May 1996

I've worked the last twenty-five years on developing parts of what is now called "Eco-design", under the belief that healthier buildings, lower energy use, and less ecological impact was important. This was only to discover recently that all this time I was still looking at things in isolation rather in their ecological interconnectedness!

What I didn't see was that every dollar a person saves on energy use in a building is somehow spent on something else - vacations, a new car, an education, or just paying the bills. As those same dollars ripple around the economy, they end up using up similar amounts of energy and resources as before.
1 (The only apparent out seems to be earning less or investing in renewable resources.) And after working to cut in half the use of wood in a building (and equivalently the ecological impact of logging) we find that in one generation of growth we're cutting twice as many trees to build twice as many, twice as large houses.

All these connections lead back to our base cultural values of greed, growth, and violence. Until we let loose of our insane belief that geometric expansion of our numbers and our appetites can continue in a finite world, any "eco-building" is only a band-aid. True "eco-building" involves whether we build as well as how, and the values from which we work. It is, however, possible to let go of the values of greed, growth, and violence. And doing so, we discover many unexpected benefits.

We discover first that stabilizing growth has immense monetary, resource, and personal advantages. It totally avoids our current expenditure of 33% to 40% of our time and resources spent on creating the infrastructure to accommodate more people and things.
3 A population doubling means duplicating our entire stock of houses, water systems, power plants, cities, roads - as well as prematurely demolishing existing ones. It also means spending more on feeding and educating those additional people to adulthood.

Growth has been claimed as necessary "to help the poor" - as if growth over the last twenty years hasn't dramatically worsened the condition of the poor and heightened the concentration of our wealth among the rich.
4 The median US household income for wage-earners is currently $31,000, with more than 13% of households under the monetary poverty level of $15,000. A fully equitable distribution of personal income would amount to $59,000 per household.5

An equitable society could totally eliminate poverty and support EVERYONE at the current median income level of $31,000 per household. To do so would, surprisingly, need 47% less work, and equivalently fewer resources than our current society uses to maintain poverty and inequality!

To achieve growth, we have also developed the habit of paying for personal expenditures, corporate expansion, and governmental infrastructure consistently through debt purchasing. That debt purchasing has resulted in an across-the-board 20% surcharge on our cost of living, without any substantive benefit.

Together, stabilizing growth and dealing directly with the inequality in our society can permanently release us from almost 75% of our present energy, material, financial and human costs of living, without lowering our material living standard, and without need for any "technical fixes".7


Our belief in an endless cornucopia of resources and wealth has also caused us to ignore care and efficiency in all of our institutional structures, production processes, and living patterns. The result is that they have developed almost inconceivable waste - which now represents an equally great opportunity for improved effectiveness and efficiency.

Well-documented research over the last twenty years has shown and is beginning to produce factor of ten savings (90% reduction) in energy and resources needed in almost every sector of society.10 This means two hundred mile-per-gallon cars, safer than today's, and totally recyclable.11 They're due on the road in four to five years. It means homes that require only sunlight and rainfall to operate.12 Prototypes are already in operation in almost all of our climate zones. You've probably been involved in some of them. Water?'s toilets and showers already have reduced water use 75% from fixtures of only a few years ago - and more improvements are on the way.13 Forestry practices are available now - requiring no new technology - that maintain all forests in old growth condition, while doubling timber production, increasing the economic benefits from timber production nine-fold, and increasing total forest value many times more.14

How about a higher education system with resources available - free to all, worldwide - via satellite TV?
15 Housing that costs only one-tenth of today's, through improved durability, energy efficiency and financing patterns?16 Industrial products with virtually zero ecological impact and magnitude lower production costs?17 All these and more are immanent or already being implemented today. "Eco-building" (or "eco-adapting", as we need much less new building under such conditions) is clearly an important element of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of our systems - once we deal first with the basic causes of instability in our society.

When we put just these four opportunities together, they add up to ways to reduce our resource consumption, ecological impact, and use of our time by up to 97%, which is significantly more than appears needed to achieve sustainablilty.
(And the real rewards of a sustainable society do not fall in these familiar material dimensions of life.)

It is unlikely that we would ever follow such possibilities out to these extremes - if for no other reason that we decide we want to work more, or we want to do better for ourselves and all life, and ask for higher levels of performance in all we do. But even if we decide to only achieve two-thirds of each of these savings, that still adds up to an 82% reduction from our present patterns - almost exactly what is projected to be needed to operate on a sustainable basis.19

We've also looked at these issues very briefly and in isolation. In reality they are interactive. Some give resource savings but not financial or employment ones. Others, as in any ecological system, have multiple and interactive effects and savings.
20 Hours worked would drop significantly, but unlikely to the equivalent 12 minutes a day, as these alternatives are often more employment intensive.

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What is important is that the savings possible are far more than enough to totally transform a once frightening prospect of change into an opportunity for significant betterment of our lives!21

* * *

One of the curious twists of ecological interconnectedness here is that proceeding with implementing these efficiency improvements (such as eco-building) without first dealing with growth and our other base values can turn out scarily counterproductive. It would result with us twenty-five years down the road having twice the population, fewer resources, and having already used up the opportunities for releasing resources out of our operating patterns to finance a transition to sustainability.22 The likelihood of major reduction in our material quality of life would then be immense.

