Those who believe that there is a difference between art and technology know
little about either! Anon.
The battle between
industrialization and environmentalism is more intense than the conflict
between communism and capitalism and 6000 years
older. It is as
old as the conflict between the hunter and the farmer. By asserting that the
only route out of the industrial-economic crisis is to join these two opposing
forces, this book could easily be dismissed as a utopian fantasy. Industrial
environmentalism is an idea whose time could never come! Moreover, because
cooperation between the industrial and predator classes has produced such lovely
phenomena as Fascism and the military-industrial complex, the suggestion of
cooperation is frightening and fraught with danger.
Yet, industrial-environmentalism is neither a utopian fantasy nor an impending
nightmare. It is an exercise in social, economic, and political minimalism--a
solution that requires the least change in human behavior. The economic-industrial
crisis is the creation of human efforts. The efforts that caused the problems
can and must be redirected toward a cure. Industrial environmentalism is not
a utopian fantasy because both industrial activities and environmental activities
can be undertaken jointly as a means for survival.
A common motivation for survival means that these two strains, often considered
dissimilar, are really alike. There is a much misunderstanding between those
who consider themselves industrialists and those who would be environmentalists,
to be sure, but this lack of understanding between these groups can be minimized
if both parties understand that they are pulling in the same direction. The
misunderstanding could be eliminated if this move toward a common goal could
include a common strategy. Industrial environmentalism is that common strategy.
The best way to understand industrial environmentalism is to think in terms
of a total environmental accounting. Everything that is made must either be
made for permanence and maintenance or must be designed to be unmade at some
future date. This goes far beyond what even the most radical environmentalists
have ever proposed. There is a big difference, however, since most environmental
proposals so far have been negative: stop cutting down trees, strip-mining
the valleys, polluting the air and water, and selling parkland to developers.
When fuel was short, the nation was asked to slow down and turn down thermostats
and shiver in the cold. Stopping the damage to the environment was going to
cause pain, it was thought, though if the pain were felt by closed mining communities
and steeltowns, truck drivers, old people and welfare families, so much the
better. Environmentalists have never quite shed their elitist image because
of their negative suggestions affect groups less powerful than they.
Industrial environmentalism is positive and inclusive. Because the industrial
crisis is caused by errors in design and construction of the industrial infrastructure,
rebuilding should be considered an economic development challenge for the industrial
nations. It is a job large enough to occupy the energies of a generation or
two. Building is more positive than stopping and has the advantage of including
groups that are excluded from most environmental proposals. Building a closed-loop
industrial system to the most stringent environmental standards will wed industrialization
with environmentalism and is a positive, inclusive economic strategy for survival.
It is also a method for making nations very rich.
Because high technology has become a meaningless phrase, elegant technology
is the best expression for the technology necessary for industrial environmentalism.
Elegant is a description used by designers and engineers to describe a design
that solves more than one problem. If a new design is cheaper to manufacture,
is more durable, and opens a distribution bottleneck, the design is more elegant
than the design it replaces. Other design criteria for elegance are: reduces
waste in manufacture, uses a plentiful natural resource, comes from a more
reliable source, is the waste product of another process, reduces the energy
necessary for manufacture, reduces the tooling costs, and is more beautiful.
Those who would claim that beauty is not a common element of engineering should
look at the precision castings inside engines such as those on the Italian
motorcycle, the Moto Guzzi. The Italians have been at the casting business
since before Michelangelo and they have learned a great deal in 500 years.
Industrial environmentalism asks that elegant engineering add relevant criteria
to the accepted definitions. To be elegant, a design should include a provision
for its ultimate disposal. A new design must deal with the waste generated
by the manufacturing process and the product itself. The person who designs
a product is most likely to have the relevant information as to how it can
be safely disposed of.
Elegant technology is that technology where the disposal, and any other
form of downstream problem, is dealt with from the beginning. When industrial
designers acknowledge that raw materials may only be borrowed from the
be returned at some future date, then and only then will technology be
truly elegant. The most simple and direct criterion for evaluating elegant
is to ask, "what will happen when everyone uses this technology?"
The Rules of Industrial Elegance
The following examples of elegant strategies for industrial environmental renewal
are just that--examples. A technologically literate reader can think of dozens
of other examples and criticize the choices made.
Examples are debatable--but the essential principles of elegant technology
are not. Like Murphy's Laws, there are corollaries yet to discover. Even so,
while the following rules may not be definitive, they describe most industrial-environmental
Everyone in an industrial society is a producer.
This is difficult for most people to understand because what most folks produce
is called garbage. There is a Japanese production principle called Just-In-Time
(JIT) production that helps illuminate this rule. JIT works best when every
worker in an industrialized setting acts as if the next worker or process is
The consumer of industrial products would benefit from such thinking. Everything
that is consumed is being processed for the next customer. Although it is difficult
to imagine you as a consumer are producing a product for the trash hauler,
that is really the correct way to view the relationship. Just as in JIT, where
the quality of the ultimate product depends on each person doing the job correctly,
the harmfulness of waste is a function of each person's processing efforts.
Of course, because of the complex nature of most industrial products, the average
consumer is totally lacks the means of processing products into useful forms
of garbage--even with good intentions. A consumer's inability to process goods
into waste correctly is determined by production decisions made much closer
to the original raw material.
Pollution is a function of design.
The most effective way to treat pollution burdens is not to create them in
the first place. Source reduction in the industrial setting may be, in fact,
the only way of eliminating industrial pollution.
Design is hard to understand in an economic setting--especially for an American
brought up on the notion of designer jeans. Designer jeans are to design what
a comic book is to the Bill of Rights. Even a person who understands the economics
of why designer jeans command a higher price knows that all jeans are equally
difficult to dispose of properly when worn out. Design as a solution for industrial
waste seems hopelessly subtle. It is not. Simply put, if all waste is to be
properly processed, the separation of waste into components is almost as difficult
as the original combining of elements. Demanufacture is roughly equal to manufacture.
Demanufacture is made easier when it is anticipated in the original manufacturing
process. Designing for Disassembly (DFD) is best done by the original product
designers. They have the most relevant expertise.
It is only money!!!
