The Problem with Predicaments

Last week we left off discussing the dim prospects of our metastatic cities in the face of accelerating energy descent and ecological decline. Though many fellow planners agree there are challenges at hand, there is wide dissensus about the severity of consequences our cities will endure.

This week I’d like to carry that theme forward a bit and discuss specifically why I hold deep reservations about the efficacy of insular planning in dealing with the these consequences which include rising levels of biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, topsoil loss, salinization, ocean acidification, toxification of the environment, carbon emissions, and resource depletion.

Behind every set of policies is an endorsement of an underlying set of beliefs, and insular planning is no different. Insular planning is my designation for those policies that seek to offset the side effects of what’s believed to be a state of permanent and dependable economic growth. These side effects include traffic congestion, food deserts, and other liveability issues. These policies are all well and fine in dealing with the many issues that pop up as a result of economic growth, but are sorely out of touch with the realities of the present and near future, particularly with regard to energy, resource, and capital availability.

In short they miss the big picture that the indefinite economic growth model that we’ve come to expect over the course of the Age of Exuberance has begun to sputter and will soon fail, due mostly to the fact that the ecological basis of its existence is being undermined by human activity. As a result, our metastatic cities – those that rely on vast quantities of cheap energy and resources delivered along distant supply lines – will suffer mightily.

I could go into more detail regarding insular planning’s flawed underlying belief in infinite economic growth (and will in subsequent posts). But this week I’d rather focus on the pitfalls of its other central tenet: the blind faith in infinite technological progress.

Over the course of the Age of Exuberance – a period of time from roughly 1500 AD to now – technological progress has unfailingly proceeded to deliver greater efficiencies to our machines and industrial processes, thereby providing many in the Western world with material wealth beyond prior generations’ wildest dreams.

It’s important to note that the wellspring of this technological progress did not lie simply in the creativity of Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, or James Watt. Instead, much of the progress could be attributed to the ability of these men to figuring out how to apply unlimited new sources of available energy to existing, rudimentary processes.

After all, the steam engine is well known to have been invented nearly 2,000 years ago by Hero of Alexandria. However, without the widespread application of fossil fuel energy to this technology in the late 19th century, the steam engine would remain a mere child’s toy to this day.

Many other technologies we take for granted these days are like the steam engine in that they depend upon huge energy surpluses to function. The phenomenon of energy ascent – that is, rising energy per capita – served as a key component of the Age of Exuberance. The enormous energy surplus came in the form mostly of fossil fuels, which allowed inventors like James Watt to apply nearly unlimited energy to all manner of automated machine. To this day, fossil fuels account for roughly 80% of the world’s total energy use.

However, energy ascent is petering out just now, as fossil fuel supplies have recently plateaued.  Correspondingly, we are currently transitioning into a period of energy descent – falling energy per capita – as the Age of Sufficiency takes hold. Because high technology is inherently energy intensive, it will suffer the indignities of diminishing returns and will likely play less of a role in our collective future.

This idea runs counter to the expectations of those who carry water for insular planning strategies. They’re confident that technological ingenuity and applications can decelerate or even reverse the unhappy trends of ecological decline and resource depletion. Their faith is based in the mass implementation of energy efficiency and renewable energy generation strategies.

The dominant narrative suggests that by incrementally requiring tighter energy efficiency standards and gradually installing renewable energy over time we can replace energy-intensive arrangements of living with arrangements of living that are less energy intensive on a per capita basis.

It views each energy-inefficient building and piece of infrastructure as a discrete problem awaiting the application of efficiency improvements. Over a long enough timeline, all the individual inefficient buildings and infrastructure can be replaced with more efficient ones. Once efficiency levels have reached some point in the future, we can make a full transition to renewable energy, thus ditching fossil fuels for good while continuing to grow our economy without hard sacrifices.

But when many of these energy plans are boiled down and set against the ongoing worldwide trends now underway, a stark incongruity emerges. We are asked to believe that we can add 2 billion people, grow our economy over three times over, reduce reliance on fossil fuels 90%, and reduce total energy requirements 72% in the next 38 years, all while the ecological basis for our survival is undermined. This is an ambitious plan to say the least.

I’m more than a little skeptical that all these facets will come together as expected. I just don’t see a way for us to ‘tech’ our way out of this one. And I expect the consequences of energy descent and ecological overshoot to increasingly undermine insular planning efforts over the remainder of this century.

