The true size of the hole? $70,000,000,000,000?

As in: “The unregulated and poorly reported credit default swaps may have actually passed $70 trillion last year, or about $5 trillion more than the GDP of the entire world”. The story that includes this number is a really excellent analysis of why and how we got to this point: do read it.
By the way, if you are as confused as I am by the different ways the word “billion” is used in different contexts, you should find this explanation by Jim Loy helpful. I did.
Oh yes, and “there are fears that the West Nile virus could spread aggressively as mosquitoes breed in the stagnant water of swimming pools at bank-owned homes”. In San Diego, pest control officers have seen a surge in calls to deal with bees and wasps which are nesting undisturbed in vacant houses.

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Did this architect trigger global financial mayhem?

We don’t know yet whether $85 billion dollars will be enough to save American International Group (AIG), the world’s biggest insurance firm (although some apparently insider commentators are not reassuring).
But could an architect have been responsible for starting the panic?
The Stern Review, when it was published two years ago, stated that failure to tackle climate change could cost the world – and by implication, its insurance companies, such as AIG – up to seven trillion dollars.
Many commentators at the time asked where this vast figure had come from. I think I know where from: The source is a slideshow that the architect Ed Mazria was showing at conferences around that time explaining what happens when climate change causes sea levels to rise.
While the rest of us were looking at Al Gore’s pictures of baby polar bears on melting lumps of ice, the money guys were staring at the Mazria’s maps: The red bits show where very very expensive sea-front real-estate is at risk of inundation.

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Pass the phugoid bag

A terrific new word arrives just in time for the weekend: “phugoid”.
I learned about phugoids from an airline pilot called Paul in his reply to John Michael Greer’s piece on “the effluent society”.
“As a pilot (writes Paul) I like to use flying analogies. An aircraft, if disturbed from straight-and-level flight, will execute a series of climbs and dives. If it’s stable (sustainable economy) the amplitude of these ‘phugoids’, as they’re called, will reduce until the airplane is flying straight and leve again. With an unstable aircraft (unsustainable economy), the phugoids will increase in amplitude until the airframe breaks up, or the aircraft impacts the ground during a descent.
“Only the intervention of the pilot can prevent an unstable aircraft from crashing. But the pilot has to understand the nature of the instability in order to apply the correct control inputs to stabilise the machine. Regretably, the theory of economics no longer matches the reality. Contemporary economic theory doesn’t even acknowledge the existence (let alone the validity) of Peak Oil or rescource depletion”.
Greer writes: “Nations have perished for many reasons, but curiously enough, financial collapse is not one of them – a reminder, if one is needed, that money is not wealth, but simply a tool for facilitating the exchange of that real wealth that consists of goods and services provided by people for people. The entire discipline of economics has consistently ignored the role of natural systems as a primary source of economic value.
“On a larger scale” (Greer continues) “it’s for these reasons that the three-hundred-year boomtime of industrialism looks normal to so many people today. Looked at with an eye tempered by the cycles of history and the principles of ecology, it takes on a very different shape; its similarity to a speculative bubble is hard to miss; its dependence on reckless, unsustainable exploitation of half a billion years of stored photosynthetic energy, in the form of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, becomes just as visible as the dependence of the late housing bubble on wild overestimates of how much future buyers would pay for homes”.
Great stuff as always.

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Work/Life balance

In January, as I do every year, I resolved to balance work and life in a more mature way. It’s now September 16th, and….well, we’re not quite there yet.

