Item in Forbes.com
27, 2014: Today's Funny Money Rot Reaches Everywhere,
Including Fiscal Discipline
The Eco-Technic Civilization
March 2, 2014
The notion of an "eco-technic civilization" is popular these
days. It is a good alternative to the "retro-eco" idea which
is everywhere today -- that to be in harmony with the earth,
one should live in some sort of 19th century pioneer
subsistence farmer fashion. Actually, people in the 19th
century were not particularly environmentally aware at all.
They scoured the oceans for whales so they could light oil
lamps, and deforested much of the North American continent
before coal became cheaper than wood. Isn't a solar-powered
LED light better than that? Wouldn't you rather cook on a
modern gas stove (could be from renewable sources, including
wood gas, or ethanol) rather than on a primitive wood stove?
Team retro-eco then goes farther back in their wayback
machine, to perhaps the preindustrial 18th century, or
Native American primitivism. One problem with this is that
it won't support large populations. The estimated population
of the world in 1750 was 791 million people, about 11% of
Can't we keep the best parts of today's civilization, but
fix the bad parts? Is this such a bad idea? Of course, it's
a good idea. Alas, Team Techno-Eco today is usually pretty
Typically, it means reproducing much of what we have today
-- basically, Suburban Hell -- with windmills and electric
cars. This doesn't really accomplish much, and barely moves
the needle in terms of resolving our environmentally
Let's think about what we want. We want to allow the natural
world to flourish, as it did in perhaps 1000 AD. The oceans,
rivers and lakes should be pristine. Much of the world can
be wilderness, surrounding pockets of civilization.
Let's assume that there will be no depopulation. We need a
solution for 7 billion people. Not more than that (actually,
the birth rate in almost all the world now, outside of
Africa, is below replacement), but 7 billion.
This is a big topic. I think I will approach it by
addressing a number of specific points -- sort of a
detail-to-big-picture path, rather than a top-down path.
You can be very techno while also being very eco.
of the things we like best about present technology have
virtually no ecological impact. For example: the Internet.
Love it. Yes, servers and computers take electricity to run,
but it is a relatively small amount compared to the
electricity used for water heaters and other home heating.
The Internet presently consumes
an estimated 10% of total electricity consumption
North America. But, most of this is actually end devices --
your PC. A notebook computer uses about 10% of the power of
a desktop PC (15 watts vs 150 watts). So, that can also be
reduced very easily, with hardly any disadvantages. You can
have your smartphone and iPad in the ecotechnic future. Why
not? There are other things, like modern antibiotics and the
better bits of modern medicine, which we can also keep, as
they are cheap and easy to produce, with little
environmental consequences. Of course there are lots of
techno solutions that actually improve our eco footprint.
CFL or, better yet, LED lights are one. It would be great if
we could get solar panel efficiency above 15%, to perhaps
60% or higher.
Most people will live in cities or towns, and will not be
Today, about 2% of the U.S. population is
directly involved in food production. Let's say that rises
to 10%. That implies a 5x loss of efficiency -- that each
food producer produces only one-fifth as much food as is
normal today. Not necessarily a good thing. But, if we don't
use chemical fertilizers, GMO seeds, excessive
mechanization, and destructive or unsustainable irrigation,
and concentrate on more local food production, maybe that's
a price we can pay. Even so, that means 90% of the
population is not involved in food production. These people
DO NOT live on farms, including mini-ersatz farms
(suburbia), which means they live in cities. These cities
should be in the Traditional City format which I've written
about at length. This is good, because a person living in a
Traditional City actually uses far less resources than
someone living in the country. Remember, we are making a
plan for all seven billion of us. It would be best if most
of those people are in compact, ecologically sound
Here for the Traditional City/Heroic Materialism
14, 2010: The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together
4, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms 2: How Many
Acres Can Sustain a Family?
28, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms
In general, the larger and denser the city, the less CO2
emissions (a proxy for energy use) per person.
Of course, if you tried a little, you could get it way
below this. Better insulation and more trains/fewer cars
would do it.
Get rid of the personal automobile (or other "personal
transportation" including bicycles). Transportation should
be primarily by rail -- and, of course, walking.
