ETech 09: Sustaining the American Family

Alex Steffen from World Changing. One of the first talks from Tuesday morning at ETech 09.

One of the biggest choices we can make is how many children we have. Given the choice many women have fewer kids than they would otherwise. We could see peak population in our lifetime. Most of the people who will be alive in 2050 are in the developing world.

A lot of the worth we have around us is not personal wealth but wealth from having access to our infrastructure we’ve constructed. From carbon. It’s like a giant Ponzi scheme, “Ecological Madoff”. In the US the standard of living for everyone in the world would take five planets.

Everyone on the planet knows how people in the US live. There’s massive “vertical emulation” — everyone in the world tries to emulate the US standard of living. eg, characters in Slumdog Millionnaire. If everyone in the world continues as the US has done we will destroy the world.

[This is all important, but I’m waiting to hear something remotely new…]

Many of the things we’ve built our prosperity on are extremely fragile. It’s vulnerable and not doing a good job. Wealthy people are less happy than they were. We have an imperative to change.

What needs changing? Infrastrcuture, structures, moving people, feeding people, making things, shipping things, unmaking things, heating/cooling water, operating electronics, chemicals, and more.

We need low carbon clean energy (although no energy is completely clean). We also need more sustainable food. Our current system causes massive international problems. The farts from our cows alone cause huge problems.


  • Open
    • Political transparency. Transparency not only from elected officials but also from the people who can find out what’s going on: People holding one another to account: FUH2.
    • Revealed usage. When we measure something we use it differently. Where things come from, good and bad. “Virtual Water”, labelling showing how much water was used to grow a piece of beef.
  • Smart
    • Connect things and people. We will see a price on CO2. The more that carbon costs, the more that things start to make sense financially.
    • Smart infrastructure. Smart grids. Energy metering, we can have a more finely grained understanding of what energy we use.
    • Electric cars that spend most of their time parked, plugged into the grid: they could be an electricity sponge that absorbs electricity and then sends it back to the grid when needed.
  • Compact
    • If there’s one single lever that Americans need to understand it’s this one. The single best investment we could make in the US is to create denser and better designed communities. Things cost less per person when the community is compact. Households should have a more right-sized approach to living. We have huge homes because we feel we need them for a life spent within the home. But, perversely, people who live in big homes spend less time with their families.
    • We’re about to go into the greatest transformation of urban areas since the country was founded. Huge population changes: longevity; population shifts; churn — buildings that need replacing or retrofitting. By 2030 about 50% of all the buildings in the US will have been either built or remodelled since 2010.
    • We’ll soon see the last subdivision built in the US. A density of 10 units / acre enables many other things. It sounds dense but it’s quite traditional. A majority of Americans say they would like to live in a comapct community. But affordability is seen as being out on the urban fringe and only the rich and ghetto dwellers live in cities. But if you factor in the direct costs of driving, suburban living is more expensive, never mind the indirect costs.
    • [Depressingly this stuff was all old hat when I was reading a lot about it ten years ago. Things take so long to change. Assuming it will eventually change.]
    • We don’t know how to do long-haul transportation greenly.
  • Green
    • We think of the weather as being something around us. Problems. Heat from the sun is a problem to be dealt with by air conditioning. We’ll see more buildings that use passive heatig and cooling. We treat water that falls on our roofs as pollution, sent off to the drains. A crazy way of running the world.
    • A streetlight that adjusts itself depending on how much moonlight there is. If we were to replace with human nature what nature gives us but we throw away, we’d spend $2-5 trillion per year.
    • Nobody knew how dependent we were on bees until they went away. If you want to think how much bees are worth, imagine having to pollinate every piece of fruit you eat by hand.
    • Beavers, hunted nearly to extinction, could have saved us a lot of money in controlling the water supply [missed the details here].
  • Remake
    • Shared goods, buying things of lasting quality, car sharing. Closed loops, zero waste, never throwing anything away. Which means everything gets redesigned. Everything in this room is already in a landfill but doesn’t know it yet.
  • Happiness
    • Knowing what makes us happy. TV used to make us happy, now we need a home cinema. First class flight used to be the peak of travel, now it’s a private jet.
    • We need a deepened sense of time and learn to see ourselves and our choices extending beyond ourselves an our time.

[I think there was going to be more stuff, but he over-ran his time.]

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