The value of money, like pollution, is a function of design. Design is the
key link between the economy and the environment. The financial superstructure
must be the servant of the real economy--not the other way around! Despoiling
the environment so some predatory financiers can prove their industrial ignorance
while misprogramming computer chips is intolerable. The argument that something
of environmental necessity cannot be done because there is not enough money,
is utterly absurd. Money can be created by pushing a few buttons on a computer.
To think otherwise is to be trapped in a preindustrial mind-set. If monetary
policy creates pollution problems, then the time has come for a new monetary
The principle of elegant designs can, and should, be applied to everything.
Since everything is too wide a subject to treat meaningfully, this discussion
of the applications for elegant technology will be confined to five areas:
waste management, food production, medicine and population control, elegant
tools, and energy. Keep in mind that because elegant technology is closed-loop
technology, these five areas cannot be easily separated, even for this simple
Elegant Waste Management
The most important aspect of waste management is to separate toxic substances
and combinations from the rest of the waste stream. Cardboard can be fed
to four-chambered-stomach farm animals as food if it is not contaminated
with toxic inks and other chemicals.
Burning waste products is less possible when toxic waste is present. If
toxic substances can be kept from the rest of the waste products, many
possibilities for elegant solutions
for waste disposal become possible.
Nontoxic wastes can be placed into three categories: fresh organic waste such
as human or animal excrement, grass clippings or leaves, and discarded food;
fibrous or flammable organic waste such as wood products, paper and packaging,
or tires; metals and other inorganic waste such as old concrete. Most non-toxic
wastes have intrinsic value so that recovery efforts should pay for themselves
by almost any accounting method, even (or especially) if the recovery methods
are sophisticated. Some waste disposal methods are
Fresh organic waste should be composted and returned to the soil. The Dutch have
applied significant technology to mass composting efforts. They believe that
composting creates a fine fertilizer that will replace a much petroleum-based,
synthetic fertilizer. Composting is equivalent in hard costs to any other form
of sewage treatment. Living in a tiny country, much of which was wrested from
the seas with great effort, the Dutch long ago reached the conclusion that fresh
organic waste is too valuable to discard--even if they had a place for disposal.
They realize that proper composting is best done by professionals, with the proper
equipment, and in a central location. Farmers may compost for themselves because
they have the space for such an activity, but crowded cities afford no such option.
Even in the United States, where many people live on suburban plots large enough
for personal composting efforts, such effort is rare because it is a bother.
Waste to fertilizer conversion will only happen in urbanized, industrial societies
when it is done in cities and towns because of the nature of the people who live
Burning waste, even when the heat is fully used, is a solution of last resort.
Sophisticated burning efforts can produce safe gasses such as carbon dioxide
and water vapor--both used by plants. The ash has significantly less mass than
the products to be burned and can be mixed into the compost heap. Ash disposal
is greatly simplified if the burning process does not itself cause the formation
or collection of toxic substances in the ash. Therefore, a burning solution must
involve upstream considerations.
The burning process itself is a downstream solution that is greatly simplified
if what is to be burned lacks known toxic additives. Plain paper can be safely
burned in the environment. Paper with ink on it, which is most of the paper discarded,
presents a much greater burden. Plastics are flammable but usually produce toxic
gasses when burned. The best solution would be to make ink and plastics so that
they may be safely burned. When that is not possible, the incinerator must be
more sophisticated to compensate for these substances. As in all good design
problems, this decision will involve a trade-off between the costs of reformulating
ink and plastics versus the
costs of greater incinerator sophistication.
Since the public will end up bearing the costs for any solution, including the
decision to do nothing, how this is accomplished and by what method must be a
public decision. Since there is valuable heat as a by-product of this disposal
method, the benefits must also be weighed in the cost accounting.
There is no known safe method for disposing of automobile tires. There is much
potential energy in a worn-out tire but burning them causes a big mess. Whoever
solves this one will be an environmental hero.
One thing must be remembered whenever burning is suggested as a solution. Burning
is, by definition, rapid oxidation. Simply, this means that while visually the
pile of ash is smaller than the pile of garbage, oxygen has been added to whatever
has disappeared. Eventually, most waste plus oxygen equals carbon dioxide. Of
all the pollutants, carbon dioxide is the least harmful, unless huge amounts
are generated. Any burning scheme must consider the volume of carbon dioxide
generated and plan for its reuse. Societies must be very careful because fire,
by itself, will not eliminate any environmental
Metals should be recovered and recycled into the resource stream. Old concrete
and other discarded building products can be safely buried. Buildings are supposed
to be permanent so their disposal does not cry out for an elegant solution. Steel
can be taken out of the waste magnetically and most other metals have enough
value to justify individual recovery efforts.
The key is separation. First there is the separation between toxic and nontoxic
wastes and then there is the separation within categories. Who will do the separation
is a social question of the first order. There are several answers. In a community
where people are normally very responsible, trustworthy, thrifty, and fastidious,
the separation efforts may be entrusted to the individual waste generators. An
apartment building could have two garbage chutes: one for flammable waste and
the other for metals. Fresh organic waste would go down the sewage system. Such
as solution would be the least expensive but the presence of a very few uncooperative
individuals would cause the scheme to fail. A simple-technology alternative would
be to hire unskilled workers and separate the waste at a central location. The
method would be to separate the waste using highly automated systems.
A technologically simple solution would be best for locales with unemployment
and lower capital availability. The automated method would be best for wealthy
suburbanites who like to see their city employees wearing ties. How the separation
process is accomplished is far less important than the critical
decision to separate.
Coping with nontoxic waste is best solved with macro solutions. The toxic waste
problem is a micro problem in that each chemical or other waste product must
be treated individually. The problem of nuclear waste is being deliberately ignored
here because there is no known solution. The great geniuses who gave humanity
this form of toxic waste must be put to work on a solution--if
there is one.
It must be remembered that toxic waste is both a technical and a social problem.
The technical problem can only be addressed with the certain knowledge that everything
that can be made can be unmade. Some toxic waste can be burned under very careful
conditions if the true nature of the waste is known. Even this solution assumes
a great deal about the social reality. For toxic waste to be known, collected,
and treated properly, it must be tracked very carefully from manufacture to disposal.
