Is the Past Almost All Right?

The old proverb, “May you live in interesting times,” is usually interpreted as a curse rather than a blessing. Lately, financial collapse, climate change, and the looming threats of food and energy crises have all done their part to make these times more interesting for cities. As a result, the popularity of concepts like sustainability has never been higher.

The biggest problems for cities today—the ones mentioned above—all stem from humans’ impact on the environments in which they live, and especially their consumption of resources. The term “sustainability” addresses that set of problems, but it’s generally used to mean two vastly different things. The first definition involves consuming resources more efficiently and more cleanly in order to maintain a given standard of living. The second involves cutting society’s resource consumption to a level that won’t exhaust those resources in the long run. The former definition, it seems, is not truly “sustainable”—the more efficiently we can provide ourselves with food and energy, the more food and energy we’re likely to consume. If everyone’s car gets 1000 miles to the gallon, the long distance commute becomes a more attractive option and total fuel consumption does not decrease much (although that consumption would be more efficient).

Reducing resource consumption to a truly sustainable level, however, holds more promise. Environmental problem-solving often takes the form of technological innovation, and such innovation has a crucial role to play. The other side of the coin, though less enticing in many ways, is “old” technology. At any given time, the human race has its entire history at its fingertips, and there’s no reason why a society shouldn’t cherry pick the very best aspects of each bygone era for incorporation into the present world. This is already done to some extent—there are many ways of doing things that never went away—but it’s harder to bring something back once it disappears, and sometimes a new innovation threatens to displace something low-tech that works fine. Why send a Segway to do a bike’s job?

Plenty of new technologies will have instrumental roles in bettering our world, as they always have, but when we talk about sustainability today, we should look to the past as closely as we look to the future.

(Photo from Flickr user lmapix.)


Peter Sigrist said...

Great point. In developing new technologies, lessons and solutions from the past are often overlooked. I thought of this post when I heard about GM and Segway's Project Puma (http://blog.wired.com/cars/2009/04/gm-and-segway-b.html). It's encouraging that new ideas are being tried, but I hope we don't lose site of simple things like rickshaws, bikes, and walking.

Peter Sigrist said...

I really like the canoe photo too.