The strongest is not always the most suitable

If there were a low cost method to save 30% of the energy used for heating buildings, most people in these days of low energy bulbs would assume that this method was already in use. Since the early 1980s I have been told time after time that such a method is available, but that it has not yet been applied on a large scale. How could that be?

My analysis of the problem is further complicated by the fact that the person who claims to have arrived at this optimal method is my own father. I want to believe the best of my own role model, while remaining objective. The question is no longer whether his method is as good as he claims – his list of successful energy saving projects speak for themselves – but about the psychological and economic factors that underlie his failure to spread that knowledge. It is only now, after having seen my father's work at a distance over all these years, that I have begun to see the pattern.

When in the 1980s he developed the seeds sown by another creative soul in the discipline and formalized the method in his books on energy savings – then touring the country to lecture about his approach – he could hardly have imagined that an additional three decades would pass without any major breakthrough. Over the years, he has certainly applied the method in numerous properties with an approximate saving of 30%, but all attempts to establish this knowledge in national standards for expected energy use or in the curriculum of the country's professional institutions have failed. The frustration of being ignored has grown every time he has witnessed more or less redundant research projects being supported, and his attempts to convey the message to the academic and political establishment has become increasingly furious as time has gone by. His disaffection that no politicians have got engaged in the issue may be understandable, but it goes without saying that people with no knowledge of technology easily let a potential energy saving of 30% fall between two stools (one may ask which institution is responsible for the application of best practice in society). The attempt to engage professors in the official professional institutions may have seemed more promising, but neither in this case has any constructive dialogue come about. The establishment often behaves as if nothing were the matter. Good ideas are easily ignored.

Unable to call my father's argument for lack of technical expertise, I have instead focused on the broader issues. What mistakes does he make when trying to spread the knowledge? What anomalies in society counteract the application of best practice? Let us start the detailed analysis by clarifying a fundamental force that is incredibly important in today's world. It is about strength and value, the properties of the physical object, whether organisms fight to survive and reproduce or companies fight against other competitors. It cannot be over-emphasized that the economic system that characterizes today's world puts all the focus on the “survival of the strongest”, as we mistakenly tend to reinterpret Darwin’s “survival of the fittest " – just as modern man put excessive focus on his wish to be loved – the expression of unbalanced Father’s love that was highlighted already by Erich Fromm (“The art of loving”, 1956) and recently revitalized by Eckhart Tolle in his perspective on the human ego (“A New Earth”, 2005). So why do I mention such psychological foundations? Well, because the pattern becomes much clearer when we see phenomena at a distance instead of debating irrelevant detail.

The truth is that every individual and institution primarily safeguards its own survival. We are keen to continue selling our product, get funding for our research, win political sympathies of voters, and imagine to ourselves that we are right. When my father attacks the establishment with criticism, it is not strange that they become defensive. They are as equally keen to maintain their value as my father is when he tries to get the recognition that he thinks he deserves. The problem occurs when a constructive dialogue is replaced by a struggle between egos who want to be right at any price. And cost! In addition to saving energy, my father's method saves time with its simplified calculation of necessary energy use. Furthermore, the ‘low flow method’ minimizes friction losses in pipes, which gives the same pressure on all valves. Hereby, the system manages with a small circulation pump (requiring ten times less power), and without control valves or other devices to compensate for the anomalies of the ubiquitous ‘high flow method’. This minimalistic solution thus generates less revenue for businesses, and is incompatible with a model of society that prioritises employment and growth. Interestingly enough, my retired father has minor interest in pursuing money with his method. What drives him, rather, is the will to contribute something good to the world community. This lack of financial incentive is interesting, seen from a wider perspective.

The monetary system of today rewards products and ideas that sell and increase corporate profits, but the system is not ideal to take advantage of the most sustainable options. Products and methods may be non-ecological, sub-optimal or even meaningless, as long as the promotion is just right. The lack of marketing prospects may on the other hand sink the best ideas. Furthermore, within academia and government circles, competition is minimal. How often are contests arranged where the optimal solution is selected as the winner by objective measurement, and then becomes mandatory standard? No, obviously it is more entertaining to see a ball pass between two poles than to take part in a more sustainable future. Interestingly enough, spectators that identify with football teams are just as caught up in feeling self-worth as our self-preserving institutions. We are all united by our desire to love ourselves and we can continue to delude ourselves that the current system is ideal for solving future problems, despite the fact that so many companies and institutions benefit from the status quo. The truth is that we need a new way of thinking, but as long as the current system is focused on short-term survival and apparent strength, rather than an aspirational vision, sustainable development will be hampered. There is nothing wrong about feeling pride, but it would be desirable if we could unite around issues that really matter in the larger context. All human beings want to contribute something good; the question is rather what we should be good at. Surely, it takes time to break old patterns and reject our identities, yet we must hope for a collective awakening that will make our lives so much more meaningful.

Stockholm, 26 August 2009

Johan Lönn