Monthly Archives: July 2012

Sleeper No More

I promised there’d be shorter and sometimes less weighty posts intermixed with oh-so-profound lengthier ones. So at the risk of undermining EcoOptimism’s high principles, here’s the first:

Not sure if it technically qualifies as EcoOptimism, but this is definitely optimism of some sort. (Well, the Woody Allen sort, which means it must incorporate at least some undertones of irredeemable pessimism.) The house from Sleeper has been renovated and updated with lots of high tech goodies, some of which address energy efficiency.

The house was sold in foreclosure in 2010, for less than half of its 2006 purchase price, so I guess we should go easy on the optimism aspect.

At the very least, it makes me want to rewatch Sleeper.

Bouncing Back, or Elastic Demand: The Historical Parallels Between Rubber and Renewable Energy

If history truly does repeat itself, then perhaps we can take a chapter from World War II and fruitfully apply it to the 21st century. At the outset of hostilities, even before 1941, it became clear that the military had a significant supply problem with a particular material needed for mobility and other uses such as wire insulation: rubber.

Rubber had been originally sourced from rubber trees in the Amazon. (The rubber, or latex, is tapped from the trees in sort of the way that maple syrup is harvested.)

Harvesting latex from a rubber tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With the development of the automobile, demand for rubber soared and a vicious Brazilian industry rapidly grew. But by the late 19th century, rubber seeds had been successfully exported to Southeast Asia and, from then on, the Brazilian sourcing of rubber declined dramatically from basically 100% to, by 1940, merely1.3%.

Playing the national security card

Which brings us to the start of WWII. The US was dependent on Asia for its rubber supply, and wars on two oceans cut off 90% of the supply. Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rubber Reserve Company, forcing the major rubber companies to work together and all but conscripted the scientists and engineers in the field to develop reliable synthetic sources of rubber. That source: petroleum.

Germany had, out of necessity, actually produced synthetic rubber in WW1, but it was much more expensive than natural rubber and, therefore, manufacturing ceased when that war ended. Now, there was an immediate dire need for the US to advance that research and put it into cost-effective production.

The wartime effort prevailed (along with such conservation measures as lowered speed limits to decrease wear on tires) and by the end of the war the US was producing almost as much rubber as it had been importing.


Manufacture of natural rubber versus synthetic rubber. Source:


It’s not a perfect environmental parable since natural rubber was displaced by synthetic rubber, dependent on petroleum supplies that eventually had to be imported. The synthetic rubber manufacturing process, too, is not exactly a clean industry. (Not that natural rubber harvesting, as conventionally practiced, was all that sustainable either.) The point, though, is that the US recognized a severe problem of national security and determined that the response had to be stimulation of domestic industry. An all-out effort was initiated and, five years later, amidst wartime conditions, the problem was essentially solved.

The new rubber?

Ironically, seventy years later, it’s the petroleum whose supply is threatened. This time, though, it’s not only rubber production that is in jeopardy; it’s our entire industrial base as well as our lifestyles, that “American Way of Life.” And what’s our national response? Let’s frantically grab onto a diminishing supply of increasingly expensive and increasingly dirty fossil fuel sources and perhaps postpone the problem by a few years while doing nothing to address the core problem. And in going that route, those core problems become even harder and more painful to remedy – if indeed remedies are then still possible — later.

If we had the leadership we had in the 1940’s, it would be a different picture. Yes, speed limits would be reduced to conserve fuel (as they were, but only temporarily, in the seventies). But moreover, we’d see a national effort – one akin to a wartime effort, not our current haphazard and intermittent programs – to ensure our national security by simultaneously decreasing demand for fossil fuels and developing alternative sources.

The synthetic rubber initiative in the 1940s was a matter of life or death. Without alternative rubber production, the war may well have turned out differently. Is the need now for renewable energy significantly different? As then, we face endangered supply lines. On top of that, the supply currently endangered is itself finite and disappearing rapidly (we’ve used up 500 million years of accumulated fossil fuel in less than two centuries) and its usage is creating issues both local and global, and threatening our health, our food supplies and perhaps our survival.

