excerpts from

October 1973

Within the last century, our culture has taken an unprecedented form, centered on the premise of unlimited, cheap energy, and on the desirability of its unqualified use. As a result, all aspects of our culture and our lives have developed forms which can only be supported by massive energy consumption and which can only be considered valid from within those assumptions. These forms are not necessarily better than other ones, and are coming to be seen as having considerable negative effects that often outweigh their assumed advantages.

The limits of our present energy sources and of the environmental degradation caused by their use are bringing as to reconsider the wisdom of our cultural and technological premises. We are beginning to see the great and unnecessary waste in our ways of doing things, and to discover ways to accomplish our dreams with less need for energy.

Our assumptions about energy deeply permeate our thinking, and so far we have mostly concerned ourselves with trying to continue our present ways a bit more efficiently, rather than asking if they are perhaps basically wrong. We have not looked carefully to see if it is possible to escape our dependence on energy (particularly fossil fuel energy) and if it is possible and perhaps more desirable to live lightly and more simply.

Our attitudes towards what we think is possible and towards how we wish to live are the most important factors in determining how much energy we use (and waste). They affect the nature of our energy use and the quality of our lives which result from its use. Our complete immersion in our current way of using energy and our lack of knowledge of alternatives prevent us from developing other, and perhaps more pleasant, ways of living with considerably different energy implications and effects upon our lives.

There are perfectly safe and convenient ways of handling all aspects of our lives affected by energy without having to depend in any way on fossil fuels or nuclear power. This should be obvious, as there have been many cultures in our world equally as refined, luxurious, sophisticated, and comfortable as our own - some even more so - without our dependence upon energy. It is not obvious to us because we are only familiar with fossil fuels and nuclear power, and are unfamiliar with the different patterns of benefits and problems associated with other ways of doing things.

The projected exponential growth in our energy use and its attendant problems are entirely unnecessary as well as undesirable. It is possible to live quite comfortably on a fraction of the energy we consume today. We can choose to live wisely and gently in our world, and the changes possible through that are not insignificant.

It is possible today, without hardship, to reduce the energy consumption of our society by 90%, and live happily on less than one-tenth of the energy we now use, while at the same time enriching our freedom, our enjoyment, and our lives.

Changes which we individually can bring about - in our homes and in the energy flows which are affected by our actions there - can in great measure bring about such changes.

The Problems With Bricks In Your Toilet

Most of the information we are deluged with concerning our use of energy is either of a crisis nature or persuasive literature suggesting that all will be well if we only turn down the furnace a couple of degrees, fix the leaking faucet, put a brick in our toilet tank, or put smaller wattage light bulbs in our attic. Because they are unwilling to question or change any of our accepted practices and attitudes, these "save-a-watt" suggestions studiously avoid any of the central issues of our energy problems. They make us feel we're "wringing every list bit" out of our energy, when possible improvements are actually several orders of magnitude greater. Many suggestions are designed only to shave demand peaks for the utility companies, even out loads, or protect the industry's interests.

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Ouroboros was the mythological dragon which survived by eating its own tail and its own feces, and was a symbol of a world that survived by endlessly devouring itself. It serves today as a model of the systems of life operating on this planet - closed systems, undulating in waves of energy that pass through cycles of alternate life and death. It is also the name of an experimental house constructed in the spring and summer of 1973 by the students in the Environmental Design class of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture of the University of Minnesota, built to test many of the above energy conservation ideas along with other approaches in building and learning.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned in the design of the structure was the benefits of an impure approach. Instead of focusing solely on a single method of energy conservation or single income energy source, or taking a purely engineering approach to the study of energy systems, it attempted to take advantage of the many different rhythms and flows of energy through our environment and to design interactive systems to use those energies compatibly. The accumulated savings. offered by many techniques linked together have made possible the design of a house that is 100% solar heated in Minnesota's chilling 8000 degree-day winter, with temperatures which drop sometimes to -35oF.

The approach taken recognized that most studies on energy conservation and income energy sources for homes are single-system studies. Few evaluate combinations of systems, and few recognize that life style, attitudes, architectural and landscape considerations, and connected systems outside the home have a perhaps more significant role in the total energy flows through a home than a single heating, waste, or other system. The Ouroboros approach also recognized that energy conservation was only one element in designing a living place that was spiritually and psychologically good as well as soundly engineered. It was felt that these various systems, considered together, offer economies and benefits not apparent in single-system studies.

