Sustainability is the Grand Unifying Theory for finding the Ultimate Answers to Life, Universe and Everything --- and the answer for Earthlings is Sunshine --- All else is Moonshine.

Octopus Diagrams and Buckminster Fuller's Design Challenge

L Michael Hohmann | LMH Design

Writing as an architect, it will be no surprise to anyone to hear that I get bombarded daily not only from professional institutes, magazines, manufacturers’ literature by e- and snail mail, but also like all of us, in the daily press, TV and radio, with exhortations to help save the planet, support all things ‘green’ and act at all times in accordance with the tenets of ‘sustainability’.
That’s often confusing, to say the least, because while ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ are commonly acknowledged to be ‘good things’, each of these words mean many different things to different people. So like every other designer I tried to keep abreast of things and do my CPD (‘Continued Professional Development’) duty by reading, courses, seminars, discussion groups, but in my case mainly by reading books – the subjects and their ramifications soon losing any connotation of a duty obligation but becoming an exciting mental journey of discovery. To an extent that I began to call and describe myself as the CleanEnergyPundit – a great conversation opener at any networking event following any course /seminar /discussion group.
And it came to pass that at one of these social events following such a discussion group, with wine and canapés being freely proffered to anyone with at least one free hand, that I sounded off with my punditry in discussion especially with one interested other guest who then turned out to be a professor at one of the UK universities concerned with sustainable built environments, soon asking “would you like to come and talk to our students?” “Yes” was, of course, the only possible answer, and we parted having exchanged business cards in best networking style.
Next day came an e-mail:  ‘please let me have your topic and a time when you can come and visit us’. Wow, I had jumped in with both feet there – never actually expecting that it would come to that the evening before. So I quickly chose Sustainability as my topic by return e-mail, and we soon agreed a date after the summer recess.
What is Sustainability? Nothing more than a very complex concept surrounded by the three E’s of yet other complex concepts -- Environment, Social Equity, and Economy -- which themselves interact to create three further complex concepts like viability of interactions between economy and environment, equitability of arrangementsbetween society and economy, and bearable interactions between society and the environment (i.e. what’s endurable by people as well as by nature over time). Only where the interactions between the three E’s themselves have become viable, equitable and bearable, can we find actions, processes, materials, industries – in other words, the whole of human endeavour – coming together under the description of, hopefully, being sustainable. Talk about a complex concept – the following Venn diagram illustrates these logical relations:

However fuzzy and undefined all of these concepts are, this logical diagram shows that sustainability can only be found at the confluence of the three other confluences between pairs among the three E’s meeting bearable, equitable and viable criteria. 
Seen in the light of such intricate logical connections emerging from this Venn diagram, the concept of sustainability can be seen as a sound and deep idea underlying and touching on practically all aspects of life and civilisation.
This led me to my working definition of…
is the Grand Unifying Theory for finding the Ultimate Answers to Life, Universe and Everything  
and the answer is not 42
…taking a hint from Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” which also reminds us: ‘It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes…’  which could apply to Venn diagrams which while showing the essential logical relations, contain not enough detail for thorough understanding let alone plans of action. 
Taking Sustainability as the central topic I used another logic tool designed to help organise anything from concepts to action[1] and arrived at this outline for my presentation

This MindMap program remains flexible for additions, alterations and expansions as a ‘live’ working tool. Two levels down to which I pushed it for use in my presentation is illustrated above.[2]
Octopus diagrams occur in my MindMap at the expansion of heading 6. Sustainability - 6.2. Entropy – 6.2.2. Huber & Mills[3] – Octopus[4]
Buckminster Fuller proposed his Design Science Decade 1965-1975 to the International Union of Architects during their congress in 1963 in Paris.
with the aim

