The cover for Robert Bryce’s book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, repeats its title five times in different sized font. Within the pages of the book, this mantra is continuously emphasized by capitalizing the words of the title wherever they appear—smaller is always Smaller, faster is always Faster, and so on. This stylistic trick is very revealing. Bryce’s book is a quick, easy-to-understand read, with clear signposting and a modern style. Its central thesis is also somewhat simplistic.
Bryce provides many examples of the human tendency to move toward smaller, faster, lighter, denser cheaper products, communities, and methods of production. We get quick walk through history with a look at everything from the printing press to digital communications to the movement of people into cities. This information is uncontroversial. Human progress and wealth is undoubtedly correlated with increased efficiency. However, the second part of Bryce’s thesis—that our ability to do more with less “continually proves catastrophists wrong”—is less well supported.
In order to justify his optimistic view, Bryce would have needed to prove that our collective drive toward Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper will minimize environmental damage by either:
Instead, his only argument to prove his thesis is to say that “density is green” and we have a tendency to move towards dense technologies.
Bryce spends much time arguing why various other “green” solutions won’t work. Specifically, he focuses on why any approach to energy that is not smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper will fail, both for environmental and economic reasons. Solar and wind power only produce 1 watt per square meter. Enormous quantities of land would have to be set aside in order to effectively replace fossil fuels. Additionally, turbines are loud and kill birds, and there is something ironic about the growing food crops for fuel in countries that have problems with hunger. Therefore, while various green groups may champion renewables, they do so without acknowledging their crippling and wasteful inefficiency.
Meanwhile, oil is dense. Natural gas is also dense. Nuclear power is the densest. The areal power density inside the center of an average reactor is about 338 megawatts per square meter. That’s huge! If we embrace these solutions, energy use will become increasingly efficient. The one hiccup in the plan? Coal. Since we embrace cheaper even more than we embrace denser, and coal is cheapest, coal continues to dominate, despite being heavy and polluting. Therefore, we must make other options cheaper as well. This is quite feasible as long as excessive legislation does not stand in the way. In fact, the combination of natural gas and nuclear energy has already reduced America’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 54 billion tons over the last six decades.
Bryce declares himself an agnostic when it comes to climate change, writing only that carbon dioxide levels are rising. His emphasis on efficient energy has more to do with spreading smaller faster lighter denser cheaper ways of life to developing countries than saving our ecosystems. However, the question still stands: can density alone minimize environmental damage? Bryce does not attempt to answer.
Divergent Technologies is certainly smaller, faster, lighter, denser, and cheaper. Considering humankinds preferences and economic trends (as discussed by Bryce), we feel optimistic about the future of DM, even if we remain more concerned about the future of the planet.
Hunters and gatherers, nomadic herdsman, the wheel, Machu Picchu, alchemy, atomic theory, Galileo, relativity, Darwin, the atom bomb, Mendel…!
In The Ascent of Man, J. Bronowski walks us through the most important moments of human progress, by chronologically documenting what he considers our most interesting breakthroughs and achievements. The text is elegant. Illustrations are plentiful. Much of the information is review from high school history class, but having it all laid out makes it easier for the reader to examine the overall effect. While it is a decidedly white male history (no woman is mentioned in either a professional or power context) this work was penned in 1973, so we will forgive the author and examine the truths he does illuminate.
Through Bronowski’s writing, we see clearly how knowledge builds on knowledge. While our modern society is infinitely complex, human progress occurred gradually, as often by accident as by genius. One small discovery led to large-scale innovation. The humble arch enabled the construction of the medieval cathedral. Meanwhile, seemingly disparate fields feed into each other. Innovations in art lead to innovations in science. Pythagoras’s triangles are deeply tied to the Moorish exploration of symmetries at the Alhambra. In Florence, artists painted using perspective before scientists understood how light works. Seeing the building blocks of human history fit together, the reader feels both humbled and awed.