The way I see it, the challenges we face are not a collection of discrete problems in need of technological ingenuity, but a predicament that requires a new way of considering the situation. Problems and predicaments are different in that the former presents a situation that is discrete and solvable, like a math problem. Predicaments on the other hand are intertwined and intractable, like painting yourself into a corner. Predicaments offer no solutions; only sub-optimal choices about how to proceed.

Predicaments require a broad perspective, and employing systems thinking is a way to expand perspective. Systems thinking allows you to identify how you got where you are so that efforts can be directed at addressing the root cause of the circumstances you face. Technological ingenuity designs a thicker helmet, systems thinking suggests you take up a new hobby; technological ingenuity invents a new quadruple bypass surgery, systems thinking suggests you eat a healthier diet. You get the idea.

In terms of cities and urban planning, systems thinking tells us to put energy efficiency and renewable energy approaches in larger contexts that don’t confuse high activity levels with progress, or winning battles with winning wars.

Systems thinking also suggest we step back and consider the workability of proposed “solutions” in light of physical and natural laws. When we do this, we gain convincing evidence that neither large-scale renewable nor additional non-renewable energy schemes can sustain the growth model or reliably reduce the severity of the massive predicament before us.

It’s true that local, small-scale renewable energy schemes will be vitally important in the Age of Sufficiency, but physical and natural laws shows us that no combination of alternative fuels will, as James Howard Kunstler says, “allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World and the other furnishings of what Dick Cheney called our ‘non-negotiable way of life.’”

Fossil fuel-based arrangements of living are going away and will be replaced by much less energy-intensive arrangements of living. Sufficiency planning is my term for the strategies we planners can employ to bridge the transition from these metastatic arrangements of living to authentic ones based in locally-available energy and resources.

Sufficiency planning strategies are oriented toward a future of slowly grinding energy descent and everything that entails. I’m well aware that those of you expecting zombie apocalypse or magical hamster wheel-powered techno-Utopia will be disappointed to hear this. But if energy descent represents the future we’re most likely to get, I figure we ought to prepare for it by bringing sufficiency planning mainstream. And that process should be straightforward because sufficiency planning is based in two simple concepts: curtailment and resilience.

Curtailment means taking actions that lead to reductions in energy use in real terms. It’s illuminating to contrast curtailment with efficiency. Whereas efficiency congratulates itself with reductions in energy intensity – a ratio of the units of input per units of output – curtailment only advocates for real – that is, absolute – reductions in energy use. The reason curtailment works and efficiency doesn’t is simple: Mother Nature doesn’t care how efficient you are; she only cares for raw totals.

You see, the problem with energy efficiency is that it can rise indefinitely while total energy use also rises: all you have to do is add more people to the denominator. It’s little more than an accounting trick. Obviously this is not the kind of energy policy you want for a finite world which expects 2 billion more souls by 2050. But, in a nutshell that sums up the insular planning strategy.

Further, there’s no evidence to suggest that efficiency guarantees the frugal use of resources; in fact, it makes frugality less necessary. I will talk about the phenomenon of takeback in future posts. For now, it’s important to recognize that efficiency is a result of scarcity and never the cause of conservation – yet another justification for curtailment.

The second key to sufficiency planning is resilience. Resilience is the quality of being able to manage threats and challenges from the outside. Elemental strategies to promote resilience include local food and energy production, and establishing locally-based economic relationships. It also includes building and encouraging social cohesiveness amongst and within communities – not in the virtual realm, but in actual meatspace.

Resilience is important because long supply lines will likely be disrupted in our energy scarce future, leaving metastatic cities to procure resources from within their own regions. If left to their own devices many metastatic cities would founder, as they are too dependent on distant locales for food, water, communication, building materials, entertainment, finished goods, financing sources, and so on. Cities that have implemented curtailment measures – having cut energy and resource needs – and embarked on fostering resilience – creating local food, energy, and economic solutions – will fare better than most during the Age of Sufficiency.

In short, physical and natural laws reveal that any urban planning strategy which doesn’t require curtailment of energy use in real terms and ensure the resilience of our cities’ local food and energy supplies is simply not serious. That’s not a political statement or merely my opinion. Present and future circumstances are compelling us to seriously consider and articulate far less energy-intensive arrangements of living.

Though we planners can’t guarantee a high standard of living for everyone in the Age of Sufficiency, we can work to create cities that provide a high quality of life for the entire citizenry.  Next week I’ll talk at length about arrangements of living that lend themselves to doing just that – all within the ecological limits of their particular regions.

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