Transmaterial, Transtudio and Seeing the Big Picture  

Posted by Big Gav

Regular readers are probably getting tired of the high proportion of borderline politcal ranting and tinfoil theories lately, so for a change of pace I'll try to stick to energy and viridian topics.

WorldChanging has a post on a great blog / web site called Transmaterial, which is one of the better Viridian sites I've come across this year.

We dig smart, committed people who relentlessly follow their geeks. At our particular little moment in history, the ability of individuals and small groups to rapidly expand the boundary of a key debate or practice is one of the most powerful forces around for changing the world. We cover people doing just that nearly every day here, and we plan to do a lot more of it.

A great case in point is Transmaterial, Blaine Brownell's one-man crusade to find, evaluate and report on new sustainable materials. It's great stuff. Even if you're a design civilian like myself, you'll find Blaine's book Transmaterial: A Catalog of Materials that Redefine our Physical Environment gripping reading, overflowing as it does with stuff that's being put to use on projects today but feels set dressings for a science fiction movie about a bright green future. As Dawn describes it:
The soft forms covering the walls clarify voices in a room. Outside, Australian-engineered concrete quietly sucks carbon dioxide out of the air, while on the fa├žades, rainwater is repelled by paint reverse-engineered from Lotus petals. Plants snake up recycled steel trusses, covering whole walls in biomass protecting brick and mortar from being devoured by roots. Once the sun goes down, photovoltaic windows stop collecting solar energy, and start displaying graphics. Interior windows glow with electroluminescent vines embedded in silk.

A big chunk of our book takes on sustainable design, energy, materials and building, but of all the myriad projects and resources we cover, Transmaterial remains one of my favorites.


Consider, too, this work on graphically portraying the realities of our energy use:
Energy Slave Equivilent

So what do we measure our energy diet against? How do we perceive its magnitude? Geologist Walter Youngquist suggests that we correlate energy consumption to "person-power." One individual can contribute approximately .25 horsepower, so 1 PP = .25 hp = 186 watts = 635 BTU/hr. The energy diet described below would require us to employ fifty-eight energy slaves working 24/7 without taking a break. Moreover, if "we purchased the energy in a barrel of oil for the same price we pay for human labor ($5/hr), it would cost us over $45,000."

When I was in graduate school, I spent some time researching Chinese environmental history, which took me on a recon mission through the history of Chinese technology, which, for several centuries, was quite the most advanced in the world. One cannot do that work without at least attempting to wrestle with Joseph Needham's massive, mind-bending, mutli-volume Science and Civilisation in China. I remember being stunned by an off-hand observation that the vast majority of the work done by human civilizations for most of history was done by human or animal muscle-power. It was one of those tiny insights -- like learning that it is possible that a majority of the people ever born live today or that for most of history, the world was lit only by fire -- that send a sudden powerful bolt of illumination through our brains, showing us in the most fundamental senses what modernity means in practical terms: a lighting flash of information that sheds light on when we are. Energy slave equivilancy is one of those lightening strikes, for me.

It does make me wonder though, how much of the work done by energy genies is wasted -- if there are 58 of them on the job 24/7, but as much as 90% of the energy we use is wasted (or at least misspent on machines, infrastructure and practices which are wasteful compared to the best-known alternatives) how many of them are metaphorically sitting around in the breakroom eating doughnuts?

Put another way, if we were operating nearer to the efficiencies we know now are at least possible, how many energy slaves would we need to lead an exciting, prosperous bright green lifestyle?

Commenter Joshua Arnow points to a Buckminster Fuller article called "Accelerating Acceleration" which apparently is where the energy slave concept originated.

At Transtudio itself, some recent posts that caught my eye included "PLEDs", which looks at the discovery and development of polymer light emitting diodes, and " Decato", which looks at next generation sustainable building materials - I'm almost inspired enough to go and build something...
PLEDs have a number of intrinsic advantages over liquid crystal devices. PLED is an emissive technology: it emits light as a function of its electrical operation. A PLED display consists of polymer material manufactured on a substrate of glass or plastic, and does not require additional elements such as backlights, filters and polarizers. PLED technology is very energy efficient and lends itself to the creation of ultra-thin lighting displays that will operate at lower voltages. The resulting benefits include brighter, clearer displays with viewing angles approaching 180 degrees; simpler construction resulting in cheaper, more robust display modules, and fast response times allowing full color video pictures even at low temperature.

TreeHugger has a post on their favourite solar powered devices for the home, which includes the solar powered paving lights I was impressed by last year.
With summer on the way, most of us will be seeing an increase in daylight hours and, thus, solar radiation. While more sunlight and heat isn't all good (as it's increasingly trapped in our atmosphere and slowly warming our globe), we've discovered numerous ways to harness some of it for good, to reduce your load on the grid and relieve your house of some of its electrical duties. Here are our picks for cranking up solar around the house.