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Beyond the building

I would like to think that the theme of this year’s Architecture Biennial in Venice – “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building” – was inspired by my book Beyond The Object. But as it was published back in 1987, I’m not going to demand a credit – except here.
Exhibitors responded to the “beyond building” theme in two divergent ways. The big-name star architects (or “i Big”, as they’re called in Italian), who clustered in the 300-metre long Corderie dell’Arsenale, appear to have been assimilated into an abstract world of money and pure form. Among huge shiny objects, curiously dated images of all things “network” were projected onto vast screens. There were “Do Not Touch The Exhibit” notices, too – but one didn’t really want to. On balance,i Big served a joyless meal.
A much higher-energy spread was presented by Emiliano Gandolfi in his survey of experimental architecture in the big Italia building. The 40-plus groups present were ‘street’ in all senses of the word. Installations by IDLab and Aether actually made me smile – and how often does that happen at an architecure show?
For me, the project that best captured what’s happening was the Polish “Hotel Polonia: The Afterlife of Buildings” (see pic above). Six shiny new buildings were first photographed by Nicolas Grospierre, and then Kobas Laksa worked on them visually to answer the question, “What will the future hold for these buildings once a dramatic reversal of social and economic relations occurs?”. If you ask me – or look at the blogs – “a dramatic reversal of social and economic relations” is happening right now – so I’d love to see Laksa visualize, say, the Lloyds of London (insurance) building in 2020…
Speaking of which, The Stern Review, released two years ago, stated that failure to tackle climate change could cost the world – and by implication, its insurance companies – up to 7 trillion dollars.. Today, “fears are growing over the financial health of American International Group (AIG), the world’s biggest insurance firm”.
John, I love what you write. Not piffle, obviously. I love your focussed catholicity, and your real concern that things are not in a good way. I really feel for your attempt to situate a radical critique in the mainstream of operations, and to couch it in digestible, manageable concepts and language.
I don’t agree with the way you understand entropy in relation to sustainability, however! At least not by the following para:
“What would architects design, if they did not design buildings?” My question is
not a rhetorical one. The inputs and outputs of industrial society are wildy out
of balance – and that includes its buildings and infrastructure. We have reached
the end of a brief era in which we could burn cheap fossil fuel, and despoil
ecosystems, mindless of the consequences. We need to re-imagine the built world
not as a landscape of frozen objects, but as a complex of interacting ecologies:
energy, water, mobility, food. Our life-sustaining ecologies, especially, need
to be nurtured, not swept away, built over, or diverted. The need for new
buildings will be rare. Sometimes the design choice will be to do nothing”
Assume we have nothing on the planet, no fossil fuels, nothing. All toys taken away. This is your implication. What have we got? We have one and a half energy sources: solar, and tide (moon gravity). We have knowledge. The most efficient energy system every devised, all things considered, is the leaf: and we can create lots of those. And the mind, well it just keeps on trucking. I just don’t believe that even with that uber-minimalist eco-design set – sun and the mind – we cannot create and sustain magnificent societies.
What’s worrying to me in what you write is uncertainty over whether you think that, post-oil-toys, we will have to be farmers and craftspeople (à la Kunstler), or you think we need to just need to find ways to stay innovative and ‘modern’ in the post-oil-toy age. My scientific view is that entropy is not merely a function of the universe winding down, such that post oil we have less ‘low entropy’ to burn – i.e. just the sun – and this means we will need to live ‘simpler’ lives, because all the oil-based stuff we have now will be kaput.
Entropy is, in fact, it is a complex function of energy AND knowledge. We have energy BUT we also have the mind. This is the point Georgescu-Roegen makes in ‘The Entropy Law and The Economic Process’: entropy is an instrumental-anthropomorphic concept, and theories of it, including statistical, have not been able to rid it of its anthropic ghost. If this were not so, we would not be able to find ‘new’ uses for what we previously considered waste or otherwise functionless/valueless. Who would have thought that so much power and value would be carried in a vehicle as simple as a glass rod (i.e. fibre optics fibre)? Who would have thought that something as simple as reflection would power the intformation revolution (i.e. internal reflections down fibre optics)? Okay, so to deliver information down glass, we had to discover lasers: but who would have thought pulsing light into a ruby crystal would have it come out all straight and neat? The point is: the richness of the world that leads to value and welfare is not inherently reliant on high-energy-intensity. It’s also reliant on intelligence and information intensity. So I think it’s crude and misleading to imply that when oil runs out, climate and resource snafus kick in, etc, we won’t have anything to do as designers.
You of all people will know why nature has evolved fractal forms. It’s not because they’re nice. Self-repeating forms bla bla is just language and bandied about. Fractal – which stands for fractional dimension – is a phenomenon nature evolved to break as far as possible the link between volume (of biomass) and surface area (for light absorption): and thus to optimise radically the prospects of survival. Trees (and lungs) are elegant (inside-out, in the case of trees) Menger sponges, which have freaky ratios of volume to surface area: within given volume, leaf surface area (2D) reaches for infinity, while biomass volume (3D) hunkers down low. Trees look 3D, but they are really desperate to be resource-conserving 2D objects – they just take advantage of a 3D world to get more 2D action going. Their dimensionality is thus ‘fractal’ between 2 and 3.
In short, strict entropy constraints gave us nature as we know it: and I don’t see nature tending towards blobby, cautious sloths trying to conserve their energy, which is how I read the implication of your “sometimes the design choice will be to do nothing”. Fractional dimensionality is just one of many lessons for human design in the future, we haven’t even begun to implement it. And this, of course, is an architectural strategy (surface area to volume, being one of their concerns). Architects will be very very busy in the low entropy world you allude to.