Getting a large company to spend the effort to track the progress of a toxic
waste will be very simple compared to tracking the millions of individuals and
small companies who produce toxic waste. It is impossible to imagine an environmental
police force able to check every person that buys a can of paint remover. It
may come to the point, however, that toxic substances are sold only to licensed
individuals and companies paying to neutralize, alter, treat, and recover the
toxic waste. This would force companies that make toxic substances to alter their
formulas or get out of the market--a powerful incentive to reformulate their
products. This would be the preferred upstream solution.
Unmaking a toxic waste involves a process very roughly equivalent to making the
product in the first place. Under linear industrialization, the costs of toxic
de-manufacture are nearly impossible to ascertain because much is still technologically
impossible--under such conditions, costs are practically
Early DFD efforts have shown that with elegant design, demanufacturing requires
approximately 1/4 the energy and 1/10 of the labor necessary to manufacture the
original product. To be completely successful, DFD should meet a disposal cost
target of 1/100 of the energy and 1/1000 of the labor.
For many vital toxic substances, DFD may prove impossible. Unless a toxic waste
can be converted to a valuable new resource--a very improbable solution in many
cases, or can be easily identified and neutralized, proper disposal for toxic
waste will, mostly, result in added costs. These costs, whatever they may be,
must be reflected in the selling price of toxic substances--however
Agriculture is the original industry from which all other industries sprang.
Not only are many tools, inventions, systems, and production structures directly
related to agriculture, but agriculture provides the food necessary for the growth
of all other industries. In a real sense, cities are the product of agriculture.
Industry and agriculture are so closely linked that a discussion of one is a
discussion of the other.
If environmentalism is defined as preservation, then agriculture is the original
anti-environmental activity. Agriculture does not preserve but alters the landscape.
Whether this alteration is an improvement is very much open to debate. Some agricultural
practices, such as terracing, are improvements over the natural state. Others,
such as slash and burn--unless done in a carefully controlled, preindustrial,
to the environmental catastrophe of the Amazon basin.
There is an incredible array of agricultural practices. Almost every method of
food production has probably been tried somewhere on the planet. Agriculture
methods vary with soil conditions, climate, and culture. The environmental reason
for owner-operated agriculture is that because these natural differences are
so subtle, each small plot of land must be cared for like a cherished member
of the family. Within the body of collective wisdom gathered through experimentation
are to be found all the necessary elements for an environmentally benign, elegant,
and sustainable agriculture.
Environmental decline caused by agriculture can be traced to two basic sources:
the adaptation by agriculture of the lessons of linear technology learned in
the industrial revolution; and, the scale of agriculture brought on by the rapid
population growth rates associated with the twentieth century. Both sources are
closely related and manifest themselves extensively in the agricultural practices
of North America. Because North American agriculture is considered to be so successful,
it is widely copied and admired throughout the world. Without meaning even the
smallest slight to agricultural practices in the rest of the world, this discussion
will focus on industrialized North American agriculture. The environmental questions
of North American agriculture must be solved or else we are leading others to
As the early products of twentieth century industrialization found thier way
to the farm, life became much easier. Tractors and the internal combustion engine
joined forces with nineteenth century inventions such as the Deere plow and the
McCormick reaper to make farmers faster and more productive. Farms that could
be run by a single family grew in size. The cultural definition of a farmer also
began to change.
Each additional industrial product changed the way farm work was organized. If
a farmer bought a tractor, his job description changed to include the ability
to fix a tractor when it breaks at a critical time during harvest. There are
implement repairmen in the small communities that serve agriculture, but when
harvest comes, they are too busy to help everyone. Farming as an occupation now
includes the skill of heavy equipment repair.
The distinction between modern and preindustrial farming is the availability
of electricity. A modern dairy barn is filled with the technologies of a small
factory--compressed air, hydraulics, refrigeration, vacuum lines, and conveyor
belts. Equipment for bovine medicine and bacteria reduction, artificial insemination,
and equipment sterilization show that the modern farmer has become a scientist.
To feed the cows, the farmer must grow crops--a process that involves selecting
genetically altered seeds, testing soils, purchasing appropriate soil nutrients
and predicting the weather.
The modern American farmer-mechanic-lab technician-scientist-businessperson must
have absorbed more information and mastered more skills than almost any other
known occupation. Far from being peasants, modern farmers constitute an elite
profession. Less than two percent of the population feeds the country with surpluses
for export--the agricultural crisis of the 1980s was not caused by inefficient
production methods. Not all this production efficiency flows from good farming
practices, unfortunately. As with other industrial enterprise, American farming
is charged with environmental devastation--such as soil erosion, groundwater
contamination, and pesticide poisoning.
If an elegant agriculture is the goal, it must be remembered that the cultural
needs of agriculture are larger than the technological and environmental changes
required. An elite profession is being asked to get better. The science of sustainable
agriculture is well researched, yet the 1980s crisis in American agriculture
has increased the cultural difficulty of converting to sustainable agriculture.
During that time, anyone with debt faced the fact that banks could change numbers
faster than a farmer could increase production. The old song about the mortgage
working overtime gained new meaning. When the numbers exceeded production, the
lender foreclosed. The farmer most likely to be in debt was young. The 1980s
catastrophe in American agriculture changed the demographics of the land--there
are no young farmers left. Most operating farmers are in their 50s, 60s, and
70s. These old foxes are set in their ways. If this trend continues, we may see
the day when potential farmers must be financially encouraged to farm--much like
rural doctors. It is possible that the United States will have a sustainable
agricultural future only if elegant agriculture is treated as a public works
Any form of enterprise that has many examples of linear technology is probably
going to be an enterprise that has replaced human muscle with mechanical power.
Nothing could be more descriptive of agriculture. North American agriculture
is much admired because it is productive. This measure of productivity is not
a measure of how much food is produced on an acre of land although North American
agriculture rates very high in this category; rather productivity is a measure
of how much food is produced by each farmer. By this measure, the North American
farmer has no peer. It must be remembered that this form of productivity is a
function of automation and automation requires energy. The high energy requirement
for the current realization of North American
agriculture is a technology trap.
