Friday, February 10, 2012

When Technological Complexity Comes Home

Originally published March 13, 2011

As I write this the unintended negative consequences of technological complexity are being writ large in headlines from Japan as the world holds its collective breath waiting to see how much radioactive material might be released from several nuclear reactors in the midst of or on the verge of meltdown. There are few technologies more complex than a nuclear reactor; there are also probably not any on the planet with more built-in safeguards and precautionary redundancies, since the consequences of failure are so well known and are horrific on a scale and timeline that no other technology can match.

As our technologies have gotten more complex and grown in size, the scale of the problems when failures occur have grown in step. Even when technological complexity works according to plan, the scale of ecological and environmental devastation can be unprecedented, as mountain-top removal in southern Appalachia, the tar sands of Alberta, and the vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico remind us daily. It is no coincidence that the destruction of species and ecosystems has reached an epochal level at the same time.

But our culture’s ruling ideology, the story we tell ourselves as we confront each of these problems, is that we’re in control, we need just a little more technical competence, slightly better technologies, a little more time, and we can fix all the problems, and have a bright, clean, green, energy-efficient future of universal affluence. Don’t worry, the engineers and technologists reassure us, we are as gods, we are so close to omniscience that we can reach out and—almost, almost—touch it. We can control nature, orchestrate reality, organize the world.

No. The story is false. Its basic premises are wrong. No one is in control. Central intelligence, as we’ve known all along, is an oxymoron. The levees fail, reactors melt down, machines wear out, streams and rivers and oceans are poisoned, the climate is altered, a new extinction epoch commences. The unintended consequences gather and lives—human, animal, plant, insect—are shattered. These are today’s failures; tomorrow’s will be different, but equally unanticipated. The technologists and engineers are specialists, educated and paid, often quite well, to innovate discrete solutions to discrete problems.  The problem isn’t the inadequacy of their knowledge, the sincerity of their efforts, or the lack of the right technologies. The problem is that there are no discrete problems and no discrete solutions. There’s no discrete anything. There is only a universe of relationships, infinite in number and complex beyond belief or understanding or control. The individual, the species, even the culture or the ecosystem—these are useful fictions that make the world easy to describe and make sense of. But the edges of each are so jagged that none stands up to hard scrutiny. And it is at the edges, where one thing rubs up against another, that definitions are formed and knowledge comes into being.

Failure is the most salient feature of technological complexity. It is as inevitable as the sunset that ends each day. Resilience and stability, on the other hand, are the salient features of ecological complexity. The reason for the difference is that an ecology is organic; it’s alive and therefore adapts. It adapts one plant, one insect, one animal, one fungus at a time, each changing subtly over the generations (and perhaps even within a generation) in response to a dynamic world. The result is an accumulated intelligence that is dispersed throughout the entire ecology. There is no point of control, no central intelligence. 

The problems of a homestead economy are relatively simple: food, shelter, energy, clothing. As people always have, we rely on both ecology and technology to solve these problems, but as I wrote last week, we look first to the complexity of the native forest ecology and the lowest level of technological complexity available. In this we are simply following a conservative, commonsense strategy. For this is the combination that has worked in most places and most cultures for most of the human story. I’ve already begun to sketch the implications of this for food, and I want now to shift the focus to shelter, which after food is the largest item in a homestead economy.

Among most of the more progressive members of our culture, a rough consensus has emerged that the most pressing problems we face as a society are peak oil and climate change. The houses we live in, which require a lot of energy to build and then even more to heat and cool, are major contributors to both of these problems. So a lot of the thinking about houses right now is about how to retrofit existing ones or design new ones to make them a part of the solution to these problems. As a builder and a member of that progressive community, I think this is a good thing. But if we approach the problem like a technician, that is if we treat a house as a discrete entity and energy efficiency or conservation as a discrete problem with a discrete solution, we’ll almost certainly be hijacked by unintended consequences. In fact I’m cheating here, because we’ve already been down this path once, during the energy crisis of the late ‘70s, and the unintended consequences that resulted are a matter of record.

Asthma rates in the United States declined steadily from 1960 to 1979 (if you click on the link scroll to charts 9 and 10), due I think to a decrease in smoking rates and the beginning of the exodus of the industrial economy and its polluting factories for other countries. But in the 1970s the downward trend slowed and then reversed, quite sharply in fact, and after a one-year jump of about 40% in 1979 asthma rates began a steady increase that has continued to the present. What happened in the 1970s was the first energy crisis, and one of the solutions to that crisis: the beginnings of the airtight house. Americans were told to seal their houses tight against air infiltration as the best way to keep heat in and so reduce the amount of oil burned. The solution worked, just as any engineer or amateur physicist could have told you it would. But the solution was only designed to solve a single problem and therefore ignored the fact that a house is more than a mechanism for heat conservation. Its primary purpose is to shelter human beings, who have certain needs, among them a regular supply of fresh air. 

