Lighting and Global Warming- Part 1 – Facing Uncertainty, Utopia, and Apocalypse

In the lighting industry energy efficiency is often either ignored (“not my job”) or taken for granted (“we’re using LEDs, so we’re good, right?”) Much of this is due to “siloization,” the deeply embedded specialization and separation of disciplines in the building industry – most important decisions that affect energy use in buildings are not made by lighting specifiers. Also LED startups mostly focus on devices and components rather than building systems. Many of the people behind the hot new LED companies come from the semiconductor and consumer electronics sectors and have had trouble understanding the different rates of change and inherent clashes of two very different business cultures. The sense of ownership, responsibility, and urgency around environmental issues that is common ground in “green building” isn’t readily evident in Silicon Valley. In green building, design and policy are seen as the drivers for change, in Silicon Valley it’s technology. And while most of the lighting industry is understandably probably more immediately interested in saving itself before saving the planet, I will argue below that these are not at all automatically opposing imperatives- LED is one of the most promising technologies we can use to find design and policy solutions to global climate problems.

A recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Weight of the World, profiles Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and her heroic efforts to

broker effective global action on climate change. Kolbert’s detailing of the complex geopolitical history of the accords paints a picture of hope against all odds and heartbreaking failure to progress. Much frustration comes from the fact that we ‘ve had success before on a similar issue – a global accord on CFCs (chlorofluorcarbons) The Montreal Protocol, was reached in 1987 and resulted in effective unilateral action to greatly mitigate the effect of these industrial chemicals on the ozone layer – so there is precedent. But CFCs were not at the root of global economies like fossil fuels are, and there’s the rub.

At the risk of sounding defeatist, from the standpoint of behavioral economics at least, it’s highly unlikely we can reach the kinds of global accords we need to hold global warming to below catastrophic levels- widely agreed to be 2 degrees Celsius. According to Daniel Kahneman and others, several well understood behavioral mechanisms, including loss aversion and the assimilation bias (to name only two), prevent positive collective action to achieve this goal. Another fascinating but not well understood pattern is people’s reaction to (and addiction to) apocalyptic scenarios. According to Janis Dickinson of Cornell University in New York, “overt images of death and decay along with the deeper implications of societal decline and collapse are powerful triggers for denial of mortality.” Clearly, in the past 15 years or so, alarms about impending collapse and catastrophe from climate change have not had the desired result and in fact may be exacerbating the problem. I’ll discuss this further below.

Why is it so difficult to turn humanity’s glaring, overwhelming, unsolvable problem into personal action at a manageable level, let’s say, within the lighting industry? I’ll cover this in Part 2, and first I’ll argue that part of the answer is to continue to make efficiency a key part, but not the only part, of lighting buildings and cities.

1. Lighting is Our Most Visible Use of Energy
When electrification came to industrialized economies, lighting was the leading application that drove the build-out of power grids and networks. Today, following this historical pattern, lighting is playing a leading role in the Internet of Things and Smart Cities. And while lighting is not the primary use of energy in buildings (and the percentage it uses relative to other applications is dropping steadily) it’s still a big slice of the energy use pie. Saving significant percentages of energy in lighting will continue have a very big impact for the near term. Another source of more savings is the fact that as we examine lighting applications while replacing installations with new technology, we find that much of our built environment is overlit – in many cases we can reduce the overall amount of lighting with no loss in lighting quality. Lighting people can continue to lead in showing the world how to save lots of energy and have a more beautiful, healthy built environment.

2. We May Be Hardwired for Efficiency
Without a deep and probably boring dive into evolutionary biology and the Fire Gene (my pet crazy theory), I believe that we may have an unconscious set of possibly altruistic behaviors around energy use that needs to be better understood. This understanding will help us design better lighting control systems at the point where we have most conscious individual control- the light switch. Sensors or manual switches or both? What’s the ideal window shade system? We’re still trying to figure these things out. We need to know a lot more about how our biology factors into our engineering. If people are behaviorally fundamentally conscious of energy use and get positive feedback from good practices, we can use this fact to design with, and not against, our better human nature and improve comfort, indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency.

3. Efficiency and Quality Are Inseparable
The last new lighting technology, CFLs, failed to achieve the full scale of its energy efficiency potential because of quality problems and despite assumptions and intentions, people would not sacrifice lighting quality to save energy. We can’t afford to repeat this scenario with LEDs. One problem with this situation is cognitive: we can’t imagine a transition to a new technology in lighting without significant tradeoffs, because all other transitions in history have come with such tradeoffs, especially the most recent, the one to CFLs. But tradeoffs for LEDs are being overcome much more quickly than with previous lighting technologies, and LEDs now provide much higher quality light than even incandescent sources, so beyond the initial technical problems associated with the commercialization of LEDs, the kinds of problems associated with any new technology, there’s no reason to further delay LED adoption. And it’s counterproductive and totally unnecessary to “brand” LEDs with a reputation for being too blue or glary especially in many of the misguided street lighting installations that have taken place all over the world that disregard appropriate color quality and distribution. Highly efficiency LEDs and fixtures are now widely available at warmer color temperatures and better distribution that are ideal for streetlighting.