Primitive agricultural methods avoid the technology trap, but primitive agriculture
means giving up many things that are routine fixtures of twentieth century
life and choosing a life that is very difficult. Some groups, such as the
maintained a continuous link to past agricultural practices and have an organized
social structure that eases the burden through communal cooperation. Most
modern farmers have long since passed the point of returning to past agricultural
practices. The ability to weld a broken part on a combine and the ability
fashion a harness
for a horse are two very different skills. As multitalented as most North
American farmers are, their talents are different in scope and function from
of an Amish farmer. To adopt the methods of primitive technology, most North
American farmers would literally have to start over from the beginning. As
farming is a complex, multiskilled occupation that really can only be learned
a farm, starting over from scratch would give the expression "born
again" a new meaning. This is obviously impossible.
Energy is not the only technology trap. Modern agriculture relies on a host of
synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Anyone who seriously believes
that pesticides are something that can and should be eliminated, should be required
to read the accounts of the grasshopper invasions of the 1870s and 1880s. People
starved to death. People watched as a year's work was devoured in 30 minutes.
Synthetic herbicides and fertilizers have caused productivity of both land and
human effort to rise dramatically. Fragile, but high producing, hybrid seeds
need heavy applications of both. Doing without either could cause serious food
Synthetic land additives are destroying the very land they are supposed to protect.
The rich, black topsoils of the central prairies of the United States are not
so rich and black any more. In many places, continuous applications of chemicals
have destroyed the natural fertility. In places where topsoil used to contain
200 kinds of worms, there are none left. Worms enrich the soil although some,
such as cutworm, destroy crops. Killing them all to destroy the one reduces natural
fertility. Add to that, agricultural practices which encourage erosion, and there
is not very much topsoil left--even the dead kind. Fertile topsoil is as necessary
to life as water. Natural fertility can be replaced with artificial fertility
and the plants will not know the difference. Destroying natural fertility and
replacing it with a fertility that is manufactured from a finite supply of oil
and natural gas is a prescription for disaster. Americans should be aware that
Iowa is now largely a natural sponge that holds water, chemicals, and plant roots.
Because these synthetics are based on expensive petroleum feedstocks, the first
sign of an agricultural crises caused by this technology trap will be widespread
economic distress. Economic distress among farmers is merely the symptom of the
impending environmental distress, which, in turn, could cause a catastrophic
collapse in food production. The society that is caught in the technotrap of
synthetic land additives
will be crippled.
Elegant solutions to the problems of agriculture are socially possible but
technically difficult. Replacing synthetic land additives and fossil energy
is a huge problem.
Often, the technoproblems of agriculture are caused by practices that are
perceived to be the ideal or best solution. Most farmers will not argue substance
the subject of environmental technotraps is
raised. Their response is more like, "Sure I have problems because energy
is too expensive, fertilizers do not raise productivity enough to pay for themselves,
and the poison I am using to kill weeds is making me sick. I'd drop every last
one of them if there was a better solution!" Farmers probably understand
the notion of a closed loop system better than anyone. Not only are they
daily witnesses to natural processes that city dwellers may see a few times
lifetime, they already employ many elegant, upstream, closed-loop systems.
Every time a
farmer spreads manure on the field, an age old and simple demonstration of
a closed system practice is
The farmer does not have the time, energy, or resources to organize new industrial
solutions--running a 600 acre farm is work enough. It is organizationally impossible
for a single farmer to change the base of the fertilizer from natural gas to
municipal waste. Composting produces a low-grade fertilizer in the sense that
there is not as much enrichment value per pound as in the concentrated synthetics.
Shipping the organic waste from the city back to the farm may seem a good idea,
and inevitably, that is what must be done.
The costs of shipping heavy, low-grade fertilizers would be absolutely frightening
to an industry that has been plagued by shipping woes. The farmer cannot do the
research and development necessary to concentrate compost so that shipping would
not be a greater hassle than the current levels. That is the job for universities
and cities and industry. The farmers cannot pay the price to ship low-grade material.
The elegant technical solutions for agriculture must come from cities populated
with people who have never thought for one second about the source of their food.
City dwellers have the capacity to solve the technical problems of agriculture
but first they must become aware that agriculture dilemmas are their own as certainly
as zoning ordinances
and police protection.
Elegant solutions to agriculture must have an emphasis on a trouble-free operation.
Farmers with feedlots could probably generate their own methane with devices
such as are used on large farms in China. The Chinese claim that some of their
collective farms are energy self-sufficient because of their methane generators.
As a typical North American farmer has about the same resource input as a Chinese
collective, the scale of the technology is about right. For Chinese methane generators
to work in North America, they must be almost automatic and extremely reliable.
This cannot be a technology that requires several operators working full time.
A farmer could be encouraged to solarize the buildings, make fuel from droppings,
or any of a host of other elegant solutions, if and only if the farmer can be
assured that the solution is cost-effective and works as promised. Until now,
most of these solutions have been nothing but a major headache. Equipment maintenance
already occupies more time than the farmer would wish-more headaches he does
Of all the needs for elegant technology, the needs of agriculture are most pressing.
There is simply no way to argue with the biosphere and raise food simultaneously.
Farming in North America is an industrial enterprise, but it is also an environmental
enterprise. Only an industrial environmental solution will produce the required
result. Linear industrialization and agriculture are incompatible. Closing the
loop with agriculture is not so much a problem of farmers but of joining the
farm to the city. An elegant agriculture must move away from a focus on production
and toward diversification and sustainability. Government agricultural programs
must trade production controls and price subsidies for environmental concerns.
This known route of city-farm cooperation should be explored further in any democracy
where the numbers of directly interested farmers have fallen so far that all
muscle is lost.
Elegant Medicine and Population Control
Unregulated industrial medicine in the United States has redefined the meaning
of absurd. While millions are denied basic care, others have so much medicine
forced upon them they must go to court to have treatment stopped. While prenatal
care is neglected, hospitals will spend hundreds of thousands of
dollars to "save" the life of a one-pound prematurely born infant--a
life permanently deformed by invasive medicine. Transplanted organs promise new
life but in fact, make patients permanently addicted to hospitals while incurring
costs that no one person could ever afford. Medicine consumes nearly 13 percent
of GNP, which cripples industry. Medical waste is emerging as the largest single
hazardous disposal headache. Worst of all, many cultural dilemmas are intrinsic
to industrial medicine itself. Socialized medicine, as it is manifest in Scandinavia,
fairly delivers services and preventive
care, but environmental costs are similar.