There are several ways to get fresh air into a house. One is through open windows and opening doors as people come and go. Another is through leaks in the building envelope. And the last is through mechanical ventilation systems. The problem in the 70s was that since houses had never before been built to be airtight, indoor air quality wasn’t seen as a problem, and builders had no reason to add the extra expense of mechanical ventilation. As airtight houses became more of a standard—a very haphazard standard however, since efforts at energy conservation in the 70s were mostly reversed in the 80s—mechanical ventilation systems became somewhat more common, though by no means ubiquitous (those asthma rates are still rising). The Passive House, a new design standard which has generated a lot of excitement recently among advocates of energy efficiency, carbon neutrality, and zero-net-energy buildings, mandates a very low level of air infiltration, making mechanical ventilation an absolute necessity.

An airtight house then is a technologically complex solution to building or retrofitting houses in a world of expensive and environmentally destructive fossil fuels. A few of the unintended consequences that such a building might create in the future can be guessed by uncovering the assumptions embedded in the house’s design and components. First, this level of complexity assumes that electricity will always be available, and without prolonged interruption. Without the ventilation system, you would have to open the windows to be able to breathe fresh air no matter what the temperature outside. Second, since the building is designed to be heated passively, it assumes that cooking will never generate a significant amount of heat. This is the norm today, with gas and electric ranges and ovens that don’t produce a lot of ambient heat, but it is a departure from most of history, when cooking was done with wood. Third, replacements and/or maintenance for the technologically complex components, such as the windows and ventilation system, will always be available. 

In short, the designers and promoters of the Passive House assume that the future will be more or less like the present, only with cleaner, greener, better technologies. Maybe. But a good case can also be made, based on present evidence and history, that the conditions that came together one time to make our technologically complex, industrial civilization possible are ephemeral, and that the not-so-far-off future will more closely resemble the eighth or eighteenth centuries than the early twenty-first. In that scenario, the Passive House becomes an over-designed solution to a set of circumstances that will exist only as a memory, and its usefulness as shelter will depend on its occupants’ tolerance for stale, unhealthy air or cold drafts from open windows.

The Passive House is an engineer’s house, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that it originated with the ideas of Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute. It’s been years since I’ve read his work, but I never found his arguments about technology and the future very compelling. He’s a techno-utopian, convinced that in the future we’ll all drive hyper cars that get 100 miles to the gallon and live and work in buildings that generate more energy than they use. I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario for the future, nor do I think it’s even desirable, for reasons I’ve made clear above and in last week’s post.  

We live in uncertain times. The blueprint of the future is blurry at best, illegible at worst, and I prefer to design and build houses that will be useful across the whole range of possible circumstances that might prevail at the end of this century than to pursue a perfect, but fragile standard of zero-energy use. The best way to do this is to build houses as part of an ecology, rather than as a complex technological solution to a set of technical problems. Passive solar and energy conservation are great strategies that should be at the heart of every residential building. They are essentially ecological strategies that can be implemented with a very low level of technology. I stop short of committing to building for a world that must necessarily be all but identical to the one we live in today. 

Next week I’ll discuss in detail the ecology of building I rely on for new construction. In the meantime there are all those leaky, inadequately insulated houses burning through our diminishing supplies of fossil fuels. It’s unfortunate that we’ve dotted the landscape with houses designed and built for a make-believe world where energy supplies are infinite and another frontier always awaits just over the next horizon. There are a few things we can do to adapt them to the real world that has rudely arrived on our doorsteps, but I’m afraid there are no simple, cheap and easy solutions to the problems posed by houses designed for a world that no longer exists.

So: what should you do if you already have a house and want to use less energy to heat it? First, use passive, ecological solutions. Turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater, thermal underwear and/or a hat. The human body has evolved to quickly adapt to a wide range of temperatures, and for the vast majority of history people lived at or close to the outdoor temperature. Put heavy or insulated curtains on the windows. If there are four or more people living in the house, go ahead and seal it up, even if it doesn’t have mechanical ventilation. Studies have shown that with four people coming and going, enough air is exchanged through the doors to supply adequate fresh air. With fewer than four people you want to be careful how tight you make it, unless you’re going to install a mechanical ventilation system. No matter how airtight your house, it’s also a good idea to minimize toxic substances and VOCs, which are common in everything from carpeting to furniture to kitchen cabinets to paints, stains, and oils. Use natural materials and buy no- or low-VOC products whenever possible.

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