorous discipline to stay in the state of mind of possibility.”

As I write this, their new website is not yet fully launched and the “about” section is labeled “Under Construction.” That may be unintentionally appropriate given Zander’s point about possibilities: “The disciplined intelligent optimist says, ‘It’s too early to judge,’ and asks, ‘What’s next?’”

Possibility is always under construction.

But we can check back with OdeWire’s “about” page (OdeWire is their online component), which says “…OdeWire is always looking at the most authoritative news sources for stories that focus on solutions rather than problems, and on positive changes rather than negative ones.”

Not surprisingly, given the related names, there is a strong parallel between Ode/The Intelligent Optimist’s mission and ours.

EcoOptimism seeks to show how we can come out the other side of our concurrent ECOlogical and ECOnomic crises (ECOoptimism, get it?) in a better place than we started; that not only will the planet be healthier, but we, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a species, can feel fulfilled and be more prosperous.

Our emphasis on optimism doesn’t mean we are always optimistic. We see clouds as well as silver linings. (I’ve never quite understood the phrase ‘every cloud has a silver lining.’ Wouldn’t it mean that we see the silver outer lining rather than the storms awaiting us inside, meaning things look better than they are? But whatevs, as ‘the kids’ are saying these days.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regardless of occasional digressions from optimism (‘reality checks’ some might call them), it strikes me that optimism is the only productive route. In terms of environmentalism, the alternative pessimistic route would be adaptation – acknowledging that the sky is indeed falling and we’d better strengthen our roofs.

But does EcoOptimism imply that we not pursue adaptation, or its more positive variation: resilience? Not at all. That would put it in the category of one of my nemeses: the false dilemma. (Note to self: create comic book villain named “False Dilemma.”) We can – and should – work on both prevention or mitigation and adaptation or resilience. The vastly preferable path, in terms of both cost and disruption (“disruption” would be an optimistic/euphemistic description of the potential perils), is prevention. But it may well be that we are past the point of prevention of some ecological disasters. For instance it may be that climate disruption has already been set in motion and, therefore, it would be foolhardy to ignore the steps necessary to lessen the impact. Perhaps there are responses available there, too that are in the vein of EcoOptimism – adaptations that also improve our economy and lives, only without the ecological benefits.

The other appeal of EcoOptimism is its very nature. Fear is usually a great motivator, but it hasn’t been working here, probably because the things to be afraid of are too abstract. We aren’t directly experiencing them or have trouble ascribing seemingly isolated events to a larger picture that we’d rather not see.

Fear motivates in crises like war or epidemics or severe weather (as opposed to climate) where the danger can be felt or easily anticipated, or where we have experienced it before. Ecological disruption falls into none of those categories and that means we need a different motivator. If not fear, then the motivator needs to be desire, which is where the purpose of EcoOptimism comes in.

Optimism is also a nearly genetic part of being a designer. (Non-designers are welcome; it’s not an exclusive gene pool.) Designers look at a thing or a problem and immediately start imagining what could be. Pretty much by definition, that’s optimism. It also means that, in the eyes and minds of designers, things are always “under construction.” There are always possibilities.