Thursday, May 19, 2005

That vision thing

At recent Board of Supervisors meeting in my county, my boss was updating on recent events pertaining to the General Plan update. This update included discussion of the constraint analysis workshop conducted a few weeks back (which I wrote about earlier). After presenting the findings and a list of possible constraints (including energy) a supervisor chided the county’s focus on constraints. In his opinion, the county’s role should be formulating a vision for how things should be and not focused on possible constraints. According to this supervisor, we do not know what the future will hold but whatever obstacles we face, they could be overcome with human ingenuity. Therefore the county should be in the business of creating a vision for the future of growth.

That’s it, that’s what’s been missing; a vision. All we have to do is think good thoughts, toss some happy overarching themes and sprinkle the plan with buzzwords like “smart growth” and presto: you’ve got a general plan.

If it was only that easy. Human ingenuity can triumph over a lot of difficult situations, but the laws of physics is another story. There is only so much energy available to us and once it is gone, it is gone. No vision of human progress—save fusion perhaps—will trump that fact. But yet, here we are approaching limits to growth on a number of fronts and all that we can muster is our vision of what the future should be, without any consideration if it is even possible.

Well Mr. Supervisor, I have two visions for the future of our county. Either we accept the inevitability of declining energy availability and plan accordingly to transition to a low energy existence or we maintain the status quo until we run out of gas and crash.

Given that an energy shortfall will inevitably affect our current way of life, we could choose to change our ways. We could back away from following the same old development patterns of low density suburban sprawl and refocus on neighborhood/small community development. Instead of pursuing the “race to the bottom” and focusing on the development of one or two low-cost, high-volume industries and large scale retailing we could strive to re-establish low volume manufacturers of many goods for local consumption. The goods that we do produce should be more durable and when they no longer have any use, can be easily re-used or recycled. In fact this vision of the future would have us re-using or redirecting most items or materials that we now consider “waste.” No longer would we merely toss—or flush—our waste. Our crops, like our manufactured products would return to hand cultivation without any fossil-based chemical and energetic inputs. The harvest yielded is consumed locally with much of the organic wastes from the cities and towns that consumed it would return back to the rural lands from which it came from. Finally we would look inside ourselves to realize that unfettered growth will eventually drive us to ruin. To that end we would begin to limit our consumption and ultimately our numbers to a level that is ultimately sustainable for each location. This does not have to be a negative vision. We just need to realize our future will—or should be—a much simpler place. It will necessarily be focused to the community level and promote the value human labor over mechanization (which ultimately cease to be sustainable in most cases). Most people will work with their hands out of necessity, but primarily for their community’s greater good (sustenance and basic good production).

Idealistic? Utopian? Probably so. Is it out of our reach? Definitely not. This vision of the future lets us take into our own hands the difficult decisions that could let us adapt to declining energy supplies. It doesn’t hold out for a miracle solution or try and force yet another technological solution to a perceived problem.

But if we do not change our ways, I could see another vision for the county. This one attempts to continue the status quo and encourages continued mindless growth until we crash headfirst into an energy crisis. The vision turns dark after that in both a literal and figurative sense. The lights will go out, rendering our economy and our homes useless. We will be left stranded when the price of gasoline surges beyond the middle class’s reach and shivering when our natural gas supply depletes below the level needed to meet even a basic level of demand. Our food supply will get increasingly expensive, tougher to get and eventually interrupted by energy shortages and skyrocketing prices. Our social order will disintegrate into widespread crime, looting and eventually desperate survivalistic raids. How this vision ultimately will play out is still debatable, but in all likelihood it will result in increased violence, strife, disease and death. Ultimately, fewer people will be left behind to pick at the wreckage of our civilization. Not a pretty vision but entirely plausible.

The vision thing is important. Understanding what we will see in the future and why is more important.


Blogger OZ said...

enjoyed reading your work. important stuff here.

5/20/2005 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"According to this supervisor, we do not know what the future will hold but whatever obstacles we face, they could be overcome with human ingenuity"

He is correct that we do not know what the future will hold. In terms of design of our built environment I think that means we need to be adaptable and flexible. Buildings that can be adapted to many uses, urban form that supports a variety of transport modes etc. This is where human ingenuity should be applied, although it wouldn't take much since we have plenty of examples throughout history of the building and urban form characteristics needed to be adaptable. In the US, we needlessly destroyed many of our examples of good urbanism in order to build parking lots, but there are still lots of examples in Europe.

A good site with examples of the destruction in the US is below about Louisville

5/20/2005 11:43 AM  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

"There is only so much energy available to us and once it is gone, it is gone."

This is the premise on which you've built your whole thesis... and it's false.  It only applies to fossil energy, such as coal, oil and gas.  It may be applicable to methane hydrates (we don't know how fast they are formed yet).

It is certainly NOT applicable to solar and wind; every day there is a brand-new supply.  The harvestable power is not unlimited but it is many times our current requirements, and the cost is coming down rapidly.  There are some developments which hold out amazing possiblities:  60% efficient conformal photovoltaic cells, hydrogen from ponds of blue-green algae, flying wind turbines cranking out power with 85% capacity factor.

It's right to expect the world to change; that's inevitable.  But you should no more expect or demand the world to die as fossil fuels go away than you should have expected our nights to go dark when spermaceti became scarce.  We have moved on before, and we will do so again.

5/29/2005 2:00 PM  

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