The Eco-Technic Civilization
March 2, 2014
The notion of an “eco-technic civilization” is popular these days. It is a good alternative to the “retro-eco” idea which is everywhere today — that to be in harmony with the earth, one should live in some sort of 19th century pioneer subsistence-farmer fashion. Actually, people in the 19th century were not particularly environmentally aware at all. They scoured the oceans for whales so they could light oil lamps, and deforested much of the North American continent before coal became cheaper than wood. Isn’t a solar-powered LED light better than that? Wouldn’t you rather cook on a modern gas stove (could be from renewable sources, including wood gas, or ethanol) rather than on a primitive wood stove? Team retro-eco then goes farther back in their wayback machine, to perhaps the preindustrial 18th century, or Native American primitivism. One problem with this is that it won’t support large populations. The estimated population of the world in 1750 was 791 million people, about 11% of today’s number.
Can’t we keep the best parts of today’s civilization, but fix the bad parts? Is this such a bad idea? Of course, it’s a good idea. Alas, Team Techno-Eco today is usually pretty stupid too.
Typically, it means reproducing much of what we have today — basically, Suburban Hell — with windmills and electric cars. This doesn’t really accomplish much, and barely moves the needle in terms of resolving our environmentally destructive behaviors.
Let’s think about what we want. We want to allow the natural world to flourish, as it did in perhaps 1000 AD. The oceans, rivers and lakes should be pristine. Much of the world can be wilderness, surrounding pockets of civilization.
Let’s assume that there will be no depopulation. We need a solution for 7 billion people. Not more than that (actually, the birth rate in almost all the world now, outside of Africa, is below replacement), but 7 billion.
This is a big topic. I think I will approach it by addressing a number of specific points — sort of a detail-to-big-picture path, rather than a top-down path.
You can be very techno while also being very eco. Lots of the things we like best about present technology have virtually no ecological impact. For example: the Internet. Love it. Yes, servers and computers take electricity to run, but it is a relatively small amount compared to the electricity used for water heaters and other home heating. The Internet presently consumes an estimated 10% of total electricity consumption in North America. But, most of this is actually end devices — your PC. A notebook computer uses about 10% of the power of a desktop PC (15 watts vs 150 watts). So, that can also be reduced very easily, with hardly any disadvantages. You can have your smartphone and iPad in the ecotechnic future. Why not? There are other things, like modern antibiotics and the better bits of modern medicine, which we can also keep, as they are cheap and easy to produce, with little environmental consequences. Of course there are lots of techno solutions that actually improve our eco footprint. CFL or, better yet, LED lights are one. It would be great if we could get solar panel efficiency above 15%, to perhaps 60% or higher.
Most people will live in cities or towns, and will not be farmers. Today, about 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. Let’s say that rises to 10%. That implies a 5x loss of efficiency — that each food producer produces only one-fifth as much food as is normal today. Not necessarily a good thing. But, if we don’t use chemical fertilizers, GMO seeds, excessive mechanization, and destructive or unsustainable irrigation, and concentrate on more local food production, maybe that’s a price we can pay. Even so, that means 90% of the population is not involved in food production. These people DO NOT live on farms, including mini-ersatz farms (suburbia), which means they live in cities. These cities should be in the Traditional City format which I’ve written about at length. This is good, because a person living in a Traditional City actually uses far less resources than someone living in the country. Remember, we are making a plan for all seven billion of us. It would be best if most of those people are in compact, ecologically sound Traditional Cities.
March 14, 2010: The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together
April 4, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms 2: How Many Acres Can Sustain a Family?
March 28, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms
In general, the larger and denser the city, the less CO2 emissions (a proxy for energy use) per person.
Of course, if you tried a little, you could get it way below this. Better insulation and more trains/fewer cars would do it.
The denser the city, the lower the transport-related energy use. This is because people who live in denser cities tend to use trains instead of cars. Trains are 10x more efficient, on a person/kilometer basis, than cars.
Also, travel distances are a lot shorter, because the city is dense. Finally, you can make a lot of trips by foot in your neighborhood, thus eliminating the need for mechanized transport altogether.
