Ecological Engineering and Design

Beyond Survivalism

Martha & EP Odum Essence of Place 2000
Martha & EP Odum Essence of Place 2000

” . . . So to fully understand the general economy of the biosphere — and to move beyond the temptations of survivalism — we have to employ the more rigorous environmental accounting developed by ecologists like Howard Odum and still continued by his students and colleagues. Working at several U.S. universities from the 1970s to the ‘90s, Odum and his co-researchers produced a comprehensive system describing the many energy exchanges in an ecosystem, tracing the cascade of individual transactions, feedback connections, and recycling loops involved in a specific process or product.  Beginning with the original incoming sunlight, the system they devised can be used to account for all the energy expended along the way; to describe this accumulation of energy, Odum coined the term “emergy,” meaning “energy memory” or “embodied energy.” To show how this accounting system works, Odum’s colleagues calculated that the total emergy required to produce one energy unit of corn was 83,000 units of solar emergy (solar em-joules); in contrast, one energy unit of mutton required a total of 2,000,000 units of solar emergy, or almost 25 times as much as the corn. Specific proportions vary in different production chains, but the study confirms and quantifies the discovery made by the occupied French about the luxury of eating meat.

The temptation of survivalism, then, is to take the understanding about waste and luxuries and simply eat lower on the food chain — which is to mistake the reduction of consumption and the stockpiling of resources as the goal, when these are only tactics for a population facing a shortage. Fully appreciating that eating meat is a luxury depends upon recognizing that waste can be more or less wasteful, that the two million units of solar emergy required to produce the meat have to be expended somewhere; so the crucial ecological issue is the health and productivity of the food chain in which they are expended. Which brings us back to the Living Machine, the alternative sewage treatment process developed by John Todd in the years after the Ark bioshelter was completed. Using techniques developed in the bioshelter research, a Living Machine takes human waste and transforms it by passing it through a series of contained and engineered wetland ecosystems, producing clean water and organic nutrients that can be used directly or fed back to the local environment. Living Machines can be built at different scales, from the household or neighborhood to the city or the region. Unlike the survivalist overtones of the Ark, they establish explicit connections between human settlements and their locales, making them culturally visible and intelligible (which is one thing that distinguishes human activities from other natural processes).

So one answer to the temptation of survivalism is to attend to the waste — not just to what is discarded but also to what is expended in the production of the things we buy and use and eat, and to understand this expenditure as the key to the prosperity of our larger ecosystem. For many good reasons, we have been taught to believe that environmental energies are inherently better than those extracted from fossil fuels, but both are forms of solar energy, each with their particular chains of transformations and waste. Environmental activism begins with the awareness of damage caused by pollution and other destructive forms of waste, but it is instructive to remember that the oxygen on which we depend began as a form of waste toxic to the plants that produced it; it’s our cooperation and co-evolution that have made it productive. The excess energies lost in a complex food chain or industrial process aren’t really wasted if they foster a supportive environment — if they increase overall prosperity.

Incorporating the lessons of waste requires a new kind of designer, or new kinds of design processes, ones that incorporate the techniques of ecologists and the principles of our general economy.” (Braham, 2010)

Excerpted from The Design Observer Group; Forum of design for the public realm, an article by William W. Braham entitled, “The Temptations of Survivalism, or What do you do with your waste?”

Logo for Center for Environmental Policy at UF (by Odum)

Architecture and Energy System Conference Videos (Vimeos linked here) sponsored by PennDesign and Penn State, and organized by William W. Braham. Does energy consumption influence architectural style?

Also, How much does your household weigh?

“ABSTRACT: High-performance building design is a technique for maximizing useful power, for extracting more work from the same amount of energy-a prime goal of engineering . Yet the fact that most individual households seek to maintain and enhance acquired levels of power is rarely considered. By expanding the subject from houses to households, the question of performance is focused instead on people, who are the real  engines of consumption and environmental effect. Questions about the performance of houses haven’t been fully answered until we understand the ecological impact of our complex social arrangements, which are themselves tools for increasing productivity and supporting larger populations. The reduction of consumption is an important first tactic in a wealthy and wasteful civilization, but not entirely the solution, for the ultimate goal is to arrive at a  sustainable balance of population and consumption.” From “Household Power: How Much is Enough?” in Design and Construction of High Performance Homes: Solar Technology, Innovative Materials and Integrated Practice, Franca Trubiano, Ed. (Routledge, 2012) r-index-building-bubble/

Mare and Lindegger on Designing Ecological Habitats; Creating a Sense of Place (large PDF, 2011)

Material Circulation, Energy Hierarchy and Building Construction (Odum, 1999, large PDF, 61 pp.)

What is Ecological Engineering? (WJ Mitsch, Ecological Engineering 45, 2012, PDF)

“Ecological engineering, defined as the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both, has developed over the last 30 years, and rapidly over the last 10 years. Its goals include the restoration of ecosystems that have been substantially disturbed by human activities and the development of new sustainable ecosystems that have both human and ecological values. It is especially needed as conventional energy sources diminish and amplification of nature’s ecosystem services is needed even more. There are now several universities developing academic programs or departments called ecological engineering, ecological restoration, or similar terms, the number of manuscripts submitted to the journal Ecological Engineering continue to increase at an rapid rate, and the U.S. National Science Foundation now has a specific research focus area called ecological engineering. There are many private firms now developing and even prospering that are now specializing in the restoration of streams, rivers, lakes, forests, grasslands, and wetlands, the rehabilitation of minelands and urban brownfields, and the creation of treatment wetlands and phytoremediation sites. It appears that the perfect synchronization of academy, publishing, research resources, and practice is beginning to develop. Yet the field still does not have a formal accreditation in engineering and receives guarded acceptance in the university system and workplace alike” (Mitsch, 2012).

Walking the New York Bedrock Alive in the Sea of Information (Snyder, Mountains and Rivers without End, 1997, p. 102)

. . . Gingko trees of Gondwanaland. Pictographs,
Petroglyphs, cover the subways–
Empty eye sockets of buildings just built
Soulless, they still wait the ceremony
     that will make them too,
        new, Big
        city Gods,
Provided with conduit, cable and plumbing,
They will light up, breathe cool air,
Breathe the minds of the worker who work there–
The cloud of their knowing
As they soar in the sky, in the air,
Of the sea
Of Information . . . .

The Rainbow (DH Lawrence, 1915)

She saw the stiffened bodies of the colliers, which seemed already enclosed in a coffin, she saw their unchanging eyes, the eyes of those who are buried alive: she saw the hard, cutting edges of the new houses, which seemed to spread over the hillside in their insentient triumph, a triumph of horrible, amorphous angles and straight lines, the expression of corruption triumphant and unopposed, corruption so pure that it is hard and brittle; she saw the dun atmosphere over the blackened hills opposite, the dark blotches of houses, slate roofed and amorphous, the old church-tower standing up in hideous obsoleteness above raw new houses on the crest of the hill, the amorphous, brittle, hard edged new houses advancing from the Beldover to meet the corrupt new houses from Lethley, the houses of Lethley advancing to mix with the houses of Hainor, a dry, brittle, terrible corruption spreading over the face of the land, and she was sick with a nausea so deep that she perished as she sat. And then, in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence, colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill. And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself … And the rainbow stood on the earth. She knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world’s corruption were living still, that the rainbow was arched in their blood and would quiver to life in their spirit, that they would cast off their horny covering of disintegration, that new, clean, naked bodies would issue to a new germination, to a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven. She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.