Tag Archives: Carrying Capacity

The Heart of Resilience

Is the search for sustainable dwelling a journey of the mind or of the heart?  Is it about tangible solutions like PV panels and wind turbines or a state being?  In my own journey I’ve come to distrust the use and abuse of the concept sustainable and move in the direction of ecological resilience.  In the process I’ve come to distrust government, corporations, political parties, broadcast media and even large scale top down environmental movements.  It’s clear to me that as resource limits push back on the myth of progress, that the laws of overshoot and collapse will change the course of human history and set us on a entirely new path.  Whether that path leads us in a positive or negative direction will be determined by the arc and development of our consciousness and not by politics and markets.   We face a choice between an awakening of who we are and our place in the earth’s ecosystem and business as usual.  Essentially a choice between love and fear.

The following peakmoment.tv interview with Bill Wilson is an example of choosing the former.

Footprints, Limits, and Human Carrying Capacity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about footprints.  I live in the Rocky Mountains near the Pike National Forest and often hike or ride my horse in the forest.  Counting my wife and neighbors about a dozen of us tramp through the woods on a regular basis.  We mostly followed faint game trails that over the years have become miles of well established two foot wide tracks through the Ponderosa, Lodgepole and Aspen environments of the adjacent public lands.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small footprint.  A slight loss of carbon sink and still too faint to cause any erosion damage.  Judging by the animal prints and scat, it’s safe to say that that the local fauna also make frequent use of our primitive highway system.  Still, however faint, our impact is still visible, clear evidence of our small tribes foot and hoof fall on the local flora.

Out of the forest, back in the neighborhood, our footprint grows ever larger.  Our homes cast their own footprint on the land.  The roads that serve those homes cast an exponentially larger footprint.  In Colorado, the electricity that serves those homes casts a carbon footprint of 1.8 lbs per kwhr and most of us contribute addition carbon with propane furnaces and supplemental wood heating.  We do a bit better with water.  We draw water from shallow wells that tap into the first water flowing out of the eastern slope of the continental divide and we return 85% of the that water to the local aquifer through our septic systems.   When you factor in some of our 100 mile round trip commutes to Denver and the vast global supply chain that delivers pineapples to our households in mid winter, you begin to just get a glimmer of the immense footprint that our small mountain tribe casts upon the world.

The concept of “footprint” used as a way to measure humanity’s impact on the earth first gained traction in the 1990’s when Rees and Wackernagel introduced the idea of “ecological footprint”.  The ecological footprint was and is an attempt to quantify the amount of land required to supply the world’s population with what they consume.  Recently we have added “carbon footprint” and “water footprint” to our lexicon ecological metrics.

Footprints are a very helpful way to visualize environmental impacts. In essence they are direct or indirect references to limits or to the concept of limits.  They help me to frame my mountain tribe and it’s forest tracks within the context of the 6.7 billion human inhabitants of earth hell-bent for growth and the pursuit of happiness in a closed and limited eco-system.

One way to think about limits is through the concept of carrying capacity.  For example, the carrying capacity of a biological species in a closed environment like an island is the population size of the species the environment can be sustained indefinitely, given the food, water and other natural resources available.  The concept of human carrying capacity is a bit more complex since one has to factor in the possibility of leveraging technology to increase the earth’s carrying capacity.  You also have to consider the equal possibility of unintentionally leveraging technology to decrease the earth’s carrying capacity.  Since the free market does not see any “carrying capacity price signals”, technological impacts on organic or natural carrying capacity tend to be skewed toward the negative.  William Catton, author of “Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change”, defines human carrying capacity not just in terms of population but also in terms of humanity’s “load” on the environment.

[Human] Carrying capacity needs to be understood as the maximum load an environment can permanently support (i.e., without reduction of its ability to support future generations), with load referring not just to the number of users of an environment but to the total demands they make upon it. For human societies, as for populations of other species, the relation of load to carrying capacity is crucial in shaping our future. Public comprehension of the concepts of carrying capacity and load is both vague and inadequate, and the need to correct these deficiencies is urgent.

When load comes to exceed carrying capacity, the overload inexorably causes environmental damage; then the reduced carrying capacity leads to load reduction (i.e., a crash). – William Catton

In the world of flora and fauna, a species will sometimes stumble upon an environment rich in nutrients creating a large and temporary surplus in carrying capacity.  The usual result is a sharp increase in population leading to an overshoot and a deficit in carrying capacity.  Tragically, this causes both a sharp degradation of carrying capacity and a total population collapse.

