Tools To Not Die With: An Interview with Vinay Gupta, creator of the Hexayurt

Photo: Jay Springett

Vinay Gupta is a man between worlds, and he’s got a lot of arms. Born to Scottish and Indian parents, he was programming from a young age. But looking back on the advent of web-culture in the late 90s, he found that he wasn’t satisfied with the thought of sitting around on .com cash and helping to empower the same old corrupt systems of power and influence just because they’d now found homes online.

No, no. Vinay packed up and went west to the American desert. There he did work with the Rocky Mountain Institute (he was on the editorial team for Small is Profitable and Winning the Oil Endgame by Amory Lovins, spent years meditating and learning Nepalese magical practices, and found himself on the playa trying to live out of a cardboard box. That struggle with the box lead him to make observations about a sort of pixelated version of the yurt, that ancient and highly efficient house of the high Mongolian desert. Thereby: the hexayurt.

Now it’s been ten years of struggle for Vinay, and he’s shown his invention (and the many conclusions that follow from it) to .biz high-rollers, .mil doves, and .org worldchangers. He has become a worldchanger. We caught up by email in October.


Give us a quick history of the hexayurt.


So the Hexayurt Project story starts on The Farm, the 70s era hippie commune linked to midwives, tofu and The Well. I visited The Farm pretty much as soon as I got to America in 1995, seeking understanding of what had happened in the 1960s. I don't know what I was expecting, exactly, some chance to bathe in the afterglow of the golden age perhaps.

Instead they ruined my life! Albert Bates of Worldwatch and Permaculture fame introduced me to environmentalism, and some of the guys on the farm asked me to fix a minor mathematical bug in one of their domes. I knew the math - I used to be a rendermonkey - but by the time it was fixed, the question which came to dominate the rest of my life had been asked: "how do we make a geodesic dome with less waste?"

Six years later, I was working a little on the Sustainable Settlements Charrette and something clicked in my head. "What's the simplest thing which could possibly work?" and fifteen minutes later I had a sketch of the firsthexayurt. SketchUp, before they were part of Google, donated us a license, and a very nice man, Mark Jacobson of Pactive, sent us some materials. We were in business!


You've written about shelter design in connection to Gandhi and Buckminster Fuller - why are they important figures for these concerns, and how are they connected?


So the Hexayurt Project could have been simple. I could have incarnated the hexayurt as a company, or as a charity, and taken a conventional path through the world. But those things never seemed to deliver the worldchanging bang-for-the-buck that I craved, where as Free Software movement seemed, even in 2002, like it was going to deliver its particular brand of global good. So I decided to copy the Free Software model as closely as possible whenever possible, understanding that hardware would work a little differently. So far it has worked.

It's been hard. I've been putting this thing first in my life, in all kinds of obvious and subtle ways, since 2003. I knew when I was in the first hexayurt, in the middle of a dust storm on the playa, feeling completely safe and sheltered, that it was going to go all the way, and it's been like my kid ever since. I just keep it available, keep it moving forwards, and slowly the people who need it and want it pull it towards them. The deep model of change is actually Stallman, when you get right down to it, but the political analysis is pure Gandhi, with Fuller's core perspective. Let me explain.

From Stallman we take the Four Freedoms approach to owning your technology, but in this case, the non-patented commodities like screws and plywood give us an non-restrictive foundation to build on, unlike most computing equipment. But we have to run naked, without patent or copyright protection, because neither is suitable for hexayurts - patent is too expensive for us to use to defend the freedom of the hexayurt, so we use defensive publication to thwart attempts to patent the goodness!

From Gandhi comes the fundamental goal: everybody in the world gets a bowl of rice and a place to sleep, everybody in the world owns what they need to survive. At the deepest core: we accept poverty as a fact, but we insist on universal human dignity regardless of wealth. That means that everybody works and everybody eats, no exceptions. Gandhi's goals are much broader and subtler, but I'm a lump-hammer type of a guy, so I just took the simple stuff and started to do it with whatever meager capabilities I could bring to the table. I get by mostly on luck and persistence. Because of the meditation practice it's all personal to me: I feel like everybody's kids are my kids, like the whole world is crying out for some basic common sense, and I can't separate myself from what is happening to and in the world. And I have to live with that, every single day.