However, Bronowski does not simply want to map the development of modern civilization. He also wants to explore human nature. Man is a builder, a shaper of the landscape, a “tool making animal” with the flexibility of mind to recognize inventions and turn them into community property. This concept is common knowledge. What is newer is the way Bronowski’s stresses our physical engagement with the world. “The hand is the cutting edge of the mind,” he writes. We must interact with the world in concrete ways in order to continue evolving. Additionally, human desire to create is separate from the achievement of a particular purpose. The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. Finally, creation is largely possible because society allows children to grow up to be different from their parents. Before the brain is an instrument for action, it has to be an instrument of preparation.
More interesting perhaps than his tale of ascent, is Bronowski’s warnings about stagnation and decline. Visiting the gas chambers of Auschwitz, he remarks, “when people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with not test in reality, this is how they behave.” Certainty is death to diversity, and therefore to innovation and to progress as well. When people itch for absolute knowledge and power they create distance between “the push-button order” and the human act. Again, the author stresses the importance of direct engagement. Bronowski even goes so far as to say that intellectual leadership and civil authority ought to be separate affairs.
Science should be the recognition of man’s unique talents and pride in his creations, divided from power or monetary gain. “It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination, because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.” Though science itself is amoral, its application can be either good or bad, and since this application causes great shifts in culture, it must be developed along moral lines. The best way to insure this happens? Make sure that science is never sequestered away. “We must be a democracy of the intellect,” Bronowski writes. “Knowledge [must sit] in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in isolated seats of power.”
Talking to my dad about Bronowski, we discussed the role science is given in our modern society. Too often, we concluded, science is now in the hands of elite moneymakers. Science is developed to fit the needs of corporations. By subjecting workers to sweatshop conditions or considering them as replaceable by machines, the dignity of man is infringed upon. There is a disconnect between creator and creation that can kill innovation. Moreover, the strict adherence to the bottom line goes against Bronowski’s vision of science as a pure principle. We fear that rather than man shaping machines, machines (the machine of capitalism, the internet, iphones) are beginning to shape man. Since machines are algorithm driven and therefore static, development of human culture might stall. At Divergent, we seek to put tools back in the hands of man, allowing for continued creative development.
Although 97% of scientists agree that climate change is a real and present danger, the U.S. government has not been treating it as an emergency. Quite the opposite; our political bodies seem strangely reticent to act. Moreover, despite being a matter of facts, figures, and rising tides, there is a strong partisan divide. The canned answer is that humans are simply too short-sighted, selfish, and greedy. Yet people have mobilized before (with both citizens and companies rationing during WWII, for instance), and further, we are currently facing austerity measures in the form of cuts to many public programs, including schooling. We are already making sacrifices.
So why are we failing to act on climate change?
While Divergent is by no means a political group, understanding the world of politics surrounding climate change is important to our mission. We aim to improve the planet by making incredible products. Our technology will be implemented by those people best equipped to make positive changes.
In Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, she unpacks some of the thornier realities underlying the environmental movement. The underlying thesis: in order to effectively battle global warming, we have to majorly restructure our current societal set-up. This would involve confronting big corporations and big money individuals, empowering disenfranchised countries and peoples, and letting the needs of the environment and local economies trump free market capitalism. In other words, when conservatives argue that the green movement’s hidden agenda is wealth distribution, they are only half wrong. According to Klein successful programs would require the privileged few to relinquish some of their power.
For those who won’t acknowledge the failures of our current laissez-fare system, there are many reasons to deny climate change. Some deniers accept that it may be getting warmer, but denigrate rash action and insist that our small emissions problem may be curbed by gradual, system-sanctioned means. Emissions restriction policies are too often rendered immediately moot by the doctrine of continual GDP growth and by the fact that corporations can easily buy their way out, game the market, or otherwise avoid penalties. Serious change is needed, Klein maintains.
Even green groups have fallen into the trap of inadvertently working to uphold the interests of corporations. While the 60s and 70s saw everything from the Clean Air Act (1963) to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), Ronald Reagan’s presidency ushered in an ideological shift. Accustomed to being political insiders, activists scrambled to continue as such. As a result, coal and oil companies now sponsor the most important summits of many groups, which in turn invest their own wealth in these same players. In one particularly egregious conflict of interest, the Texas City Prairie Preserve ended up drilling for oil on its own property despite the decline and eventual die off of the bird it was trying to protect.