Whether humanity will suffer the same fate is subject to debate.  Some predict extinction while others believe that technology will continue to keep us safely in a state of carrying capacity surplus.  While either extreme is possible, I think the truth will end up somewhere north of extinction.

Our greatest danger today is that we rely too little on natural or organic carrying capacity and too much on borrowed or specious carrying capacity.  To use a quasi-mathematical formula:

Human Carrying Capacity = Organic Carrying Capacity + Specious Carrying Capacity

where (in simplest of terms),

Organic Carrying Capacity is a function of:

  • the biosphere
  • surface water and hydrologic cycle
  • the atmosphere
  • solar irradiation
  • top soil

and, the Specious or Borrowed (from the past) Carrying Capacity is a function of non-renewable resources such as:

  • fossil fuels
  • minerals
  • groundwater from slow recharge aquifers

In the case of human carrying capacity, both categories are acted on by technology and our economic systems of finance and trade.  The population explosion starting with the industrial revolution was made possible by the massive technological leveraging of non-renewable resources to create a temporary and specious carrying capacity surplus. The same technological advances caused and continue to cause a concurrent and accelerating degradation of our organic carrying capacity.  As a result, human carrying capacity now rests on an unsustainable house of cards.

As our total population and standard of consumption(load) have taken us back into a condition of carrying capacity deficit and we are now on the brink of collapse.  The tipping point will depend on Liebig’s Law which states that “whatever necessity is least abundantly available in an environment sets the environment’s carrying capacity”.


In our case, the Liebig trigger could be the peaking of oil production, food or water limitations, or a myriad of environmental ills that continue to further degrade organic carrying capacity.  It may even be systemic breakdown in our economy – call it “peak debt”.

Whatever the initial trigger, the question is how we will react.  Will we recognize it for what it is and navigate our way to a new state of equilibrium and balance, or frantically cling to “growth” as we compete for resources in a race to extinction?

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The Obama Energy Plan and our Homes

How will Obama’s energy polices affect our homes?  We won’t really know until his proposals are debated and enacted by congress, but we can get a sense of what might happen from his campaign’s position statements.  From his campaign website’s fact sheet his stated position on building energy efficiency is as follows:

“Obama…will establish a goal of making all new buildings carbon neutral, or produce zero emissions, by 2030.  [He] will also establish a national goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade to help us meet the 2030 goal.”

This is straight from the playbook of Ed Mazra’s Architecture 2030 Challenge.  As evidenced by the following quote from the 2030 website, the 2030 Challenge is predicated on climate change and the reduction of green house gas emissions associated with the Building Sector.

“Rapidly accelerating climate change (global warming), which is caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is now fueling dangerous regional and global environmental events. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration illustrates that buildings are responsible for almost half (48%) of all GHG emissions annually. Seventy-six percent of all electricity generated by US power plants goes to supply the Building Sector. Therefore, immediate action in the Building Sector is essential if we are to avoid hazardous climate change.”

I have two issues with the 2030 Challenge.

One is that the 48% responsibility for GHG emissions attributed to buildings is overstated.  The emissions assigned to the building sector are primarily the indirect result of drawing on electrical power generated from coal and natural gas fired power plants, so the question becomes whether to focus our resources on the building “demand” side, or the power plant “supply” side, or some combination of both.  In that broader context, we may find that it is much easier to deal with a few hundred power plants than to transform 150 million residential and commerical buildings.  From a public policy perspective, both the demand and supply side should be considered as a synergistic whole.

My second issue is more fundamental.  Architecture 2030 asks and answers the wrong question.  The question that Architecture 2030 asks is what actions should we take to mitigate the effect of the building sector on climate change.  However, the greater question is what actions should we take to render the building sector sustainable.  Once sustainability is on the table then we have to consider carrying capacity and carrying capacity overshoot at which point climate change is just another canary in the coal mine.

Carrying capacity is all about the ecological limits (capacity) of our planet’s resources and sinks.  By considering GHG emissions as the primary driver for building energy improvements, policy makers are overlooking the much more immediate and serious resource issues of peak oil and gas.  Since both of these peak events will be evident as early as 2010, all buildings should be built or retrofitted to a net zero energy and carbon standard NOW, not 22 years from now.

However, I digress.  Since it will take the actual emergency of these peaking events to mobilize the political will to enact a national zero energy standard, the question is what can we expect when Obama takes office next year.