From Fuller comes the potential of engineering as a spiritual practice: build what is good, commit no evil, design the options we need to lift ourselves out of suffering and into safety, not in a transhumanist way, at least not at first, but in a simple housing-water-and-sanitation type way. I think that Bucky's techno-utopian political strategy is good, but without Gandhi's deep humanity and deep humility, I'm not sure any good was ever going to come of it.

So we get down to basics: Stallman's approach to human cooperation, Gandhi's goals, and Fuller's methods.

It's a potent combination.


The military keeps dabbing a toe into your work, doesn't it? What are they up to?


There was a period around 2006 when, as far as I can tell, about half the money in appropriate technology research globally was coming from the US Department of Defense. My take on the DoD has always been that it's actually got a dual nature: the world's best technology development house on one hand, paired to an archaic war machine on the other. 5000 years from now they are going to remember three things about the 20th century: first nuclear bomb, first man on the moon, first computer networks. That's all the technology development side of the house.

The warfighting side is, frankly, a bit useless these days: it was configured to defeat the Soviets, built from the ground up over generations for that task, and its Failure To Adapt is largely responsible for the financial collapse which seems to be all around us: they needed to either stay at peace, or win quickly and efficiently, but this long, drawn-out, expensive, inconclusive war has burned the financial surplus of the world for nothing but pain and sorrow. Real power in the 21st century is tech power, not killing power, and I don't mean nanotech robots, I mean algal turf scrubber biobutanol factories are worth 500,000 tanks.

So the DoD saw the hexayurt and said "that's neat, how much?" and I said "Free!" and, at that point, they don't see many well-intentioned, non-hostile faces who aren't trying to make a buck from them or the people they're trying to help on the humanitarian / protector side. They think in really large terms, about huge needs, so the "as much as you could ever need" availability of plywood hexayurts suited some of their contingency thinking rather well. It was just an easy piece of capability to pick up, and it's slowly diffusing through the organization as needed. I think that if the DoD had been more involved in sheltering in Haiti there is a good chance we could have seen hexayurts deployed there. It might still happen, in fact.

More broadly, and this is fundamentally important, it's worth remembering that nobody winds up in very senior positions of power inside the services if they don't treat their peers and subordinates well. They have a pretty refined promotion process which seems to produce very high quality leadership, often real philosopher-kings, unlike many other branches of government. So I think there's a basic level of "well, this makes sense, it's not exactly our core business, but we're well-intentioned towards it" and that's about where it stands, really. Maybe there'll be a humanitarian crisis the DoD encounters one day that needs hexayurts, and maybe there won't.

They do build them every year in the garden in the middle of the Pentagon every year, though, as part of the STAR-TIDES program, though.


Is it fair to see the hexayurt as just another tool in a larger set? I mean, you've got CheapID, you link up with the Appropedia crowd... What would you call the whole package of these solutions?


I wrote a short story a few years ago called TheUnplugged. It's really all about that. We need a lifestyle which works for nine billion people.

Let me break that down: you take the sustainable harvest of the earth, and you take the share of that we're allocating to humans, and then you divide by nine billion. So much carbon, so much steel, so much bamboo. It's not quite that simple: some places are cold, other places rain a lot, but the basic framework is that we have to share the inputs the world generates nine billion ways. Right now we're sharing them so badly that a billion of us are regularly hungry to the point where they get hunger diseases. Really that's not OK. I know we all have our struggles, but this is not OK. So we have to fix this: design a good lifestyle which uses that amount of resources, and then adopt it.

Sounds simple, I know, right? But there's no way around this: we're at four times consumption in Europe, and something like eight times consumption in America. Can you imagine us cutting our consumption, on average, by 80%? That's what we need to do. Maybe we'll get the Hail Mary pass on Nanosolar or Konarka, I think there's a very good chance we're going to get to the Cheap Energy, Cheap Information future, but even then, it's still going to be about a nine billion person split. I think we can produce a very good hexayurt out of about 100 lbs of paper and thick aluminium foil, all recycled and recyclable. I think the biosand filter and the rocket stove are pretty much ready for prime time technologies for our basic human needs, and the toilets are only a little further behind. And that's a standard of living, that and a cheap Android tablet that's been engineered to last for three decades, that's a standard of living which you can make sense of at nine billion, which is our likely peak population. We're going to hit seven billion right around the time this piece is published, and it's important to think about it in these big number terms, because that's the world we really live in.

