Radical Design Activism

Radical Design Activism. I’ve had these three words bouncing around inside my head for months now. I’m trying to figure out what they mean, what they don’t mean, what the act of radical design activism looks and feels like. How do we conceptualize design work as activism? How do we cast ourselves as radical design activists and virtuously fulfill that role?

I still feel very fuzzy on the concept, but I recently ran into some content that made me point my finger at my screen and shout “that’s it!!” or, at least, that’s part of it.

Bret Victor: Inventing on Principle

This talk went big in the comp-sci/software community, I’m told. The whole video is worth watching, especially the second half, but if you only have a few minutes, jump to 36:50. Thanks to Timothy Snyder and Tim Disney for sharing this with me.

Bret Victor – Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have had people throughout history who recognize social wrongs, and saw it as their responsibility to address them. And so there’s this activist lifestyle where a person dedicates themselves to fighting for a cause that they believe in.

And the purpose of this talk is to tell you that this activist lifestyle isn’t just for social activism. As a technologist, you can recognize a wrong in the world, you can have a vision for what a better world can be, and you can dedicate yourself to fighting for principle. Social activists typically fight by organizing, you can fight by inventing.”

Jason McLennan: How hard is it to say “No more cancer in buildings”?

The video is from Jason McLennan‘s Living Future 2010 keynote address.

Again, the entire speech is pure gold, but for the quote start at 22:30.

So the question is, do you have the guts? You have the influence, but do you have the guts?

We need to grow up about the fact that we have an uncontrolled amount of toxic chemicals in the building industry, we have no idea what the hell’s in our products, I don’t care how expert you are in green materials, you have no frikin clue what’s in our materials… and this is a real problem, and we have a right in order to protect human health and safety in the environment. As designers we have an obligation to change how we make things and what’s in our products, do we not?

We know that the materials we are specifying are filled with carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors, teratogens, you can go down the list of big names, and they’re a problem, and we have this lag time, because we are not an effective quire, but people wanting things to stay exactly the same are an effective choir…

It’s no longer acceptable to have cancer underfoot.

Tell your clients why you won’t specify PVC backed carpet ever again.

(True story: a few months ago I saw Jason McLennan wandering around our office, and I only barely restrained myself from bolting out of my seat and asking for his autograph. I am not even close to kidding.)

More Thoughts

Activism “consists of intentional efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change.”

The design activist is not designing for money, fame, just because she can, or for the mere technical challenge of the problem. That word up there is huge and I’ve been thinking about it, too, a lot: intentional.

A design activist will do what Bret Victor said:

  • Recognize a wrong (note that he used the word wrong, not problem. There is a difference.)
  • Have a vision
  • Fight for it

The path of the radical design activist requires the virtues of courage, boldness, and vision. We’re not restricted to the prescriptive path that has been set before us. In fact, doing the same thing as those who have gone before is a pretty good indicator that you’re not doing what you should be, I think. If you’re not all out in uncharted territory, scared and doubtful, being told that you’re doomed to failure, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Everything must change. Everything.

It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing doesn’t wind up being part of the solution, just so long as it’s not the same damn thing we’ve been doing all along. We’ll observe your failure and know not to follow you and that is vitally important. If no one tries new things, how will we know what works and what doesn’t?

So. How do you think about your design work as activism?



The Virtuous Cycle of Design Modeling

Something I talk about a lot is the virtuous relationship between design modeling and the process of design itself. I use the term “design modeling” to indicate the broad practice of creating virtual models that approach a true representation of the designed object or system. My contention is that the act of design modeling improves the design itself; creating visual and informational representations of a design as a part of the design process (and not merely a communication of the final design) is a feedback mechanism that improves the quality of design.

This is not a new idea, certainly. Lots of people get it, know it. Stating it makes it seem trivially obvious.

However, I think that there are large chunks of people who do design that don’t get it. If you were to state the above they’d nod their heads and say “sure, of course”, but on a day to day basis they don’t practice it. Design modeling is something that is intentional and contemplative.

So with that in mind, I’m going to talk about design modeling for a little bit.