“…to render the total chemical and energy resources of the world,
which are exclusively preoccupied in serving only 44% of humanity,
adequate to the service of 100% of humanity,
at higher standards of living and total enjoyment
than any man has yet experienced.”
It took John McHale and co-workers two years at Southern Illinois University to compile the documents for “five two-year phases of world retooling design proposed to the International Union of Architects for adoption by world architectural schools.”   Nothing of the sort happened, but to this day I have not found a better definition of  ‘what needs doing’, i.e. Fullers Design Challenge, or in short: Fuller’s Challenge – whichalso includes the exhortation: “Do more with less”.
President Eisenhower’s farewell address on 17 January 1961 mentioned an important further aspect relevant to sustainability: “Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow….”
Yet another viewpoint considering the element of time I found in the adopted motto of Energiestrasse:[5]
“Treat the Earth well:  it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”[6]
As a result, thinking of our grandchildren’s grandchildren – say 100-150 years from now – looks like a useful timespan to consider Sustainability.  For ease of reference, let’s use the year 2100.
FULLER’s CHALLENGE is, as stated, a design challenge, where ‘design’ is the designation of means to an end in ordered sequence. His challenge neatly describes the ‘aim’; the means to achieve this aim include physical as well as intellectual resources, or anything that human endeavour can muster to bear on meeting Fuller’s Challenge. This target to aim for is itself not something static, but like everything in the universe, an unending evolutionary process.
There is a sheer endless variety of ‘means to ends’; an inkling of possible further subheadings can be found in Bruce Mau’s Massive Change[7]. Here and in my ‘primer’ I concern myself in the following only with one aspect, namely energy – and electrical energy at that – without which nothing much else can happen. Energy also includes Fuller’s concept of energy providing everyone’s ‘energy slaves’ where erstwhile the availability of galley slaves or feudal peasants or Spartan helots determined ‘wealth’. Individual availability of energy emerges as the ultimate liberator from slavery.
So come the year 2100, how much energy does the world need? At current a world population of 6.3 billion the world production of electricity is ~13TW which is the equivalent of 13,000 1GW power stations permanently online. UN medium population forecast is 9.0 billion for 2050 and equally 9.0 billion for 2100.[8],[9] On the basis of these population forecasts and Fuller’s Challenge, I calculated that come the year 2100 the Earth needs something like 60,000 1GW equivalent power stations in operation.
That means we earthlings would have to build the equivalent generation capacity of
1.85 new 1GW power stations PER DAY, starting yesterday.[10]
And that is the magnitude of the energy problem to achieve sustainability on that account alone.
OCTOPUS DIAGRAMS make the ins and outs of any process better understandable at a glance than anything else. Huber & Mills’ Bottomless Well is the most important book for understanding ‘Energy’ that I have come across – may be, of course, because I had to start at the ‘bottom’, but even more so now that I have read up on the subject for several years.[11] 
First the H&M Pyramid to illustrate the concept of Entropy:[12]

‘Staggering’ was my reaction when I first saw this (and still is); considering that any laptop and TV set these days has a laser in it to read CDs or DVDs, the refined electrical power it uses is only 0.3% of the energy embodied in oil used to fire the power station from where it comes; a nearly unbelievable 99.7% of the original energy is ‘pure waste’ in normal parlance – and totally unavoidable at that – or entropy (when using its definition of energy not available for work). And that applies even while using the most advanced and efficient engineering on the way from energy source to your laptop.
Now for the H&M Octopus Diagram:
OK, it’s from 1937, but likely not much different in essence from the current situation. Again, it’s staggering to see that 84% of energy input from all sources becomes ‘entropy-waste’  before it arrives in useful form to do its ‘work’ for us.
Even more surprising is to see that domestic use of  0.8 TWh is only 3.4% of the 23.2 TWh total input. Say you wanted to save 10% of domestic consumption – quite an achievement as global average – you would only save 0.0034% at the energy resources input side. So who is kidding whom when we are exhorted to use mercury poisoned ‘energy saving lightbulbs’ or not to leave our TV with its selftimer, cellphone and camera battery chargers or similar gadgets on standby.[13]
From just these two considerations – Fuller’s Challenge and the H&M Octopus Diagram, we can derive some conclusions as to what needs doing on the energy side of sustainability, as well as where to focus on action and resources:
  • a measure of the gargantuan size of growing 13TW world capacity to ~60TW
  • and the need for methods of implementation that remain valid for our grandchildren’s grandchildren – and beyond
  • which in turn needs energy sources not suffering from any ‘peaks’ which in turn would again require methodical and technological upheavals- and arrive at the same conclusions too late.
From OCTOPUS DIAGRAMS we can see
  • that energy conservation efforts at the consumption end are totally ineffective in dealing with energy supply problems
  • that it is not inefficiencies or sloppy engineering that waste or lose up to 90% or more of input energy through conversion and refinement to arrive at forms that can do work for us.
That means
  • we must find a source of energy that, for all practical purposes is endless in amount and duration, and
  • that is ubiquitous in order to cut out the huge amount of entropy losses that otherwise arise from the long chains of conversions and refinements between source and use – proximity.
How? Simple – we must learn from those forms of life that have sustained ALL life on Earth: that means Plants, i.e. the whole of FLORA without which there would be no FAUNA – which includes you and me. 
  • Source and duration:
On this day, and every day, a scarcely conceivable
4000 trillion kilowatt-hours
of energy reached the top of the earth’s atmosphere as sunshine…
and over the course of the day, that energy served
to turn hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide
into food and living tissue.
And as a result the world stayed alive.
That’s what really happened today.”[14]
            Plants are the longest sustained life form on Earth since 3.8 billion years, and barring any
            Black Swans will do so for a further similar timespan.[15] 
  • Ubiquity
    Sunshine and its immediate derivative – Wind – are ubiquitous from the poles to the equator.
  • Proximity – to provide minimal entropy between source and use
The ideal proximity of electrons in PV compared to plants minimizing entropy.[16]
In summary then:
is the Grand Unifying Theory for finding the Ultimate Answers to Life, Universe and Everything  
and the answer for Earthlings is Sunshine
All else is Moonshine.