Industrial medicine is a downstream solution and is fraught with serious ethical
questions. It has become so expensive that the upstream solution of prevention
has finally regained popularity. The basic idea is that because getting sick
is so expensive, the better alternative is to stay healthy.
Wearing seatbelts is an example of an upstream industrial approach to a serious
medical need. The general drop in automotive fatalities in North America can
be attributed, in large part, to better trauma treatment. Huge applications of
industrial medicine have saved the lives of many who would have otherwise died.
Often, however, the lives that are saved are not very fulfilling because of permanent
injuries--many of which are to the brain and nervous system. Most head injuries
in automobile accidents are the result of the head striking some portion of the
interior of the car. In the past 15 years, improvements in automobile design
have greatly reduced the possibility of injury. There is a catch. None of these
design improvements work unless people take the time to buckle in. Seatbelts
are a public health issue.
Even with airbags, seatbelts must be worn.
Passing mandatory seatbelt legislation was so difficult that it does not bode
well for other forms of necessary upstream public health changes. The rise of
neonatology, the medical practice of treating premature infants, is illustrative
of the medical infatuation with downstream solutions.
Neonatology has two general forms of patients: those with low birth weights,
and those with birth defects. Low birth weights often associated with premature
birth have obvious upstream solutions. Prenatal care for the mother, mostly in
the form of proper nutrition, could solve the medical tragedy of low birth weight.
This solution is unpopular for political reasons. The medical lobby has far more
clout than poor mothers so while governments willingly pick up the high cost
of treating the prematurely born, much more cost-effective nutrition programs
are cut. As it can easily cost $500,000 (1992) to treat a premie, and the treatment
itself can cause expensive lifelong medical troubles such as brain damage, even
expensive nutrition programs become
exceedingly inexpensive by comparison.
The upstream solution to birth defects must address another problem. It can be
argued that most birth defects are environmentally caused. It makes intrinsic
sense to so argue. The theory of evolution teaches that species mutate in response
to a changed environment. It makes perfect sense to assume that a child born
without a skull, or some other ghastly birth defect, is simply nature's experiment
in trying to produce a human who can cope with PCBs in the water supply or some
other form of toxic pollution. The rate of children born without significant
defect has fallen to 88 out of 100 in the United States. The effect of toxins
in the environment on the birth of healthy children is an emerging health issue.
Getting rid of toxic waste is the upstream medical solution. If a significant
fraction of the resources given over to industrial medicine were applied to toxic
waste disposal, the issues might be resolved. The first step is to connect the
Population control is the ultimate upstream-downstream issue. No matter how many
elegant solutions are found to the hazards of linear industrialization, the planet
is still finite. Linear industrialization could continue in its present realization
for a very long time if the populations were small and stable. Almost any practice
known to humans is harmful if enough people do it. High populations put intense
pressure on the biosphere.
Because the biosphere is finite, any form of human industrial life-support activities
must also be finite. Those who would argue against population control or believe
that the solutions will take care of themselves, should be required to explain
how the planet is going to support these new humans
or be ignored.
Elegant technology assumes the existence of elegant tools. Tools, according
to Bronowski, drive the development of the human species. Peaceful industrial
arise when a society places more importance on the development of tools than
on weapon improvements.
Tool-driven social and cultural advances are not automatic and there is often
a large time lag between a major tool improvement and the social response. The
tool that drove the Protestant Reformation in Germany--the printing press, was
perfected over a half century before the social change.
Those not familiar with tools may even recognize this time lag in the history
of music. Most musical forms have a classical period. At some time following
the perfection of a new instrument, there is a period when the music written
for this instrument is considered the best of the breed. For the pipe organ,
the favorite composer is Bach: the piano, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt: the large
concert hall-large orchestra, Beethoven: the small concert hall, Hayden and Mozart:
electric guitar, Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Beatles,
and the Doors.
All have become standards of excellence by which all later efforts are compared.
Subsequent composers are considered derivative. Orchestra boards attempt to educate
their patrons with new music while everyone wants to pay to hear the old warhorses.
Rock music has spawned radio stations devoted to playing classic rock exclusively.
Popular music written from 1964 to 1974 will be played forever--second generation
fans of the Doors and the Who exist already.
The pattern of technologically driven change appears constant. In the above examples,
the science came first--sufficient precision to manage compressed air in the
case of the pipe organ. In its day, the tracore-action organ was the most sophisticated
and difficult construction feat attempted by humans--the sixteenth century's
space shot. A cast-iron frame gave the piano its large sound and dynamic range.
Improvements in stringed instruments and concert hall construction made possible
the glories of collectivized sound. Beethoven has been called history's greatest
acoustical engineer. Electric amplification made it possible for a tiny group
musicians to play their music for the whole world.
The time lag between the appearance of new technology and the classical period
of the new art form seems about 30 years. The generation of people who produce
the new technology seems less creative with the possibilities than the following
generations that assume the technology's existence from birth. It is then the
creative geniuses appear who exploit the new technology's most fascinating possibilities.
In the case of music, a finite number of melodies are pleasing to the ear. Discordant
orchestral music causes accelerated hearing loss as the Concertgebouw orchestra
of Amsterdam recently discovered. The classical period in music occurs when a
composer, or a handful of composers, use up all the pleasant melodies of the
Since the industrial revolution, producers have been forced to choose between
inexpensive and versatile tools that produce primitive products, or expensive
precision tools that are the requirements of technical excellence. Precision
is expensive: How precise do you want to be?
The tool dilemma of industrialism has been solved. In a technological tour
de force, Toyota stunned the industrial world with the introduction of the
400SC. Car and Driver called it the automotive equivalent of "piling
on" in football. It was Toyota's way of telling the automotive world--whatever
you make, we can make it better.
Toyota has no magic pipeline to superior tools. Therefore Toyota's message of
the 400SC is even more telling--it is not the tools but how the tools are used.
More telling yet--Toyota's most productive engine plant uses tools at least 30
years old. A plant engineer explained that this time was necessary fully to understand
these classic machines.
