“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 Connecticut
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.“
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.