So the future I see works like this. We make cheap things - a house for villagers who want something a bit more solid than woven grass over sticks, say. They could save for a decade for concrete, or take paper-and-foil today, bought cash. They could wait for plumbing, or make a biosand filter. They skip hypercapitalism completely, go directly to local production plus sophisticated-but-simple technologies, STAY SUSTAINABLE, right where they are, as organic farmers on land their ancestors have tilled for centuries, and that's a world which seems to measure up numerically. I can't make those sums work for any variant of the way we live in the West: either we're going to fix it through as-yet-unknown technologies, or we're going to be the caboose, the last part of the human race to live in a sustainable way. We're the last, not the first, and we have to face the fact that our lack of sustainability is a crimeand a shame, a black mark on our nations and our own lives.

So that's my vision: get the poor to a comfortable sustainability with sophisticated-but-simple technologies, so that the people who are actually sustainable get a much better standard of living, and as that standard of living rises, as Gandhi envisaged, perhaps we can adopt it by degrees, one by one as the occasion allows, and eventually fix the planet that way.

It may not seem like much of a hope now, but after a really major economic collapse comes through, we might not be able to afford to live at this incredibly unsustainable fossil fueled burn rate. How many of America's homeless would rather be smallholding farmers with access to first world medical care? We need to start thinking about what's next, because this is going away. In fact, for many of us, for the fifty million Americans on food stamps, it has already gone.

Vinay Gupta’s current work includes a collaborative e-book, The Future We Deserve, and related talks (beginning November 1st @ Hub Westminster, London). There have been up to 500 hexyaurts at Burning Man (including innovations such as these nearodesic polyhedrons), and his work to promote the technology continues.

Woody Evans is a librarian living on the south side of Dubai. He’s written for American Libraries, H+ Magazine, Juked, Public Scrutiny, Library Journal, Rain Taxi Review of Books, 971 Menu, ACCELER8OR, and others.


  1. I met Vinay at Burning Man a few years ago. He is every bit as awesome as he sounds. Thanks for posting this.

  2. You’re too nice ;) Who are ya, Tyr?

    I just wanted to say we’ve got a TRUTHANDBEAUTY event at @hubwestminster:twitter  pretty much every Tuesday and Thursday night – dinner at 6:45. The one tomorrow is Dougald Hine talking about education, Ivan Illich, and Various Other Things.

    I’ll be on the thread if anybody has questions, suggestions or job offers ;)

  3. Why not show us a picture of a hexayurt with this post, instead of a tangentially related but non-illustrative aerial photo of Burning Man?

    1. I admit I am with ffabian here. I get the gist of what it is from the interview, but some kind of foundation knowledge should be offered, even if only links to more in-depth explanations.

  4. We had one at our camp at Burning Man. Seemed pretty impressive – and there were a lot of other hexayurts in the area. The people who brought it were very happy with it, and the only real issue is it was bulky. It’s a really neat system, and pretty fast to set up.

  5. Let me break that down: you take the sustainable harvest of the earth, and you take the share of that we’re allocating to humans, and then you divide by nine billion.

    There’s a flaw in your assumption right here: we can increase our sustainable harvest. One way is to solve both global warming and poverty by planting permaculture forests on non-arable land, something I outlined in this blog post.

  6. With something like the hexayurt simply placing your work in the public domain isn’t always enough. I’m working on finding out how things like the hexayurt make more impact through better instructions

  7. My playa family built a hexayurt out of insulation board to take this year and it was great! Warm at night, cool enough to sleep in the afternoon, and low on dust. The only hard part was getting it from Seattle to the playa; we ended up having to strap it to the top of a van which felt bad for gas mileage and was nerve-wracking as it occasionally shifted. We’re definitely keeping it for next year and look forward to painting the inside so it doesn’t have all those boring construction specs.

  8. I think you may have hit the nail on the head. We think of third world situations as cesspools. These are places we think that we need to help become like us. Instead, we should see them as possible laboratories for how to construct a societal infrastructure. Find things that take less impact and help more people.