Design Modeling in the Built Environment

In the AEC (architectural, engineering, and construction) industry, the term for design modeling is BIM (Building Information Modeling). The idea with BIM is that instead of 2D drawings of pieces of a building that have no informational dimension to them, you create 3D parametric objects that can be assigned informational properties. A 3D window object, for example, can be assigned properties like visible light transmittance, insulation value, cost, etc. A pump can be assigned values for flow, energy consumption, cost, suction head required, etc.

The true value of BIM comes when the properties of all of the elements talk to each other. The chilled beam element is assigned a flowrate. The piping system reads the flowrate from the chilled beam, and all the other elements in that piping system; the total flowrate is passed on to the pump, which can be read off and compared to the equipment selection.

An otherwise unrelated rendering of a chilled beam & chilled ceiling system.

The closer the virtual model is to reality, the better the feedback is for the designer. There are two critical parts to design feedback: speed and accuracy. Speed is simply the reaction time of the simulation to varying input. If you have to sit around and wait for your computer to crunch away through the night if you vary one input, the connection in your mind to how everything fits together is going to be very tenuous.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Last week I modeled three different mechanical distribution systems for a building. It was short notice and high priority, so I threw the first two models together quickly. They weren’t very pretty but they for the most part visually communicated what we intended to communicate – this chilled beam goes here, those ducts go there, pipe routes through here, etc. Since I did it quickly, it was only a 3D model; I didn’t take the time to build any useful information into the model elements, even though the software gives me that capability.

Consequently, as our team dug into the model and started vetting it, actually figuring out what was going on in the design model proved difficult. We wanted to figure out how much air the model was actually calling for and if the duct sizes were appropriate, which involved counting up the airflows of all the terminal units and summing them together. Doing so by hand (which we had to do, since I hadn’t built the model to be able to even support going back in and inserting intelligent information) proved time-consuming, complex, and error-prone — especially since we were under a crunch (meaning sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and irritable).

Doing it Right(er)

Two days later I built another model of a similar but distinct system type. This time, I took the time to make sure my model elements could have the airflows built into them, and made sure that they talked to the ductwork system accurately. It had been a while since I’d done that so it took me a little bit of extra time to clear the cobwebs, but once I had it figured out I was able to finish the model nearly as fast as the previous models I had built. And since this time the entire air-side system actually knew how much air flow I had designed into it — since the design model was a closer approximation to reality than my previous models — the design vetting and coordination process was much faster, simpler, and less prone to error.

 [Color-coded view (VG credit: Cristian Neira) enables immediate visual feedback for duct sizing. ]

I used a view that color-coded the ductwork according to friction loss, sized the ductwork in the software on the fly, and at the end had a visual indication that all of the duct branches and mains were sized within our design guidelines. I was able to create an automated equipment schedule that read off the airflow of each element, summed everything, and provided immediate feedback on the actual amount of air I had designed in versus our targeted values.

The Takeaway

My little bit of extra effort to make the model intelligent and informational, rather than just three dimensional, saved us hours and provided a better sense that our design was in line with our actual intent.

If you take the time to do it right, design modeling supports better design, engineering, and understanding of the design itself. There’s a mental feedback the closer your virtual model approaches physical reality, and that cycle is virtuous.


On Not Giving In to Green Burnout, Part III

Turning Inward

Turning inward is a cop out.

I need to clarify well here. I’m not against introspection, nor am I against enjoying and living in a manner that fulfills oneself in a very individual way. Find something you love, do it, live life exuberantly and fully, revel in the absurd beauty of life and existence.

Introspection and personal revelation are a vital part of our work. Any patriarchy, greed, narrow-mindedness, and ignorance thriving within us will manifest in our work and actions. I do not discount or dismiss the importance of the personal/introspective dimension of our revolution. I am discounting the notion that personal introspection is all that we can do, or all that is required.

What I mean by saying I’m against turning inwards is that I disagree with the path that leads from burnout to “personal revolution” as some true effective means of system change.

There is no win scenario for this planet that only involves groups of people quietly making individual decisions that only impact their own lives. It sounds nice, and again, I’m not against people making good personal decisions about their lives; I’m against people doing so and thinking that that is all that is required to change the world.

People need to engage, with force, with the systems that are destroying us. This takes organization, leadership, massive movements of people. It takes epic, enormous contests of will and discipline and power and passion. It requires risk, and uncertainty, and a not insignificant amount of insanity.