The first likely step will be to start the process of improving building efficiency by 50% through our building codes.  A significant improvement is already in the works for the residential sector with the IECC 2009. However, at this time, the 30% improvement authored by the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, will only be a voluntary appendix to the next release of the code.  In addition, once the new code is released, it has to be reviewed and adopted by hundreds of city, county, and state authorities.  In the process, these authorities often dumb down new energy code provisions in response to local politics.  We can also expect a major push back from a decimated housing sector deeply concerned about adding any new code mandated building costs.

My best guess is that under Obama, the voluntary 30% improvement provision authored by Energy Efficient Codes Coalition will be supported by Obama’s Grant Program for Early Adopters policy proposal.  This proposal creates a competitive grant program for states and localities that “take the first steps in implementing new building codes that prioritize energy efficiency, and provides a federal match for those states with leading-edge public benefits funds that support energy efficiency retrofits of existing buildings.”

The grant proposal creates a policy that respects local politics and helps to support those areas of country that have the political will to move forward with improving building energy efficiency.

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The End of a 200 Year Resource Binge

“For 200 years, the material wealth of the world has improved because of increased access to ancient stores of energy. We are mining the Devonian Era, the Pennsylvanian, the Permian, the Jurassic…hundreds of millions of years of stored energy [released] within a span of two centuries or so…. And the whole concept of ‘economics’ rests on that upward…trend….cheap oil made it all look easy. ”
Byron King, The Daily Reckoning, April 2008

Consuming hundreds of millions of years of stored energy in a 200 year binge of economic and population growth has allowed us to give little or no thought to what might be sustainable. It has given us the illusion of easy progress and fed a cheap pursuit of happiness.

Neo-classical economics turns a blind eye to the accounting of our planet’s fossil fuel energy assets, tacitly assuming that their supply is infinite. As a result, the developed world operates with massive off-book ecological deficits and maintains it’s economic growth by importing carrying capacity from the third world. Planet earth is about to call in that debt.

China, Brazil, and India have joined the party just as the festivities have started to unwind and we collectively begin to stagger into a future defined by the geological limits of fossil fuel and mineral depletion. Demand for coal, oil, natural gas, water, food, steel, copper, uranium are no longer being driven by the U.S. They are being driven by these newcomers to the party, and the economics of supply and demand are being felt in the pocket books of America. This is not going to be a short term economic cycle. The combination of emerging market demand and the world wide peak production of fossil fuel and mineral resources will continue to drive up the price and availability of energy and food.

The suburban dwellers of America should be asking themselves some very difficult questions:

If you knew gas would cost $10/gallon within five years:

  • what kind of car would you buy today?
  • would you wait for plug-in hybrids to arrive on the market in 2010?
  • would you move closer to work?
  • will you carpool, ride an electric bike, get a scooter?
  • would you move closer to public transportation?
  • would you find telecommute employment?

If you knew the price of natural gas and electricity would triple in five years:

  • would you cancel the kitchen remodel and spend the money on energy upgrades?
  • would you downsize to a smaller home?
  • would you move to multi-unit, shared-wall housing?
  • would you move to a different climate?
  • would you buy a solar hot water heater instead of granite counter tops?

The “free resource” party is winding down and time is not on our side. As homeowners, what will we do? What will be sustainable? How will we dwell in a post peak world without abundant and cheap natural resources?

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The Politics of Personal Virtue, Sustainability, and Population Growth

“Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”
Vice President Richard Cheney, 2001

I have begun wonder lately whether anything I personally do can be considered sustainable. I live at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and I’m in the process of converting my home to a zero energy standard powered completely off-grid with a hybrid wind and solar system and transforming my 3 acres into model of permaculture capable of providing all of our food requirements. At a personal level that seems “sustainable” and at least provides a sense of satisfaction and security, however from a global perspective of 6.7 billion people it amounts to nothing more than a personal fortress. A fragile island of self-sufficency, in a world racing toward ecological overshoot and collapse.

Is Cheney right about conservation being no more than a virtue? Is what we do at a personal level no more than a greener than thou ego fantasy? Is nothing we do personally sustainable in the larger context of a growing pop of 6.7 billion people and the equivalent 2 to 3 more earths required support a Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian population determined to achieve the American standard of consumption?

It is likely that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. The point at which the combination of the world’s population and that population’s average level of consumption exceeds the capability of the earth to provide sustenance. Individual actions to achieve a sustainable level of consumption are no longer meaningful. Actions and policies of entire countries are only slightly more meaningful.

I don’t agree with world view embedded in Cheney’s cynical quote, however one word speaks to the truth. Our continued survival on this planet will depend on a comprehensive world policy of sustainability and living within our planet’s carrying capacity and that policy must address and include the politically explosive issue of population growth.

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“One Last Chance” for a Sustainable Future?

