Designing for limited growth has been the way we have done things for years. Learning a new way of doing things can be difficult but it is well worth the effort. Recently, in my relatively small city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a tiny group of small minded individuals fought and won a terrible victory that stopped six roundabouts from being constructed at major intersections along the busiest street on our west side. We know that roundabouts reduce accidents and injuries, save time and fuel and reduce wear and tear on automobiles. The road as it has been constructed required far more concrete, extra turn lanes, increased electricity, longer wait times for most of the vehicles using this area and reduced the parking available for existing businesses. If we are to design and build for abundance, we need to utilize every tool at our disposal to get the most out of what promise to be ever more scarce resources and limit the continued expansion of out dated methods and wasteful ways of squandering our birthright. The planet is designed to provide for us, all we need to do is tailor our behavior to exemplify nature’s ways and we will find ourselves in a much better place, abundantly blessed and developing sustainably for growth, rather than on a course toward destruction.
It has been said by far greater minds that when you tug at a single thing in nature, you find it is connected to everything else. We can no longer to accept old way thinking because the game has changed. Meeting the needs of the many requires not listening to the few. We need a new way of thinking about development, wealth and success that allows for individuality, the give back, and social responsibility. There are some examples of change afoot, but they often seem too few and too far between. I have plenty of great stories about homes that either exist off-grid or give back to the grid more energy than they sip from it. Stories of people who have built their own electric bicycles, motorcycles and cars out of cast off production models by putting together pieces and parts from junkyards. The endless abundance of our culture should not be underestimated. What I seek to give back is always more than I have received, it is just a matter of finding new ways of approaching old limits and transcending the old way thinking of our consumerist society. In days of old, when someone struck it rich, they would leave family and friends behind and join the upper classes. Today, we need those resources to lift entire neighborhoods out of exploitation and poverty, or there could be a serious break down in the ability of many to survive. Humanity and the survival of our culture need to become points of focus for future development or we will all suffer having to do with substantially less. Efficiency has never meant having to get along without. Sustainability is more about using resources appropriately. The myth of having to go back to the caves to become environmentally benign was created by those who stood to lose power and control over our direction and more importantly our spending habits. The wealthy, the world over, stand to lose dollars when we wake up to the fact that there are efficient ways to meet all of our needs without their exploitation and greed. The writing is on the wall, but they keep trying to turn our heads away from the truth.
The Cape Wind Project, which will eventually lead to over 100 wind turbines being located offshore of Martha’s Vineyard is a good start. These turbines were fought because of very wealthy interests saying that they would disturb their million dollar views of the ocean. At the great distance that they would be located from land, it has been calculated that they will stick up less than 1/2 inch from the horizon. This project will have no emissions, no waste to dispose of, no human health risks and need no fuel. The wind turbines that we have the ability to design today will serve for years with little cost and great benefit. We are looking for more of these win-win opportunities across the globe and are finding them more often than one might imagine.
In my region, nearly at the forty fifth parallel, the best orientation for a south facing wall with windows is to make it sloped to 30 degrees from vertical. That way, winter sun penetrates the building’s shell most efficiently for winter heat gain. If we want to use the sun’s energy throughout the year, for water heating as one example, then a forty-five degree tilt is best. If one were to travel my region, less than 1/4 of one percent of our houses have either of these orientations and most homes with either solar air heating or solar water heating either install the systems less efficiently, relying on the original structure and it’s limitations or they try to optimize the new system and are willing to sacrifice looks for efficiency. Qualitative change can only occur when the design/build process becomes aware of the solar constant, the actual value of building energy efficiency into each and every dwelling, and the long term benefit of having no utility bills.
I installed an eight by twenty foot solar air heater on my 80 year old building that is drafty and under insulated. Because the entire structure is oriented a bit off the optimum angle for solar gain, it isn’t able to get the best sun angle. In spite of this, it gives about 30% of the home’s heat. Savings like this are achievable, have been achieved, using a panel that was built in the seventies that has forty year old fiberglass panels that are slightly cloudy and that were never as good as current materials at either energy transmission into the panel, or insulating qualities that are available today. That means that for half my building’s life, there has been an opportunity to save at least 1/3 of the heat budget. If the design of that building had included a bit more insulation or if the builders had considered air sealing, the sun could easily have provided over half of the heat budget by itself!
Designing with nature rather than against it would provide temporary, slight benefits, but over lifetimes, the compounding interest that will accrue to those future generations is incalculable. For instance, about seven years ago, I bought my newest car ever. A Volkswagon, Jetta diesel. Back then I switched from an older Jetta that got about 25 MPG to the model that gets 50MPG. Fuel was less than half the cost back then and the savings that I had with each fill up was more about time wasted in refueling stations than in actual dollars. Now, all these years later, my fuel costs have gone back up to what they were, but my fellow drivers have been paying at least double for fuel all along and shelling out more for less over the long haul. The news tells us that people are upset with the cost of fuel. In my mind, the thing to be angry about is the utter lack of choice in the vehicle market. Things are changing at the margins, but I still have not seen a single advertisement for an energy efficient vehicle that was not followed by ten commercials for gas guzzling trucks. Life is truly out of balance and it is our enduring responsibility to change, before the proverbial shit hits the fan. Beyond peak oil is a place that is quieter, more efficient, beautiful and clean. We are living at a point in time that will be looked back upon as a fulcrum for change. With a bit of education, change, commitment and creativity, our children’s, children’s, children will look back at our time and thank us for the changes we were courageous enough, thoughtful enough and smart enough to make, in spite of what the greedy might tell us.