ESSAY- Footprints, indeed: Why we can't innovate away our carbon


The architect speaking at UVA showed illustrations of buildings with three-deep, metal skins. Those moving screens, he envisioned, will soon track the sun across the sky and maximize light while minimizing heat. 


As I think "biomimicry"– or the process of adapting nature's lessons to decrease man's ecological footprint– is a great concept, I listened closely. Computer controlled, the millions of screens on a multi-story building, the architect said, will shift on tracks to maximize efficiency and minimize power bills over 40 or 50 years. His slides indicated a beautiful, cheaper, future. 

Then it hit me. Every sliding screen door I've ever seen has jammed or fallen off the track at least once a week. Every car and every bicycle at my house needs regular maintenance to stay on the road. I've seen solid steel shattered by a couple kids on a bender, and the technicians need to clean my computer every month or the bugs will strangle it.

How much would it cost to maintain millions of computer-controlled, constantly-sliding screens hundreds of feet up the side of a building? Even if nature didn't throw rain, sleet; and hail around; and even if birds don't find perfect nesting sites in the tangles of wires.

Yet again another technological "fix" for our consumption of carbon fuels bites the practical dust. Americans, no matter how much we try, can't seem to innovate our way out of our carbon consumption issues. 

Transportation thinkers note that "technological traps" inevitably fail to decrease the 1,958 million metric tons of greenhouse gases American transportation emits into the atmosphere annually; but we, the people, never stop trying.

Increases in Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, for example, actually make pollution worse because more efficient vehicles promote more driving and overwhelm the efficiency gains. Pouring corn alcohol into gasoline to create a biofuel decreases fuel economy, causes food shortages, and offers nothing to the family farm. Hydrogen stations aren't available on any American street corner. And no matter how many bird-whacking windmills we put up, wind energy doesn't translate into auto fuel.

Now that Nissan is using its Japanese test market to subsidize electric car sales in America– and undercut GM's Volt– the latest buzz is electric vehicles. Even if the Volt is ever built commercially, it will be constructed in Mexico while the Nissan assembly lines are in Asia despite, or thanks to, a $7,500 subsidy by American taxpayers. And, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group, gasoline taxes would need to rise 210 percent or oil prices climb to $375 a barrel to make an all-electric car an economical purchase.

Meanwhile, deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, plus shallower fields off the East Coast, are being touted as the route to American energy independence. But those deepwater rigs are floating in seven thousand feet of sea water, held in place by gyroscopes and computers. At some point– probably during a hurricane– there will a twist-off and a blow out will erupt, spewing oil from a depth that only one or two submersibles on the planet are even capable of reaching.

Like the moving metal building skins reported by the architect at UVA, the technology for deepwater drilling is breathtaking, but it's a little irrational to suppose that the technology will never fail. That maintenance schedules will always be upheld. That some defective part won't get through the inspection system. That every employee will be perfectly trained and always alert. 

There are, after all, regular oil spills from the conventional oil platforms like the ones which might soon dot the Virginia coast.

Even in the super-reliable, "zero defect" space program– as we all unfortunately know– SNAFUs inevitably happen.

At some point in time, we Americans have got to come to grip with the fact that we use almost twice the carbon per capita than other Western democratic nations and six times as much as our growing economic competitor, China. We've got to realize that we're going to have to bite the bullet. There's no way to innovate away our personal responsibility.

We love to blame industry, but the reality is that it's housing and transportation which are creating the most, and fastest growing, American carbon dioxide emissions. Industry and commerce are indeed already controlling emissions as greenhouse intensity– the ratio of emissions to Gross Domestic Product– has dropped by a quarter since 1990.

This is not to say that we– and our businesses– shouldn't latch onto sustainable innovation, biomimicry or not; but innovation by itself will never solve our problems. Though it's a difficult sell to we self-involved individuals, personal conservation is the key to both decreasing greenhouse emissions and reaching energy independence. 

We must turn up the thermostat in the summer, turn off the lights all year and especially walk, bicycle, and take the bus as much as we possibly can. We've got to live closer to where we work and carpool whenever possible. 

We've got to become conscious on our carbon consumption and personally do something about it.


A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is a transportation researcher who penned the story about eBikes in this week's special "Green Home" insert in the Hook..



I did not, of course, know that the Deepwater Horizon would catch fire and sink when I wrote this. The Louisiana explosion is releasing, according to one report, 300,000 gallons of crude a day into waters 40 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi. It is likely this oil slick will yet again damage the Texas coast because much of the Mississippi's sediment washes west.

When I was a kid, living near Galveston Bay, in Texas when we dug down about three feet into the sand at the beach, there was a black layer caused, folklore had it, by WWII when the German U-boats sank tankers left and right as they came out of Houston ship channel just after we got into the war.

It is possible, depending on many factors, that engineers might never be able to cap the oil which is -- apparently -- flowing from deep in the Gulf. If that is the case, the "war" will not end and there might never again be the three feet of clean sand that I played on in the 1960s.


Great essay. Salzman makes a great case for personal responsibility. There is just no substitute. My neighbors could all be environmentally responsible, biking or carpooling to work every day, and I could negate all of their efforts by commuting 40 miles a day to my desk job in a gas guzzling behemoth and leave my computer running all night long.

Technology is important too, of course. I, for one, am still waiting for a more affordable solar panel technology to be developed so I wont have to use electricity made from burning coal. But in the mean time, there are so many things that we can do, that we are not doing, to reduce energy consumption and pollution.

I think that as more people become aware of the impact they have on the earth, attitudes will change. Essays like this help to do that.

Simplicity!!!! A great solution. Really it makes all the sense in the world. The fewer things there are to go wrong, the better. Look at all those lenses on the Arab World Institute. Last time I checked they were no longer working. Commute shorter distances (ie build more compact cities, build simpler well-insulated buildings that respond directly to the climate (think vernacular architecture), eat locally grown food as much as possible, buy recycled things. Simple lessons. I love those buildings with all the layers and moveable screens, too,though, but Randy makes a great observation. What does that metal look like after 20 years, anyway?

And how much pollution is generated to manufacture the silicon chips needed to automate all this biomimicry? Manually operated windows are no longer an option.

Mileage from my 10 year old manual stick shift automobile approaches that of a Prius but I get no tax credits because it is me rather than a computer in control.

For the foreseeable future, the Chevy Volt is essentially a coal powered vehicle.

Randy, you are a very smart man. Or should I say you are able to put the pieces together quite well. It is not a difficult puzzle.
It shocks me that so many cannot see conservation as the solution or probably just don't care enough to try.

But then it also shocks me that a knowlege of seventh grade mathematics could have prevented the demand side of the mortgage meltdown.

Randy, you are a very smart man. Or should I say you are able to put the pieces together quite well. It is not a difficult puzzle.

It shocks me that so many cannot see conservation as the solution or probably just dont care enough to try.

But then it also shocks me that a knowlege of seventh grade mathematics could have prevented the demand side of the mortgage meltdown.