Hubbert’s Curve (above, source: Wikipedia Commons) is a common depiction of imminent peak oil. But perhaps more illuminating and dramatic is this graph (below) from one of my favorite geek blogs, Do the Math. Over millions of years, the Earth slowly accumulated a stockpile of fossil fuels. We suddenly started extracting them only a century or two ago, and are using them up far faster than the planet can replace them. “Blowing through our inheritance” is what Do the Math author, Tom Murphy, calls it.


The enemy is different. It’s not as easily identifiable or as obviously evil as countries attacking us (leaving aside Middle East politics and terrorism), but it is at least as menacing. Our way of life is endangered not, as George W. Bush said, by action to fix a combined strategic, economic and ecological problem, but by inaction. Perhaps the big difference is that, at the end of this “war” effort, the outcome is not merely survival, but our flourishing: better, healthier and happier lives on a cleaner, healthier planet. Not acting puts everything at risk. In acting, on the other hand, there is very little to lose, and everything to gain. It’s the consummate win-win-win scenario and shying away from it is not merely foolhardy and shortsighted, but in fact unpatriotic.

So our role models are petroleum-based rubber and the atomic bomb?

Many say we need a contemporary Manhattan Project to develop renewable energy. Perhaps the concurrent rubber project, with its industry focus and strategic parallels, is a better model.

A big, and positive, difference is that, while there was really only one possible substitute for imported rubber, there are quite a few potential substitutes for petroleum. We use oil both as an energy source and as a basis for synthetic materials (like, ahem, rubber). However, we can generate energy from a number of renewable sources, and there are alternatives – existing or in development — to making plastics and other materials from petroleum.


Produce packaged, appropriately enough, in bioplastic. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The question might be: how do we create the political environment, as WWII did for rubber, for renewable energy? Preferably, without a war. The strategic importance argument is there, but it hasn’t taken hold in the imperative way that synthetic rubber did. And if I am to be consistent in favoring the carrot over the stick, the demand should not arise from fear – though it’s a helluva motivator – but from desire. What’s needed to engage the next Manhattan or Rubber Project?

The Story of Change/Changing the Story

In the realm of happy coincidences, “The Story of Change,” the newest project from the folks who first brought us “The Story of Stuff,” was released the day after we launched the EcoOptimism blog.

For those who haven’t watched “The Story of Stuff,” I heartily recommend the twenty minute explanation of how our consumerist world works. You may find it a bit simplistic or a bit overbearing, but you won’t find it overly complicated. Or wrong. And you may come out a different type of person, what the narrator Annie Leonard calls a citizen rather than a consumer.

The “hedonic treadmill” illustrated in The Story of Stuff.

Upcoming posts will focus more on issues of consumerism and materialism. But “The Story of Change,” the newer video by Leonard, provides an excuse for me to explain a bit more what some of the goals of EcoOptimism are about.

Actually, let’s start with what it’s not about. Though I’m sure there will be exceptions, in general we’re not concentrating here on the bad news and the guilt. You can find that in plenty of places elsewhere. Rather, EcoOptimism looks more, well, optimistically and positively at the great win-win-win possibilities. Win #1 here is the economy. Win #2 is the environment and win #3 (never mind the order) is us, in the form of bettered, happier lives. And most significantly, these are not in opposition to each other, they are complementary. Down with the false dichotomy! (OK, so it’s not the catchiest of slogans.)

The main point of “The Story of Change” is in how change occurs, and the fact is it doesn’t just occur; it is made to occur. By people. In groups and individually. Leonard’s goal is to rally us and to show the various ways we can help make it occur by being investigators, communicators, builders, resisters, nurturers, and networkers.

From The Story of Change

EcoOptimism is a little of all those things, but mostly a communicator. Leonard observes that the path to change may not be clear, and she concludes “The Story of Change” with a quote from Martin Luther King: “Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.” But we architects want to design things and I keep asking what that staircase looks like. What does that combined ecological-economic future look and feel like?