The denser the city, the lower the transport-related
energy use. This is because people who live in denser
cities tend to use trains instead of cars. Trains are 10x
more efficient, on a person/kilometer basis, than cars.
Also, travel distances are a lot shorter, because the city
is dense. Finally, you can make a lot of trips by foot in
your neighborhood, thus eliminating the need for
mechanized transport altogether.
really no need for personal automobiles for people living in
cities, especially if we use a Traditional City format
instead of Suburban Hell. Today, many people live in cities
large and small (by "city" I mean any urban place from a
village of 300 up to a megalopolis of 10 million+), who
don't have automobiles and don't need them. Just like that,
but more so. Bicycles can be OK as an adjunct to a
fully-realized train system, but what you find is that, if
you have a good train system, you don't need bikes. Plus,
excessive reliance on bicycles has its own problems, which
are not nearly as big as the problems related to
automobiles, but actually quite significant, particularly in
the Traditional City environment.
1, 2010: The Problem With Bicycles
27, 2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
Once you use trains instead of cars, you free yourself from
fossil fuel dependence because a train system typically runs
on electricity, which can be generated from wind, solar, or
what have you.
What a real train system looks like. The Tokyo region
train system. Click on the pic for a larger version.
Here is some info on energy use by JR East, that I've noted
Trains are 10x more energy efficient than
automobiles: The East Japan Railway Company (JR
East) provides the primary rail service for the eastern
half of Japan, including Tokyo. It serves a population of
about 70 million people, and includes metropolitan areas,
small cities, and rural lines. It includes high-speed and
normal-speed trains, rush-hour and off-peak, commuter and
intercity, urban and rural. It is a good measure of a
large-scale real-life train system under the whole
spectrum of real-life conditions. For 2004, JR East said
that it averaged 0.35MJ/passenger-km. A liter of gasoline
contains about 35MJ of energy. In other words, the average
passenger is getting the equivalent of about 100km/liter
or 223 miles per gallon while riding the train. Assuming
an average 20mpg for a passenger car and average 1.1
passengers, the train is about 10x more energy efficient
than an automobile.
What is not evident in this comparison, however, is that
in a Traditional City with trains, you make a lot more
trips on foot -- to school, to the store, to work.
Everything is much closer -- in walking distance, which is
sort of the point. We saw that you could have a city of as
many as 200,000 where you could literally walk everywhere,
and not need a bike, train, or automobile at all. Second,
the distances are much smaller. You don't commute 15 or 20
miles, you commute maybe five miles, which seems like a
long way because there is "so much there there," to
paraphrase Gertrude Stein. If your city is all Place and
no NoPlace, there is a tremendous amount of stuff in five
miles of travel. For example, Manhattan from the southern
tip of the island to the northern edge of Central Park is
about seven miles. Just think of all the stuff in that
distance. So, I would also say that intracity trips would
tend to be shorter than is the case for driving around
Suburban Hell. If you make fewer trips (because many are
walking), and the trips are shorter (Traditional City vs.
Suburban Hell), and the train is 10x more efficient per
passenger-km, then the true energy efficiency of the
Traditional City/train combo is probably 20x-30x better
than Suburban Hell/personal autos.
But, the best form of transportation is walking. At a
population density of 50,000/square mile, which is about the
average for central Paris (some neighborhoods exceed
100,000/sq mi), a small city of 40,000 people would fit in a
circle of a radius of one-half mile. That means you could
walk from the center to any point in the city in less than
fifteen minutes, or from any point in the city to the center
(where the intercity train station is) in less than 15
minutes, or from one side to the other in less than thirty
minutes. You wouldn't need trains, buses, or any mechanized
transport at all at that size. At a radius of one mile --
everyone can walk to the central train station within thirty
minutes or less -- you could have a city of 160,000 people,
which still wouldn't need a train system, but might use a
small bus system with perhaps two routes.
Of course, we can still use motorized transport where it is
appropriate -- mostly for commercial vehicles, such as cargo
vans and trucks, buses, and taxis.
