Why Sustainable Design is Unsustainable
ed.4/8/07 4/20/07 5/16/07  pf henshaw   id-ATsynapse9.com   

The basic problem is that efficiency gains and new technologies for doing more with less quickly run out and growth impacts multiply, so if we use our last way of expanding the resources of the earth to perpetuate growth we'll have a completely overwhelming problem when we run out of options for accommodating it.   Of course, it doesn't answer all questions to begin raising a whole new question like this.   The fact that the present plan assumes that efficiency gains get easier in the future when literally all understanding of natural and man made processes is that once you're looking for efficiencies they're running out, is the real revelation about our world as a whole we should pay very close and prompt attention to.

Here's the paragraph I added to Wikipedia on "Mitigation of global warming", referring to the plan to continue growth and reducing CO2:
A valid criticism of this strategy is that it offers only temporary symptomatic relief, allowing the continual expansion of the growth economy to a point where compensating for its impacts with efficiencies and new technologies will not be possible. World economic energy efficiency is presently improving at about half the rate of world economic growth (US DOE World Trends), and there's no reason to think the thermodynamic limits of efficiency do not apply to the efficiency of natural and human services just because their measures don't have comparable units. Both common sense and the consistent pattern that all technologies and efficiencies are quickly exhausted (technology lifecycle. `.) indicate that relying on technical fixes to allow continually exploding economic expansion is faulty. One alternative would be to learn how to mature the economic systems following the example of maturing natural growth systems.


A Post to AIA COTEnviron. Forum
Real good reasons to change our way of thinking

All,  Sustainable design is not sustainable because growth is not sustainable, and because what we're doing now is relieving symptoms of growth as they continue to get worse.  Learning to read the difference between growth and decay tells the real story.  Ask anyone if growth multiplies real impacts. Either it's a trick answer, they don't know or they say yes.  I'm not being critical of the creative healing work of sustainability or the personal sacrifices for the earth that feel good, though we always knew they needed to be just a beginning. The problem now is that instead of moving further toward a 'deeper green', the sustainable design movement is back sliding into promoting growth, drifting away from representing the long term interests of the earth.   It's 'nice' to think of switching to low impact technologies when you see impacts on the earth rising, but the real problem is that that, and the response to global warming using that same principle, are sure to fail because following that principle impact growth is slowed, but still multiply.  

This is the hardest and most rewarding problem of sustainable design, earning our image of being self-critical and providing clear headed leadership for the future, taking responsibility for shaping what mankind does after the joyride of exponential growth. The fact that growth produces unmanageable excesses has nothing particularly to do with the skills or the intentions of the people involved.    The growth system was built when mankind was a small player on a big stage, and we never faced it's clear faulty design of having an infinite appetite for expansion.  We now need to run out of options for avoiding the problem before we run out of options for correcting it.   The growth problem, how to switch to a maturing growth system, has all the examples of successful natural systems for us to base our solutions on.

To affect the core problem, we also really need to understand why what we've been doing isn't enough. Improving efficiency, our main success other than promising a better quality of life, does reduce the rate of growing economic impacts, but total impacts continue to grow exponentially. We've been in denial about that. If you saw the slides before, look at them again. You can see how the relation really works by reading the curves:    
Growth & Efficiency 8 1/2x11 .jpg,  
Growth  & Efficiency ten slide power point- 3meg   
.ppt reader download if you need it

The slides show demonstrative US D.O.E graphs of the world trends of growth and energy efficiency, and some notes on how to read them as natural systems. These are such large aggregates that the underlying principle, that efficiency is available like a non-renewable resource, comes clear. Maybe self-critical work like this isn't found in popular journals because none of them want to be the first to mention it. I don't know. Pass it on if you think it should be mentioned.

What would actually be effective in changing the growth system has to do with the curious general practice of multiplying money without increasing *our work*. In case you wondered where that multiplying money comes from, it comes from multiplying the *work of the earth for us*, of course, and that's what's unsustainable. I grant that you do need to ask the right questions, and automatic investment growth may be lots of things, but none of them are sustainable in a physical world, if only because of running into delays in fixing the multiplying excesses. That's the real millennium bug, endless mounting change orders, and we have to fix it. It doesn't need to be instantaneous, but there's no reason to delay. It seems that people can opt out simply by spending their returns on investments. In any event, being 'the generation that changes' is going to be hard if we can’t talk about and don't deal with the main things that need to change. And then, in case it matters, who would you expect to notice an endless change order multiplier if not a detail oriented architect and environmentalist anyway?!

If you know my work at all, you know my solutions are both simple and sophisticated, like my observing that much of this can be understood with common knowledge, just trained a little for reading curves as natural systems. What I suggested to one friend who asked what to do, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, was to begin changing the world by studying how nature develops change in everything. When your house is on fire may seem an odd time to study the chemistry of combustion, but that's what I definitely recommend, so you appreciate the problem at least. That's where this comes from anyway. Economies are complex natural systems, a surprise to some but true.

Every sustainable natural system goes through this very same transition from growth, and does so near the beginning of it's life. It can't be impossible for us to do it then, and nature makes it look simple. Our ability to do it seems mainly lacking recognition of the problem. I think it's a real choice, and I'd like to be part of something that works. It depends more on you, though, and whether you think we should blink and leave it to the next guy, or apply some creativity. There are bound to be bumps since it will catch so many people by surprise, but its also not a good thing to go quietly about.   And hey, it could be fun!