“It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology.
This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems.On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.”
Sir Frederic Hoyle, British Astronomer, 1964

Hoyle’s “necessary physical prerequisites” are not yet gone, but the extraction of our most critical non-renewable energy resources will soon reach a geological milestone, and production will peak and then decline. This will set a two to three decade clock on our last and only chance to achieve a sustainable society.

  • The consensus is that the production of oil has already peaked (2006) or will peak shortly and that serious shortages will occur by about 2010
  • Natural gas production in N. America will peak between 2010 and 2015
  • Uranium extraction will peak in 2025 and shortages are possible as early as 2013 when we can no longer depend on the recycling of Russian nuclear warheads to meet demand.
  • Coal will peak around 2025 at about 30% above the present production

“…we don’t have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.”
Howard Kunster ,The Long Emergency, 2005

We are left with the choice of only two future paths of development. The “business as usual” path will lead us to tragically overshoot the earth’s carrying capacity, resulting in economic collapse, and a dramatic reduction in the earth’s population as we return to a pre-industrial revolution standard of living. The second path represents Hoyle’s “last and only chance” to wisely use our remaining fossil fuel resources to build a sustainable and renewable energy foundation for a new steady-state world economy. An economy and society with a stable population that falls within the limits of our planet’s carrying capacity. I fear that the greater probability lies with the first path, but know we have both the knowledge and means to forge the second

On the supply side, the second path requires that we rapidly replace our current extractive, non-renewable energy model with renewable sources like geothermal, solar, wind, and wave power. It will be a future dominated by electrical power as liquid fuels become increasingly scarce. However, it will not be enough to reach a stable, sustainable future without major changes to the demand side of the energy equation,

As we enter this period of sustained crisis and begin the journey down the path of ecological stability, it will quickly become evident that the only reasonable standard for building design will be a standard of net zero energy consumption. Because we lack information, initially this will be part science and part intuition based on passive heating and cooling lessons from the past. Eventually we will come to know the embodied energy of every building material and component and make many decisions based on the EROIE (energy return on investment of the energy embodied) of building products like insulation, low-e glazing, PV panels, and wind turbines. Houses will become smaller and change shape as energy trumps fashion and becomes the primary design factor. A whole new industry will emerge to help homeowners convert over 100-million thinly insulated, poorly constructed homes into some semblance of energy efficiency. Pattern’s of development and zoning laws will change as the age of the automobile comes to a close. Populations will shift and migrate as the end of cheap air-conditioning makes living in many parts of the country less desirable. Home landscaping will change from ornamental to edible, and gray water irrigation will become commonplace as the energy costs to move and purify water change our attitudes about this precious natural resource. Local materials will dominate construction and the age of imported Italian granite countertops will come to an end

The longer policy makers wait to take action the lower the probability of success. When shortages become evident we may still fall into denial. Demagogues and special interests will deny the limits of geology and blame OPEC, Islam, environmentalists, or speculators. If allowed, they will cloud the issue and cost us precious time.

Our “last chance” will be a battle. It will not be an easy time.

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Definitions of Sustainability and a Steady State World

”…the world’s richest 20 per cent of the population consume 86 per cent of its goods and services, over half its energy and nearly half its meat and fish.”

Given how few buildings architects actually design in this country compared with the EU for example, I’m not sure how relevant the profession is to the topic of sustainability. However, I was curious enough to see what might be the official AIA word on the subject. I found this posting on the internet from the AIA Committee on the Environment.

“The linked domains of sustainability are environmental (natural patterns and flows), economic (financial patterns and equity), and social (human, cultural, and spiritual). Sustainable design is a collaborative process that involves thinking ecologically—studying systems, relationships, and interactions—in order to design in ways that remove rather than contribute stress from systems. The sustainable design process holistically and creatively connects land use and design at the regional level and addresses community design and mobility; site ecology and water use; place-based energy generation, performance, and security; materials and construction; light and air; bioclimatic design; and issues of long life and loose fit. True sustainable design is beautiful, humane, socially appropriate, and restorative.”

My first reaction to this lengthy, rambling definition was huh???!!! what the %$#@ does that mean? No wonder I hear quotes like “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable” from celebrity architects. Definitions like that, however well meaning are a license to do just about anything. So I thought maybe one of the leading schools of architecture would be more helpful and provide a definition with some substance. I found this posting on the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture’s site.