The project began in Fall 1972 with a study of income energy sources and energy conservation techniques, followed in the winter by a design competition among the students, with construction beginning in the spring. The 160 students in the class brought together many interesting ideas, many of which were incorporated in the design of the initial structure. The building itself was based on craft rather than industrialized building processes, and relied as much as possible on natural materials and the reuse of materials salvaged from buildings undergoing demolition. The design and erection of the structure also acted as an experiment in alternative learning processes - learning through actual design and building rather than theoretical academic exercises.

Although many experts had advised that solar heating was not feasible in Minnesota, there were a number of indications that the economics and efficiencies had changed significantly enough to justify development. Existing and projected increases in fuel costs made increased thermal insulation and the higher initial investment of solar systems both more competitive. The long Minnesota winter can expect a ground cover of snow over at least four months, giving more than a 30% gain in energy hitting a solar collector through reflectance off of the snow.

The development of low emmisivity coatings offered perhaps a 15% increase in collector efficiency. Microclimatic and architectural contributions to minimizing heat loss from the structure had not been fully explored in earlier studies. Windows, for existence, can he insulated at night so they can act as one-way valves, allowing sunlight and heat in during the day, then preventing its loss at night. They provide very low cost solar heating, along with the psychological benefits of sunshine and view, and permit a smaller conventional solar collector to store heat during the daytime for use at night.

A change in design temperature from the common 72-75o down to 68o gave both physiological benefits and heating savings. The development of lower cost heat storage through either water or saturated earth reduced the costs of energy storage, and the development of techniques of seasonal heat storage promised to eliminate the need for duplicatory back-up heating systems. The combination of the domestic water heating, which operates all year, with the space heating system offered further economies.

Combined with other developments improving systems efficiencies and reducing collector costs, it was possible to develop a design which offered both 100% solar space heating and 100% solar hot water for the house in an architecturally and psychologically satisfying design. The original feeling of the possibility of solar heating in severe climates was since reinforced by news that a major heating system manufacturer was developing a solar-operated heating/water/air conditioning system for domestic use.

Other features of the house include trapezoidal building shape to minimize heat loss surface while maximizing south exposure for solar windows and collectors; earth berms to take advantage of constant heat within the ground; and avoidance of air conditioning through design of ventilation and insulation systems (including a sod roof for summer cooling. Investigation was made of efficiency improvements through downdraft wood burners, low-energy furniture and space use design, a 4 kw wind electrical generator, and insulation of all surfaces to 0.03 U-value. An aerobic sewage composting system, reduction of water usage by 70%, a Japanese bath and mist shower, a greenhouse for nutrient, water, oxygen, and heat conservation, and energy conservation in cooking, lighting, and use patterns added to the design.

Plans for later investigations included methane production from domestic and plant wastes, determination of support capacity of natural systems of the land related to water supply, repurification, etc., radiant heating, heat pump and heat pipe studies, utilization of waste heat from electrical generation, and low energy cold storage for food.

Information from this project will join that from perhaps 100 other experimental "ecology" houses currently being designed and built in this country alone. Together, they should fairly thoroughly document the nature of improved systems efficiencies and rather considerable energy savings possible through careful consideration of energy source and consumption. The changes in our attitudes, lifestyles, governmental policies, planning programs, connected systems, etc. that are responsible for the greater inefficiencies of our culture will require a deeper and more careful introspection and understanding of the problems and benefits involved.

Why Live Lightly ?

Our concerns with energy conservation have arisen almost entirely because of current limitations in fuel availability and the environmental effects of energy usage (automobile pollution, power plant siting problems, etc.). We continue to assume that if those problems could be overcome we would wish to use even more energy.

We are interested in energy conservation because we have to be, not because we feel there is intrinsic benefit in it. Yet we have not inquired if there are intrinsic benefits in simpler ways of life common in all other cultures and times, and if there are perhaps some intrinsic disadvantages to the energy-consumptive culture we have developed in the last century.

The obvious and direct problems with high energy consumption are well known. Resource depletion, environmental damage, pollutioncaused health problems, radiation health threats, etc. are common knowledge. Yet the more significant negative aspects of energy use are indirect, long-term, rarely visible, and deeply intwined with the value systems we hold. Many of them are not side-effects, but inherent in the substitution of machine energy for our own in our activities.