The big improvements are in things that are not very
Our Heroic Materialist thinking patterns
lead us to believe that the best solutions involve difficult
and expensive technology. But, actually, the big gains are
to be had in things with simple technology, or no technology
at all. For example, if we lived in smaller living spaces
with better insulation, we could cut our energy and resource
use tremendously with hardly any "technology" at all. Since
most people would be living in Traditional Cities,
apartments would be the norm for many, which brings
additional advantages. Even the largest and most opulent
townhouses, though very expensive, would not use very much
in the way of natural resources after they were built --
probably less than a modest suburban home today. And even if
the resident was chauffered around town by a driver in a
twelve-cylinder Mercedes S600 sedan, instead of taking the
subway like normal people, they probably wouldn't be driving
very far, or very often. It's not about hardship and
deprivation. You can live very luxuriously, in the
Traditional City, and also have very modest ecological
effect or resource use.
20, 2011: Let's Take a Trip to Julianne Moore's House
18, 2010: How to Live the Good Life in the Traditional
822 square foot, three-bedroom apartment.
Put R-45 insulation in the walls and you're done.
All that a family needs to live a very comfortable, modern
lifestyle. Most people should live in something like this
(smaller for singles or couples).
You can have a 25,000sf townhouse or compound as well if
you want. But, of course, only a few would have that --
too few to really change things much.
This family of
four lives in 165 square feet -- and loves it!
don't have to do that. But, it shows that 850sf for a
family of four or five is certainly more than enough.
If you look at land use in North America,
much of it is for agriculture. Most of the agriculture is
monoculture of GMO crops including corn, soy, wheat and
rapeseed. Most of this (about 70% in North America) is used
as feed for animals. It takes roughly ten calories of animal
feed to produce one calorie of meat. If we simply ate the
vegetables/beans/grains, instead of meat, then we would need
a lot less land for agriculture, which means that we could
allow marginal lands to return to a natural state, or we
could accept a lower yield per acre (for organically-grown
foods) without difficulty. Also, we would probably have a
lot more variety, because who wants to eat nothing but
corn/beans all the time. You don't have to become a vegan.
But, you could eat perhaps 70% less meat than you do today,
and hardly notice it. For example, rather than the "big slab
of meat in the middle" cooking typical of American food
today, you could use meat as more of a flavoring, like
pepperoni on pizza, or chicken in a pasta sauce, or beef in
a soup, or pork in a Chinese dish served in the typical
Chinese manner on top of rice, or ham in a sub sandwich (but
not as much ham as is common today). You can still have the
"big slab of meat," but maybe only once or twice a month.
Wild meat, not farmed.
One big idea is that we
could transition to wild meat -- wild game and fish -- from
farmed meat (including fish) common today. The fact of the
matter is, the productivity prairie grassland-->bison
pattern, and the natural productivity of the oceans when
left unmolested, is far greater than any system we can
develop. We should just let nature do its thing in its own
natural way, to create far more meat than we can produce by
trying to "control nature." Plus, obviously, there's no work
involved. Much of the North American continent can be
returned to its natural prairie/bison/deer state. We could
harvest about 10% of the total each year, which wouldn't
alter the total productivity much. Likewise, we could allow
the oceans and fisheries to return to their full
productivity of perhaps a thousand years ago, and harvest
about 10% of this each year with little negative effect. We
would probably get more from harvesting 10% of a HUGE AMOUNT
of fish -- it was only a hundred years ago that people
talked about so many salmon that it seemed you could walk
across a major river on their backs -- than we get today
from trying to catch every fish in the depleted oceans.
(Today, roughly 70% of all the mature fish in the ocean are
caught each year.)
Permaculture and other natural farming methods.
of our best "eco-technology" today is about farming methods
which are very natural and effective. This is not
"traditional" 19th century-style agriculture at all, but
actually new stuff. For example, no-till farming, or the use
of "seedballs" as promoted by Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan. The
"Permaculture" tradition contains many good ideas, but there
are others as well.
Oddly enough, I am not particularly against the "three
thousand mile Caesar Salad." Train and ship transportation
are relatively energy-efficient, and I don't think people
are really ready to transition to a pre-1850 strictly
seasonal/local diet. In the Northeast, there is nothing
coming out of local farms from November to June. Are you
ready to go eight months straight with no lettuce, broccoli,
carrots, peppers, apples, berries, pears, fresh tomatoes, or
cucumbers? Not to mention foods that are not local at all. I
kinda like my bananas and oranges in winter. And avocados.