    There’s room for experimentation and every single advantage we discover is a net gain for the people you are helping.

    Otherwise, we are stuck trying to jury-rig a modern economy complete with infrastructure on a world much larger than that we’ve managed to “civilize”.

    I’m not certain I share your idealism or perspective, per se, but I think that the positive impact policy is something we could all do with adopting.

  9. I stumbled upon hexayurts a few years ago, and was duly impressed by their cleverness- they hit that technical sweet spot of being both wholly original and obvious in hindsight, that suggest, to me at least, that you have found an elegant solution. I built one for grins, and a gasifier, and lobbed the notion at friends that are pretty heavily involved in development-esque arenas, and they liked it too. I’m rabidly enthusiastic about the notion of using basic-but-elegant technologies to stop people from dying of poverty, right now. I’ve liked bouts of minimal living, backpacking and couchsurfing and all that, and both believe, and appreciate fiction that agrees, that the cheerful future is one in which everyone has enough and is sufficiently aware of what makes them happy that they aren’t too terribly interested in having too much.

    All that being said, I have a hard time believing that the world of rocket stoves and hexayurts for all, as an endstate for the well-to-do instead of a start point for the poor, doesn’t less resemble Burning Man and more a global refugee camp, more a state of failure than peaceful equilibrium. The world may not have the thermal capacity for nine billion beef-eating, Suburban-driving pseudo-Americans, but it also doesn’t have the space or ecological resilliency for nine billion wood-burning organic farmers.

    There is uniform forgetfulness that the ages of huts and fires and subsistence farming were also eras of wanton deforestation- Europe was one big forest, with lions and bison and eurochs, and it wasn’t modern industry that tore it down. Conversely, the fact that something like three billion people depend on the calories furnished by the artificial fixation of nitrogen usually gets glossed over too, along with the fact that the communities we seem to instinctively view as the furthest from some permaculture ideal, the New Yorks, with people living inside steel and glass mountains, and the Phoenixs, dependent on air conditioning for mere habitability, actually have smaller than average ecological footprints. *Much* smaller. Single digit percentages, in some cases, and smaller than those of subsistence farmers. What we know about what humans want, and the ways they generate income, and innovation, and use resources all uniformly point towards a greener planet being one in which the people are closer together, and able to take advantage economies of scale in their housing and their life-support services. Green the hell out of cities and guard the hell of the the country.

    1. There is uniform forgetfulness that the ages of huts and fires and subsistence farming were also eras of wanton deforestation- Europe was one big forest, with lions and bison and eurochs, and it wasn’t modern industry that tore it down.

      It was agriculture and ship-building.  The latter is no longer an issue.  Is industrial agriculture more forest-sparing?

      1. The impact of shipbuilding is way overblown, thanks to the way the story is told. The trans-European forest was on the order of a *trillion* old-growth trees- that many certainly weren’t put to sea. What did happen is that by the time ships were technically sophisticated enough to demand monolithic timbers at the upper end of tree size, said trees were *already* sufficiently rare as to pose a strategic bottleneck and justify establishing trans-oceanic trade routes to secure them.  They were mostly burned, pure and simple. Early proponents of English coal pointed out that changing fuels would allow England to reforest, and a quick minute with Google Earth will show that the Dominican Republic is well forested and that Haiti is denuded- and the presence on one side of the border of a natural gas infrastructure has been cited as a major contributor to the persistence of said forests.

        As for the farming-sure, intensive agriculture is good for forests- as presently implemented, it’s not so hot good for the long term viability of topsoils, aquifers, and the watersheds downstream, but rising crop yields per unit area have indeed allowed mild reforestation simultaneous to increased production in countries like the US. And that’s a trend that we want to continue. Most present projections suggest that ensuring uniformly adequate nutrition for the 2050 demographic peak at around 9 billion will take a doubling of total global food calories. Already 38% of the world’s land area is in agricultural production, and most of what’s left is deserts, ice sheets, mountains, or exactly the sort of ecological hotspots we would like to avoid paving over any further. Now, there are conditions where organic soil additions provide comparable increases in yield- chicken manure and sawdust is a potent combination, for instance, but in most circumstances a majority of said waste is already utilized and expanding production ironically consumes more farmland.