1) The solar address light will insure the pizza delivery guy never gets lost again.
2) The $600 solar kit is a good start for anyone not ready to totally write off the local utility just yet.
3) Solarbrick will light your driveway or pathway with LEDs.
4) Take one room off-grid if you're ready for more than address lights or pathways.
5) and the Affordable Solar Store are two great places for a serious solar upgrade.
6) The Solar Dorm room and Bob's Solar Project are good how-to guides for the burgeoning solar DIYer.

TreeHugger also has a post on a DIY Wind Generator Competition.
Even if big wind turbines aren’t bird blenders after all, there is still the scandalous fact that, as we speak, untold numbers of gnats, hornets and innocent honeybees are being chopped to bits in the blades of tiny wind generator. Okay, joking. Of course we love micro power generators and their endless applications. Small wind generators are fun and accessible ways of making power and they provide tons of opportunities for the do-it-yourselfer to get hands on. For those of you feeling up for a challenge, has posed a design conundrum to make your head spin: design a complete wind generator for under $175 (£100). Your design (you aren’t required to actually build it) has to employ “readily available components” and produce a minimum of 20 watts at 12 volts. Win, and you get to make the world a better place, get famous, and win a sweet new flashlight. Lose, and we feed you to the turbines.

And while I'm linking to TreeHugger, which I should do more often, I'll include one last one on green buildings in New York - one of which is the replacement for WTC tower 7 - I wonder what Mike Ruppert makes of that (sorry, I can't help myself) !
Last week, we brought you a primer on making office interiors a greener place; now the NY Times has a good profile of two new office buildings (and a third going up) that are helping make office exteriors greener. Seven World Trade Center, a 52-story, $7 million replacement for the building that fell at that address on 9/11, was LEED-certified last month, and the 46-story Hearst Tower, on 57th Street near Eighth Avenue, is expected to follow suit after completion next month. The third building, the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Place, has been touted as the "greenest skyscraper ever," though we can't be sure until it's completed. Some interesting tidbits include the assertion that the cost of sustainable design have decreased to the point of being just two to five percent higher than designs that don't incorporate sustainability. The same sustainable buildings also use 30 to 70 percent less energy, so they cost less both in operating costs and in employee costs; better health leads to fewer sick days and increased productivity on the job. Let's see: save money, save resources, save energy, increase production, reduce sickness; is there anything green building can't do?

There is an interview with TreeHugger founder Graham Hill on Current TV.

Grist has a post on another victim of global warming - walrus' (with a truly atrocious Beatles reference at the end).
It seems global warming is now separating babies from their mothers. Heartless bastard. The cute and bristly walrus makes its home on Arctic ice shelves, which are melting rapidly as unusually warm water flows in from the Bering Sea. As their happy walrus home melts and collapses, baby walruses can be separated from their mothers and swim out into deep waters, where they -- sniff -- drown. In the space of two months in 2004, a Coast Guard ship came across nine walrus calves swimming alone, a highly unusual sight. "[T]he calves would be swimming around us crying. We couldn't rescue them," says a member of the research team. Hear that? That's our heart breaking. Sea-ice melt also causes trouble for adult walruses, who find food by diving off of ice shelves into shallow waters. The conclusion of researchers: if the walruses (walri?) can't adapt to melting sea ice, we may see fewer of them in the future.

Also at Grist, Dave Roberts gives Kevin Drum a stern talking to about nuclear power.
How disappointing to see everyone here parroting this tired conventional wisdom. Nuclear seems to have become some kind of totem by which progressives prove themselves "reasonable." Aren't we sick of getting duped that way yet?

The idea that wind, solar, geothermal, and hydrokinetic should, individually or collectively, "replace" coal is a straw man. What greens are proposing is a new paradigm, pairing aggressive energy efficiency and conservation (easily the cheapest "source" of energy) with distributed small-scale sources appropriate to regional context, and smart grids.

People say it will take too long to scale this up and implement appropriate policy. But a new generation of nuclear plants will take a minimum of 10 years to get going. What could efficiency + renewables do in 10 years, with comparable public subsidies and aggressive political support? We know they couldn't address the energy shortfall? How?

Let's ask the market. Investment money is streaming into small-scale, distributed power, but the nuclear industry is utterly moribund. If it were revived, it would be a Frankenstein, entirely sustained by government largess. Mining uranium is an environmental nightmare; building the plants is prohibitively costly; the risks are all but uninsurable. What we're talking about is creating a(nother) huge, centralized, politically connected energy cartel forever seeking to increase its take from the public teat. We need more of those?

Do not accept the oft-repeated canard that we cannot fundamentally change our energy situation, that we must simply plug one massive, unsavory power cartel in to replace another. We can build better vehicles, better cities, better infrastructure. We can drive less, consume less, and change our food system to reduce freight distances. We can shift policy to internalize industry externalities. We can tax carbon. And we can lavish the same attention, subsidies, and tax breaks on renewables that we do now on oil, coal, and agribusiness.

Can clean energy fill the coal gap? It's got momentum, investment enthusiasm, and the arc of history on its side. Nuclear is the "least worst" option that everyone holds their nose to support. It feels wrong, because it is wrong, and a culture that remembered back when it used to have some fucking balls and ambition would throw itself behind what it knows is right.