[1] MindManager 
[2] The full Sustainability Primer at
[3] Peter W Huber & Mark P Mills: The Bottomless Well, Basic Books, New York, 2005
[4] Octopus and Octopus Diagram are my descriptions for flow charts similar to that shown as Figure 2 by Huber & Mills
[5] ‘Energy Road’ -- an alliance of local authorities and regions aiming, and achieving energy autonomy, open for visits, stretching along a road corridor from Guessing in Burgenland at the eastern end of Austria to Morbach at the western end of Germany. Google will find further information for the underlined names, details also in the Primer.
[6] Ancient American-Indian Proverb
[7] Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries: MASSIVE CHANGE – Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world, Phaidon Press, London & New York, 2004
[8] UN 2100 high forecast is 14.1 billion, low forecast 7.5 billion
[9] The median forecast for 2100 likely staying at the 2050 level, probably caused by the effects demonstrated by Hans Rosling, see , or can be seen as Bucky Fuller’s energy slaves at work.
[10] A corresponding consultant sent me his assessment based on other information sources, arriving at 59,910 1GW power stations to be operational by 2100, or 1.70 needing to be built PER DAY from now on. 
[11] Sorely needed is a computer program for their easy creation.
[12] Entropy is a thermodynamic property that is a measure of the energy not available for work in any thermodynamic process. It is defined by the second law of thermodynamics.
[13] Saving £s or $s would be a valid consideration, but energy supply and consumption is measured in kWh.
[14] Oliver Morton: EATING THE SUN – The Everyday Miracle of How Plants Power the Planet, Fourth Estate, London, 2009
[15] Energy from insolation at the surface of the earth is in the order of 10 000 times current global consumption. (There are differing methods of measurement and I have seen anything between 7 000 and 17 000 times quoted; not a consideration when we are talking of a need in a region of 4 to 5 times).
[16] The Sustainability Primer shows some current household, community, municipal and regional examples using proximity to minimise entropy.

Comments (0)

This post does not have any comments. Be the first to leave a comment below.

Post A Comment

You must be logged in before you can post a comment. Login now.

Featured Product

Solar FlexRack - The FlexRack Series G3L

Solar FlexRack - The FlexRack Series G3L

The FlexRack Series G3L is the latest fixed tilt racking system from Solar FlexRack. This system offers the speed and ease of installation unlike any on the market today. The system ships in a pre-assembled folded position and is simply unfolded and set into place on the jobsite. The speed of installation for the FlexRack Series G3L has been verified by a third party industrial time study institute. The FlexRack Series G3L offers unique module mounting options which allow the installer to use clips, direct bolt, or a combination of both for a flexible module mounting solution. The FlexRack Series G3L also offers integrated bonding and wire management options. Stop by our booth to see a demo of the FlexRack Series G3L and learn about our full product line of racking innovations.