Get rid of the personal automobile (or other “personal transportation” including bicycles). Transportation should be primarily by rail — and, of course, walking. There’s really no need for personal automobiles for people living in cities, especially if we use a Traditional City format instead of Suburban Hell. Today, many people live in cities large and small (by “city” I mean any urban place from a village of 300 up to a megalopolis of 10 million+), who don’t have automobiles and don’t need them. Just like that, but more so. Bicycles can be OK as an adjunct to a fully-realized train system, but what you find is that, if you have a good train system, you don’t need bikes. Plus, excessive reliance on bicycles has its own problems, which are not nearly as big as the problems related to automobiles, but actually quite significant, particularly in the Traditional City environment.
Once you use trains instead of cars, you free yourself from fossil fuel dependence because a train system typically runs on electricity, which can be generated from wind, solar, or what have you.
What a real train system looks like. The Tokyo region train system. Click on the pic for a larger version.
Here is some info on energy use by JR East, that I’ve noted before:
Trains are 10x more energy efficient than automobiles: The East Japan Railway Company (JR East) provides the primary rail service for the eastern half of Japan, including Tokyo. It serves a population of about 70 million people, and includes metropolitan areas, small cities, and rural lines. It includes high-speed and normal-speed trains, rush-hour and off-peak, commuter and intercity, urban and rural. It is a good measure of a large-scale real-life train system under the whole spectrum of real-life conditions. For 2004, JR East said that it averaged 0.35MJ/passenger-km. A liter of gasoline contains about 35MJ of energy. In other words, the average passenger is getting the equivalent of about 100km/liter or 223 miles per gallon while riding the train. Assuming an average 20mpg for a passenger car and average 1.1 passengers, the train is about 10x more energy efficient than an automobile.
What is not evident in this comparison, however, is that in a Traditional City with trains, you make a lot more trips on foot — to school, to the store, to work. Everything is much closer — in walking distance, which is sort of the point. We saw that you could have a city of as many as 200,000 where you could literally walk everywhere, and not need a bike, train, or automobile at all. Second, the distances are much smaller. You don’t commute 15 or 20 miles, you commute maybe five miles, which seems like a long way because there is “so much there there,” to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. If your city is all Place and no NoPlace, there is a tremendous amount of stuff in five miles of travel. For example, Manhattan from the southern tip of the island to the northern edge of Central Park is about seven miles. Just think of all the stuff in that distance. So, I would also say that intracity trips would tend to be shorter than is the case for driving around Suburban Hell. If you make fewer trips (because many are walking), and the trips are shorter (Traditional City vs. Suburban Hell), and the train is 10x more efficient per passenger-km, then the true energy efficiency of the Traditional City/train combo is probably 20x-30x better than Suburban Hell/personal autos.
But, the best form of transportation is walking. At a population density of 50,000/square mile, which is about the average for central Paris (some neighborhoods exceed 100,000/sq mi), a small city of 40,000 people would fit in a circle of a radius of one-half mile. That means you could walk from the center to any point in the city in less than fifteen minutes, or from any point in the city to the center (where the intercity train station is) in less than 15 minutes, or from one side to the other in less than thirty minutes. You wouldn’t need trains, buses, or any mechanized transport at all at that size. At a radius of one mile — everyone can walk to the central train station within thirty minutes or less — you could have a city of 160,000 people, which still wouldn’t need a train system, but might use a small bus system with perhaps two routes.
Of course, we can still use motorized transport where it is appropriate — mostly for commercial vehicles, such as cargo vans and trucks, buses, and taxis.
The big improvements are in things that are not very “techno.” Our Heroic Materialist thinking patterns lead us to believe that the best solutions involve difficult and expensive technology. But, actually, the big gains are to be had in things with simple technology, or no technology at all. For example, if we lived in smaller living spaces with better insulation, we could cut our energy and resource use tremendously with hardly any “technology” at all. Since most people would be living in Traditional Cities, apartments would be the norm for many, which brings additional advantages. Even the largest and most opulent townhouses, though very expensive, would not use very much in the way of natural resources after they were built — probably less than a modest suburban home today. And even if the resident was chauffered around town by a driver in a twelve-cylinder Mercedes S600 sedan, instead of taking the subway like normal people, they probably wouldn’t be driving very far, or very often. It’s not about hardship and deprivation. You can live very luxuriously, in the Traditional City, and also have very modest ecological effect or resource use.
