As the Gulf well spews daily destruction and BP scratches it’s head, it’s a time to think about technology and its uses (well. . . it’s been time, for a long time, but now it’s time again). Ever since the the first stone axe glanced off its target and gashed the user’s knee, or even before that, we have been inventing technologies that we don’t fully know how to control. But now the things we make have the potential to wreak havoc on a tragic scale.
Nature has always had that potential, but nature also has the ability to repair itself; we humans apparently do not. Bill McKibben, in his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, says that “For almost all of human history, our society was small and nature was large; in a few brief decades that key ratio has reversed.”
I’m reminded of discussions – 35 years ago – about “appropriate technology.” These were inspired by British economist E.F. Schumacher, whose 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, was the catalyst for an unprecedented period of small-scale renewable energy innovation that was brought to a screeching halt – in this country – by the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981.
The rest of the developed world continued to build on the early successes of solar and wind technologies which mostly originated in the U.S. Tremendous progress has been made since, but far less here than in Japan, Western Europe, and now China. As recently as 13 years ago, the U.S. made 40% of the world’s photovoltaic cells to generate electricity; now, it’s less than 5%.
Perhaps this new spill, as it continues to drift ashore, will point us in a new (old) direction. We’ve been here before, but we lost our will. Even now, as a country, we remain unable to stop the destruction caused by oil and coal and move swiftly and surely to benign energy sources. Last year China spent twice what the U.S. did on renewables. As McKibben says, we have already done the damage – we have already changed the planet irrevocably (that’s why he calls it “Eaarth”) and now we must minimize the damage.
Part of that is using technology to develop ever-more effective and scalable solar and wind technologies. But just as big a part is using less – transforming ourselves into a low-carbon society.
Buildings play a big role in that. They use 40% of our total energy, and 70% of our electricity, but they don’t need to.
A focus of South Mountain’s work these days is learning to master the art and science of the Deep Energy Retrofit – the practice of building renovations that result in profound energy use reduction, increased health and comfort, and greater durability.
We don’t pretend to know what we need to know about this practice, but we know enough to do a credible job and we continue to learn. We are just completing – over the next several months – two fundamentally different deep energy retrofits – the Lake/Hodgson house in Aquinnah and the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth (click on the attached article to read more about it). One is a patched together summer house from the 50’s; the other is a sturdy masonry building from 1910. They share the following characteristic: both were buildings that nobody wanted and both, therefore, suffered years of neglect.
Now they are restored, and they share other things too. They are energy efficient, they are beautiful, and they will each provide many decades of joy and sensible – appropriate – service to their occupants.
The practice is spreading. The other day I received an e-mail from Ian Bowles, the Secretary of Energy and the Environment for the state of Massachusetts. The heading was “deep energy retrofit in Boston” and the message said, “john — i hope you are well. looking for advice on any local experts in the boston area on energy efficiency measures for an old (1878) victorian we are about to buy. any ideas/leads welcome. thx. ian”.
Massachusetts is making a commitment to clean energy that goes beyond that of most states and far beyond the federal government’s. But the e-mail above means more than all the programs – it means the person in charge has taken this all to heart.
He means it. That’s good. We all need to mean it. Because what we’re doing to ourselves and our planet is far more than a gash in the knee.