4. Utopian or Apocalyptic Scenarios Don’t Work
Given the data at hand today it’s basically impossible to avoid emotionally buying into deeply apocalyptic scenarios when contemplating the impacts of global climate change – images of the Statue of Liberty under 100 feet of water, drowning polar bears, rampant desertification, and torched urban landscapes abound. On the other side of the spectrum are Non- apocalyptic scenarios that tend to be narrow variations on Tomorrowland – utopian glass and steel techno wonderlands complete with personal spaceships. These, although decorated with gratuitous greenery, are anything but “sustainable” or resilient and certainly won’t be what future cities look like anytime soon, if ever. But aside from an alarming and ubiquitous lack of imagination, these future scenarios are lamentable because they’re not really working. During the Cold War, the Tomorrowland future worked as an optimistic antidote to fears of nuclear apocalypse, which would have been even more paralyzing without some relief. According to Janis Dickinson, another problem with apocalyptic scenarios is that people faced with reminders of death “react with aggressive assertion of group identity.” In other words, even on a global scale, we revert to tribal behavior, almost as if the cognitive structures our brains evolved with have not yet caught up with the realities and unintended consequences of technology, globalism, and industrial capitalism. This much is quite clear in the tetchy negotiations between countries described in Kolbert’s article. Apocalyptic scenarios have also been a richly exploited tactic in religions for millennia and have the explicit effect of eliminating personal responsibility for the future, another effect we don’t need now. As Ms. Figueres, the single person in charge of preventing global collapse, puts it “I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news. Not a single human being.”

5. Efficiency Makes Sense in All Future Scenarios
The classic definition of environmental sustainability, put forth by Herman Daly in 1990, has at its core a concept that is pretty much foreign to Western industrial capitalism as we know it today – the idea of seeking equilibrium rather than uninterrupted growth, but it also depends heavily on efficiency.  At its root as a rational human strategy, efficiency of course means doing more with less – or as it relates to energy, getting maximum “work” out of a unit of fuel, or kinetic energy in wind or water. We can marvel at efficiency as an evolutionary principle demonstrated in the way birds’ bones, for instance, have reached a perfect balance of weight to strength and flexibility – we can appreciate this kind of design optimization when we begin to replicate it with new design tools like 3D printing and approaches like biomimicry. Efficiency is simply inherent in good design and good engineering.

Since energy is the basis for economic activity, it’s key for survival if global apocalypse (nuclear or climate based or both) wipes out large sections of humanity. Survivors with higher efficiency in their energy systems will have better access to food and water, shelter and transportation. In a best-case utopian scenario, technology advances that make it possible in the first place are predicated on higher levels of efficiency. Efficiency, how much work we can squeeze out of a unit of energy, is also a key driver in the future that often seems unimaginable in detail but most likely – the one that’s somewhere between utopia and apocalypse.

Efficiency cannot solve all our climate change problems, and it can’t stop greenhouse gas emissions by itself. Neither can renewables- no plausible scenarios at play today involve completely getting off fossil fuels for many decades into the future. But despite the usual complaints from entrenched fossil fuel industries that it’s too expensive and will destroy jobs, efficiency is one clear strategy with very little downside, and it’s still one of our only viable options with adapting to climate change. And global energy production has very large systemic inefficiencies that can be exploited far into the future, as indicated by this chart. 

So What Now?
Assuming we can somehow manage to confront the unavoidable reality that we’re basically screwed – what’s the plan? We won’t give up the will to survive as a species and slowly fade away – living organisms aren’t programmed to do that. As much as we think we’re not “Nature” and somehow lord it above all other creatures because we have iPhones, Frank Gehry, and karaoke, what’s happening to us is that one of our successful adaptive mechanisms (burn fuel, grow economy, reproduce quickly) is in direct conflict with another, equally successful mechanism (save resources like air, soil, fuel, water and biosphere for longer term survival). We’re deeply uncomfortable with this inherent conflict, but it’s entirely natural – all species develop multiple adaptive mechanisms and these inevitably come into conflict, this is how evolution works. The adaptations that work last, the ones that don’t go away, or if they both work at different times or in varying conditions, species reach periodic equilibrium states in populations. If we fail to adapt for whatever reason, we go extinct, and extinction is as much a fact of evolution with our species as with any other. Understanding this doesn’t mean we’re necessarily doomed but that we need to collectively readjust our cognitive framework to include “workarounds” for poorly adapted behavioral factors that we haven’t previously considered. This is proving to be monumentally difficult but it’s still possible. We should be thinking long and hard about equilibrium states and what they look like.

Although it’s really great fun to #Whine_Till_You_Win, according to Mr. Trump’s recent zinger addition to the meme pool, I rather like actually coming up with real initiatives after the whining’s out of the way. So I’ve got many ideas about how you as a lighting or building design professional can change your attitude and your thinking about your relationship to the planet and your family, tribe, and country, in a way that makes sense in your daily life. I will spell these out in detail in Part 2.