Technology, Population, Consumption and Green Building: The Long View

Technology, Population, Consumption and Green Building: The Long View

Courtesy of Ratcliff

Most of us in the design and construction industry share in a widespread belief that technology can ultimately rescue us from any challenge we face. This belief is born of some very solid historical evidence:

• In the past 150,000 years, human society has gone through three major technological revolutions -- early tool making, agricultural and industrial revolutions.

• Each of these technological revolutions facilitated rapid growth in human population, from 10,000 initially to nearly 6,700,000,000 today.

• Between 1750 and 1965, global industrial output has increased one hundredfold, and since 1965, it has increased 40 times.

• The rapid increase in global output has greatly exceeded population growth, so that the standard of living (GDP/capita) has risen 14 times/capita in industrialized nations from 1820 to 1987 even as world population grew from 1 billion to 6.7 billion.

• Life expectancy doubled from 37 to 76 years from 1820 to 1987 as a result of improved and expanded technologies.

Our faith in technology to improve our lives and rescue us from our problems has been long in the making. However, in 1865 W.S. Jevons discovered that increased technological efficiency supports population growth and higher levels of consumption, instead of reducing them. Improvements in technology, while reducing the material/energy inputs for the same output, have in the aggregate led to greater demands and impacts on the planet, according to Michael H. and Joyce A. Huesemann in their article, "Will progress in science and technology avert or accelerate global collapse?"

By the 1980s, it was discovered that many natural resources (oceanic protein, soil, potable water, biodiversity, etc.) were being depleted faster than they could replenish -- our extractions exceeded the "produce" in and from the natural inventories -- so that we have been reducing the natural capital upon which our very lives depend, as Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers note in their 1993 book, "Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse; Envisioning a Sustainable Future."

Historically, we have benefited tremendously from new technologies and improvements in old ones. And our faith in technology to solve all our problems is quite understandable. Today, however, we must understand that technology alone will not be enough to avert catastrophic changes in the earth. We must also reduce growth in the human population and its consumption. The problem is that the earth is not limitless in its resources or immutable to our extractions and pollutions. Brian Walker and David Salt in their 2006 book, "Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World," vividly demonstrate that we cannot continue to reduce the natural inventories, because natural systems all around us are heading for collapse and/or change into regimes unfriendly to our existence.

Michael and Joyce Huesemann provide compelling examples that may illustrate the relationship between improvements in technology and the growth in population and consumption:

• Between 1973 and 2000, nations tracked by the International Energy Agency experienced a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency. Total energy use should have fallen by over 30 percent. However, a 100 percent increase in economic output completely overshadowed the increase in efficiency, resulting in the need to increase the primary energy supply by 36 percent.

• Between 1974 and 1994, material efficiencies increased by 60 percent. Material requirements would have been reduced by 40 percent, but a 66 percent increase in GDP kept material consumption practically level.

• In the 20th century, global energy intensity has decreased by 1 percent per year due to improvements in technical efficiency and carbon intensity has decreased by .3 percent per year in the same time period due to a change from wood and coal energy to gas, nuclear and renewable energy sources. Instead of seeing a reduction in carbon emissions, GDP grew by 200 percent in this same timeframe, resulting in a 20 percent increase in carbon emissions.

We continue to expand our consumption with marginally greener technologies, believing that this will ultimately create a sustainable basis for our existence. In order to truly move towards sustainability, we must also build and consume less in absolute terms … finding non-material ways to reach fulfillment in our lives, says David Korten in his 2007 book, "The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community." We must develop more efficient technologies while we also procreate and consume less, too.

Several great questions before us are:

• What are the limits of technological efficiency? Is there a limit to material/energy input for a unit of consumptive output?

• What is a sustainable model of total consumption (material/energy outputs) for people?

• How many people can this output model support?

We don't know the answer to these questions yet. They are clearly complex and the critical factors are forever changing. What we do know is that there are many examples throughout history where societies have collapsed -- Anasazi, Mayan, Easter Island, Norse in Greenland, Viking -- and vanished due largely to unsustainable living patterns. The reasons for these population collapses are several, including degradation of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, human and livestock populations exceeding the carrying capacity of the land, and natural variations in weather and climate patterns, as outlined in Jared Diamond's 2005 book, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."

We in the building industry need to continually broaden our understanding of what it is going to take to create a sustainable life on the earth. Technology alone will not ensure we meet this goal, but will always be a contributing factor in reaching it. We need to be sure we have good answers to the following questions before we act:

• Is there a non-building/non-material solution which accomplishes the client's goals, such as a work process change, a strategic alliance, a new technology, or outsourcing of functions?

• Can we reuse/modify the existing built environment to meet the goals, rather than build new?

• If we must build new, how can we use the above two strategies combined with the most advanced green technology to create an environment which meets our client's goals with the least impact to the earth?

While new and improved technologies will continue to be very important in creating a condition of sustainability on the earth, equally if not more important is the imperative to reduce population growth and our total material consumption. Beyond our professional activities, architects, engineers and contractors need to take leadership in exploring, developing and promoting non-material ways of meeting our needs for community and identity, love and relationships, growth and learning, fulfillment and satisfaction. We must develop a post-consumer society with the most efficient, green technologies and solutions we can devise.

Christopher (Kit) Ratcliff is the third-generation leader of Ratcliff, a century-old, award-winning architectural firm in Emeryville, Calif.

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