Siphoning off responsibility to benevolent billionaires and scientists developing high tech fixes is also no good. Just as no corporation wants to limit its business, no billionaire wants to lose money. Meanwhile, high tech fixes are extremely high risk. For instance, an initiative to block out the sun by simulating the activity of a volcano would interrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons. The resulting draughts would effect billions of people. The winner? Wealthy westerners who could buy their way out of any problems.
Luckily not all hope is lost. While top-down environmentalism is floundering, grassroots movements are gaining traction. “Blockadias” or areas involved in direct resistance are cropping up everywhere from Greece to Inner Mongolia. Typically, response from governments and corporations in such cases is brutal. For instance, the Nigerian government reacted to protests by torturing residents and razing villages; in one instance soldiers conducted lethal raids using a helicopter taken from a Chevron operation. However, the number and effectiveness of protests is growing as citizens gain knowledge and corporations are forced to expand their reach to include places with more political power.
While many local protestors may not have much political experience, the feel connected to their land and often view it as essential to their way of life. Meanwhile, a coalfield worker Klein interviewed said he trained himself to think of the Powder River Basin as “another planet” that he could raid without consequence. Coalitions of rights-rich-but-cash-poor people are teaming up with (relatively) cash-rich-but-rights-poor people to effect change. Aboriginals are finding help from the green movement; treaties against land contamination are now being upheld more regularly. Despite minimal government assistance, local people are winning victories.
Klein presents her arguments in a compelling way, peppering hard facts with personal anecdotes. Her descriptions of the plight of ordinary people faced with climate change are at turns heartbreaking and inspiring. Divergent believes that its technology can contribute to this local, personal green movement, leading to a more even playing field for anyone concerned about their land and their way of life.
“This is a book about us,” begins Stephen Emmott’s 10 Billion. “It’s a book about you, your children, your parents, your friends.(…)It’s about the unprecedented planetary emergency we’ve created. It’s about the future of us.” This future, as Emmott describes it, will largely involve mass environmental destruction, rapid climate change, biodiversity loss, shortages of food and water, starvation, migration, rioting, and death. To call Emmott’s work a bleak book would be an understatement. Instead, it might be better described as the literary equivalent of being smacked in the face by the apocalypse.
10 Billion is a slim volume, made slimmer by the fact that many pages contain but a single sentence; the largest block of text spans about four paragraphs. Emmott uses bullet points for clarity, and often repeats a point more than once. Plenty of visuals in the form of alarming upward-trending graphs and photographs of ecological disasters further break up the read. Though an academic—Emmott is head of Computational Science at Microsoft—this scientist’s anger is palpable. At one point he berates humanity for its stupidity and concludes his book by asserting, “I think we’re fucked.”
The crux of Emmott’s warning is as frightening as it is familiar: population growth combined with a consumer culture that overtaxes the earth’s resources will wreck our planet. While the industrial revolution and agricultural innovation worked to create a society that could produce more, its systems were poised for unsustainability. We are now ensnared, possibly permanently, in destructive feedback loops, particularly those related to our increased food demands, our addiction to fossil fuels, and the destabilizing of our environmental systems. The future is uncertain and there are no pleasant answers. Only one thing is certain: “Every which way you look at it, a planet of ten billion looks like a nightmare.”
Effective fixes to Emmott’s doomsday premonitions are seemingly nonexistent. Technological programs related to green energy, nuclear power, desalination, geoengineering, and a second green revolution are introduced only to be summarily dismissed a few sentences later. Apparently these innovations all either rely on science that doesn’t exist yet, or are liable to cause other, bigger problems, or else necessitate long-term, wide-spread development unfeasible in current society. The only possible solution is to consume less. Yet according to all available trends, we are unwilling to make such a sacrifice.
Now, before we all dig bunkers and stock up on canned food, it bears considering that while 10 Billion certainly addresses some very real problems, there are possibilities Emmott has not considered. In his analysis, he uses only the most dire projections and only includes data that reveals negative trends. He ignores countries with declining birthrates. He declares an imminent phosphate shortage to be fact rather than speculation. Moreover, he does not even consider the solution most dear to Divergent: smarter, more environmentally friendly manufacturing.