        Now, I’m in no way arguing for the status quo- anything but. I want fertilizers produced from syngas, and the 20-some percent of the cropland that is overfertilized in the US and China and wiping out rivermouth spawning grounds to be dealt with and aquifer-saving drip systems to be mandated along with minimum-till techniques and biochar soil enrichment and carbon sequestration, and people to shift from inefficient grain-feed beef and carnivorous fish in their diets, and we need to get off the oil and all the rest. I’m as angry and green as they come- because the data calls for it. The data also is pretty clear, however, that optimums of human welfare are at levels of material comfort greater than the global per capita average (though certainly less than the US) and that the only way to furnish those levels of material comfort for another two billion people (plus the billions unserved at present) is with technologies that maximize efficiency and density, and that means cities, with big buildings and economies of scale in power production, waste recycling, transportation, and fancy technologies to deliver them sans effluent and carbon emissions. The door on going back to the land as a species closed 500 years ago, and we might as well get used to it- and I for one happen to be a fan of the endless ideas that pour out of cities…

        1. I don’t know. I don’t think that the Dunlendings lit enough fires to deforest both Minhiriath and Enedwaith.

  10. Superefficient stoves burning less wood for cooking
    Insulation to decrease reliance on wood for heating. 
    Permacultures and other agricultural practices increasing land yield.
    Bio char increasing soil fertility.
    Active forest management.
    Making arid land fertile.
    Better waste managment i.e indusrial ecologies

    All these add up. Will it be enough for 9 billion? I dunno

    1. The two fastest ways to slow population growth are educating women, and decreasing material desperation, so sustainability via the techniques you list is a force multiplier.

  11. Also, in addition to trying to develop a better harvest, we oughta invest a hell of a lot more time and thought to reducing our MASSIVE waste.  We waste food, electricity, materials, time, effort, …each other…

  12. Let me throw in a plug for Ivette Perfecto’s work, on the speed-of-light productivity for organic farming. Last time I checked, her estimate was we could just under double global food production with organic techniques, without ecological offense. I think there’s room here.

  13. Hey Vinay, thanks for this and for hanging in with the message board.  I’m a new member of the board of the Burning Man Project, which is coordinating with Burners Without Borders and the Regionals amongst others.  Our mandate is basically to get the BRC culture out there to the formerly “default” world and that includes the sort of disaster relief/community work that BWB does.  Having admired and neighboured your shiny creation, I’m wondering if there’s a place we can get in touch with you to possibly make this a go-to solution for some of the above…
    Chris Weitz

    1. Hi Chris, yes I’d be absolutely delighted to help BMHQ, Burners Without Borders and anybody / everybody else get the hexayurt into field situations! How can I assist? What’s the best way for us to talk? Skype? Gtalk? hexayurt on both services,

  14. Is this scaleable to a full-size house, either as a very large structure or a linked set of smaller structures?

  15. Unfotunately, who’s to say that the ruling class(es) won’t suck up every last bit of energy that is saved by more appropriate technologies and keep pushing us further and further into overshoot territory (making the eventual collapse that much faster and deeper). I agree that getting people up to a  better standard of living through these technologies is a worthwhile goal, but if the ruling class can pretty much intensify it’s energy use through wars, tar sands, even more fertilizer, etc we’re still in the same place globally. 

  16. I’ve looked at the stuff out there on Hexayurts, and it looks wicked-clever. But it doesn’t seem to lend itself very well to recycled materials at all. And using $150 worth of tape to hold it together- only to have to cut the tape when you break camp!- kind of puts it out of reach for anyone who’d usually use a tent instead.

     It has inspired me to play around with hollow core doors, using metal plumber’s tape and screws to hold them together. The trade off is that using more tools to fabricate the units, means a lot more time fussing with it.

    1. Joe, I like the recycle angle very much.  Might be just the kind of approach needed in eastern Turkey right now.  It is cold there, and tents are not solid, warm, or cheap…

  17. The hexayurt is pretty much work in progress, with several rough edges for those willing to lend a hand or three.

    In the area of shapes, there’s H13, tridomes, etc. Only recently invented, so who knows what’s next. (Some things take time!)

    In the area of materials, there’s plywood hexayurts, and even ferrocement hexayurts (to be done).