822 square foot, three-bedroom apartment.
Put R-45 insulation in the walls and you’re done.
All that a family needs to live a very comfortable, modern lifestyle. Most people should live in something like this (smaller for singles or couples).
You can have a 25,000sf townhouse or compound as well if you want. But, of course, only a few would have that — too few to really change things much.
This family of four lives in 165 square feet — and loves it! You don’t have to do that. But, it shows that 850sf for a family of four or five is certainly more than enough.
Less meat. If you look at land use in North America, much of it is for agriculture. Most of the agriculture is monoculture of GMO crops including corn, soy, wheat and rapeseed. Most of this (about 70% in North America) is used as feed for animals. It takes roughly ten calories of animal feed to produce one calorie of meat. If we simply ate the vegetables/beans/grains, instead of meat, then we would need a lot less land for agriculture, which means that we could allow marginal lands to return to a natural state, or we could accept a lower yield per acre (for organically-grown foods) without difficulty. Also, we would probably have a lot more variety, because who wants to eat nothing but corn/beans all the time. You don’t have to become a vegan. But, you could eat perhaps 70% less meat than you do today, and hardly notice it. For example, rather than the “big slab of meat in the middle” cooking typical of American food today, you could use meat as more of a flavoring, like pepperoni on pizza, or chicken in a pasta sauce, or beef in a soup, or pork in a Chinese dish served in the typical Chinese manner on top of rice, or ham in a sub sandwich (but not as much ham as is common today). You can still have the “big slab of meat,” but maybe only once or twice a month.
Wild meat, not farmed. One big idea is that we could transition to wild meat — wild game and fish — from farmed meat (including fish) common today. The fact of the matter is, the productivity prairie grassland–>bison pattern, and the natural productivity of the oceans when left unmolested, is far greater than any system we can develop. We should just let nature do its thing in its own natural way, to create far more meat than we can produce by trying to “control nature.” Plus, obviously, there’s no work involved. Much of the North American continent can be returned to its natural prairie/bison/deer state. We could harvest about 10% of the total each year, which wouldn’t alter the total productivity much. Likewise, we could allow the oceans and fisheries to return to their full productivity of perhaps a thousand years ago, and harvest about 10% of this each year with little negative effect. We would probably get more from harvesting 10% of a HUGE AMOUNT of fish — it was only a hundred years ago that people talked about so many salmon that it seemed you could walk across a major river on their backs — than we get today from trying to catch every fish in the depleted oceans. (Today, roughly 70% of all the mature fish in the ocean are caught each year.)
Let’s put some numbers on it. In The Unnatural History of the Sea (2009), marine biologist Dr. Callum Roberts estimates that the total biomass of fish in the oceans today is three percent — yes, three percent! — of what it was in 1000AD. He also estimates that, of this remaining 3%, 70% of all the mature fish are caught each year. Obviously, 3%*70%=2.1%. That’s why a lot of fish production has been transitioning to farmed fish in the last ten years. The wild fish is gone. If we allowed the oceans to recover their full health, and then harvested 10% of this each year, which seems “sustainable” to me, then we would have 100%*10%=10%, which is five times more than we are getting today. Heck, maybe we can cut it to a 3% harvest — still producing more that today — because who wants to eat so many fish, really.
Permaculture and other natural farming methods. Some of our best “eco-technology” today is about farming methods which are very natural and effective. This is not “traditional” 19th century-style agriculture at all, but actually new stuff. For example, no-till farming, or the use of “seedballs” as promoted by Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan. The “Permaculture” tradition contains many good ideas, but there are others as well.
