Making Negative the New Positive

Making Negative the New Positive

The subject of this week's column is that negative is the new positive. I'm not talking about adopting a fatalistic attitude toward our inevitable(?) environmental catastrophe. Rather, Strengthening Negative Feedback Loops is this week's Leverage Point (Number Eight of the Top Twelve) to help bring us to New Normal.

Exactly what is a negative feedback loop? It sort of sounds like an obnoxious tape recording constantly telling you you're ugly and stupid.

At its simplest, a negative feedback loop is a self-correcting mechanism that helps keep a system from straying too far from its goal. A thermostat is a perfect example. If the goal is a certain temperature, the thermostat keeps the heating or cooling system "on" until it gets to the set temperature. Without the negative feedback of the "off" function, the system could spiral into excessive heat or cold.

Price is a very important and often abused negative feedback loop in regulating markets. Generally, the tendency is to manipulate this feedback mechanism through subsidies, tax breaks or other means to protect the status quo of a certain human system, generally at the expense of the desired state of Nature, which is the one that supports human life.

Brief polemical digression: No matter how much we trash the planet, it will be far less severe overall than what has already been experienced by the Earth, and Nature will do what it always does, which is to create life that thrives under those conditions and get rid of that life which doesn't do as well (read, "us").

Of course, the irony is that when a system has been distorted for a long time, such as with the systemic and systematic subsidization of fossil fuels over the last century, there needs to be a countervailing subsidization of alternatives, such as renewables and energy efficiency in order to rectify the imbalance. This is the purpose of programs such as utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs and the Obama Administration's green stimulus program.

Another important negative feedback loop is the regular improvement of energy- and water-saving building codes and complementary voluntary green standards, such as LEED and Green Globes. The combination of these mandatory and voluntary elements help correct the environmental damage caused by distortions of energy prices and the lack of internalization of other environmental externalities. (Of course, if we were practicing Eco-nomics instead of Ego-nomics, we wouldn't even need green building codes because people would make the most money building the most eco-friendly structures to begin with.)

Strengthening negative feedback loops through a combination of regulatory and market mechanisms is significantly more powerful than doing so with either one by itself. If the strength of either mandatory or market mechanism has a magnitude of One, then the combination has a magnitude of Three. Submetering buildings and requiring tenants to pay directly for their energy would be another way of strengthening the negative feedback loop of price, which constrains excess energy consumption.

Expanding peoples' knowledge of green policies, design and access to new technologies is an excellent way to improve negative feedback loops. This week, two great examples of this were the Annual Energy Efficiency Forum in Washington D.C. sponsored by U.S. Energy Association and Johnson Controls that was extensively blogged by Marc Gunther for and the GreenBuildingsNY Conference that was put on by Reed Exhibitions, with the education portion of the conference developed by our own gurus. Both events were very well attended and quite stimulating and should definitely be on peoples' calendars for next year. Stay tuned to this Bat Channel.

Rob Watson is executive editor of You can reach Rob at [email protected]

Image by porah.