A growing number of folks are talking about what’s needed. They use terms like carbon-pricing, steady state economy, degrowth and externalities (and part of what we’re doing here is taking the jargon out of the picture, especially where the jargon works against the objective). EcoOptimism discusses a lot of these topics, but where I hope it will be different is in helping to visualize – to virtually experience in advance – what life in this win-win-win world can be.

Because that, I think, is where the case can be made and the argument won. An economist can go on and on about why we need carbon or congestion pricing, but unless that scenario viscerally grabs us, it’s so much verbiage. A planner can lament suburban sprawl, but so long as suburbia and cars are still seen as the idyllic American lifestyle, fighting it is going to be an uphill, probably unwinnable, battle.

The irony of the vaunted “American way of life” of commuting from detached houses in suburbia is that it was created by exactly the kind of government intervention and social policy that conservatives now decry. Without tax deductions for mortgages and without the massive investment in highways and bridges (accompanied by disinvestment in mass transit), the great suburban exodus would not have occurred. Top image from GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

It’s hard to comprehend that the Interstate Highway System was begun just 56 years ago. Before then, commuting was unheard of unless there happened to be a passenger rail line nearby. Note that per the map title, this massive program, which literally paved the way for suburban expansion, was promoted on national defense grounds. Image source: Wikipedia Commons

As great and important as “The Story of Change” is, for me it still falls short in the same way that so many of the current books on growth do. Prosperity Without Growth, The End of Growth, Plenitude, eearth, et. al. all make great cases for the “new economy,” but leave me wondering how we get from here to there. And what life “there” looks like. Even if we all became advocates as Annie Leonard suggests – and don’t get me wrong, I think we should – most people will need something they can positively relate to. The concept of the new economy is still too abstract and, for many, frightening in the changes it engenders. It will take images and stories that are far more palpable (as well as appealing) to shake generations of cultivated, and therefore arguably false, ideals. We need to find those images and stories, or create them where they don’t yet exist.

I’ve no doubt “the truth is out there.” What we need to do is bring it here.

What is EcoOptimism?

A prime rule of blogging, I hear, is to keep your posts short. I’m about to start my blog by breaking that rule. I won’t do it again. I promise. Maybe. But please bear with me this once (or twice).

Who you calling an optimist?

I don’t want to go all Jimmy Carter on you, but we appear to face a malaise. And not only because I have a thing about cardigan sweaters. We seem, it’s tempting to say, to have fallen into a rut from which we can neither push nor pull ourselves forward, nor can we escape the muddy side walls by reversing out. We have a twin breakdown. Both our economic engine and our ecological source of sustenance have encountered roadblocks. And the problem, according to some, is that the detour signs point in opposite directions.

Ruts, breakdowns, roadblocks, detours. (Let’s not dwell on the observation that that entire opening paragraph is built on metaphors rooted in the automobile, which is arguably a proximate source of both our economic and environmental issues.) Pretty pessimistic terms.

No wonder. When you look at the statistics – whether you’re talking about growth, unemployment, climate change, income disparity, water scarcity, happiness, famine, or a valium-demanding number of other bars and graphs – the situation looks pretty dire, beyond the ability of any political leadership, let alone any individual, to solve. It leads, on the one hand, to the headline of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Going Green But Getting Nowhere

On the other hand, maybe it’s all in our minds. Fed Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, said recently that it’s not really so bad and consumers are irrationally depressed. (Yeah, like the market is more rational?) It’s part of his job, though, to soothe the financial beasts and be the economic cheerleader-in-chief.

But that’s not how I meant to begin this blog
Let me start again, because a discussion on a topic called EcoOptimism really shouldn’t begin on a pessimistic note. I’ve no interest in adding to the end-of-the-world-is-nigh literature (though I do have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic B-movies). That admonishing approach – the one that also tells us that it’s all our fault for having no self-control or foresight or sense of something greater than our individual selves — strikes me as, at best, unhelpful. At worst, it’s counterproductive, alienating (if not angering) those who we need to enlist.