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From facades to flows: book launch in Venice

A short final reminder that the Italian edition of In The Bubble will be launched at the Architecture Biennale in Venice this coming Saturday (13 September). The book moment on Saturday follows my lecture at the Dutch Pavilion in the Gardini which is scheduled for 15h-16h. My talk is part of week long exploration and debate on the capacities and capabilities of architecture – beyond building. My brief is to discuss “what would radical ecology imply for architecture?” The Netherlands contribution is organised by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in collaboration with STEALTH.unlimited

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Drops in the ocean – and in the sky

Steve Messem (who led our sustainable tourism design camp at Dott 07) writes with news that his next installation – Drop – takes up residence beside Crummock Water in the Lake Distrrict, UK. You’ll find his 7 metre (20 foot) reflective raindrop near Haus Point between Buttermere village and Lorton from 7am tomorrow morning (11 Sept). It will stay there – or so Steve hopes – until the end of Saturday.
This the second amazing droplet I’ve heard about today. Just before Steve’s email arrived, I was reading about “cloud albedo enhancement.” This is the proposal, first made in 1990 by a scientist called John Latham, that controlled global cooling – sufficient to balance global warming resulting from increasing atmospheric CO 2 concentrations – might be achieved by seeding low-level, extensive maritime clouds with seawater particles. The sprayed seawater droplets, Latham proposes, would “act as condensation nuclei, thereby activating new droplets and increasing cloud albedo”. Latham reckons that spraying clouds with seawater on a large scale could help hold the Earth’s temperature constant for many decades.
The scheme is ecologically benign – the only raw materials being wind and sea water – and “if unforeseen adverse effects occurred the system could be immediately switched off, with the forcing returning to normal within a few days”. Latham acknowledges that “questions and concerns would need to be satisfactorily examined before any justification would exist for the operational deployment of the technique” – but I reckon he can speed up that process by going into partnership with Steve Messem. If Latham’s planet-wide aerosol spraying looked as gorgeous as Steve’s Drop, surely none of us would complain.
I’m not being unserious here. I learned about Latham’s proposed feat of “geo-engineering” from a book called Kyoto2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse by Oliver Tickell. Kyoto2 is basically the blueprint for a new global climate treaty. Based on the latest climate science (summarised clearly in the book) a replacement to the existing Kyoto protocol must achieve a level of atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. Otherwise stated: if we are to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system”, the North will need to reduce its carbon impacts by 98 per cent.
Put baldly like that, most of us will feel like giving up on the whole enterprise. I know I do. The thing is, Kyoto2 describes a plausible path from here, to there in policy terms. What’s missing is the aesthetic-cultural impetus that we’ll also need to make that change happen at a political level.
That’s where projects like Drop come in: 98 per cent less has got to feel like 98 per cent more.

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Palin’s poisonous pump and dead ducks

A diary piece at daily Kos investigates the environmental impacts of the so-called Palin Pipeline. It points out that the pipeline is not a conduit of natural gas to US consumers, but (as the map shows) to the tar sands of Alberta, Canada where it will be used to power the extraction of oil. Canada has the world’s second largest reserves of oil – 180 billion barrels – but 95 percent of these are embedded in its tar sands. According to desmogblog, the production of a barrel of oil from oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil – so Palin’s pipeline will fuel a massive new source of emissions even before the extracted oil itself is used.
Its impact on water systems will be just as damaging: The water requirements for oil sands projects range from 2.5 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, and at least 90% of the fresh water used in oil sands works ends up in vast toxic lakes. The ones in Northern Alberta span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space as shown here:
These tailing lakes are so toxic that ‘propane cannons’ and floating scarecrows are used to keep ducks from landing in them. If the ducks land in them, they die.
The real story here is the imminent construction of the biggest eco-poisoning pump in history. But that’s an abstract idea, so we’ll probably have to use emotive images of dead birds.

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Green noise: expert meeting

The biggest challenge we face in City Eco Lab (see below) is the explosion of public events, media channels, reports, platforms, trade shows, and government initiatives, at all levels, to do with sustainability. Paul Hawken’s WiserEarth web portal, alone, alone lists over 100,000 non-profit projects and organisations. In the UK, the Transition Towns movement is growing virally. Across Europe, thousands of other initiatives are bubbling away beneath the radar of mainstream media and education. This explosion of energy and diversity is great, but does beg the question: are any more new initiatives needed? if so, what kind? and who will pay for them? Doors of Perception will host a discussion among city managers, policy makers and design producers during the design biennial in St Etienne. If you think might want to join this meeting, plan to be there for Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 November.

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