TED Conversations

Stephen G. Davis

CEO, KnGrid


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Maintaining human civilization by focusing on the key challenges of our time: energy, food and resource depletion.

While the ominous threats of a changing climate have failed to prompt America or any other large economy to wake up from our consensus trance, there are other challenges equally as frightening and urgent: The certainty of increasingly costly fossil fuels and their impact on our banking system. Rising energy prices are taking their toll on the middle class already.

At the same time, we see a scramble by emerging economies to emulate America's suburban lifestyle. The problem is that America's perpetual growth model rely's on cheap energy to validate suburban home values. It is a problem that no politician can even discuss in today's hacked operating system for privately funded elections.

We must develop clear consensus about this problem. In order to avoid economic chaos, we need to chart an orderly course to a world that does not rely on ever increasing oil production and perpetual growth in consumption of all things.

We have an entire industry with formidable political clout that does not want this problem to even be acknowledged, let alone solved.

There are solutions:

1. More walkable and bike-able communities with local food production
2. Less Suburban sprawl which leads to stranded (and destroyed) wealth as liquid fossil fuel prices inevitably trend upward when daily production rates peak.
3. More emphasis on distributed energy generation with renewable sources combined with energy storage technology.
4. Developing less energy intensive farming techniques that don't rely on oil based fertilizers and pesticides. ("Perma-culture")

This transition will require decades. To avoid chaotic economic consequences, it needs to begin now. As T. Boone Pickens once asked "when's the best time to plant a tree? The answer is 20 years ago." Another salient comment from James Howard Kunstler: "No amount of renewable energy is going to allow us to continue running what we're running the way we're running it."

If this frightens you, it should.


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  • Sep 7 2013: No, I don't think "More walkable" or "less Sprawl" is the answer. We don't need incremental improvements. What we should do is completely redesign the city from the ground up. We are living in cities that were laid out at the beginning of the industrial revolution or even earlier. We have a 2 dimensional design that tends towards sprawl and waste. We should have a 3 dimensional design that is based on the technological revolution, modern telecommunications and smart technology. In addition the city should be designed to minimize the footprint, ultimately to 0. That would mean putting a high value on land, water, air, etc.

    For example, we drive automobiles which are designed to travel at 50-60 mph and yet the average speed across a city like NYC is 15mph, this is a design error. Also, we can calculate the cost of services provided in a city based on the size of the city. Plumbing, electricity, internet increase in cost on a per foot basis. Once again, a clear error in the design of sprawl which is a direct result of a 2 dimensional grid.
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      Sep 7 2013: Thanks Stuart, I might also wish for a clean slate and a comprehensive redesign. When I say more walkable communities and less sprawl, that's simply a nod to reality. We live in a free society, not a command economy. We don't have consensus on the problem. We don't even have the majority acknowledging its scope or its implications. We can do magical things, however, by demonstrating well-designed communities and making them reality. Energy efficient community retrofits can: 1. Create good paying jobs. 2. Improve living standards. 3. Positively impact human health. 4. Lower living costs. 5. Lower Healthcare costs. 6. Decrease species loss 7. Improve air quality.

      Converting existing communities from their existing structures to these involves creative redesign. There are examples of new urbanism being done.

      Here's one from San Diego: http://www.sandiego.gov/planning/genplan/pilotvillage/paseo.shtml
      • Sep 8 2013: The society we live in is very quick to adopt technology that offers an order or magnitude in efficiency. Look at how quick the world adopted the internet.

        China is building cities for 350 million people over the next couple of decades. If those cities offer a dramatic advantage economically then the rest of the world will have no choice but to follow suite. Old design cities will go bankrupt just like Detroit.

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