Spaceship Earth

Looking for something to do? Consider this: the stress S caused by humanity on the planetary ecology is proportional to the population P (as number of humans) as well as to the level W of wealth averaged worldwide. But S also depends on the quantity E of stress caused by a creating a unit of wealth. Putting it brutally, and choosing units so that there is no constant, we have:

S = P x W x E

According to authoritative estimates, world population P will double before stabilizing and this will happen in a few decades. During that time poor countries will rapidly become richer, multiplying W by, say, a factor of five. (Remember, W is averaged world-wide.) At the current level of S we have managed to create undesirable ecological effects. So S should decrease considerably, say, by a factor of two.

It follows that E should decrease by a factor of about twenty: we have to get a lot more efficient at getting wealth out of a given amount of stress. A lot of this stress is caused by the hundreds of millions of cows and cars. As we are talking about a complex system, there are dozens of ways in which efficiency can be increased, in addition to getting rid of cows and cars. We only need less than half a dozen factors that we can improve by a factor of two. Consider the built environment, the energy system, cars, and cows.

Half a century ago, Richard Buckminster Fuller made what was essentially the above argument, concluding that the destiny of technology is to do more with less. To demonstrate examples, he designed a dwelling machine with performance superior to a good house but weighed only a few tons. His geodesic domes enclose spaces with similarly superior performance.

Getting E down by the required factor has, or should have, political implications. Hence it is a concern of nonspecialists. Hence this cluster of pages.

The Built Environment

The above considerations are adapted from a report "The Existing Environmental Perception Inhibits Considering Effective Solutions to the Ecological Crisis" by T.M. de Jong of the Technical University Delft in Holland. This university also has a project "Sustainable Development of Cities and Infrastructure" headed by J. Kristinsson. This project has as goal to study changes in design and standards for buildings and infrastructure to obtain maximal improvements in the factor E mentioned above.

The Energy System

David Scott, who founded IESVic, the Institute of Integrated Energy Systems at the University of Victoria, argues that it pays to look at energy sources, services enabled by energy, and everything in between as a system. That, by guiding research and policy according to the system's characteristics, an important factor can be contributed to E.

Scott has a column in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. It treats the basics of energy and energy systems addressed at a lay audience. Apart from being an eye-opener, it is also a rollicking good read.


In "Shared Taxis" I show how a number of technologies are converging to finally start dislodging the so far all-powerful mechanism that drove the rich world toward one car per adult.


Much of the world's wheat is fed to cattle. Of course, we get to eat the meat and the dairy products. Is that a good deal? Apparently not, because that way we only get the equivalent of a small part of the wheat that went into the animals.

It does not seem to be widely known that when a person who needs 2000 kilocalories per day (a typical figure), takes it all in the form of wheat products, then she or he gets 60 to 70 grams of usable protein, which is all one needs in a day. This takes into account that the mix of amino acids in wheat protein is not ideal for humans, so that only 60% of the wheat protein is usable.

So energy and protein-wise one can live off wheat and similar grains: bread, pasta, porridge, pancakes, ... time to turn you over to The Joy of Cooking. We can get a crack at E by getting rid of so many cows that no more wheat is needed to feed any, and then, of course, growing eighty percent less of that wheat.

Third-world agriculture

Nowadays the so-called Green Revolution is widely maligned. It should not be forgotten that in the 1960s it seemed unavoidable that, for example, much of India would be wiped out by famine before the end of the century. The miraculous reversal that we have in fact seen, is now taken for granted.

Yet the model of Green Revolution has its limits, and these are not acceptable. The Economist (Technology Quarterly, December 8, pp. 49 -- 50). The Centre for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture (CAMBIA,, founded by Richard Jefferson, is developing methods of developing new crops that can be used by those farmers (the poorest) that do not benefit from the Green Revolution. Steady yourself for the most lurid, image- and animation-ridden web site you may have seen in some time.

CAMBIA's strategy is to open up what industry keeps closed. A sample of their activity is a freely accessible, searchable database of 257,000 agriculture-related patents ( Though I can't tell one patent in this area from the next, I was pleased to find on this site their tutorial "How to Read a Patent".