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Quality of life through design
Improving Technics, or “The Design Imperative”
Our quality of life, both collectively and individually, is more dependent on how we use our energy than on how much of it we use. This hypothesis continues that we can better influence our quality of life through improving technics than through increasing energy consumption.
Poor or Rich
Is this a picture of a “poor” fishing village or one of the world’s most exclusive resort islands? Actually, it’s both: the idyllic island of Panarea (just north of Sicily).
What is it about Tuscany or the South of France? What is it about Kauai, or a sleepy Costa Rican fishing village? These are often held up as the ideals of quality of life, yet they are certainly not exemplars of conspicuous energy consumption. Sure, the visiting tourists may be expending copious quantities of energy, but the locals - the objects of our jealousy - are generally not. Powerdown concepts such as localized farming, vernacular architecture, and strong community ties are on display. These features are, generally, not the result of conscious design, but does that mean that they cannot be consciously designed? This seems to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving technics as a means of addressing quality of life after peak energy.
If we choose to pursue technics as a means of maintaining or improving our quality of life, how should we organize this pursuit? Here are three suggestions: decentralized, open source, and vernacular.
What makes a great quality of life?
All this may seem very abstract and theoretical... what does it actually mean? Jeff Vail has discussed the issue at length in several articles, which can be accessed via his Rhizome Theory Directory, but here is an example. Let’s start by taking discrete examples of places that produce a quality of life seemingly disproportionate to their energy consumption. There are countless examples, but we’ll choose the Tuscan village.
How is the Tuscan village decentralized? Production is localized. Admittedly, everything isn’t local. Not by a long shot. But compared to American suburbia, a great percentage of food and building materials are produced and consumed in a highly local network. A high percentage of people garden and shop at local farmer’s markets.
How is the Tuscan village open source? Tuscan culture historically taps into a shared community pool of technics in recognition that a sustainable society is a non-zero-sum game. Most farming communities are this way - advice, knowledge, and innovation is shared, not guarded. Beyond a certain threshold of size and centralization, the motivation to protect and exploit intellectual property seems to take over (another argument for decentralization). There is no reason why we cannot share innovation in technics globally, while acting locally - in fact, the internet now truly makes this possible, leveraging our opportunity to use technics to improve quality of life.
How is the Tuscan village vernacular? You don’t see many “Colonial-Style” houses in Tuscany. Yet strangely, in Denver they are everywhere. Why? They make no more sense in Denver than in Tuscany. The difference is that the Tuscans recognize (mostly) that locally-appropriate, locally-sourced architecture improves quality of life. The architecture is suited to their climate and culture, and the materials are available locally. Same thing with their food - they celebrate what is available locally, and what is in season. Nearly every Tuscan with the space has a vegetable garden. And finally (though the pressures of globalization are challenging this), their culture is vernacular. They celebrate local festivals, local harvests, and don’t rely on manufactured, mass-marketed, and global trends for their culture nearly as much as disassociated suburbanites - their strong sense of community gives prominence to whatever “their” celebration is over what the global economy tells them it should be.
Improving technics is, of course, the flip side of the conservation coin. If our quality of life is dependent on levels of energy consumption, then conservation must decrease quality of life. For that reason, the conservation measures that work are those that are based on technics - ways of using energy more efficiently to achieve the same quality of life.
All of these technics - localized food production, increased self-sufficiency, vernacular architecture, strong sense of community - seem to improve quality of life. Causation can never be proven, but the anecdotal experience above tells us that the correlation between these factors and seemingly disproportionate quality of life to energy use is very high.
These factors - borrowed from extant examples - are only the tip of the iceberg in the field of possible ways to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. There seem to be infinite possibilities - most of which do not have historical exemplars - for new and exciting technics. The resurgence and development of ideas such as Permaculture, Vernacular Architecture, and Slow Food seem to support the possibilities here. This is what might be called a “Design Imperative”: a globally cooperative, open-source effort to create and continuously improve a library of technics to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. No concrete solutions have been presented in this essay. Even the notion of focusing on technics, not energy availability, is not new — see Richard Heinberg’s “Powerdown,” the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, or Transition Town Totnes for just a few examples of pioneers in this area. This idea must be open source, just like the solutions it may provide. What we can hope is to help convince people to consider this as a worthwhile method of addressing our energy crisis. It seems unlikely that the “way of thinking” that got us into this crisis will also get us out. That old “way of thinking” is the same one that is currently trying to solve the energy crisis through efficiency and “alternatives.” The Design Imperative is the suggestion that we should focus instead on the conscious development of technics - a new way of thinking.
- The Design Imperative, April 08, 2007