Oddly enough, I am not particularly against the “three thousand mile Caesar Salad.” Train and ship transportation are relatively energy-efficient, and I don’t think people are really ready to transition to a pre-1850 strictly seasonal/local diet. In the Northeast, there is nothing coming out of local farms from November to June. Are you ready to go eight months straight with no lettuce, broccoli, carrots, peppers, apples, berries, pears, fresh tomatoes, or cucumbers? Not to mention foods that are not local at all. I kinda like my bananas and oranges in winter. And avocados. Yes, we could give this up too, but I think that the advantages are relatively small and the disadvantages relatively great. Maybe we could have a more seasonal/local diet, but still have some Florida oranges in winter.
You can use 90% less electricity/energy and still live a modern lifestyle. One thing people don’t understand well is that you can actually cut your home energy use by 80%-90%, while still enjoying nearly all the advantages of modern life — electric lights, refrigerators, convenient train transportation, the Internet, washing machines, and so forth. This is not just my fantasy, but the daily experience of many already, particularly those living “off grid” with solar power.
May 3, 2009: A Bazillion Windmills
October 17, 2010: The Problem of Scarcity 3: Resource Scarcity
We already saw how people in dense, train-centric cities like Hong Kong or Singapore are using about 10% of the transportation-related energy of people living in Suburban Hell in Atlanta or Houston. But, they aren’t even thinking about it. Much the same is true for other aspects of our lives as well. You just set things up so that they inherently don’t need much energy. I’ve noted that a typical notebook computer uses only about 10% the electricity of a desktop computer. So, you just use a notebook computer instead of a desktop computer — which has a number of other advantages as well — and you can cut your energy use there by 90%, and never have to think about it again.
For example, a lot of energy used by the typical house is for hot water. It takes a whole lot of heat to heat water, as you know when you see how long it takes to heat two quarts of water on the stove in a tea kettle. Now imagine how much heat it takes to heat that 50 gallon tank in your basement! How much less hot water could we use here? A front-loading washer uses about half the hot water as a top-load washer, for example. (Ideally, you could just use cold water to wash and rinse, but often the results aren’t so good that way.)
To take a more extreme line, you don’t really need much water at all to clean yourself. I’ve “showered” regularly with as little as a half-gallon of warm water, including washing my hair. It’s actually not that big a deal. For example, this five gallon “sunshower” for camping is rated for 4-5 showers — obviously, about one gallon per shower.
You can have high-rise buildings if you want. People tend to associate high-rise buildings with unpleasant 19th Century Hypertrophic urban environments, as is common in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Either that, or the 20th Century Hypertrophic “tower in a park” disaster of places like Dubai. They want somewhere much more pleasant and friendly to live in, like a Traditional City environment. But, if you want, I think you can combine high-rise architecture with the best elements of pre-1900 Traditional City design, creating pleasant outdoor spaces for humans while also having very tall buildings. This is basically the “towers around a park” plus “pedestrian streets” combo. This could allow you to do population densities in excess of 200,000 people per square mile — although there is really not much advantage to be gained from such a thing. Yes, density above the typical 8,000/sq mi of densest forms of Suburban Hell (some parts of Los Angeles) would be good, but you don’t win any awards for trying to push that needle to the limit. Still, it’s an option to consider.
September 23, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau 3: Really Narrow Streets With High-Rises
August 26, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau 2: More Place and Less Non-Place
August 19, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau
July 20, 2008: The Traditional City vs. the “Radiant City”
Personally, I prefer the Traditional City in its traditional low-rise form (typically six stories or less), which is capable of creating wonderfully pleasant environments with population densities of 100,000/sq mi or more. However, this is the “eco-technic” solution, and if tall buildings give you a techno-woody, then go ahead and do it.
Much less “stuff” — much more “experience.” In other words, services instead of manufacturing/construction/retail. Also, potentially much better stuff — handmade and high-quality — because, if you are buying much less stuff, you can spend a lot more on each item. This is a natural consequence of living in compact Traditional Cities without a car, rather than the suburban McMansion. If you live in a 800 square foot apartment, and you don’t have a private yard but rather a shared courtyard and local park, you just don’t buy that much. Besides no car, there’s no garage, patio, deck, yard, media room, guest bedroom, attic, breakfast nook — thus no need for all that furniture and furnishings, riding lawn mower, hot tub or pool, snow blower, and all the other crap we spend our money on before we are even able to spend it on stuff that we really like. Closets tend to be small. What, then, do you spend your money on? It tends to be services, or “experiences.” Like restaurants, clubs, bars, tea houses, theaters, music and other performing arts, galleries or museums, gyms/racquet clubs/yoga studios/personal trainers/etc., social clubs, day spas, tutoring or other education, hobbies, travel and lodging, and so forth. All the attractions of the Traditional City in which you live. These are, by nature, not very consumptive of natural resources, and have been a major attraction of cities from far before the industrial era.
