The Breakdown Institute's Nightmare Visions
In last week's New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert described how the Danish island of Samsø has transitioned to wind electrical generation, biomass (aka straw and such) and other available technologies. Samsø's carbon footprint is essentially zero, with offshore electrical generation excess to the island's needs displacing fossil fuel used for transportation.
Bunnies are encouraged to read the article, what caught Eli's eye was Kolbert's description of why this happened:
For the past decade or so, Samsø has been the site of an unlikely social movement. When it began, in the late nineteen-nineties, the island’s forty-three hundred inhabitants had what might be described as a conventional attitude toward energy. . . .This was a SOCIAL movement, not an economic nor scientific one. Not so long ago Eli reported how plastic bags disappeared in a flash in Ireland as a result of social pressure and regulation. Just a week or so ago, Samuel Bowles wrote in Science about the mis-match between morals and economics
Then, quite deliberately, the residents of the island set about changing this. They formed energy coöperatives and organized seminars on wind power. They removed their furnaces and replaced them with heat pumps. By 2001, fossil-fuel use on Samsø had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2005 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using.
The residents of Samsø that I spoke to were clearly proud of their accomplishment. All the same, they insisted on their ordinariness. They were, they noted, not wealthy, nor were they especially well educated or idealistic. They weren’t even terribly adventuresome. “We are a conservative farming community” is how one Samsinger put it. “We are only normal people,” Tranberg told me. “We are not some special people.”
High-performance organizations and economies work on the basis not only of material interests but also of Adam Smith's "moral sentiments." Well-designed laws and public policies can harness self-interest for the common good. However, incentives that appeal to self-interest may fail when they undermine the moral values that lead people to act altruistically or in other public-spirited ways. Behavioral experiments reviewed here suggest that economic incentives may be counterproductive when they signal that selfishness is an appropriate response; constitute a learning environment through which over time people come to adopt more self-interested motivations; compromise the individual's sense of self-determination and thereby degrade intrinsic motivations; or convey a message of distrust, disrespect, and unfair intent. Many of these unintended effects of incentives occur because people act not only to acquire economic goods and services but also to constitute themselves as dignified, autonomous, and moral individuals. Good organizational and institutional design can channel the material interests for the achievement of social goals while also enhancing the contribution of the moral sentiments to the same ends.Although one is tempted to First Kill the Economists, a sentiment argued for in The Dismal Science How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community by Stephen A. Marglin and not much favored by economists like E. Roy Weintraub, perhaps one need not go so far, but it is clear that we need a better way of valuing common needs.
Samsø demonstrates that we have the technology needed to decarbonize energy generation. The second part of Kolbert's article describes the 2,000 Watt Society, somewhere between a vision and a program to reduce energy consumption in the developed world while maintaining a first world lifestyle. This Swiss organization is building buildings and systems to reduce energy intensity. Although they have not reached their goal they have demonstrated technologies that can carry us a far way towards that goal.
. . . a group of Swiss scientists who were working on similar issues performed a thought experiment. The scientists, all of whom were affiliated with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, asked themselves what level of energy use would be sustainable, not just for an island or a small European nation but for the entire world. The answer they came up with—two thousand watts per person—furnished the name for a new project: the 2,000-Watt Society.The technology exists to reach this goal
“What it’s important, I think, to know is that the 2,000-Watt Society is not a program of hard life,” the director of the project, Roland Stulz, told me when I went to speak to him at his office, in the Zurich suburb of Dübendorf. “It is not what we call Gürtel enger schnallen”—belt tightening—“it’s not starving, it’s not having less comfort or fun. It’s a creative approach to the future.”
The cantons of Geneva and Basel-Stadt and the city of Zurich subsequently endorsed the aims of the 2,000-Watt Society, as did the Swiss Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy, and Communications. “At first glance, the objective of a two-thousand-watt society appears unrealistic,” Moritz Leuenberger, the head of the federal department, has said. “But the necessary technology already exists.”and is already being used
In Switzerland, I visited several other buildings that, like the EAWAG Center, had been specifically designed to maximize efficiency. One was an upscale apartment building in Basel. The apartments have eighteen-inch-thick walls filled with insulation, triple-paned windows coated with a special reflective film, and a heat-recovery system that captures eighty per cent of the energy normally lost through ventilation. Instead of a boiler, it has a geothermal heat pump, which essentially sucks energy out of the groundwater. In the summer, the same system is used for cooling. (In compliance with Swiss building codes, the building also contains a bomb shelter.)
The bottom line is simple
“It usually makes sense to become more intelligent in any human activity,” Stulz told me. “As the former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Yamani once said, the Stone Age didn’t end because there were no more stones. It ended because people became more intelligent. ”There is some doubt that this will work a second time.