In 10 Billion, Emmott laments the immense and hidden costs of vehicle production. “Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota, and others keep telling us that you can buy a car from around $13,000,” he scoffs, revealing that such figures ignore “externalities,” including the cost of obtaining raw materials and shipping them to be processed and assembled. When these processes are considered, the cost of a car is “an absolute fortune.” Yet with the technology produced by Divergent many of these processes could be cut out.
Creating products that do not necessitate excessive back and forth shipping and require less material and energy to make allow consumers to leave a smaller carbon footprint without changing behavior. Not that we shouldn’t also endeavor to consume less.
This is a good book to read if you were feeling a bit too optimistic about the environment or just need another reason to support dematerialization.
Here at Divergent, we are all about decreasing the carbon footprint. However, in this complicated, globalized world it can be difficult to tell if a new product or manufacturing method truly reduces. In Making The Modern World, Vaclav Smil, esteemed academic and data scientist, thoroughly unpacks the distinction between relative, and absolute dematerialization. What truly helps us consume less? What only appears to do so?
By and large, we have made incredible strides in the last two hundred years in regards to material efficiency. As a result, it is possible for us to produce and consume products while using fewer resources per unit. The goods we consume are better, faster, lighter, stronger. They require fewer raw goods to produce, a fact that seemingly gives hope to those concerned with unsustainable consumption. Unfortunately, rising population growth combined with an increased standard of living means that this trend does not translate into diminished resource use. In fact, it often has the opposite effect. People simply buy more of the cheapened product. The dematerialization is relative, not absolute. Less is, in fact, more. Further the complicated nature of the modern manufacturing process (from resource production to globalization) makes it hard to suss out real reduction.
Though the more casual reader may be daunted by the wealth of information, the nuances of the work are well worth the struggle. Uninterested in fear-mongering generalizations, Smil lends credibility to his conclusions. Readers are informed not only of what studies are used, but also of the methods used to gather data as well as of the existence of contradictory information. Numbers abound. He is sometimes ridiculously thorough. Before Smil can even presume to critique modern consumption, he must lay out what resources he will talk about and why, and also chronicle all of human economic history.
As Smil dives into the intricacies of consumerism, it becomes clear just how complicated (and often counterintuitive) the process of production can be. Energy costs, abundance, and life-cycle analysis must be considered. For instance, creating polyester requires more energy than harvesting cotton, but the cloth is easier to manufacture, and deteriorates less quickly; thus, polyester ends up with the advantage. Some materials are easy to produce, but carry hidden, long-term costs. Used extensively post-1990, concrete deteriorates quickly, meaning that we will face an unprecedented burden post-2030, when concrete structures begin to fail. Meanwhile, plastic refuses to break down. Recycling can be hugely effective, particularly for some materials such as aluminum, but is not as widely implemented as it should be. Therefore, before we condemn or laud any one product as contributing (or not) to dematerialization, we must consider all related factors.
Meanwhile, globalization creates some confusing trends that seem at first to suggest less consumption. Sadly, it soon becomes clear that this apparent trend is merely a case of outsourcing. In the developed world, there has been a gradual decoupling of GDP with total material consumption. There has been some serious deindustrialization leading to this decline in energy intensity (aka the cost of converting energy into GDP). However, this fact becomes less impressive when we account for the energy needed to produce the growing mass of imports. While we may look like we are extracting fewer resources, we are simply letting someone else do the dirty work.
Finally, there are four manufacturing principles that do result in a reduction of material and energy cost, at least initially: 1) gradual improvements that do not involve new materials, 2) substitutions of constituent materials with lighter or more durable alternatives; 3) intensified recycling; 4) new devices that perform the desired functions using only a fraction of the mass. Indeed, we have used these principles to reduce the materials required for producing everything from beverage cans to jetliners, preventing truly unimaginable levels of environmental degradation. For example, in 2010, it took 20% of the energy needed in 1900 to make steel. Unfortunately, even following or trying to follow these principles rarely results in a global reduction.