    And, as Razi Masri writes above, documentation == “my grannie taught me to tie my shoelaces, and set me free”. Not only _for_ all languages, but also _from_ all languages.

    I don’t see more areas from here, but maybe you do.

    Interesting times.

  18. If we get to 9 billion, you can throw all the hexayurts you want at the problem, we’re still gonna  have a lot of miserable people. Need to focus on slowing population growth.

  19. Joe and Woody, folks in Turkey can probably look into the design suggested for Haiti.

    _Suggested_ – but so far never tested AFAIK, so “builder beware” (“caveat constructor”?).

    Also, ferrocement _might_ be used.

    There’s some general testing that can be done. This was tried.

    I’ve been watching the hexayurt list for some time, and it’s pretty obvious things vary in each location, so probably it makes a lot of sense to ask local builders.  They know the weather, the materials, the sources and costs, and can tell a screwdriver from a hammer (I can’t).

    I much like Vinay Gupta’s criteria for “success” (from the first PDF referenced):

    “1. Nobody should be harmed by it.

    2. It should not draw resources from other areas of vital relief work.

    3. It  should  not  create  a  culture  of “just try it and see what happens”.

    4. It  should  be  open, honest  and documented  well  enough  to  be replicable.”

  20. Vinay, I saw a “junkdome” video once on your youtube channel. It was very inspirational to me and I’m going to be doing some social building investigations in London using it as a basis. I can’t find any info online(!) I would love it if you could point me either to that video or some photos/more info… thanks…

  21. @AbleBakerCharlie my bet is that urbanism is going to turn out to rely on fossil fuels, and that actually cities are substantially products of energy surplus in transportation etc.The villages already exist, and deforrestation is technologically bound in at least four directions: high efficiency stoves, insulated houses (in cold areas where wood is used for heating), better agriculture which needs less land for a given amount of productivity including food forests etc. and right understanding of the value of forests which allows them to be financed as a part of ecosystem services (i.e. carbon credits.)Then you start adding the biosand filters, sulabh toilets and so on, and pretty soon infant mortality is way down, agricultural productivity is way up (see One Acre Fund) and life in the village starts to look pretty good compared to life in town, and…See what I’m saying? Food security in the village vs. being precarious and dependent in the city, and the village has comms infrastructure and appropriate technology for the basics. It’s not clear to me, at all, that mass urbanization is an inevitable trend.And either way, the villages will be here, even if urbanization continues, for a century. We *have* to fix these infrastructure problems there, whatever happens.Thoughts? This is a really good debate, thank you!

    1. The trouble with that hypothesis is that the data is mighty clear that the larger the city, the lower the per-capita energy consumption, in both fixed and transit applications. Energy consumption follows a sublinear scaling law- double the size of a city, and the inhabitants use 15% less energy per capita than the inhabitants of two cities of half the size- and it’s a law that holds down to very small settlements, in divergent countries and eras. Conversely, things like income, and things like patents per capita, reliably follow supralinear scaling laws, increasing 15% per doubling- and well-conceived, well-governed cities do better. NYC consumes 4700 KW-hours per person per year- and with 75% of households going carless, most of the transit load is on the grid- and a few minutes of playing around, comparing area, population, net annual solar flux, and said energy demand, makes it clear that in a deep-future, push-finally-comes to shove scenario, it’d be entirely possible to solar power the whole thing from the rooftops- in the sense that the energy surplus at any conceivable efficiency is numerous orders of magnitude larger than demand. Now, you’d right- that doesn’t cover concrete or steel or other energy intensive inputs, but said inputs also are highly durable, and often prove themselves out in long term analysis.

      As for mass urbanization being a substantial trend, I again have to disagree. The fraction of the global population living in cities has been climbing for 1500 years, (notably including the fossil-fuel free era) and surpassed 50% in the last two- fifty percent of the population that fits on 2.8% of the land area, it should be pointed out. Now, granted, most of that growth happened in the 20th century, but then again, most of *everything* happened in the 20th century, and in that light, observing the trend before the fossil fuel era suggests that it has more to do with what people want than how they turn on their lights. Cities have also had sub-replacement fertility since as long as the record can be extrapolated- another ecological win.