Normally, when an automobile maker brings out a sedan designed to be completely
new, the sport coupe derivation is considered a marketing device sold to a small
group of aficionados. In essence, the price of a coupe is higher than a sedan
with two more doors.
Toyota changed the rules. Their sport coup would cost less and would use over
80 percent new parts. These were not just any new parts, either. The SC was styled
in Southern California by artists who were instructed not
to use pencils.
For much of the history of machine tools, precision was a function of straight
lines and circles. Other shapes cost more to produce and were made with less
precision. Using computer-operated tools brought precision and equal cost to
the manufacture of any shape. The instruction to the stylists--think shape, not
line. The stylists dreamed up the shape of the 400SC by hand forming wet plaster
in balloons. It was not only the overall shape of the car that was sculpted,
all the parts of this new car were sculpted--down to the last knob and speaker
Toyota showed true commitment to their promise--very few of these delightful
sensual sculptures--designed to be touched--were overruled for production or
cost considerations. Such a commitment to artistic purity is still rare, but
proves an important point. Toyota demonstrated that they could fabricate any
shape from any material for any reason. They proved that the problem of production
is lack of imagination because everything is possible.
Though an enlightened tool-driven culture is possible, it is not inevitable that
tools will lead to the promised land--there is no technological determinism.
A successful tool-driven culture reflects a conscious social choice.
General Motors has tools that make Toyota's look positively primitive. Former
GM CEO Roger Smith spent $20 billion in one decade for better tools. He could
have been a producer hero-but he will never be. Smith, a living advertisement
for outlawing accountants as heads of industrial companies, did not know why
he was buying these tools. The only legitimate reason for new tools, during Smith's
crazy reign, was job elimination. GM market share plunged from over 50 percent
to less than 30 percent. The average age of the buyer of GM's products rose to
between 55 and dead. Job losses destroyed GM factory
Industrial environmentalism is the ultimate possibility--made possible by elegant
tools. Again, this is not technological determinism--cultures must choose to
use the new tools for this end. Evidence is still slim that elegant tools lead
to elegant production. Fortunately, there exists a perfect example of environmental
choice driving the uses of technological possibilities.
Sweden decided by election to abandon nuclear power. This was a grave choice!
Nuclear power drives Sweden's high living standard. There are no simple alternatives.
Solar power is weak at her far northern latitude--Stockholm's days are less than
two hours long at the winter solstice. She has no oil and the few remaining supplies
of metallurgical coal are too precious to burn--besides global warming is a hazard
and burning coal is not an environmental improvement. Good hydropower sites have
One of Sweden's hero-occupations is mechanical engineering. If a replacement
for nuclear power was to be found, it would be an engineered solution. Because
space and water heating was the largest single source of energy consumption,
conservation here would produce the largest energy savings. A house that used
less energy was the socially defined goal. Ideas that would lead to no energy
consumption at all would be entertained.
This effort in cultural ways resembled the American space program of the 1960s.
Large corporations and universities joined forces. The first major decision was
to produce an airtight, super-insulated house. It was assumed that such a house
could not be built unless modern factory methods were employed. To be airtight
and energy-efficient, the house must fit together
as well as a Volvo's engine.
Folks do not like factory-built housing because of its well-deserved reputation
for ugliness. Borrowing a winsome idea from the Danes, the Swedes decided
that precision-crafted manufactured parts of a house could be assembled like
Lego® toy. These super-Lego parts could be as large and complicated as
necessary so long as it could be trucked down the highway. Each fresh house
be analyzed by computer and broken into to super-Lego components. Anything
from a mother-in-law's cottage to a mansion could be built with these methods.
as the Toyota's stylists were told, would be possible. If these factory-built
houses were ugly, it would
not be the fault of the factory.
Computers would direct production machinery which meant that a materials list,
down to the last screw, could be calculated instantly. A new home-owner could
be informed of each modification's cost with certainty--not only in Kroner cost
but in energy consumption. With factory methods, the energy performance of a
new house could be projected as accurately as the mileage
on a new car.
Because factory housing was an environmental project, environmental design was
given new openings. It was discovered that a program could generate a landscape
planting design based on each building site's unique environmental setting. By
analyzing the path of the sun and the prevailing winds by day and speed, this
program will specify the best tree species and location to block the wind, shade
the dwelling in summer and allow the sun to shine through in winter. This program
can recommend window locations, size of
eave overhang, and door location.
Factory housing had satisfied the architects, the consumer advocates, and the
environmentalists, but all objections were still not overcome. The health experts
were concerned about the indoor air quality of a super-tight dwelling. Moisture
and radon gas were big sticking points. High moisture grows molds and fungus
which can cause health problems and structural damage. Elegant design solved
this concern. An exhaust system drawing from the bathrooms, laundry room facilities,
and the kitchen would use an air-to-air exchanger to warm the air drawn in from
the outside. By equalizing air pressure between indoors and outdoors, this exhaust
system saved far more energy than it
consumed. Indoor air pollution was eliminated.
These houses perform magnificently. In many examples, body occupant heat and
electric lighting are sufficient to heat the home on most days--even in winter.
In one culturally telling example, twelve homes are provided with hot water and
indoor warmth from the exhausted heat of the refrigeration unit for a hockey
As every producer knows, great projects only succeed if they are funded. Banks
had to be convinced that this method of homebuilding was a good investment. High-performance
housing was more expensive. Banks had to be shown that the energy savings paid
for the better house. Because factory methods are so reliable, the energy consumption
of the new home could be predicted for 50 years--longer than a mortgage. The
sophisticated argument postulated that because this new housing was less vulnerable
to an energy price increase, the owner was a more reliable source of mortgage
payments and deserved an interest-rate cut. Lower interest rates changed the
energy equation so that more sophisticated improvements could be designed into
the new house without raising the monthly payments. By designing energy efficiency
into the structure
and landscape, these improvements became permanent.
Because these houses are somewhat portable, they can be erected at great distance
from the factories. When England expanded its military presence in the Falkland-Malvenas
Islands in 1982, it faced a severe housing shortage. Within weeks, a Swedish
factory was producing the parts for cozy, energy-efficient housing for a cold,
windswept island near Antarctica.