Yes, we could give this up too, but I think that the
advantages are relatively small and the disadvantages
relatively great. Maybe we could have a more seasonal/local
diet, but still have some Florida oranges in winter.
You can use 90% less electricity/energy and still
live a modern lifestyle.
One thing people don't
understand well is that you can actually cut your home
energy use by 80%-90%, while still enjoying nearly all the
advantages of modern life -- electric lights, refrigerators,
convenient train transportation, the Internet, washing
machines, and so forth. This is not just my fantasy, but the
daily experience of many already, particularly those living
"off grid" with solar power.
3, 2009: A Bazillion Windmills
17, 2010: The Problem of Scarcity 3: Resource Scarcity
We already saw how people in dense, train-centric cities
like Hong Kong or Singapore are using about 10% of the
transportation-related energy of people living in Suburban
Hell in Atlanta or Houston. But, they aren't even thinking
about it. Much the same is true for other aspects of our
lives as well. You just set things up so that they
inherently don't need much energy. I've noted that a typical
notebook computer uses only about 10% the electricity of a
desktop computer. So, you just use a notebook computer
instead of a desktop computer -- which has a number of other
advantages as well -- and you can cut your energy use there
by 90%, and never have to think about it again.
For example, a lot of energy used by the typical house is
for hot water. It takes a whole lot of heat to heat water,
as you know when you see how long it takes to heat two
quarts of water on the stove in a tea kettle. Now imagine
how much heat it takes to heat that 50 gallon tank in your
basement! How much less hot water could we use here? A
front-loading washer uses about half the hot water as a
top-load washer, for example. (Ideally, you could just use
cold water to wash and rinse, but often the results aren't
so good that way.)
To take a more extreme line, you don't really need much
water at all to clean yourself. I've "showered" regularly
with as little as a half-gallon of warm water, including
washing my hair. It's actually not that big a deal. For
five gallon "sunshower" for camping is rated for 4-5
-- obviously, about one gallon per shower.
You can have high-rise buildings if you want.
tend to associate high-rise buildings with unpleasant 19th
Century Hypertrophic urban environments, as is common in New
York, Chicago and elsewhere. Either that, or the 20th
Century Hypertrophic "tower in a park" disaster of places
like Dubai. They want somewhere much more pleasant and
friendly to live in, like a Traditional City environment.
But, if you want, I think you can combine high-rise
architecture with the best elements of pre-1900 Traditional
City design, creating pleasant outdoor spaces for humans
while also having very tall buildings. This is basically the
"towers around a park" plus "pedestrian streets" combo. This
could allow you to do population densities in excess of
200,000 people per square mile -- although there is really
not much advantage to be gained from such a thing. Yes,
density above the typical 8,000/sq mi of densest forms of
Suburban Hell (some parts of Los Angeles) would be good, but
you don't win any awards for trying to push that needle to
the limit. Still, it's an option to consider.
23, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau 3: Really Narrow Streets With
August 26, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau 2: More Place and Less
2012: Corbusier Nouveau
20, 2008: The Traditional City vs. the "Radiant City"
Personally, I prefer the Traditional City in its traditional
low-rise form (typically six stories or less), which is
capable of creating wonderfully pleasant environments with
population densities of 100,000/sq mi or more. However, this
is the "eco-technic" solution, and if tall buildings give
you a techno-woody, then go ahead and do it.