“Sustainable design is a collective process whereby the built environment achieves new levels of ecological balance through new and retrofit construction, towards the long term viability and humanization of architecture. Focusing on environmental context, sustainable design merges the natural, minimum resource conditioning solutions of the past (daylight, solar heat and natural ventilation) with the innovative technologies of the present, into an integrated “intelligent” system that supports individual control with expert negotiation for resource consciousness. Sustainable design rediscovers the social, environmental and technical values of pedestrian, mixed use communities, fully using existing infrastructures, including “main streets” and small town planning principles, and recapturing indoor-outdoor relationships. Sustainable design avoids the further thinning out of land use, the dislocated placement of buildings and functions. Sustainable design introduces benign, non-polluting materials and assemblies with lower embodied and operating energy requirements, and higher durability and recyclability. Finally, sustainable design offers architecture of long term value through ‘forgiving’ and modifiable building systems, life-cycle instead of least-cost investments, and timeless delight and craftsmanship.”

Again, a long, rambling definition full of academic architectural jargon like “timeless delight”. Is this representative of the sustainable mind candy being fed to the future building designers of america? What about limits? What about carrying capacity? What about the huge energy drain, climate impact, and unsustainable ecological footprint of our existing building stock? Where is the call to action?

Looking for answers, I found the following on the Presidio School of Management’s “Sustainability Dictionary” website. Apparently in the academic world there are three different flavors or “criteria” of sustainability.

Social Criteria:

  • Socially desirable
  • Culturally acceptable
  • Psychologically nurturing

Financial Criteria:

  • Economically sustainable
  • Technologically feasible
  • Operationally viable

Environmental Criteria:

  • Environmentally Robust
  • Generationally Sensitive
  • Capable of continuous learning

Although I can sympathize with architectural profession’s emphasis on social criteria such as beauty and “timeless delight”, I don’t think it serves a world facing climate change and a looming carrying capacity crisis brought on by the “peak” production and supply of oil, gas, and coal. The AIA and Carnegie Mellon definitions allude to “environmental criteria”, but only in vague terms. What is needed is a sustainable building standard that addresses the very real limits to carrying capacity and our obligations to future generations. Unfortunately, LEEDS, Energy Star, or any other “green” standard falls far short of meeting such a standard.

In 1987 the U.N. World Commission on the Environment and Development [commonly known as the Brundtland Commission] set the table for the what has been a 20 year debate on the meaning of sustainability. The classic and oft quoted definition from the commission is:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition is not far removed from the “seventh generation” philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy, a philosophy that put forth that chiefs should consider the effects of their actions and decisions seven generations into the future. However, as often as I’ve seen the commission’s definition quoted, I rarely see anyone expound on what the commission meant by their simple, elegant definition.

Digging into the actual report I found that even 20 years ago the commission was deeply concerned about the impact development and population growth was having on the world’s carrying capacity with respect to several important environmental criteria.

  • Global Warming
  • Ozone Depletion
  • Species Loss
  • Desertification
  • Deforestation
  • Air, water, and soil pollution

In making it’s case for sustainable development, the commission’s report would define carrying capacity as:

“The population that can be supported indefinitely by an ecosystem
without destroying that ecosystem”

Although not generally part of our awareness, it is no secret that various regions and country’s of the world compete for carrying capacity and the so called developed world imports a large portion of it’s own carry capacity at the expense of other country’s and peoples. The commissions report states that:

“The Earth is one but the world is not.
We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives.
Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others.
Some consume the Earth’s resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations. Others, many more in number, consume far too little and live with the prospect of hunger, squalor, disease, and early death.”

Carrying capacity is not just a function of population. The actual population that can be supported by the earth’s ecosystem is also a function of the average standard of living or level of consumption of that population. Lower consumption levels allow the support of a larger population, and conversely higher consumption levels will support proportionally less population

Today we find ourselves in a world of 6.6 billion people in which the world’s richest 20 per cent of the population consume 86 per cent of its goods and services, over half its energy and nearly half its meat and fish. Another 1.4 billion people in China and India (nearly 5 times the population of the U.S) are rapidly growing their economies and as they begin to approach the developed world’s level of consumption and energy density, their rising demands on the earth’s carrying capacity is driving up energy, commodity, and food costs around the world. As the world’s collective economic growth rapidly depletes non-renewable resources such as oil, gas, and coal we will soon be faced with a carrying capacity crisis in a post peak world in which countries desperately complete for resources in a limited ecosystem. The commission’s report predicted this condition twenty years ago when it stated that:

“The ultimate limits to global development are perhaps determined by the availability of energy resources and by the biosphere’s capacity to absorb the by-products of energy use. These energy limits may be approached far sooner than the limits imposed by other material resources. First, there are the supply problems: the depletion of oil reserves, the high cost and environmental impact of coal mining, and the hazards of nuclear technology. Second, there are emission problems, most notably acid pollution and carbon dioxide build up leading to global warming.”