Machines prevent our personal growth and the development of our faculties. Many of the machines that we have developed to supposedly assist us in our activities and make them easier actually prevent our gaining the inherent benefits that we seek in those activities. The Winnebagos that we take with us to the wilderness bring with them familiar ways of doing things that prevent us from becoming aware of simpler and more meaningful ways that would emerge from living closer to the existing surroundings. Power tools turn a peaceful task that requires and develops skills into a noisy, screaming ordeal. Machines substitute for development of skills and the self-respect, confidence, and knowledge that work brings. They generally prevent us from having opportunities to work ourselves and thus to learn. They occupy our time with their maintenance and repair.

High use of energy limits our ability to either understand or control the forces affecting our lives. Low energy use limits the power which can be applied to our ends altering the energy flows in our ecosystem. The application of esoteric energy sources removes that limitation and leads to imbalance and destruction of ecosystems. Low use of energy leads to independent economies. High energy use leads to interdependent economies. Interdependent economies destroy craft work and the political and personal independence of selfcontrolled work, materials, and markets. It takes wisdom to live well with little use of energy - but wisdom is what we ought to be seeking. High use of energy permits ignorance to be hidden over a short period of time. But in the long run, that ignorance outruns even the masking power of high energy use. Poverty does not allow carelessness. Simplicity keeps us honest. Poverty breeds wisdom.

High energy use separates us from the processes and information in nature. Artificially heated and sealed buildings; windowless, artificially lighted spaces; processed foods, water and sewage systems all minimize the visibility of our relationships with nature. When all we see of our water supply is the six inches between the tap and the drain, the knowledge of the burden we place on our surroundings through excess use is difficult to obtain, and the need to preserve areas for aquifer recharge a purely abstract concept. When all we know of the processes that should be returning the nutrients in our bodily wastes to the fields they came from is a flushing sound behind our backs, it is difficult to know that the processes we use are polluting streams and lakes instead of fertilizing fields, and that we are paying many times the cost of proper processes.

Places created by us can only express the knowledge we have, which we all know is quite limited. Close contact with the richer and vaster processes of nature is important both to give us opportunity to discover more about the forces of our world, and to allow us to test and realize the limitations and effects of the processes we employ in our world.

High energy use prevents us from receiving important information from each other and from our surroundings. We are deeply interconnected with each other and with our surroundings through interaction of electromagnetic fields which communicate information aligning our bodily rhythms and processes with that of our surroundings. Those fields are drowned out and blocked by the great energy fluxes that we surround ourselves with. Even the electrical wiring and lighting f our homes can create fields disrupting normal information flow. The steel frames of modern buildings act also to block out information, which leads to a vague sense of separation and alienation from our surroundings.

Replacement of craft-work by machine-energy prevents the expression of a sense of care in our surroundings. The elimination of craft-work prevents the personal satisfactions of the craftsman and substitutes mechanized, meaning-less product for the care-fully wrought work of the craftsman.

Our surroundings reflect no sense of the people involved in their making, and of the joy, frustrations, and insights of those people. The relations between the makers and users of the artifacts of any culture are far more complex and profound in meaning than the simplistic exchange mechanisms of our industrialized society can express. A sense of love and care in our surroundings is essential feedback to the attitudes we take towards others and an important factor in what our cities convey to us about the interdependence and value of people to people.

High use of energy creates intrinsically bad environments. Low cost and high availability of energy make it cheaper and easier for a builder to keep a building cool by mechanical refrigeration than by planting a tree to shade it. We end up with closed-in buildings, no shade, no evaporative cooling of outdoor spaces, less oxygen, and fewer dollars. We suffer from less aquifer recharge, loss of the birds and other creatures harbored by trees, and loss of all the pleasant psychological and spiritual benefits of vegetation in our surroundings.

High energy use permits high rise, high volume, and high density building - all of which are inherently inefficient as well as psychologically damaging. It makes easier the insensitive and careless alteration of our surroundings, and allows us to ignore the unique qualities and natures of those surroundings.

High energy use generates greed and competition. Most energy sources are limited in supply, and questions of their ownership and control bring inherent conflict - all the way from individual to international levels. Moreover, a feeling of dependence upon those sources brings a sense of desperation to the conflicts which does little to encourage the nobler instincts in us.

Waste has been inherent in our patterns of energy use - from heating buildings with the windows open, to leaving lights burning all night, to wasting all the energy inherent in our sewage. Our actions and attitudes carry over into other aspects of our lives, and we lose the ability to carefully know our needs and minimize the demands we place on others. A wasteful society rarely understands the nature of the processes and events in which it is involved in anywhere near the depth that a careful society doe. It doesn't even realize the reduction in its effort if it were to minimize the energy and work flows through it!