Much less "stuff" -- much more "experience."
words, services instead of
manufacturing/construction/retail. Also, potentially much
better stuff -- handmade and high-quality -- because, if you
are buying much less stuff, you can spend a lot more on each
item. This is a natural consequence of living in compact
Traditional Cities without a car, rather than the suburban
McMansion. If you live in a 800 square foot apartment, and
you don't have a private yard but rather a shared courtyard
and local park, you just don't buy that much. Besides no
car, there's no garage, patio, deck, yard, media room, guest
bedroom, attic, breakfast nook -- thus no need for all that
furniture and furnishings, riding lawn mower, hot tub or
pool, snow blower, and all the other crap we spend our money
on before we are even able to spend it on stuff that we
really like. Closets tend to be small. What, then, do you
spend your money on? It tends to be services, or
"experiences." Like restaurants, clubs, bars, tea houses,
theaters, music and other performing arts, galleries or
museums, gyms/racquet clubs/yoga studios/personal
trainers/etc., social clubs, day spas, tutoring or other
education, hobbies, travel and lodging, and so forth. All
the attractions of the Traditional City in which you live.
These are, by nature, not very consumptive of natural
resources, and have been a major attraction of cities from
far before the industrial era.
16, 2010: The Service Economy
19, 2010: The Service Economy 2: It's Already Here
Along those lines, especially for those of below-average
incomes, the overall result can be much, much better. If you
don't own a car, and can live in a modest arrangement of as
little as 150 square feet which is inherently cheap to build
and perhaps you can even build yourself, and which is easy
to heat and cool and takes very little in the way of
utilities, and which is in a beautiful Traditional City
environment, you can enjoy all the advantages of modern
civilization with hardly any expense at all. Everything else
is pure gravy.
This is the opposite of what we have today -- where the
basic "American Lifestyle" including an automobile and a
large residence, is unaffordable to many Americans,
including those who are actually in the top 10% in terms of
income! So, instead of "giving things up," like that was
some kind of hardship, we are really getting our lives back.
We no longer need to be lifelong debt slaves to the American
16, 2013: The New World Economics Guide to Curing
2013: The New World Economics Guide to Curing Affluenza 2:
the Affluenza of the Poor
The Problem of Scarcity
20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head
17, 2010: The Problem of Scarcity 3: Resource Scarcity
So, what does this all look like?
It is very important to form an image in people's minds.
Let's do that here:
23, 2010: Transitioning to the Traditional City
We live in more compact spaces in beautiful Traditional City
environments -- with all the modern conveniences including
good plumbing and sewage, clean water, electricity, and
R-48+ insulation in colder climates.
Lyon, France. This stuff exists today. Just imitate it.
Note that we have a "Really Narrow" pedestrian street,
with people walking down the middle of the street, and no
automobiles in this photo (parked or moving), although you
could probably use this street to make deliveries and
pickups with a truck when needed.
Lyon is the third-largest city in France, with 1.5 million
in the "urban" area and 2.1 million in the "Greater Lyon"
area. Note the Traditional City format, with buildings
generally of six stories or less.
You can use this model for small towns of 5,000 people or
metropolises of 10 million+ people.
Actually, although I am calling this the "eco-technic
civilization," it actually looks kinda retro. We really
don't need any Jetsons nonsense. It is more about updating
the greatest successes of our past with modern technology
such as good plumbing, sewage and sanitation, electricity,
electric trains, and Internet-y stuff. Not much more than
that really. Of course, places like Lyon already have all
that today, so it is not like I am making this stuff up.
We have beautiful public parks within walking distance of
our homes. Public park in Frankfurt, Germany.
We might even introduce courtyard architecture, to provide
parklike places adjacent to our homes. Courtyard of an
apartment building, Paris, France.
Don't really need that suburban yard anymore. And no
We have a fully-realized subway, metropolitan surface train,
and intercity rail system -- see the Tokyo Train Map above.
We use renewable energy as much as is reasonable. We can
still use some fossil fuels (or perhaps even hydrocarbons
from renewable sources), but much less than today. This is
accomplished mostly by simply using less energy. If we used
20% of the energy we use today -- which, as we see, is not
real difficult -- then it would not be hard at all to
generate that much smaller amount with renewable means.
Solar panels being installed on the roof of a large
Our food is grown organically and sustainably, using
advanced Permaculture and other such techniques where
Farms can be smaller, and family-owned, but will still be
large enough to enjoy efficiencies of scale -- probably in
the 50-300 acre range.
We don't try to mix "the city" and "farms." Urban places
are dense and distinct from farming areas. People who are
not directly involved in agriculture should live in urban
places -- whether tiny country villages, or huge
Much of the North American continent goes back to wild
grasslands, hosting huge herds of bison and other game.
