Are Green Cars just an Example of Paolo Soleri’s: Better Kind of Wrongness?

At Arcosanti, we often use the term Better Kind of Wrongness to refer to technologies that have developed in a way that do not address directly core problems associated with low density suburban development and its reliance on the car, the single family home, the freeway, the power grid, etc. Its really a holistic package of destructive components that when brought together in the form of the American Dream create the wrong kind of synergy in our lives.

A few weeks ago at the table on the Arcosanti Cafe (aka Cafe@Arcosanti), I felt a bit out of place. It had to do with the fact that I was talking about Hybrids and my increasing interest in getting one or alt fuel powered vehicle. I was met with skepticism/cynicism on the part of several Arcosanti residents as I tried to explain my belief in green technology.

At Arcosanti part of the doctrine of Arcology has evolved to become a resistance to improvements in green technologies that are not part of a high density development model called Arcology. Since we don’t really have much to speak of as far as green tech goes here at Arcosanti, that kind of narrows down the field of legitimate technologies and best practices. Thus my concern is that some of my counterparts here have become a bit too critical of developments in the design and engineering of greener products.

Paolo Soleri seems to say that “green tech” is becoming over-hyped and in many cases not much better than current practices. His notion of a “Better Kind of Wrongness” represents the cynicism many feel when they look closely at how a green technology was developed and how it became packaged into mainstream consumer products. In many cases the compromises needed to make the product suitable for mainstream consumption leads to a cutting of corners so that a frugal and lean product becomes less so, possibly offsetting any real benefit to the environment that the product actually claims makes it “green”.

Visionaries like Amory Lovins in speaking of greening technologies like the electric or hybrid car are seen by purists like Soleri as not addressing the core problems of car culture. Lovins, his ex-wife Hunter and the eco-entrepreneur Paul Hawkins wrote a book called Natural Capitalism that Soleri critiqued in the early 2000s in his School of Thought discussions. The book Natural Capitalism served as a sort of bible for many in the emerging green biz and design fields. What was borne out of this debate was a chasm between Arcology and the ecological design movement that is expressed in the phase Soleri developed at the time: Better Kind of Wrongness.

Lovins is an energy engineer that saw a problem with the way human society operated that was similar to Soleri’s and other pioneering eco-visionaries. Lovins put forward the case that once you achieve a level of overall system efficiency you achieve a “cost barrier breakthrough” or “tunneling through the cost barrier” which was a title of one chapter (chapter 6) of the book Natural Capitalism. He first applied these design and engineering concepts to the heating and cooling of buildings. So by addressing all the parameters of building design holistically with the best practices of the ecological design field, you can develop a solution that is both compelling in terms of energy savings, that more than offsets the higher costs of building over time.

Later he applied the above mentioned concepts to his vision of a green car that he called the HyperCar. This focus on the car seems to have alienated Soleri from that validity of Lovins’ work in pioneering important concepts of energy efficiency in the ecological design field. The key conceptual elements of the HyperCar are outlined below:

Hypercars have very efficient propulsion, weight-efficient construction, and outstanding aerodynamics. While any one of these characteristics alone can create good performance, when all three are combined the resulting hypercars can exceed typical Autobahn speeds, offer good handling, and achieve astounding fuel economy.

The problem often overlooked by these kind of approaches is that no matter how “green” you make the car, it will never be truly sustainable because the scale in which it is deployed has too great an adverse ecological and social impact on planetary life support systems. So the risk is that as we expend massive resources on developing a green car, its possible that we delude ourselves into thinking it offers a real and compelling solution to the root causes of the ecological problems of the day.

Yet the premise that the car or mobile vehicle is all bad is problematic. Since I use it everyday I recognize the car’s utility in my life. Indeed logistically speaking I am not sure I completely reject the technology as unnecessary and unneeded as to me its obvious that it has value in my life. Yet if we were to build more sustainable cities and habitats I think it would be imperative that the utility of the auto be reduced to address the valid points that Soleri is expressing about the problems with Suburbanization and Car Culture.

As the Doctress points out a possible flaw or oversight in Soleri’s thinking is that he lives in a world where the car is the way people get around and yet he does not acknowledge the utility of that technology in his own life. While no one can dispute his dedication to frugality…If he were to actually live in Arcosanti and mandate that Arcosanti take steps to minimize the car’s use and impact in the everyday practices of the business he owns (Cosanti Originals) and the foundation (Cosanti Foundation) that its proceeds support, he might be taken more seriously by people.

If we are so concerned with this pure (better kind of wrongness) view of technology and development – looking critically as those who invested in technologies to make cars and suburbia more green – we should also look deeply and reflect honestly at our continued investment and support of crucial components of what makes sprawl a success. It wouldn’t hurt to look at other options to source products and materials for our project that are more aligned with the ideals, values and vision of the place. Possibly our reliance on companies that are involved in the perpetualization of sprawl and car culture like Home Depot and Costco should be rethought.

Why not focus more on outfitting our facility with the detrius of industrial society, like so many of the residents here do by shopping at the Arcosanti free store or when things are not available there that they need going to local thrift stores? To create a culture where people collect the reject items and take the time to configure them into usable products and even a compelling aesthetic that people can appreciate. This is what made the Auburn U architectural professor and Rural Studio founder Samuel Mockbee so famous and respected – his ability to source unwanted or scrap materials and make them into usable products and building materials and have the students apprentice under him to learn about this skill.

To demonize the car and or car culture can be counterproductive both in terms of real and productive solutions and in relation to how people in the mainstream perceive you. Of course both of the above are related in that they are about perception and how we are perceived by others. We run the risk of being seen as a group of bad-tempered, pie in the sky idealists who criticize any efforts to green the economy as perpetuating sprawl and overconsumption. Rather we need to look carefully at why these ideas are still not taken seriously after 40 years since the Arcosanti project began. What do we have to offer as a real compelling alternative to what exists in the mainstream consumer and technology driven world?

Might part of what Soleri terms the “reformulation” process include an understanding of the difficulty of real change both here and in the larger world? Could it also include an exploration of the glimmers of transformation that exist in many global oriented efforts to retool and green the economy with a bit of a more open mind? Possibly we can see that  Lovins in his effort to make the car more efficient in terms of how it transports people is part of a global effort to rethink existing mechanisms, strategies and systems of production, consumption and transportation.

Realistically Arcology can be vision of something that can lead to the creation of more integrated and densified habitats that result in the more frugal and respectful use of resources. However, part of that practical idealism involves the reality that cars will continue to be a vital part of modern life for many years to come and that efforts to green the car are vital. When we need to use them, we can have the piece of mind that we are part of a movement that is driven by a commitment towards using the resources invested – in making cars and propelling them – wisely.

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