Many informed people in and out of government are painfully aware of this impending carrying capacity train wreck. Unfortunately, it is the nature of governments to only respond to an immediate crisis. Another problem, one that the Brundtland Commission omitted from their report, is our almost religious belief in economic growth. Even modest rates of growth mathematically become exponential, so that in the context of a closed ecological system, “sustainable growth” and “sustainable development” are eventually rendered oxymorons. In order to survive, at some point in time we will have to respect our planet’s limits in terms of carrying capacity. This will mean the acceptance of limits to our population size and to our levels of consumption and waste, and the transition to a steady-state economy.

The following definition of steady-state economics is from the Encyclopedia of Earth

The phrase “steady state economy” originated from ecological economics, most notably the work of Herman Daly, but its roots are in classical economics, most notably the “stationary state” by economist John Stuart Mill. The steady-state economy is often discussed in the context of economic growth and the impacts of economic growth on ecological integrity, environmental protection, and economic sustainability. Therefore, use of the phrase “steady-state economy” requires a clear definition of economic growth.

Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. For distinct economic or political units, economic growth is generally indicated by increasing gross domestic product (GDP). Economic growth entails increasing population times per capita consumption, higher throughput of materials and energy, and a growing ecological footprint.

Theoretically and temporarily, a steady state economy may have a growing population with declining per capita consumption, or vice versa, but neither of these scenarios are sustainable in the long run. Therefore, “steady state economy” connotes constant populations of people (and, therefore, “stocks” of labor) and constant stocks of capital. It also has a constant rate of throughput; i.e., energy and materials used to produce goods and services.

The “growing ecological footprint” of economic growth only becomes problematic as we begin to push up against the limits to carrying capacity. This can occur locally in an “island” economy or globally as we are beginning to experience today. Getting back to architecture and the massive ecological footprint of our building stock, our homes are but a subset of years of unsustainable development that are pushing the limits of carrying capacity. This is especially true when we consider the energy consumption and climate impact of both residential and commercial buildings. My personal definition of sustainable building design is:

Sustainable building design meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs for shelter. In order for our built environment to be supported indefinitely by the earth’s ecosystem without destroying that ecosystem, sustainable building design must be based on a net zero energy standard. A net zero energy standard, in no way constrains designers from creating buildings that are socially desirable, culturally acceptable, and psychologically nurturing.

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More Musings on Sustainable Building – The Case for a Zero Energy Building Standard

“. . . to be considered sustainable by any rigorous definition, buildings must become energy neutral and either be built or converted to a “zero energy” building standard”

If we accept that “sustainable” takes its meaning from “sustainable agriculture“, or “the ability … to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to ecosystem health”, then the definition of sustainable building must take on a more precise meaning. A more rigorous meaning that is quite different than what typically passes for a “green” building. (See Difference between Green and Sustainable)

What exactly might that mean? To answer that question it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of “carrying capacity”. Generally speaking, “carrying capacity” is the supportable population (animals, plants, trees, people, etc.) in a closed system, given the resources (food, water, energy, etc.) available within that system.

To simplify, for our built or human environment, the Carrying Capacity (human population) of earth can be described as a function of

  • Standard of Living or Rate and Efficiency of Consumption
  • Renewable Resources
  • Non-Renewable Resources
  • The Rate of Technical Innovation
  • Timeframe considered

All of these factors are interrelated. If our timeframe is limited to a hundred years or so, then rapid depletion of non-renewable resources like oil is not a factor because the carrying capacity contributed by the oil’s energy content will not collapse within that timeframe. However, if we want to create a sustainable environment lasting many thousands or even hundreds of years, then that environment cannot be based on non-renewable resources.

In truth, due to the vast array of interactions between innumerable inputs and outputs the carrying capacity of earth in absolute terms in unknowable, but it doesn’t take much imagination to accept that there must be limits. For example, the U.S. represents about 5% of the earth’s population of over 6 billion people and consumes 25% of the worlds non-renewable oil resources. So it’s a fair assumption that it would far exceed the earth’s carrying capacity if the balance of world’s population were to attempt to achieve our “Rate and Efficiency of Consumption” (Standard of Living). However, that’s exactly what is happening today in China and India.

