Thursday, March 24, 2011

Force Multipliers

Most approaches to "solving" our climate and resource crises focus on technology: replacing fossil fuels with a different technology (solar, wind, ethanol, nuclear), or increasing the efficiency of our current technology. We focus on increasing the efficiency of things which would then be used in the same way - adding insulation to single-family homes, or doubling the efficiency of single-user cars that sit idle in the garage and parking lot for the vast majority of their lives, or harnessing renewable sources of energy that would then continue to be used unnecessarily and wastefully. While these solutions may marginally slow the velocity of an economic and energy descent, they can't seriously apply the brakes to the very unpleasant net energy freefall that may be in store for our society.

Among the various solutions proposed to our predicament, the most promising innovation may be social innovation. Over the past one hundred years, we have manufactured vast amounts of things - houses, buildings, infrastructure, cars, machines, equipment, supplies, computers, networks, and so on. But these things - our already built resources - are often underutilized, or inefficiently used, due to our social customs, norms, habits, and expectations, and the psychology of status, privacy, and entitlement.

In our current situation, as we face resource depletion and burgeoning environmental crises, with little time to prepare and in the middle of a financial and economic downturn, with incredible debt burden and deficits, we need to multiply the effectiveness and utility of the resources we currently have. With little money to throw at these problems, we need to multiply the effectiveness of our conservation efforts (usually acknowledged as the biggest "bang for the buck"). This could be immediately technologically feasible, but would require social force multipliers: new (or renewed) attitudes and norms.

A force multiplier, in military terminology, is a factor that dramatically increases the effectiveness of an item or group. Military examples include troop morale, reputation, training, and so on. So a social force multiplier in this context would be an attitude, social expectation, or behavior that multiplied the force of conservation or efficiency efforts - or made a conservation or efficiency policy possible. These social multipliers would need to essentially reverse the last century of developments that have made all our conservation and efficiency technologies moot via Jevon's Paradox.

For example, how could we immediately, drastically increase the energy efficiency of a home, with virtually no investment? Instead of spending thousands of dollars upgrading appliances and HVAC systems, insulating and weatherizing, just to achieve a 25% savings, we could instead almost double the energy efficiency of a home just by doubling the number of occupants (new attitude and behavior). Most homes built in the last two-three decades have adequate room to provide several families and kids with their own room, possibly their own bathroom, so families could even maintain a sense of privacy.

This would have other environmental and personal benefits aside from a reduction in electricity usage. Two families (or multiple singles) in one home could reduce a need for consumer goods, because they can be shared by the families, could reduce fuel use through carpooling, and might decrease out of pocket payments due to cooperation in activities like babysitting, gardening, and cooking, even cutting the monthly rent/mortgage payment in half. It can also be fun to have other people around, cooperating and hanging out, rather than an socially empty house with each inhabitant communing separately with their electronic devices.

Simple, cost-effective, yet so massively unattractive under our current value system and cultural expectations that it is only considered as a last resort, after savings have been run down, unemployment exhausted, and foreclosures completed. To join forces by moving in with parents, siblings, or others (except in certain "allowable" instances such as college roommates or aging parents) is to have become a failure, to give up hopes and dreams and positive social identity, to be subject to ridicule and potentially lose the chance to mate. It is also to encounter serious personality conflicts, the necessity of getting along with people you may not always agree with, and finding methods to resolve problems in a way that doesn't make someone the loser. Ask any intentional community - it's hard work.

Another example: without any capital expense or technological improvement, we can increase the efficiency of a car by a factor of three if we carpool. Simple, cost-effective, but unattractive under our current value system which prizes independence, convenience, "freedom," and status over cooperation and environmental stewardship. It's also difficult in neighborhoods where community has disappeared and many people don't know more than one person on the block. For many people, the cost savings even at $3.50 a gallon isn't worth the trouble of having to find and coordinate rides and put up with the quirks and schedule conflicts of their fellow riders.

Other simple and effective (yet currently unthinkable) measures could have even more widespread multiplier effects. For instance, a Post Carbon Institute article examined a reduction of the speed limit to 34 mph. A lowered speed limit has many positive effects, some obvious, and some not so obvious. First, an immediate savings in fuel and CO2 emissions, a reduction in traffic accidents, plus an increase in demand for better and faster public transportation. Not so obvious, a speed limit this slow would allow many people to feel safe when walking or biking - which is, of course, an almost 100% reduction in fuel and CO2 emissions.

Again, a measure that requires no new technology or investment, but massively unattractive in a world of our existing infrastructure of suburbs, exurbs, and norms that value and in fact, demand speed and convenience over health, safety, or environment.