Perhaps more significantly, it points us away from solutions that, far from entailing economic collapse and far from endangering the “American way of life,” will bring us closer to goals and lifestyles that we (and countless philosophers, religious leaders, even politicians) have long sought.

And with those solutions we’ll create at least two things to hand down to our descendants: a better sense of who we are along with what it means to live a human life (sorry, those constitute one thing) and, well, a future. That’s because — at the risk of returning to the negativism I just spurned — if we screw up the environment, the main victim will be humanity. The Earth, in the long run, will be just fine. It just won’t include us, at least not in anything resembling our current forms of civilization or comfort.

There I go again. Pessimism. Hyperbole. (Actually, I’d dispute the latter accusation.) Stick to the topic, man.

Preface (the part that should have been above)

The amount of time, ink and electrons devoted to environmental topics has grown faster than a fertilizer-fed algae bloom. Aside from the daunting task of wading through the mountains of studies and opinions (and counter-opinions), an almost equal problem has been the chicken-little doom-and-gloom tone that seems to prevail, especially within the mass media. The result of this emphasis too often has meant that pursuing the solutions – when solutions are proposed — requires believing in a future, as-yet-intangible threat (sea levels will rise, oil will run out, but not today) and being willing to make undesirable changes to avoid it.

So, what is EcoOptimism?
The premise of EcoOptimism is that this is neither a viable nor productive approach, that most people do not respond well to being told they must change or have to make sacrifices. Sitting atop that is “green fatigue.” In my talks and teaching as well as general conversations, the topic of oversaturation, along with that fear that the problems are too big and therefore unsolvable, keeps dogging the potential for real solutions.

EcoOptimism takes a different approach, seeking 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. It breaks the presumption, the false dichotomy, that environmentalism is at odds with our well-being and our happiness. It posits instead that we can eat our cake and have it, too.

OK, maybe that’s not the best way to put it, especially since we’re probably going to be talking about topics like the benefits of consuming less and of eating better.

It’s not enough to say there are solutions (though it’s a good start). We need solutions that are desirable; not solutions that are adopted only because they are necessary. I firmly believe there are futures that simultaneously save the environment that nurtures us while allowing, indeed helping, us to flourish as individuals and as the species homo sapiens.

EcoOptimism will attempt to cut through the negativism implied in so much of the environmental movement and explore the flip side – the opportunities that are presented by what appear to be constraints. The hope is that we’ll help enable a movement forward rather than backward, to a win-win solution in which both the environment and humanity are not only sustained, but can thrive.

And just how are we going to go about this save-the-world blog? (Yeah, yet another blog…)
The first answer is a hedge: I’m not totally sure yet. But I’m not supposed to say that.

A more useful answer is that I foresee this endeavor having two parts. One will be a vehicle (I just can’t get away from car-related terminology) to point out what others are doing and saying, along with a bit of soapbox-mounting. Not rabble-rousing so much as encouraging. (I guess I can’t really call it cheerleading since I accused Bernanke of doing just that.)

The other will be a conversation. We’re looking at questioning some of our fundamental assumptions (like ‘growth is good’) and, in some cases, creating new visions of our lives. No one person could have the breadth of knowledge to figure out the interwoven paths to and the implications for re-imagining the ways we work, live, eat, consume, travel and recreate. There are both too many subject areas involved and too many variations on the theme homo sapiens. (There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.) For that reason, EcoOptimism is looking to crowd-source our future(s). The optimist-in-chief (that’s me) will occasionally launch topics and then look to YOU for responses. We’re looking for input that is open-minded and constructive, future-oriented yet enticing in the present.

We seek a Future By Design, rather than a Future By Default.

About the optimist-in-chief:

David Bergman runs an architectural practice that emphasizes the transparent inclusion of sustainable/eco design principles. David is also the founder of Fire & Water, a designer/manufacturer of eco lighting. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and an adjunct assistant professor at Parsons the New School for Design. He is a frequent contributor to His book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, was published in 2012 by Princeton Architectural Press.