Within any closed system like planet earth, there are critical constraints to carrying capacity. For most of human history food, water, and biomass energy sources like wood where the primary constraints, however technical innovation and an apparently “endless” supply of fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) energy greatly expanded the world’s food supply. In fact, since the discovery and exploitation of oil’s energy dense chemistry a little over a hundred years ago, the world’s population has increased from about 1.3 billion to 6.6 billion. Of the current population, about half live in poverty, one fifth are severely undernourished, and the balance of us live in comparative comfort and health.

Even those of us living in comparative comfort and health are now facing two serious constraints to the apparent safety of our carrying capacity. Both of these constraints are related to our use of fossils fuels.

Global warming threatens both the world food supply with rising temperatures and our coastal built environment with rising sea levels. Declining crude oil production after we reach “peak oil” will essentially collapse the contribution to carrying capacity provided by cheap oil over the last 100 hundred years. Without rapid and sustained technical innovation, the end result will be either a drop in population or standard of living or both.

What does this have to do with sustainable building? Since buildings are both a major consumer of energy and responsible for approximately 50% of the world’s green house gas emissions, to be considered sustainable by any rigorous definition, buildings must become energy neutral and either be built or converted to a “zero energy” building standard. Anything less may be marketed as “green” but cannot be considered sustainable.

Energy, Carrying Capacity, and Sustainable Building

“By their own follies they perished, the fools.” – Homer, The Odyssey

The growth of civilization has been intimately linked to our ability to harness energy since man’s discovery of fire. Our reliance on biomass (wood) and eventually, the wind and hydro power of mills would limit our growth until the use of coal and the invention of the steam engine would launch the industrial revolution. However, it was the discovery of energy dense, crude oil in 1859 that would catapult us into a whole new age of growth, mobility, and abundance.

What is “sustainable” is based on carrying capacity, and every human advance in the use and amount of available energy would serve to increase both the population and economic carrying capacity of the earth. The shear abundance of cheap oil over the last 150 years would change the face of architecture and our built environment. Architects and building designers no longer had to consider local climate conditions, they could let their imaginations and ego’s run wild (or lazy) and rely on brute force heating and cooling to save the day. Architects like Phillip Johnson would build their design fame and fortune with glass homes in Connecticut and glass skyscrapers in Houston. Buildings that reply for their very existence on cheap and abundant energy.

Phillip Johnson Glass House

Phillip Johnson – Glass House Connecticut

Phillip Johnson Houston Skyscraper

Phillip Johnson – Houston Skyscraper

Mass housing in the U.S. would follow a similar path. Not only would the buildings themselves be inefficient statements of style over substance and function, but the sprawling pattern of development based on cheap oil and the automobile, would create a formula for maximum energy consumption.

The OPEC engineered “oil shock” of the 1970’s would bring about some much needed building energy standards, but vested interests continue to play the “politics of energy codes” and keep us far from anything remotely sustainable. The recent Green movement is a positive step, but new standards such as Energy Star and LEED for Homes do nothing more than tweak the status quo in the direction of sustainability.

If we assume cheap and abundant energy will be with us forever, then the critical constraints to the carrying capacity of our current way of living and building are environmental degradation, water, and global warming. Observing the behavior of many our politicians and policy makers this would seem to be case. Unfortunately, because these issues are hard to economically quantify and the consequences can be conveniently be passed on to future generations, actions tend to come in tepid half measures like raising the CAFE standards to 35 miles/gallon over several years.

But what if cheap and abundant energy will NOT be with us forever? What if the critical constraint to the carrying capacity of our current way of living and building where the peaking and eventual depletion of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal? What if this constraint was not off in some nebulous, non-renewable resource future, but was now or very close to now? What if this where the eleventh hour? How would this change the way we build?

Based on data published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) the worldwide production of conventional crude oil peaked in May of 2005 and is currently in an undulating plateau. If we add unconventional sources (deep water, oil sands, etc.) worldwide production peaked in February of 2006 and is also stuck in an undulating plateau. Matthew Simmons, advisor to the Bush administration, author of “Twilight in the Desert”, and investment banker to the energy sector, says that “Serious peak oil analysts all agree that peak oil is 0 to 10 years away.“

ASPO Peak Oil Projection

The U.S. production of conventional easy-to-get natural gas peaked in the early 70’s and we have only just been able to keep our supply versus demand heads above water with imports from Canada and Mexico and the aggressive exploration of unconventional, hard to get sources like shale and coal methane gas.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that we will be facing a supply crunch sometime in 2010. Big oil executives, speaking in “peak oil code”, are now stating publicly that the “era of cheap oil in over”. There have been more than a half dozen Peak Oil related documentaries released since 2003 and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour documentary debuts this month.