Very little about it will be “fun” as our entitled 21st century generation popularly conceives the word, although I do think we have a choice between approaching our work with dread or with clear-minded exuberance.

Some of us will batter ourselves against our work and ultimately destroy ourselves. There are consequences for what we must do, but we can hopefully find solace in the knowledge that the price of inaction is far greater.

We don’t all have to be Patton but we do all have to fight.


On Not Giving In to Green Burnout, Part II

Do Something About It

We have to do things. We don’t have any more time for endless equivocation, analysis, or critique. It’s mind-bogglingly important to do things that matter and that don’t just perpetuate the system, but we need to realize that we’re not going to do everything right every time. We’re going to mess up, but we need to understand that failure is inevitable and good in a sense because A) It means we’re at least doing something and B) Failure is how we learn. We need to be failing a lot, quickly, smartly.

This to me implies a different attitude to failure than the dominant one.

Success is an Iterative Process

I sometimes hear people say “We know what we need to do, it’s just hard getting everyone on board.” This is wrong.

We don’t know what we need to do.

We do know that we need to do something, and we have some ideas for things we need to try. But all we’ve got is the first steps of an idea of a civilization that won’t destroy itself. We might be totally wrong — what ends up actually working might end up looking totally different from anything anyone is currently imagining. But we won’t know for sure until we actually start doing those things and observing those failures.

This article (thanks Neil!) doesn’t depress me. Why? Because you can’t fail at something unless you are DOING something. Germany is clearly doing something. They are discovering all the ways in which their well-intentioned projects are sucking, failing at their original intent, and otherwise not working.

We can’t look at this and say “Oh my god, we’re failing, we’re wrong, our task is impossible and we’re totally doomed.” Failure is learning. Failure is adaptation and iteration. It’s part of the process of tuning complex systems towards smooth operation.

Successful failure requires open mindedness and the humility to recognize that we aren’t as smart as we think we are, that reality is vastly more complex than we’ll ever be able to model, and that unexpected things will happen.

Attitudes that are intolerant and harshly critical of failure contribute to burnout and hopelessness. A lot of us have this idea that we need to be perfect. We need to work on perfectly green or socially just projects, that all our innovative ideas need to pan out.

Things don’t work that way though. We need to embrace the complexity of reality, be honest about how things are working, and move on.

The caveat to is that we can’t be okay with compromise. We need to aim for purely ecological, regenerative, non-destructive, socially just infrastructures, systems, and relationships, and not be okay with working on bullshit greenwash projects. What we do need to be okay with is honest failure and then have the courage to be open about our failures, discuss them, critique them, learn from them, teach from them, and then implement the lessons we learn in the next project.

Think. Do. Reflect. Repeat. Don’t get stuck in any one part of that.

On Not Giving In to Green Burnout, Part I

I’ve been mulling over a follow-up post to my last post here, but it has been difficult to try to pull everything into one concise package. So I’m thinking what I’ll do is break out into a mini-series, sketch out some notes and what I’ve been contemplating recently and having conversations with people about.

Also, I don’t want people to think I’m being excessively angsty or come off as a doomer, because I’m not (really, I swear), and we need to move past this. Pic related.

Cynicism is Obedience

Giving in to burnout is to lose. The forces in this world don’t want things to change. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, and I’m not pointing fingers at greedy, rich corporate toolbags (but, hey, since we’re on the topic: fuck those guys). Those guys are useful targets for the daily Two Minutes Hate sessions but what we’re really up against is a vicious system that empowers and fuels people like that. Corporate asshats are a symptom of that disease, not the cause of it. They’re the phlegm you hock up when you have a chest cold, not the chest cold itself.

What I’m casting as adversary in this narrative is the collective intelligence and emergent intention of the entire world system. The gargantuan momentum of society that keeps everything going the way it is. This is why we need to question everything and fight everything, but this is also why we cannot give in to despair and angst and allow our energy and passion to be diffused. This leviathan wants us to be cynical. It wants us to feel defeated. It doesn’t mind our hate and disgust, as long as we’re too overwhelmed and too over everything to actually do something about it.

In a weird way, then, maintaining emotional balance and even cheerfulness becomes a revolutionary practice. Radical faith.


Green Battle Fatigue

You work in a “green field”. All those politicians talking about green collar jobs? That’s you.

You feel good about going to work. You feel like you’re making a difference, helping save the world in some way or another.

