When it Comes to Climate, We Should Keep it Simple

Dr. Jonathan Foley says we shouldn't wait for Captain Kirk to save us.

Captain Kirk won't save us.
Captain Kirk won't save us.

Smithsonian

In a recent post on climate action, I quoted Dr. Jonathan Foley, the Executive Director of Project Drawdown, from an article in which he complained that people seem to avoid simple solutions that we might be able to do now, and instead prefer a more complicated, technologically aggressive path. He claims he doesn't know why.

"Maybe some people think we are unable to change — that we are somehow  unable to be less wasteful or less damaging? Or maybe some folks just like cool, new technologies, swooping in like Captain Kirk with phasers set to decarbonize?"

Foley reminds us that we are not only talking about what technologies, but when.

"To me, simpler solutions usually seem best. They’re available today, and they’re more likely to work quickly. And  time is the critical factor in climate change, biodiversity loss, and the erosion of natural resources. More complicated, high-tech solutions may  eventually be game-changers, but they require long periods of research and development, along with facing significant economic and deployment hurdles. And many never arrive at all. And in a race to avoid planetary calamities,  now is better than new."

He makes a case for the application of Occam's Razor, noting that "In science, the notion of Occam’s Razor is that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Maybe that applies to environmental solutions too, especially when time is the most important factor?"

But what William of Ockham actually wrote back in his "Summa Logicae" in 1323 is even more relevant today than the conventional version that Foley quotes above: “It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer.” Or as Mies van der Rohe might put it, less is more.

Radical Simplicty

Nick Grant's presentation, photo by Juraj Mikurcik

Coincidentally, I read Foley's article the day before I was teaching my Ryerson University Sustainable Design students about radical simplicity, a term I learned in a presentation by engineer Nick Grant. It's basically the principle that the simpler a building (or in fact anything) is, the easier and less expensive it is to build and maintain. I immediately worked Foley's ideas into my lecture, and have been thinking about it ever since, because it is such an important concept.

Foley notes that "we’re often told that energy efficiency doesn’t really work and that Americans won’t go for it, all while homes in Germany and Sweden use less than half the electricity of a typical U.S. family." And that's why we are waiting for advanced nuclear reactors so we can have lots of electricity or carbon capture and sequestration to let us keep burning gas in houses and cars. Or, in Canada or the United Kingdom, where the governments are backing hydrogen, when in fact, what we really need is just lots of insulation, better windows, and decent construction, the stuff that Passivhaus is made of.

Foley uses examples like vertical farms and lab-grown meat when we have shown that just eating less red meat could free up almost half the agricultural land on the planet for regular farming or reforestation, and cut the carbon footprint of meat in half, even if you keep dairy, pork, and chicken on the menu.

The Future We Want
The Future We Want.

Tesla

I go on about Elon Musk and "the future we want," the big sprawly house with a Tesla in the garage, Tesla solar shingles on the roof, and a big Tesla battery on the garage wall, when in fact if it had less glass and a simpler form, the house itself could be a battery. And then there is the question of whether we need 5,000 pounds of steel and lithium to move a 175-pound human when 60 pounds of electric bike can do the same job for probably half the population.

But how does one compete with Elon Musk, fancy cars, and techno-optimism? Foley calls for a softer approach, using existing, cheap technology (like we do with bikes and clotheslines in our calls for sufficiency), so I asked him, how do we sell this softer approach, and avoid the technologically aggressive path? He responded:

"We seem to bend ourselves into complex technological pretzel knots to avoid doing the obvious — wasting less, being a little more humble, and using simpler tools to live good lives and emit less carbon.
Instead of wasting so much energy and burning dirty fuels, we hear about carbon removal technologies — which are nowhere near ready.
Instead of cutting back on food waste, and eating somewhat more sustainable diets, we talk about high tech farming “solutions” that never scale.
Why do we keep falling for these technology stories instead of doing the obvious?"
It’s comparatively easy to address climate change; what’s hard is changing our destructive attitudes.”

After a few months of reading books by Bill Gates, who says science and tech will save us, or Michael Mann, who says political action will save us, or David Wallace-Wells, who says nothing will save us, it is a pleasure to read this by Jonathan Foley, who I happen to completely agree with: look in the mirror, and do the simple stuff now.

Read his full article, Occam’s Razor for the Planet.