Peak oil changes everything. It is a hard limit to carrying capacity to both population and economic growth. As consumption and depletion widens the gap between supply and demand, we will become supply constrained and as supply declines economic growth must follow. Building design will be climate driven and zero energy buildings will soon become a matter of necessity, not choice. Not in some nebulous green future, but by the end of this decade. This is the eleventh hour.

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Musings on the Meaning of “Sustainable” and “Green”

The current state of our green, sustainable building “movement” may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Seeing the words “sustainable” and “green” used without much precision and diluted more and more as advertising adjectives, I’ve been a little obsessed recently with what these words really mean or should mean.

For me “sustainable building” speaks to the balance of inputs and outputs within a closed, and resource limited, eco-system, whether it be an island, a continent, or planet earth. It’s all about carrying capacity.

Sustainablity recognizes limits and in the context of our homes and built environment, it should be taken from the meaning of sustained yield used in forestry and agriculture. Used with precision, sustainability must mean capable of being sustained for millennia in the context of a closed eco-system, and limiting factors must include both population size and available resources.

It is usually only politically correct to speak of population growth as being a problem in the context of third world countries, but population growth in any country is eventually unsustainable and in the U.S. we have only been able to sustain our own growth by importing our “carrying capacity”. Economist Kenneth Boulding postulated an interesting and sobering set of theorems on population growth.

1st Theorem: “The Dismal Theorem” If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

2nd Theorem: “The Utterly Dismal Theorem” This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

3rd Theorem: “The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem” Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous.

All this sounds more than a bit depressing, however commenting on the work of Thomas Malthus, Boulding puts the population issue in a more positive light. “… the [Malthus] essay, punctures the easy optimism of the utopians of any generation. But by revealing the nature of at least one dragon that must be slain before misery can be abolished, its ultimate message is one of hope, and the truth, however unpleasant, tends not to create despair, but activity of the right kind.

In looking for other works that might inform my search for a better definition and understanding of sustainability for housing, I ran across the work of A. A. Bartlett. In his paper Reflections on Sustainabiity, Population Growth, and the Environment (2006), Bartlett postulates twenty some Laws of Sustainability. In the Bartlett Laws that follow, where appropriate, I’ve added my own sustainable housing corollary in italics.

First Law: Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

U.S. urban sprawl and the growth in home sizes and the associated energy and resource consumption is not sustainable

Second Law: In a society with a growing population and/or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and/or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Retrofitting over 100 million (mostly energy inefficient) homes in American to a condition of sustainability will be a monumental task.

Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [This is called "population momentum."]

Since our housing stock could easily double in 70 years, new and retrofitted homes should only be built to net zero energy standards.

Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.

The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average size and resource consumption of our homes are inversely related to one another.

Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

The U.S. cannot sustain average home sizes that are more than twice the average size of other developed country’s.

Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.

Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“we can’t find locals who will do the work.”) is not sustainable.

Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

The importation of such a large percentage of our carrying capacity makes the U.S. sprawling suburban style of living extremely vulnerable.

Ninth Law: ( The lesson of “The Tragedy of the Commons” ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

The benefits of suburban sprawl accrue to the developer and auto companies; the benefits of poor energy efficiency accrue to energy companies and utilities; but the costs are borne by us all.

Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

Inadequate U.S. building energy standards are contributing to a rapid depletion of our natural gas and other fossil fuel resources.

Eleventh Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:

  • technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used
  • using the resources in accord with a program of “Sustained Availability,” (Bartlett 1986)
  • recycling
  • the use of substitute resources

Net zero building energy standards will be necessary to slow the depletion of fossil fuels in a post peak oil and gas world.

Twelfth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.

The retrofitting our existing housing stock to a much higher energy standard will be completed negated by even a modest growth rate in new homes, however energy efficient those new homes may be.

Thirteenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Smart growth is an oxymoron.

Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.

Fifteenth Law: (Eric Sevareid’s Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)

Sixteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture.

Building should restricted on agricultural land. The highest and best use of land is for agriculture.

Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

Energy shortages due to peak oil and gas will stop housing growth and force the transformation of our existing housing stock.

Eighteenth Law: In local situations within the U.S., creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work. (Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (sayfrom 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.)

Nineteenth Law: Starving people don’t care about sustainability.

People living in slums don’t care about sustainable housing.

Twentieth Law: The addition of the word “sustainable” to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

The addition of the phase “sustainable housing” or “sustainable development” or “green” to our vocabulary is not sufficient to ensure that our built environment becomes sustainable.

Twenty-First Law: Extinction is forever.

The current state of our green, sustainable building “movement” may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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