You worked your ass off in college, and you were involved in a lot of clubs and organized a lot of events: green job fairs, Earth Day, sustainability clubs, etc. You volunteered a ton.

Now you work really, really hard. You know the scope and scale of the world’s problems are enormous, but you know that a million people making a little bit of progress each adds up. You don’t mind working late. You often pull all nighters and spend sunny weekends indoors to meet a deadline even though the pay is, y’know, whatever.

The purpose of your work is compelling, and that’s why you’re passed out under your desk at 4AM drooling on industrial carpet, not really sleeping but not really awake either. Hyper-efficient green designs float around your mind’s eye, and tables of emissions numbers, energy projections and life-cycle analyses scroll across the inside of your eyelids like a cruel marquee.

Your reading list over the past decade is a trail of bread-crumbs leading up to this point in your life. Silent Spring, Natural Capitalism, World Made by Hand, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Cradle to Cradle, The Worldchanging Handbook, The Ecotechnic Future, Peak Oil, Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Collapse of Complex Societies, The Ecology of Freedom, Europe and the People Without History, The End of the Long Summer, The IPCC Report on Climate Change, 2004, 2007, 2011.

But things are starting to change in you, a little, subtly. You are more scared now. You have hope for the future – what choice do you have? – but sometimes, late at night or when you drink by yourself, you’re scared out of your mind. Sometimes your vision blurs a little bit and you miss when you go to pick something up off the table. Every once in a while, a random beautiful four year old will run giggling by and you’ll be overcome with vertigo and need to sit down, and you’ll look at the ground so people don’t see you crying. And you won’t really know why the tears are flowing, not exactly.

You go through intense periods of burn-out. You question whether or not anything you’re working on will make any damn bit of difference in the end. The responsibility you feel to accomplish things that actually matter is crushing, but the forces that thwart the real change you’re trying to implement seem indomitable. Even if you think what you’re doing is worth doing in the long run (you have doubts about that, too), you’re not sure it’ll even be allowed to exist. You’re not sure it won’t get commodified, subsumed, procured, ignored, torn down.

You go through periods where it’s difficult to focus on anything. These times can last days or weeks. Your stomach is often in a knot and you’re pretty sure your heart beats too fast most of the time. Maybe that’s just the gallons of shitty coffee you drink to make it through the day because you can’t fall asleep at night. You’ve been losing weight for years even though you aren’t trying to.

You have a sneaking suspicion that you are a paranoid delusional, but the things you’re scared about are the same things people like James Hansen are scared about. James Hansen isn’t a paranoid delusional, is he? You want desperately to be wrong. It actually feels better when people scoff at your fears. You hope they’re right.

You had a pleasant conversation over coffee with someone a lot smarter and more educated than you, and she mostly appeared to agree that your fears were legitimate. You hope she was just being polite. You hope you are in an ideological echo chamber, reinforcing extreme viewpoints that deviate over time from reality. You secretly hope that you are the type of person you routinely rail against.

What do you do?

What can you do?

You stop arguing with people who think everything is fine. They seem happy; leave them be. Maybe they know something you don’t instead of the other way around.

You push on. You keep fighting the good fight (you think) because the choices are clearly

  • A) Keep fighting or
  • B) Blow your mind out on obscenely irresponsible quantities of recreational drugs

You keep refining the purpose and aim of your work with the intent of working on things that can actually help other people. You become less tolerant of obvious bullshit. You call people out on their greenwash to their faces in crowded rooms. You can see in their eyes that to them this is more of the same money game we’ve all been playing and it makes you nauseous. This is not a game to you.

You are the fulcrum of fourteen generations.

Seven generations of your ancestors are screaming at you. This is the world we built. This is what we fought and bled and died for. This world is the culmination of our dreams and aspirations. We sacrificed everything to build this world and you are trying to destroy it. How dare you. How dare you.

Seven generations of your descendents are silently observing you. They do not speak, but their eyes say everything. They say that they want to live on a planet filled with life. They want to live in a rich, diverse world, like you did, with opportunity for peace and fulfillment.

By the time your descendents are alive there will be little choice left; theirs will be lives of adaptation and reflection. They will reflect on what those who had the knowledge and power to act actually did with their time and energy.