Along those lines, especially for those of below-average incomes, the overall result can be much, much better. If you don’t own a car, and can live in a modest arrangement of as little as 150 square feet which is inherently cheap to build and perhaps you can even build yourself, and which is easy to heat and cool and takes very little in the way of utilities, and which is in a beautiful Traditional City environment, you can enjoy all the advantages of modern civilization with hardly any expense at all. Everything else is pure gravy.
This is the opposite of what we have today — where the basic “American Lifestyle” including an automobile and a large residence, is unaffordable to many Americans, including those who are actually in the top 10% in terms of income! So, instead of “giving things up,” like that was some kind of hardship, we are really getting our lives back. We no longer need to be lifelong debt slaves to the American Lifestyle.
June 16, 2013: The New World Economics Guide to Curing Affluenza
December 15, 2013: The New World Economics Guide to Curing Affluenza 2: the Affluenza of the Poor
September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity
September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It’s All In Your Head
October 17, 2010: The Problem of Scarcity 3: Resource Scarcity
So, what does this all look like?
It is very important to form an image in people’s minds. Let’s do that here:
We live in more compact spaces in beautiful Traditional City environments — with all the modern conveniences including good plumbing and sewage, clean water, electricity, and R-48+ insulation in colder climates.
Lyon, France. This stuff exists today. Just imitate it. Note that we have a “Really Narrow” pedestrian street, with people walking down the middle of the street, and no automobiles in this photo (parked or moving), although you could probably use this street to make deliveries and pickups with a truck when needed.
Lyon is the third-largest city in France, with 1.5 million in the “urban” area and 2.1 million in the “Greater Lyon” area. Note the Traditional City format, with buildings generally of six stories or less.
You can use this model for small towns of 5,000 people or metropolises of 10 million+ people.
Actually, although I am calling this the “eco-technic civilization,” it actually looks kinda retro. We really don’t need any Jetsons nonsense. It is more about updating the greatest successes of our past with modern technology such as good plumbing, sewage and sanitation, electricity, electric trains, and Internet-y stuff. Not much more than that really. Of course, places like Lyon already have all that today, so it is not like I am making this stuff up.
We have beautiful public parks within walking distance of our homes. Public park in Frankfurt, Germany.
We might even introduce courtyard architecture, to provide parklike places adjacent to our homes. Courtyard of an apartment building, Paris, France.
Courtyard in China.
Don’t really need that suburban yard anymore. And no maintenance!
We have a fully-realized subway, metropolitan surface train, and intercity rail system — see the Tokyo Train Map above.
Although there would likely be bus and taxi access, the train station should not be surrounded by acres of parking lots. It should be integrated into the Traditional City environment — a place for people, not cars.
This is the Windsor and Eton station, Britain. Most smaller localities will have a small intercity station like this at the center. For larger cities, a station like this would be an intra-city station, for neighborhoods outside the central subway system.
We use renewable energy as much as is reasonable. We can still use some fossil fuels (or perhaps even hydrocarbons from renewable sources), but much less than today. This is accomplished mostly by simply using less energy. If we used 20% of the energy we use today — which, as we see, is not real difficult — then it would not be hard at all to generate that much smaller amount with renewable means.
Solar panels being installed on the roof of a large commercial building.
Our food is grown organically and sustainably, using advanced Permaculture and other such techniques where possible.
Farms can be smaller, and family-owned, but will still be large enough to enjoy efficiencies of scale — probably in the 50-300 acre range.
European village. Although this village is in an agricultural region, this village itself is a dense urban place, and there is a distinct transition to farmland.
We don’t try to mix the “city” and “farms” — i.e. suburbia.
Chinese village. Again, a dense urban place, and farmlands. Don’t mix them.