High use of energy creates inefficiencies in other areas of our lives. Energy wasteful automobile transportation encourages separation of living, working, learning, and leisure - generating redundant city services, unnecessary building, unnecessary educational systems. Lack of exercise in an energy-servant culture generates need for unnecessary medical care facilities and recreational facilities. High energy use has brought about the urbanization of our population, and cities are inherently inefficient.

Our energy attitudes affect what we gain from our work and leisure. "Labor-saving" machines and appliances remove much of the need for skill in many kinds of work. Rather than being a benefit, this robs us of opportunity to develop our abilities and gain finer control of our thoughts and actions. The development of unrewarding work results in the need to gain satisfaction elsewhere, and thus the growth of "recreation" to fill the emptiness in our lives and compensate for the lack of healthy exercise. High use of energy in our work generates the need for other work or action to gain the benefits normally inherent in work. The need to substitute recreation for work not only generates additional costs, energy use, and environmental deterioration by itself, but also lessens the insights we gain through work about the processes involved and about life itself. It also lessens the amount of time we have available for useful, meaningful work.

Bodily tensions caused by energy use generate alienation from our world and our neighbors. The adrenaline-filled pace of modern highenergy society builds up mental tensions while preventing the release of muscular tensions. The interconnected mental, muscular, sexual, and spiritual tensions thus built up make us strongly aware of the muscular and physical separation between what lies within our skins and what lies outside. In doing so, it generates a real sense of alienation from our world. Complete relaxation of those tensions removes such barriers and merges the awareness of inner and outer states and events. This allows us to become aware of and develop concern for the processes outside us as well as within.

There are technologies available to us other than the energy-intensive ones we are familiar with, that can offer us different opportunities for personal and cultural growth. There are energy sources available which can easily satisfy less extravagant needs than our own. There are ways of living which can avoid the alienation and separation resultant from our own, while generating more positive work and learning.

There is a joy of living lightly and a peacefulness of working directly with the processes of which we are a part, which are entirely missing from our culture. Many things that have been developed by our energy-intensive culture generate subsidiary problems, dependency, energy consumption, and prevention of our growth and development. The result is filling our lives with unimportant and meaningless activity, and bringing degradation to our surroundings. Choosing to live lightly, in ways that consume little energy, can be an opportunity to live a more rewarding and interesting life, rather than a hardship.

Happiness comes from generating energy rather than consuming it.

Opening Options In How We Live

Living lightly, with little consumption of energy and resources and little demand upon other people and places requires some incentives to change from conventional patterns of waste and overconsumption. Knowledge of the intrinsic harmfulness of high energy consumption, and knowledge of the limitation of our fossil fuel resources can provide some incentive.

It remains that we are, for a while, a wealthy nation, and we often personally have incomes greater than that necessary to sustain us comfortably. The disposal of that wealth in our traditional living patterns almost invariably involves unnecessary work or production, energy consumption, and damage to our resources, land, and selves. We can easily live well on considerably less energy than we now consume, and live an exciting, comfortable, and meaningful life doing it. The question remains as to what we do with the rest of our time and money.

Our conventional pattern is to spend 40 hours a week from the ages of 20 to 65, at a fairly high wage, in usually boring, frustrating, and non-creative work. Money produced in this way is saved to live on in retirement and to pay for recreation in non-working hours. Our general pattern is to earn much and spend much - unwisely and rather wastefully. Living on less can open up several options to that traditional pattern:

We can keep at the same kind of work and retire much earlier - becoming completely free to do the kinds of creative things we desire to do.

We can keep at the same kind of work, but not work continuously. Taking a year or so off to do something special, then working a couple of years, then taking some more time off, etc.

We can get into more exciting and creative work that pays less than the usual exploitive kinds of work.

We can work less per day or week or month and enjoy more rewarding use of the rest of our time.

We can live simply and save and use the money to finance our own ventures - starting a business we always wanted to do but couldn't get financed, writing a book we couldn't afford time to do, learning other skills we would like to have, etc.

Or we can totally change the way we work, accepting less money per hour of work in return for the opportunity for the creative work that turns our places and things into beautifully crafted, loved, and cared-for things. Often the only way we can do things right, yet do them so people can afford them is to earn less doing them than we have been led to accept as proper by normal business standards. Yet we find that doing so is often the most creative use of our time and exchanges inflated, exploitive work situations for meaningful and enriching ones.

It is possible for us to live richer and more rewarding lives on a fraction of the energy we now use. The means are available, and the benefits great. It requires only the belief that it can be accomplished.

38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
©October 1973