Be sure to catch the follow-up posts to this on not giving in to green burnout part I, part II, and part III.

It’s the Growth Paradigm, Stupid

Jevons Paradox

Jevons Paradox is the thorn in the side of energy efficiency nerds everywhere.

Jevons Paradox is the observed phenomenon that gains in energy efficiency lead to increased consumption of energy, ultimately negating the energy “saved” by the efficiency measure.

This rebound effect is explained by the fact that using less fuel to do x decreases the cost to do x. With all things being equal, the demand for x thus increases (we go so far to call this relationship a law).

Jevons Paradox is often presented as evidence that energy efficiency work is futile or even counterproductive. The Amazon.com blurb for David Owen’s new book The Conundrum says that

Efficiency, once considered the holy grail of our environmental problems, turns out to be part of the problem.

I suspect that Owen’s perspective is more nuanced than that, but the quote summarizes a popular misunderstanding of the issue, or at least a popular misframing of the issue.

The reality is that energy efficiency isn’t part of the problem. But thinking that energy efficiency is the solution to energy consumption, carbon emissions, dead polar bears, and drowned cities, is definitely part of the problem, if not the entirety of the problem. Technological innovation alone will not be able to save us; we cannot design our way out of this mess.

So what actually is the problem, and what are we going to do about the negative impacts of energy efficiency?

It’s the Economy, Stupid

This civilization is based on economic growth. The economy runs on energy (fuel). The use (extraction, processing, and consumption) of energy is ripping the planet to bits. It’s not logically possible to reach steady-state energy use in an economy based on continuous growth; our economy requires increasing energy consumption.

There is no way to reconcile our current economic paradigm with a sustainable civilization; no amount of technological wizardry or design cleverness will allow us to have our cake and eat it too for all time.

Jevons himself understood this:

If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity.

He was talking about the British nation, I think; now, of course, we’re talking about humanity. We clearly made the choice to pursue brief but “true” greatness. We the descendents of the hedonists who made that myopic decision are now facing the consequences of the physical impossibility of maintaining such a position.

So what does Jevons Paradox tell us? Well, it tells us what we already know, really. The basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable and needs to be totally remade if we want to have any hope of escaping either a boom & bust cycle (which will wreak havoc on the planet and probably lead to the end of our species) or just skip right to the extinction even that will signal the end of the Anthropocene.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The good news for us energy efficiency nerds is that efficiency can play a role in our future civilization, the one we dream about with a steady-state economy. In a world where people don’t consume resources just because they can, energy efficiency will allow us to serve our basic needs using clean and renewable energy sources (at a far lower energy density than we currently use energy) without gutting the health of the planet. So while the work we’re doing now is at best mitigating the damage done by a destructive industrial system, and at worst increasing the damage, the systems and techniques we’re learning now will serve us in the future. We’re the pioneers of the low-energy, ecotechnic future, if such a thing is possible.

The bad news is that to get there from here requires a radical, deep, and planet-wide change from how we currently operate as a society.

The ugly news is that no one actually thinks we have a sliver of a shot at making this shift gracefully.


Failing vs. Sucking

That awful twisting feeling in your gut. The involuntary contraction of abdominal muscles. The clenching fists. The uncontrollable shivering even though the room is warm.

It’s not just the combination of too much shitty coffee and too little sleep.

It just hit you. There’s too much left to do. There are too many details to coordinate before it’s time to go pencils down.

You’re going to miss stuff. Significant details and coordination items are going to get dropped. The holes in your work stare at you like accusing eyes, boring into your soul and trashing your sense of worth.

You goofed. You made a mistake. You are not kicking ass. Right now, you suck.

This is altogether different than failing at something.

Failing means you thought you were right, thought you were kicking ass, but were simply wrong. You “tried your best” – honestly – you just made an error and slipped up. Failure is actually a good thing – it means you’re putting your neck out there, being courageous, and learning.

This isn’t like that. This is just you not having your shit together. You had enough time and resources to take care of business, but you didn’t.

Maybe you should have worked over the weekend, or just worked faster, prioritized better, said “no” to that other lower-priority task.

Definitely you should have communicated better, and taken a step back sooner to evaluate where you were at.

But now it is too late.

There’s only one thing you can now do:

Tell everyone you fucked up.

And that it won’t happen again.

And make goddamn sure it never does.




