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Ingenuity and the Energy Descent

All of the gadgets and technology we are surrounded with today are most commonly the result of cheap fuel, and the ability for ideas to grow, in a similar way as we see all the mashups of Google Maps – taking one idea and building something of specific use on top of that technology. It’s almost a leapfrog scenario, where the pace of development exceeds the rate of production.

Products are obsolete when they hit the shelves. The value of products are diminished by the fact that consumers are aware that something better is likely to emerge from behind the corporate firewall in weeks or months.

Is this a sustainable model?

The Second Industrial Revolution

[ad#200-left]I’ve heard it said that technology will save us from all of our current woes, from Climate Change to Peak Oil to Waste and Pollution to World Hunger. This is similar to the way the western world felt when the Industrial Revolution was upon them – cheaper goods, mass production, how can this be at all bad?

Some have suggested that this saving of the world with technology will be like a second industrial revolution, or a green revolution, one where the world moves to a model of doing more with less. Trim the fat off the process – so to speak.

Does anyone really believe the the unfettered capitalist economic model really supports massive changes in technologies and methods of business used to improve the environment and reduce waste?

Human Ingenuity

In most peoples minds all that is required for any of this necessary change to occur is a little bit of ingenuity on the part of mankind. After all, that’s what got us to where we are, isn’t it? Well in a way that is all too right.

Using an EMERGY analysis of human ingenuity, design skill, culture and other forms of human and social capital, it is suggested that these are all the product of past embodied energy from fossil fuels. To us as humans it feels like the only way is up, and while it is likely that there less tangible products are more resilient that the physical infrastructure we build, it is likely that there will be an ingenuity descent that will follow the likely energy descent. As David Holmgren eloquently states in his book, “Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability“:

Thus the current rash of brilliant breakthroughs in industrial redesign and engineering can be seen as the natural products of half a century of social democratic politics, educataion, welfare and other social products of affluence, all refined and honed by twenty years of more laissez-faire capitalism and individualism.

Energy Descent

If we are to learn anything from this concept it is that the ongoing transition to large-scale technologies and extremely specialized jobs will likely decline as fuel becomes scarce and efforts at the human scale are geared (once again) to maintaining a basic level of survival.
I see this quite clearly as an engineer working on the basics of water and sewer with (relatively) simple technology, yet some of the people I went to school with are engineering fighter jets and tanks. There is a shift in priorities coming folks, society should eb looking for ways to invest our capital and wealth towards natural and passive systems that will outlive us and the dwindling supplies of cheap oil.

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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