Before the dollar devaluation of 1985, Sweden even tried to sell this housing
in the cold-weather parts of the United States and Canada with some success.
It was discovered that if the military is not paying the shipping bill, the practical
economic limit is about 50 miles. The Japanese, world masters at spotting a good
industrial trend, duplicated the production facilities and wrote new environmental
One can only dream of how the world would be different, in terms of global policy
and internal disorder, if the United States and the old Soviet Union would have
employed these methods. Tragically, both had all the necessary
Tools are only tools. They are promise, not results. The culture has to decide
how they will be employed. Industrial environmentalism is only possible--not
The essential element of elegant technology is design excellence. Design excellence
is a product of environmental awareness. Tool sophistication is an important
element of the industrial environment. Truly elegant solutions to industrial-environmental
dilemmas include an awareness of the on-site access to various levels of technology.
Elegant design must take this into
Because elegant tools make mass production unnecessary, the problems of mass-production,
from the wastefulness of excess capacity to environmental ruin, are no longer
imperatives of the tools themselves. Many of the design compromises necessary
for mass production can be no longer justified. This leads to a significant shift
in thinking. There is a big difference between designing the perfect housing
unit and designing the perfect house for a particular site. As each site is different,
so each housing unit should be different even if the same design criteria are
used. The example of housing is illuminating because people are already aware
that different sites require
The unimaginative who fear social change see the computerization of tools as
a capitalist plot that will be used to enable higher rates of production with
fewer workers. Often, they have a strong point because the equally unimaginative
managers of industry have mostly confined themselves to this application. In
this case, the fault is not with the tools, but with the misunderstanding of
The industrial environmental solution will not fail for lack of tooling potential.
In fact, all the pieces may already be in place. The last missing piece in the
tooling puzzle was the necessity that computer chips were formerly mass-produced
items. Computer chip manufacturers were about as capital intensive as steelmakers.
By 1991, the chipmaking tooling has become so sophisticated that designer chips
can be made in very small numbers. Chipmaking may become a cottage industry,
which in turn means that micro-fine, computerized manufacturing tolerances are
available to production runs of ONE.
If tools are no longer the restraint, then the problems are social and economic.
The end to mass production, mass consumption, and mass distribution will require
major cultural changes even though the alternative is so promising. This is true
especially in the United States where size is considered the ultimate measure
of the success of any endeavor. The universal availability of very sophisticated
small-scale manufacture may lead to the desired regionalization of technology.
In response to the industrial environmental needs, each locale has a slightly
different subset so each solution must be different. It is comforting to know
that tools are not the issue. It is distressing to know that the dilemma is now
merely lack of imagination.
Social institutions do have a way of responding, however slowly. If the cooperative
was the social invention to respond to mass-production, the franchise is the
response to the demassification of industry. What is relevant about the franchise
idea is that it is a way to spread industrial recipes in a commercially valid
way so that consistency can be maintained in essential areas. As the franchise
idea has grown, the distinction between what is essential and what is not has
become more sophisticated. In the early days, for example, fast-food franchisers
insisted that the buildings must be identical. Now, individual operators have
wide latitude over architecture, decor, suppliers, community involvement, hiring
practices, and so on. Even so, a Big Mac tastes pretty much the same in Tokyo
or in Memphis so tight control is maintained
over the basic recipe.
Whether franchising will come to the business of recycling waste control filter
elements or some other form of Industrial environmental necessity is an open
question. What is known is that the franchising idea could become much more sophisticated
in scope and application. Preparing food is one of the simplest industrial recipes.
There is nothing to prevent a complex recipe from being distributed through the
same social device.
If the system of franchising is not up to the task of industrial regionalization
and demassification, then a new social and economic mechanism must be invented.
What it will look like or be named is not known. What is known is what it should
do. The trick is to invent a social-economic-distribution system that will enable
more expensive, well made and sophisticated products to be sold more cheaply.
For example, when a product must sell for four times production cost to pay for
distribution, there is a real incentive to lower production costs below the point
where a proper product can be produced. There must also be new tooling arrangements
to prevent overproduction. The waste of overproduction is no longer environmentally,
socially (as in jobs lost) and economically affordable. The goal is to make the
of ideal products rather than the maximum amount of junk.
Elegant Energy Applications
No industrial-environmental solution is possible without a discussion
of energy. The second law of thermodynamics cannot be ignored. Organic fossil-based
use is the prefect example of a linear system built into the industrial infrastructure.
Waste steel can be collected, toxic waste can be traced and treated, but it is
impossible to collect the energy of the urban heat island. Once energy becomes
diffuse, it lacks practical value. Unfortunately, the one-way path of energy
is the paradigm of the industrial state. Run short of high-grade energy and linear
industrialization stops. Fortunately, high-grade energy sources are not necessary
for most of the uses to which
they have been applied.
The key to elegant energy application is to use little, employ many renewable
sources, and reuse as much high-grade energy as possible. The industrial-environmental
solution to linear energy must be a combination of conservation, renewability,
and reuse. All must be employed because energy is the power for industrialization
in all its forms.
In the United States, approximately 50 percent of energy consumed goes for space
heating and domestic hot water, 25 percent goes for electrical generation, 20
percent is used for transportation, and 5 percent is used for manufacturing and
industrial applications. Each use could be reduced, in some cases dramatically.
The use of high-grade energy for such low-grade applications as space and water
heating is likely to be affected by conservation efforts but all forms of energy
use can be reduced through available technical means. What is important is that
energy use is a function of design. It is built into the system. The United States'
consumption patterns are a function of the nature of the industrial infrastructure:
how cities are laid out, how food is processed and distributed, how efficiently
fuels are changed into useful work, and
how buildings are insulated.
Generally speaking, manufacturing processes and transportation require high-grade
heat energy, space heating requires a very low-grade form of heat, and electrical
generation falls somewhere in between. High-grade sources of energy are finite
and increasingly rare. Lowering consumption of high-grade energy, a laudable
and necessary goal, must be addressed by technical improvements: making a car
go farther on a gallon of gasoline and by structural changes, such as converting
a low-grade need to use a low-grade source of energy. Most people have some experience
with technical improvements but do not
understand structural improvements.