Does that mean we should stop trying to improve the ecological fitness of our building? That would seem crazy. What I think it means is that we hold such building up as an example of just one of the benefits of stabilizing growth, and explain the others. That we add to the technical aspect of eco-building the human, psychological, and spiritual dimensions that give us connectedness with the rest of creation, places with souls, gardens to nurture our spirits, and cities of passion.
23 And along side, to put as much or greater effort into helping us all become aware of and achieve all the benefits of stabilizing growth and becoming a sustainable society.24

38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© May 1996

1 Shifts from energy-intensive to less energy intensive expenditures do reduce energy use, but by only the net difference. Some alternatives, such as vacations, can be more energy-intensive. And second-tier expenditures narrow the gap further.

2 See my 1996 "Shedding A Skin That No Longer Fits" for more detail on the whys and the hows of letting go, and the wonderful but unfamiliar benefits of a sustainable society.

3 A detailed study of these costs would be valuable. We can estimate at this time at least a doubling to tripling of all of society's capital expenditures, plus a 50% increase in consumptive expenditures, for population doubling alone, without counting expansion in consumption.

4 See, for example, Keith Bradsher's "Gulf widens between wealthy and poor", New York Times News Service, April 20, 1995.

5 $5,702 billion total personal income, 248,710,000 population, 2.63 person household size. Similar figures occur using national income.

6 For example, interest paid on national debt in 1994 equaled 20.3% of federal outlays (with no capital repayment). Consumer credit outstanding in 1994 equaled $985 billion - 19.9% of disposable personal income and 17% of national income - roughly equally between auto, home, and revolving credit. Finance, and related fields constituted 22% of national income. For more detail on the illusory benefits of these financial shell-games, see my 1993 "Borrowing Trouble", 1990 "Endgames", and "Hidden Costs of Housing".

7 For further discussion of how to achieve these benefits, see my 1996 "Some Questions We Haven't Asked".

8 60% x 53% x 80% = 25% of current expenditures.

9 For some of the other non-technical, big-jump opportunities, see "Some Questions", above.

10 It's now more than 23 years since I first showed that this order of magnitude changes were possible in "Living Lightly: Energy Conservation in Housing" 1973.

11 Best resources are the many progress reports of the Rocky Mountain Institute, 1739 Snowmass Creek Rd., Snowmass CO 81654. Even greater magnitudes are possible in public transportation systems. For a small piece, see my "Rentalls: A Key to Successful Transportation Systems", AORTA Bulletin, Jan. 1995.

12 See, for example, work of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, 8604 F.M. 969, Austin TX 78724 and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

13 Note in particular John Todd's work with biological water purification at Center for the Restoration of Waters, One Locust Street, Falmouth MA 02540.

14 See my 1994 "Improving the Economic Value of Coastal Public Forest Lands".

15 See my 1993 "Vitality and Affordability of Higher Education".

16 See my "Hidden Costs of Housing", RAIN, Utne Reader, Sun Times, Alternative Press Annual, 1984.

17 See Amory Lovins, NATURAL CAPITALISM, 1996.

18 See, for example, "Shedding A Skin..." above, my 1993 "Building Real Wealth", and "Transforming Tourism", Earth Ethics, Summer 1993. For values, see my "Sharing Smaller Pies", New Age Journal, Nov. 1975; The Futurist, 1976; RESETTLING AMERICA, Gary Coates, ed. 1981, and Utne Reader, Fall 1987.

19 Based on preliminary Friends of the Earth studies on European and U.S. economies. See also Bill Rees' excellent "Ecological Footprints and Appropriated Carrying Capacity..." in INVESTING IN NATURAL CAPITAL, Island Press 1994, or "Revising Carrying Capacity..." in Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Jan 1996.

20 See Amory Lovins, "The Super-Efficient Passive Building Frontier", ASHRAE Journal, June 1995 for an outstanding example of the interactive and cumulative benefits of energy efficiency in minimizing building operating costs.

21 See "Building Real Wealth", above; and "Shedding A Skin...".

22 There is an urgency to this issue. See, for example, L.F. Ivanhoe's "Future World Oil Supplies; there is a finite limit", World Oil, Oct., 1995 on global oil and population trends, and Richard Duncan's 1995 "The Energy Depletion Arch..." on U.S. and global oil depletion. Ivanhoe also interestingly touches on the falsification beginning to occur in government statistical studies as our denial of resource depletion becomes more acute.

23 For more detail, see my 1994 "The Spiritual Heart of Sustainable Communities".

24 See "Shedding A Skin...", above. And if you don't believe the Oklahoma City bombing was preventable, my "True Security", RAIN, 1982; and my "...too theoretical to publish" 1986 "The End of Nuclear War" outlining how to prevent such terrorism. As a case study, see also discussion of the human, psychological, community, and spiritual dimensions of sustainable design and building in my 1993 THE HEART OF PLACE, and 1995 "Sewage is Art: A Study of the Healing of Place with "Chi".