Our oceans, lakes and rivers return to their natural state of outrageous abundance.
“So thick you could walk across the river on their backs.” Salmon run, Alaska, 1943.
The forests return to their old-growth grandeur because … what do we need wood for, anyway?
Instead of “things” — giant houses, our big suburban backyards, multiple automobiles, pools, vacation houses, boats, etc. — we are more interested in “experiences.”
Bar in Venice, Italy.
Bar in Britain.
Whatever you may think about this sort of thing … the environmental impact is about the same as planting tulips, and it has no effect on the bison roaming the plains or old growth forests hundreds of miles away.
“Experience” rather than “things.”
You can live an earth-friendly “eco-technic” lifestyle without being particularly virtuous. The virtue is built into the systems: compact Traditional Cities, trains, renewable energy, enlightened agriculture. You don’t have to think about it.
Today, you need an enormous amount of eco-virtue to counteract the consequences of disastrous systems. So, sort of the opposite of that.
Music, theater, opera, and other performing arts. (La Scala opera house.)
Superlative architecture. (Shanghai old city and garden.)
Beautiful places for people. (Shanghai old city.)
Doing things rather than “consuming.” (Anton Krupicka running in the Rockies. Can’t get much more Eco than this. And, it’s free!)
Yes, trains and big mountains go together. You take the train to the nearest station, then a bus to the trailhead. I used to do this about every other weekend in Japan, and never needed a car, even a rental car.
Enjoying life rather than buying stuff. (Picnic, 1870s.)
Just wear some nice clothes, walk to the park about five minutes from your house, and have some coffee. It’s about as Eco as you can be.
You can have an opulent lifestyle, and also be eco-friendly. This Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City townhouse is featured in theopulentlifestyle.info.
Library of the same Greenwich Village townhouse.
(It’s for sale for $17.5 million.)
This townhouse is probably on a typical 20×100 plot of land — only 2000 square feet! And, it doesn’t have a garage.
(Actually, 2000sf is a lot for a townhouse. 1000sf is more common, even 600sf, but this is the “opulent” version.)
With 10% of land area for Really Narrow Streets, and 10% as public parks, you could fit over 11,000 houses like this in a square mile, including the big backyard.
At five people per house (it is 7,000 square feet), that would be 55,000 people per square mile. And this is the “opulent lifestyle.”
For comparison: Greenwich, Connecticut, which is the “Suburban Hell version of the opulent lifestyle,” has a population density of 930 per square mile, and three automobiles per house. Also very opulent — but with catastrophic environmental implications, while the Greenwich Village townhouse is very eco-friendly.
Do it the Greenwich Village way, not the Greenwich, Connecticut way. Is that so horrible? Obviously, someone is willing to pay $17.5 million to live this way, so how bad can it be.
Same Greenwich Village townhouse, backyard. I don’t like this design much, but you can see there is plenty of space. Plus, a public park nearby too.
“Really Narrow” pedestrian street, about 20 feet wide, and townhouses, Philadelphia.
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a 178sf apartment in Brooklyn. You can live in a small space and still be classy, and have plenty of money and resources for the Rest of Your Life, instead of exhausting yourself on your stupid shelter.
(I think it is larger than 178sf total. That probably doesn’t include the bathroom and closets.)
We take pleasure in beautifying our lives. This is how people used to dress … in the preindustrial age.
Why are you still wearing that crap from H&M and The Limited?
Native American Kiowa girl, authentic traditional clothing, around 1910.
As Eco as it gets. And also very elegant and beautiful. There’s no need to be slummy.
We eat Real Food. Mostly Plants. And Not Too Much.
No more of this chemical factory food.
Even if you are in a rush, you can make oatmeal or reheat some soup, or have some salad, bread and cheese.
Or–if you really want to eat in just sixty seconds–some dates, dried plums and a glass of orange juice. There’s no need for processed food.
June 3, 2012: The New World Economics Guide To Outrageous Health and Fitness
The Eco-Technic Civilization. Try to imagine it. If you can imagine it, you can have it! It is actually cheaper and easier to do than today’s Suburban Hell.
And soooo much better.