Most electricity is generated by steam turbines. Water is heated in a pressurized
system that forces a super-heated steam through turbine blades. The electricity
generated is about 40 percent of the heat used to heat the water. This may seem
like a low rate of conversion efficiency but it is quite good. Gasoline powered
automobiles are about 20 percent efficient, even though the car may get very
good gas mileage. In cars, the excess heat is removed through the exhaust pipe
and the radiator. The heat lost is low-grade heat in that it is no longer useful
for powering an automobile. In electrical generation, the low-grade heat is dispersed
through cooling towers and warm water dumped into rivers where it enters the
environment as thermal pollution.
The exhausted low-grade heat from electrical generation still contains useful
heat energy. In most countries of northern Europe, this water is piped through
cities and used for space heating and domestic hot water. This system is usually
called district heating. With district heating, citizens get electricity and
heat for the same amount of energy as formerly only got them electricity. Forty
percent of the energy still goes for electrical generation and the 60 percent
is not discarded but is used to heat buildings and water.
District heating is an extremely good idea. It does not solve the linear direction
that energy must take to conform to the second law of thermodynamics; it merely
reuses the energy more than once as it tends toward entropy. Structurally, it
is an elegant solution. Once the pipes have been laid and the homes converted
to district heating requirements, any form of low-grade heat can be used. Where
the buildings to be heated are very weather-tight to begin with, very small sources
of low-grade heat can go a long way. Burning refuse can yield home heat with
district heating. Most cities in the United States north of the 40th parallel
could profit from the installation of district heating.
District heating is not the only example of changing the quality of the heat
input. Electric trains are another example. Diesel fuel, which is used by most
locomotives in the United States, is a high-grade heat source. It is also a premium
fuel that is rare. Power a train with electricity and you can power the train
with garbage, coal, falling water, wind, peat, and other sources of energy more
common than diesel fuel. Since electricity is easily transported, the source
of power does not have to be near the train. It can be located close to the energy
source or close to a city where
the waste heat can be used.
Combine technical improvements with structural improvements and only manufacturing,
cars, trucks, airplanes, and farm machinery require high-grade sources of fuel.
Low-grade sources of fuel are sufficient for all the other applications. Make
the energy requirements low enough and the world of solar power become a distinct
possibility. Solar power is plentiful but diffuse. This causes a technical headache
when solar power is to replace conventional fuels. Attempts have been made to
fashion a solar powered airplane or automobile without much success. A solar
powered aircraft has flown over the English Channel but it was an experimental
rather than a serious form of alternative transportation. Flying is a high-grade
energy proposition. No meaningful discussion of the future can exclude the subject
of solar power. For the immediate future, however, solar power must be confined
to low-grade applications.
Solar power encompasses technologies such as biomass, wind power, solar concentrators,
and photovoltaics. In the early, optimistic, and experimental phase of solar
power, it was assumed that putting a solar collector on the roof would lead
to everything from power-sharing to sinless perfection. Simple solar collectors
did not work, unfortunately. The notion that a portion of the roof could
collect enough energy to heat the interior of a conventional house was technologically
preposterous. This phase was referred to as "active" solar power. Almost
no examples of active solar worked. What proved to be much more successful is
something called "passive solar." The idea of passive solar is to make
the building as energy efficient as possible with insulation, quality windows,
and an air-tight weather envelope. When the structure has energy needs so low
that a human body or its lights can keep rooms warm under most conditions, then
a proper orientation to the sun, well-designed overhangs, and solar porches become
enough to heat the home. The only active solar collector that has proven itself
is one used for hot water. This is logical because the dwelling only has to be
to 70· Fahrenheit whereas water must be heated to about 110· Fahrenheit.
Solar power as wind power has a bright future. The whole of the United States
is linked together by an electrical grid. Where the power is generated is
largely irrelevant and some areas of the United States have a plentiful supply
North Dakota is a very unpleasant place to live and not many people have
made it their home--yet it sometimes called the "Saudi
Arabia" of wind energy. One of the worst features is the wind that blows
almost constantly. People who live in North Dakota look on their windswept
prairie as an ocean where exposure to the elements is incessant. Only the
protection from the wind. A string of windmills along the North Dakota-Canadian
border could produce electricity about 80 percent of the time which is about
double the operating record of a nuclear power plant.
The key to wind power is embodied in the notion of a string of windmills. Experiments
in wind power have concentrated their efforts on large windmills. This is contrary
to good industrial practices. In leisure-class parlance, mass production is associated
with shoddy production. This is false, of course, because the more examples of
a single design produced, the more time, effort, and money can be spent on perfecting
the design. Reliable windmills mean reliable bearings, lubrication systems that
function in all weather conditions, blades that are not damaged by rain, sleet
and snow, easy maintenance, and a whole host of considerations that will not
be addressed by large, one-off, prototype windmills. Only mass-production techniques
will make wind power a viable energy alternative. Many perfected windmills are
preferable to fewer large windmills for another reason: when one fails, the results
are much less noticeable. As for the social realities of mass wind power, North
Dakotans already put up with Minuteman missile silos, so a string of windmills
should cause little concern.
The Elegant Mix
The industrial-environmental future becomes most attractive when all the elegant
methods are combined. Imagine a city with a resource recovery center that burns
flammable waste for electrical generation and space heating, composts and concentrates
organic waste for use by agriculture, and collects and recycles metals for reuse
including the building of other recovery centers, laying the pipe for district
heating, and infrastructure improvements. Imagine a city that reprocesses all
toxic waste. Imagine a city without operating landfills and smokestacks. Imagine
medicine designed to keep people healthy and when the time comes, lets them die
with dignity. Imagine a system planned so that each new member of society has
a place to fit in an environmental and industrial sense. Imagine a society where
agricultural practices can continue far into the future without causing devastating
environmental consequences. Imagine all that, and the possibilities of industrial
real--a pleasant thought.
The scale of industrial environmentalism is at the same time its greatest attraction
and its most serious drawback. It is a huge scheme. Any responsible person must
ask how such a scheme can be politically and socially possible, and more importantly,
how it will be paid for. These questions are not frivolous and the answers will
constitute the remainder of this book. The question of what may happen if industrial
environmentalism is not tried will also