Our oceans, lakes and rivers return to their natural state
of outrageous abundance.
"So thick you could walk across the river on their backs."
Salmon run, Alaska, 1943.
The forests return to their old-growth grandeur because
... what do we need wood for, anyway?
Instead of "things" -- giant houses, our big suburban
backyards, multiple automobiles, pools, vacation houses,
boats, etc. -- we are more interested in "experiences."
Bar in Venice, Italy.
Bar in Britain.
Whatever you may think about this sort of thing ... the
environmental impact is about the same as planting tulips,
and it has no effect on the bison roaming the plains or
old growth forests hundreds of miles away.
"Experience" rather than "things."
Music, theater, opera, and other performing arts. (La
Scala opera house.)
Superlative architecture. (Shanghai old city and garden.)
Beautiful places for people. (Shanghai old city.)
Doing things rather than "consuming." (Anton Krupicka
running in the Rockies. Can't get much more Eco than this.
And, it's free!)
Yes, trains and big mountains go together. You take the
train to the nearest station, then a bus to the trailhead.
I used to do this about every other weekend in Japan, and
never needed a car, even a rental car.
30, 2009: Summer Slack-Off 3: How To Have Fun
Enjoying life rather than buying stuff. (Picnic, 1870s.)
Just wear some nice clothes, walk to the park about five
minutes from your house, and have some coffee. It's about
as Eco as you can be.
You can have an opulent lifestyle, and also be
eco-friendly. This Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York
City townhouse is featured in theopulentlifestyle.info
Library of the same Greenwich Village townhouse.
(It's for sale for $17.5 million.)
This townhouse is probably on a typical 20x100 plot of
land -- only 2000 square feet! And, it doesn't have a
(Actually, 2000sf is a lot for a townhouse. 1000sf is more
common, even 600sf, but this is the "opulent" version.)
With 10% of land area for Really Narrow Streets, and 10%
as public parks, you could fit over 11,000 houses like
this in a square mile, including the big backyard.
At five people per house (it is 7,000 square feet), that
would be 55,000 people per square mile. And this is the
For comparison: Greenwich, Connecticut, which is the
"Suburban Hell version of the opulent lifestyle," has a
population density of 930 per square mile, and three
automobiles per house. Also very opulent -- but with
catastrophic environmental implications, while the
Greenwich Village townhouse is very eco-friendly.
Do it the Greenwich Village way, not the Greenwich,
Connecticut way. Is that so horrible? Obviously, someone
is willing to pay $17.5 million to live this way, so how
bad can it be.
Same Greenwich Village townhouse, backyard. I don't like
this design much, but you can see there is plenty of
space. Plus, a public park nearby too.
"Really Narrow" pedestrian street, about 20 feet wide, and
On the other end of the spectrum, here's a 178sf
apartment in Brooklyn
. You can live in a small space
and still be classy, and have plenty of money, tine and
energy for the Rest of Your Life, instead of exhausting
yourself on your stupid shelter.
(I think it is larger than 178sf total. That probably
doesn't include the bathroom and closets.)
We take pleasure in beautifying our lives. This is how
people used to dress ... in the preindustrial age.
Why are you still wearing that crap from H&M and The
22, 2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?
3, 2011: The New World Economics Guide to Men's Fashion
Native American Kiowa girl, authentic traditional
clothing, around 1910.
As Eco as it gets. And also very elegant and beautiful.
There's no need to be slummy.
We eat Real Food. Mostly Plants. And Not Too Much.
29, 2012: The Omnivore's Dilemma
2, 2012: Outrageous Health and Fitness 2: Forever
The Future Stinks
No more of this chemical factory food.
Even if you are in a rush, you can make oatmeal or reheat
some soup, or have some salad, bread and cheese.
Or--if you really want to eat in just sixty seconds--some
dates, dried plums and a glass of orange juice. There's no
need for processed food.
3, 2012: The New World Economics Guide To Outrageous
Health and Fitness
The Eco-Technic Civilization. Try to
imagine it. If you can imagine it, you can have it! It
is actually cheaper and easier to do than today's
And soooo much better.