These simple ideas are not new or original. Many of these measures were popular during World War II, and are still common in other parts of the world. Yet if they were quickly implemented in a widespread way, instead of being despised as the lunatic fringe, these types of changes would go a long way to addressing the crises we face in the short term and would buy us time and money to make other investments in a sustainable future. Still, it seems that they have little hope of execution until a fiscal necessity or severe and prolonged energy shock forces them upon us, individual by individual.
Instead of waiting for a crisis to force these changes upon us, kicking and screaming, could we use social force multipliers - new attitudes, expectations, and behaviors - to transform these "unthinkable drastic measures" of conservation and efficiency into positive social ideals? Could American Joe and Jane embrace community, cooperation, reciprocity, interdependence, social interaction, health, and a future for their children as primary values instead of material goods, money, status symbols, convenience, independence, privacy, and "freedom" of consumer choice, as their prime motivators? Could we make sharing and cooperating a point of pride instead of a mark of shame?

Behavioral change is the most difficult kind to create, which is why I believe it hasn't gotten a proper focus: it's easier to promote the next new technology, gadget, or green energy source than to suggest a fundamental change of expectations and attitudes. Behavioral change also has a low profit margin, if any at all, which automatically decreases the marketing budget for it. But the next new technology doesn't have nearly the multiplicative force of a social innovation. So let's consider putting our money and attention where it counts the most. Could it be time to make the unthinkable - thinkable? The undesirable - desirable? Could it be possible to turn our lemons into lemonade, and have a really good time doing it... so everyone else will want to join the fun?


Bev said...

I fear that the things you advocate won't become accepted until there is some crisis. Let's face it, rolling blackouts will go a long way towards reducing electricity use without any technological investment.

Consuming less is anathema to economic growth and as long as we are all worshiping at the altar of growth there can be no serious efforts at efficiency. I feel positively subversive because I quit my job 3 years ago and my family simply lives on a lot less money now.

Great post - I've thought, but not been able to articulate what you're saying. Thanks.

Wendy said...

It's interesting to me that the simplest solutions are simply the most difficult for us, as a society, to consider. We want the high-tech solution, when, in fact, it's more often the little things that could make the biggest difference.

Chris Harries said...

Thanks Christine,

Good summary, I have too many green-inclined friends who are on a romantic solar energy trip, thinking that we can win this global problem via escalation.

My local community began looking at this and then inevitably we got into trying to understand deep down barriers to change. What stops us doing the sensible things, like the ones you are advocating?

To understand this better we produced this advisory:

And this is how people responded:

I was truly fascinated to find out that so many people marked 'western individualism' as the most important reason they have trouble changing their sustainable behaviour. It means we are mentally recognising the core problem, even if at this point we are having trouble getting past it.

[These results are based on an Australian sample, but I imagine would apply similarly in North America or Europe.]

Brad K. said...

I think you may find that the average vehicle in America falls into two categories - Detroit engines that, for the last 50 years or more, get best mileage around 45 mph, and small engines (like several Toyotas I have owned) that peak around 65-70 mph.

When looking at changing perspectives, be sure to include centralized schools, centralized shopping districts and malls, and housing located distant from the workplace.

Employers and community leaders have to look beyond tax base planning, to what indirect energy and transport burden they place on the community.

Employers and community planners need to cooperate, so that jobs and housing are located sensibly in a sustainable manner, hopefully also with distributed shopping.

We are nearing the end of the era of cheap energy. There are a lot of assumptions of affluence that need to be re-examined, including personal ambition. Unlimited ambition at the personal and community level are dependent on cheap energy, and are a fundamental part of the ever-expanding ethic of corporate thinking. Some of what is called sustainable living today, was once called 'dropping out of the rat race'. And it has always included a change in goals and values.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to consider home sharing, not because of social stigma, but because my home is my refuge. My husband and I cohabitate very well - we've figured out how to get along together in the same space in a way that makes us both very, very happy. The thought of bringing additional people into our household is the most atrocious invasion I can imagine. Home is the one place I don't have to struggle to get along with people, chafe over conflicting preferences/values, and the quiet and solitude of my own space are the keystone of my mental health.

We've made a lot of changes and gotten our overall energy use down to about 35% of US average, and the only "complex" technology we use is the Prius - no solar panels, geothermal, or other high-tech solutions, and that feels like a job pretty well done, to me. Home sharing might happen some day if a very desperate need arises, and it might even have some positive sides, but there are dozens of other things I'd change before I go for that one.