First off, there are many instances where people believe they are reducing, but are merely substituting. For example, while some misguided souls may think they are being good citizens by going paperless, they are in fact using the same amount of resources because computers use more energy. Then there is the aforementioned case of relative materialism. Here, the product has been successfully dematerialized, but this effect is negated as more people flock to buy it. Making something for less typically leads to falling costs and more appealing products, increased availability and spikes in consumption. Additionally, while new products may weigh less, they often require higher energy inputs to make.
Let’s take a closer look at cars. Technological developments lead to an vastly improved power/mass ratio (there was a 93% reduction in the last 90 years) but this improvement was more than negated by increased rate of ownership, higher average power, and larger vehicles. In 1920, there were fewer than 8 cars per 100 people; in 2011, the number of cars ballooned to 80. Moreover, people began demanding bigger, faster cars, which they drove for longer distances, increasing fuel consumption, as well the cost of car depreciation and maintenance, not to mention the need for more road repairs. Today the average per capita mass of American vehicles is more than 30-fold compared to 1920. Additionally, cars are often produced overseas; factories in China assemble our gas guzzlers before shipping our products across the ocean.
So what does this mean for Divergent? After doing a life-cycle analysis, it turns out that a car like the Blade is one of the few examples of a product capable of causing aggregate dematerialization. Not only is it lighter and requires less energy to build (from the production of its raw materials to its subsequent environmental effects) but is also unlikely to cause a boom in consumption. Finally, it can be made locally so that when energy intensity declines, we can be sure that we are not simply outsourcing. Vaklov Smil might be proud—after all he himself points out that 3D printing is the most efficient way of creating a structure.
When my father told me about his idea for Divergent, I felt more than supportive: I felt inspired and driven to help him succeed. My father has had more than one ambitious project over the years, but this was the first time I felt that his idea wasn’t just cool but could work to make the world a better place in a radical way, both for humans and the other creatures who share it.
As someone with a basic affinity for breathing and real love for flora and fauna, the environment has always been important to me. In fact, when I was a child, I considered a day wasted if I didn’t spend 90% of it outside in a tree like some strange human/monkey hybrid. Unfortunately, as many of you know, in the millennia since our ancestors descended from that primordial foliage and started producing iPhones and Diet Coke cans, we’ve developed some truly unsavory habits, consuming resources at an unsustainable rate and causing climate change. Considering the sad fact that we can’t just grow the planet larger at will, dematerialization (using fewer resources) is the best way to avoid catastrophe. Cars are one of the most polluting assets we own, so building one for a fraction of the environmental damage makes a real, potentially life-saving difference.
While the prospect of saving our beloved ecosystem instantly captured my attention, as my dad and I continued talking, I also grew to appreciate the small-business aspect. Someone pointed out that the cost of opening a microfactory is roughly the same as that of opening a microbrewery. With this financially feasible plan, more people will be empowered to be entrepreneurs, leading to more job creation. Large corporations wouldn’t have to rule the roost. Innovation and creativity could bloom. Vehicles previously considered too niche to be produced would find a place on the open road. Greener technologies could be developed more easily, creating a feedback loop far more encouraging than the one involved in the melting of the polar ice caps.
I was sold.
In fact, I was sold enough to ask my father if there was a way for me to contribute. Since I studied theater in college, engineering or technical work was out of the question; however, we soon landed on the idea of starting a blog. Fabulous. Since I am very interested in learning more about our environment, our economy, and how the Divergent philosophy of dematerialization and democratization fits in with these two concepts, and since I love reading almost as much as love having a planet to live on, I thought the blog could consist primarily of book reviews. Every week, I plan to read a piece of relevant literature (often literature that inspired my father), and tell you what it’s about and how Divergent might fit into its framework or jive with its argument.
With any luck Divergent will be about more than just car manufacturing. It could be an environmental and ideological movement. But in order to be a movement, we need context and reasons to care—though of course there will always be those who will buy in just because the product is amazing (and that’s alright too).
The current approach to manufacturing is expensive, wasteful, and energy-intensive; it hurts our environment as well as our economy. When it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to start a car factory, innovation becomes impossible. As we triple the number of cars on the road in the next thirty to forty years, the conventional approach is not sustainable. (more…)