Dave also has a post on Frank Maisano and PR for polluting industries.
Jim Mottavalli's done an interview with Frank Maisano, a guy who's spent his life as an extremely successful communications guy -- shill -- for polluting industries. Disturbingly, Maisano comes off as congenial, reasonable, well-informed. I prefer my evil people more evil, please.

Also -- I should have noted this weeks ago -- don't miss Mark Hertsgaard's piece from the recent Vanity Fair green issue. Most of it covers ground familiar to Grist readers, about how a well-funded campaign kept controversy about global warming alive long after the science was settled. What's new is the exposure of one Dr. Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences. According to Hertsgaard, Seitz helped lead an effort to produce research for tobacco companies to fight off bad publicity in the 70s and 80s. Then, in the 90s, Seitz smoothly transitioned to climate contrarianism. It's a fascinating tale.

Heading back to WorldChanging again, Alex Steffen has a post on "Climate Visions: RenewUS,, Dimming the Sun and An Inconvenient Truth".
This spring is seeing an explosion of media about the environment in general and climate change in particular. And now a slew of new video projects have arrived.

RenewUS -- a project produced by our own Joel Makower -- showcases an awesome bit of video futurism, couched as a documentary shot in 2055, looking back at how humanity beat the threat of climate change:
“This film predicts the future,” says Kathleen Rogers, President of Earth Day Network, “so we know how it all turns out – the power of people dedicated to change wins the day. The planet and its inhabitants face a bright future.”

As futurism, that's the only thing that's a little disappointing about it: it's telling, not showing; predicting, not evoking. It's a very cool project, but it uses the futurism wrapper essentially to argue for a set of actions we ought to take now, rather than help us imagine what a climate-friendly future might in fact be like.

That's a shame -- not because we don't need to mobilize public action (in this case buying green energy) -- but because we have a far more pressing need for visions of the future worth fighting for, and this was a perfect opportunity to create such visions. Still it's great to use a sweeping future-historical setting as a means of showing people why their individual actions are part of a grander story...

TriplePundit has a post on conflict diamonds which caught my eye as I was discussing these recently while talking to a relative of one our military personnel from the navy base next to where I live. Apparently people doing private security work in Iraq (another term would be mercenaries I guess) are coming back with these, so there are lots of young wives and girlfriends flashing rather large rocks around - they seem to be something of an alternative currency for the Blackwater set. It also seems that the navy is having trouble holding on to their clearance divers, as offshore rig operators are now offering up to $500k for 6 months work on the rigs - dangerous work admittedly, but thats not bad money.
"m not the biggest fan of diamonds in general but they remain a massively popular (almost obligatory) commodity in many circles. As a result of their high demand, enormous amounts of crime, war, and environmental degradation are associated with their production and sale. Therefore, it's critical to do your homework when considering a diamond to purchase and learn as much as you can about how it was mined and where it came from.

"Brilliant Earth" claims to solve the mysteries of diamond orign, and according to their website looks like they're doing a pretty good job. All diamonds they purchase are "conflict free" and are "crafted with fair labor and environmentally responsible practices" and they donate a fair bit of money to various communities in conflict areas.

I've been meaning to post on Jeff Vail's excellent set of posts on Rhizome theory lately, but I haven't really had time to digest them properly. He's put together a little directory of these posts now, so if you have some free time and you'd like to study some of the academic basis of various aspects of decentralisation, go and check it out.
OK, so... I've published several rather detailed posts on the theory behind actually creating a rhizome economy over the last few days. Here's a little directory (in recommended order for reading):

1. Envisioning a Hamlet Economy. Big-picture concpetion of how a rhizome economy will function.

2. Creating Resiliency and Stability in Horticulture. A more detailed analysis of how to implement a hybrid-horticultural scheme at the level of the rhizome node.

3. Rhizome & Central Place Theory. In response to a comment, a more detailed discussion of how rhizome can grow amidst existing hierarchal structures.

4. Rhizome Network Defense. A review of a Cambridge team's analysis of potential tacticts to defend rhizome structures against hierarchy.

And to close, a bunch of links I haven't even finished reading yet - hopefully you have more spare time than I do...

The Oil Drum on the top 20 oil fields.

Flogging the Simian (now thats a cool name for a blog) on Africa - The World is Burning - see how many conflicts are in countries that have found oil.

Paul Krugman on Lee "Jabba" Raymond, Exxon and his massive payout (via Energy Bulletin).

Noam Chomsky on "Hegemony And Disarmament".


Anonymous   says 2:51 PM

Hi! Thanks for the links.

-Mike from

Big Gav,

Thought you might find this interesting:

If there's a meme worth spreading, it's "tapeworm economy".

You might find this of interest:

Enron And Carbon Trading.

Do you suppose carbon trading is just a scam?

Well read the above bit and decide.

I've noted my preference for carbon taxes rather than carbon trading many times.

The fact that Enron and many other financial industry players like trading schemes (as they can make money from them) doesn't really imply anything about global warming itself - just that in any given situation they would like he outcome that lets them generate money.

Given that global warming is now basically universally accepted, perhaps you should push for carbon taxes too - they are much more economically efficient.

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