      Now, all your points about the villages are absolutely sound, and I admire both your convictions and technical accumen in solving them. I built my first pyrolysis gas plant when I was 12 just because I was excited about precisely those kinds of problems. You are absolutely correct, that with minimum inputs of clever resources, the gentlest touch, we can take people that are amongst the most miserable, and often the most likely to threaten delicate ecologies (again, witness the deforestation of Haiti and trade in African bushmeat) and, as you say, stop them from dying, right now.  I like what you do :-)

      My qualms are when people take the next step and assume (I would suggest falsely, vis a vi some of the aforementioned data points,) that environmentalism and deep-time sustainability is uniformly synonymous with simple technologies, or back-to-the-land living. The technosphere isn’t going anywhere on us, the gains in human welfare associated with human industry is real, and in many cases it was low-tech approaches that birthed some of our more intractable environmental difficulties (outside carbon emissions, of course.) Given the choice between running afoul of a fifteen-hundred year trend in how people choose to improve their lives, and do more with less, and positing a future I can’t mathematically justify and wouldn’t want to live in, and all I need to do for the first is presume that we will continue to be masterfully clever engineering monkeys, well, I can’t see that’s a choice.

      Though I have been trying to conceive of field-deployable ways to make sheet goods for your clever little yurts…

  22. @AbleBakerCharlie  I think this would be really good to do as an interview somewhere – mebbe get a bunch of people together, do it as a chat over the course of about a week or so, and get some of the facts and the statistical base together as we go. It’s worth doing the detail on.I think the assumptions you’re making about natural resource use are true *for a given standard of living*. But I’m suggesting that we can take the existing roughly one planet” lifestyles of the very poor, add a bit of tech to drop their infant mortality to about European levels, resulting in a sharply reduced birth rate, and stabilize most of the planet there _because we have no choice_. If we get better tech it’s possible to do vastly more, damn near anything in fact, but we have to modify the models as new technology arrives, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping for it.

    The long term political economy of relationships between the city and the countryside also need to be considered: those who grow food serve those who do not for a variety of reasons through history, some voluntary, sometimes feudal. Self-sufficient villages with a pretty organic technology base (i.e. they make most of what they use, except microprocessor-based devices and solar panels) seems likely to be a lot more *politically* stable than a planet of megacities, no matter how green.

    It’s a complex terrain, but it’s good to talk about with you. We should do more of this!

    1. Agreed- it’s been fun. Just because I’m having fun being a contrarian, I might have to wade in with that thought about political economy. Steven Pinker’s new book has been making the rounds lately, and I’d been intrigued by the data in it before- data that strongly suggests that dramatic upward trends in human peacefulness have been paralleled with increases in population and community size. Megacities represent population centers with sufficient critical mass to push for basic standards of good governance, and in the modern era, I suspect that a corollary of Fukuyama noticing that liberal democracies tend to stop short of shooting wars might apply. I think the contrasting data is pretty compelling that villages are prone to killing each other with far greater frequency- that notions that people will cheerfully tend to their land belies the fact that their circles of concern aren’t forcibly expanded by the nature of their lives. As for the relationship between agrarian producers and consumers, it’s hard to know just how to describe that when, in a developed economy, being a farmer is such a minority profession. Revolutionary political movements, from Jeffersonian democracy to Gandhi, always try to sneak in a pseudo-agrarian self-sufficiency clause that never seems to work out quite right- their is always surplus labor, that always heads to where the action is, and pretty soon you have trading cities again. It’s not that I don’t like self-sufficient technologies in the least, or understand their power- I just don’t think they are especially compelling solutions for political, rather than environmental problems. 

      It’s entirely possible, also, that you’re suggesting the world can sustain a cluster of solar powered yurts with organic farms and the occasional boat ride, and I’m suggesting it can sustain a vertically stacked pile of solar powered flats with hydroponic rooftop gardens and the occasional plane ride, and we are, as the joke goes, simply bargaining over price. The broadest point is that the world’s poor need to stop devastating forests and topsoil and dying young, and the world’s rich need to stop emitting so much carbon. I guess I both don’t see a way around, or a reason to doubt our ability to, bank on new technologies, alongside new accounting of externalities, and a robust conversation about the weirdnesses of capital accumulation, as part of solving the second half of that problem.

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