Two Worlds

I imagine two worlds. By world I mean something like worldview, cognitive lens, basic understanding, headspace.

The first world is the subject of Tainter’s analysis of the collapse of complex civilization: it is the systems of complex problem-solving solutions that are rumbling towards negative ROI of complexity — in a word, collapse. This is not strictly speaking status quo; this world is inclusive of new and innovative solutions to the problems that we are faced with. Critically and perhaps definitively, it is a world that is invested in its own perpetuation – survival as a cohesive socioeconomic entity is its explicit goal (telos, if you will). It denies End and views itself as the culmination of history.

The second world is different – it is reality minus the first world. It is everything that is outside of the first world, and the interstitial spaces that exist between chunks of the first world. It’s questionable whether or not this second world strictly speaking exists – I think it might be a phantom world like China Mieville’s Orciny from The City & The City, a place that exists in space but is constructed inside our minds.

The critical distinction is that this second world is more fundamental than the first: it is the human species, and the biological and mineral world that we live in, and the physical relationships between every element. It is the dynamic non-deterministic reality of our existence. As such is has no particular allegiance to the current socioeconomic system and holds the first world’s denial of its own historicity as a trivially obvious error.

This second world assigns no moral values to cycles; or, more appropriately, it assigns no moral values to the material consequences of cycles. It is cognizant of (and in fact, celebratory of) the fundamental cycles. The hydrological cycle, the carbon cycle, the cycle of individual death and life, and the cycle of complex human organization – what we call civilization. The ebb and flow of energy and matter and experience.

This second world also thinks in terms of deep time. Decades, centuries, millenia.

The second world is not aloof. It is disturbed by the threats to the cohesion of the cycles. It is a world that celebrates the beauty of the experience of reality. It has little particular interest nor investment in ideologies — phenomena described by such words as democracy, capitalism/socialism, corporatism, plutocracy, bureaucracy, industrialism. These are curiosities that more often than not obfuscate understanding or direct experience of physical reality.

This second world is concerned with a different category of phenomena. Love, health, joy, meaningful experience, beauty (especially beauty), quality, authenticity, creation, fulfillment, justice, dikaiosune, balance, the proper functioning of things.

My idea is not that the second world has no relationship to the more ephemeral phenomenon (such as, say, the Supreme Court, or the politics that governs the fresh water delivery infrastructure to Los Angeles), but that it is capable of seeing above, beyond, and around these phenomena. It is capable of asking not just “How do we fix this,” but also “Should this be fixed?” It’s capable of asking not just “How do we solve this problem,”, but also “Should this problem be solved? Should the circumstances that created this problem even exist?”

Furthermore, the second world is capable in ways that the first world is not of questioning whether or not any given action is valuable. Value in this sense is defined in terms of support of phenomena (beauty, love, justice, etc) over time (deep time).

The second world is an evaluative framework for extrinsically meaningful work. By meaningful I mean; work that is not ensconced within myopic systems of doomed and destructive infrastructures. A world system currently exists that is collapsing under the weight of its own complexity and the limits of the physical world it has arrogantly denied the existence of. Propping up systems within that system will have short-term results and ultimately change nothing for the better.

It is the work taking place independent of the first world – work that is not dependent on interrelated vastly complex systems of material and social flow relationships – that has any hope of persistence and relevance through deep time.

It is the work that aims and succeeds at nourishing and protecting the material cycles, the social cycles, biological cycles, that will succeed in protecting and impacting the fundamental phenomena of beauty, and authenticity, and quality, and proper functioning of things.

The wisdom and foresight to accurately know which actions and intentions belong to the first world and which belong to the second world, of course, is quite non-trivial.

1. http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2011/03/joseph-tainter-talking-about-collapse.html
2. http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2011/03/tainters-law-where-is-physics.html
3. http://dieoff.com/page134.htm
4. http://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Complex-Societies-Studies-Archaeology/dp/052138673X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328540026&sr=1-1

The Rise and Fall of the Idea of Progress

[tl;dr – Modern industrial civilization is rooted in the mechanistic worldview of dominance of Nature. This worldview is in error, and dangerous. We need to reboot our cultural understanding of man’s relationship with Nature if engineering is to fulfill its role of benefiting mankind.]

Monumental Arrogance

Remember this quote from the Oath of the Order of the Engineer?

Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.

Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.

Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.

This text implies that transforming natural resources into increased standard of living for humans is a moral imperative. The extraction of energy from the ground or via the construction of a dam, or the transformation of a forest to a neighborhood of homes, is seen as a virtuous act.

It’s clear that the above text doesn’t seem to take into account the consequences that unchecked resource extraction poses for humanity. This might seem like a minor oversight. It is not.

It is absolutely critical that we understand the intellectual source of our ideas about progress and purpose as they relate to engineering. For that, we need to go back a few hundred years.

It turns out that the above quotes are rooted in perspectives that came out of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, by some really radical thinkers.

The Myth of Progress

It is worth quoting at a bit of length from the book The End of the Long Summer by Dianne Dumanoski. Emphases are mine.

The revolutionary change that launched the modern era’s radical cultural experiment involved two distinct steps: first, the demotion of Nature into mindless mechanism; second the bold elevation of humanity vis-a-vis the larger world. [Francis] Bacon reflects this immodest view of humans when he begins his Refutation of Philosophies with the declaration: “We are agreed, my sons, that you are men. That means, as I think, that you are not animals on hind legs, but mortal gods.” The upshot was the creation of a yawning chasm between humans and the rest of life. In this dualistic vision, humans, who appeared to verge on divinity, stand starkly opposed to a Nature reduced to malleable matter.

Even though his scientific utopia proposed an essentially mechanistic approach to solving problems by breaking them down into parts, Bacon’s writings are full of violent, sexually charged metaphors in which he often personifies Nature as a recalcitrant woman. Promising that the new science would bring about “the masculine birth of time,” he declares, “I am … leading you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

Regarding the widespread changes taking place in the world around those times, Peter Bowler says

The new commercial empires began to demand an ideology that presented Nature only as a material system to be exploited… If people were to feel comfortable when they used the earth for their own selfish ends…, Nature had to be despiritualized.

The men who drove this sweeping cultural shift presumed that nature was endlessly bountiful, and saw its exploitation as means to escape the human condition and create heaven on earth. They sought to become gods. This aim was the implicit (and often explicit) purpose of industrial and scientific progress, that vast sweeping arc of human narrative.

Obviously, a critical role of that narrative is played by the engineer–one could say that the engineering profession is the main protagonist, if we’re sticking to the narrative metaphor. By applying the principles of science to real-world problems to produce artifactual systems that propel humanity along the proscribed arc of progress, we are fulfilling the aspiration of dominating Nature and fulfilling the Destiny of Man to ascend to a higher existence.

Unfortunately for everyone, the assumptions built into the myth of human progress are fundamentally flawed. As a scientific community we are now realizing two things:

  • Nature’s material and energetic resources are considerably less vast than we thought, and
  • Nature is not as docile as we thought.

In fact, Nature might turn out to be more of a raging bitch when it comes to being endlessly fucked with.

A Dead End

Even if one is not immediately and viscerally repelled by the incredible hubris of men like Francis Bacon, even if one finds the vision of transcended humanity compelling, the reality has become clear: the manner in which Bacon and others sought to liberate humanity is not viable. The dualistic and mechanistic view of humanity’s relationship with nature is fatally and deeply wrong.

Not only is this myth of human progress wrong, it is leading us to an outcome opposite of that intended. It is leading all of humanity towards an impoverished world, one devoid of bountiful resources, full of hazards and dangers the likes of which our species has never experienced. The mechanistic view of Nature is a cultural and intellectual dead end.


That this vision is a dead end is not to say that engineering or science themselves are intrinsically wrong. Applying knowledge of science for the betterment of mankind can be virtuous. But doing so in a manner that denies the integral relationship between humanity and the rest of nature must absolutely be abandoned before it is too late.

We need a cultural and intellectual reawakening and realignment, one firmly rooted in a sober critique of the myth of progress and educated in the nature of Nature.

Final Question

Put in the language of virtue ethics: If the role of engineering is understood as increasing the public welfare, is continuing on in the spirit of Francis Bacon in a mechanistic perspective of man’s relationship to Nature the most excellent means of doing so?

Is attempting to reach divinity via science and tech while pillaging Nature and provoking cataclysm the most kickass way to obtain the flourishing of civilization?

The question answers itself, doesn’t it?