The Temptations of Survivalism, or, What do you do with your waste?: Places: Design Observer

Solar energy is the source of life’s exuberant development. The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy — wealth — without any return. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

Get off the grid, collect rainwater, stockpile supplies (maybe some weapons). What could be more sensible than developing some independence from potential disruptions in your supplies of food, water or energy, and from the unexpected costs and social unrest such disruptions can unleash? The temptations of survivalism are not limited to alienated militia members: the survivalist ethos also fascinates designers facing an uncertain future. Survivalist yearnings form a constant theme among environmentalists, from the back-to-the-land, counterculture generation of the 1960s and ’70s, who sought rural self-sufficiency, to today’s green lifestyle proponents, who are retrofitting solar panels and rain barrels onto their suburban retreats.

I still remember my own encounter with the “Ark,” a bioshelter created by the New Alchemy Institute and published in their journal in the late ‘70s. [1] Not only was it solar-heated and electrically self-sufficient; it also processed its own waste and provided food for a family of four from its integral greenhouse. The reference to Noah’s ark was evident, as was the contemporary appeal of an autonomous dwelling in which to ride out the vicissitudes of industrial civilization. Led by oceanographer John Todd, the New Alchemists had emerged from the scientific community of Woods Hole in the late 1960s to pursue innovative research in agriculture, aquaculture and bioshelters, which has led in recent decades to the development of the now commercialized Living Machine, an alternative, organic sewage treatment process based on the same research (more on living machines later). [2] The survivalist ambition has long since been brought back into the urban core, and underlies much of the appeal of self-powered buildings, from Four Times Square, or the Condé Nast Building (1999) to the Bank of America Tower (2009) in New York to the autonomous “Living Tower” proposed by the SOA Atelier (2008) in Paris, which like the Ark comes complete with a vertical urban farm.

A similar impulse informs post–9/11 disaster preparation routines, from the “3 days, 3 ways, are you ready?” campaign, developed by the county government in Seattle, to the backup power and information plans of corporate facilities and IT managers. Both add a measure of resilience to the just-in-time supply networks of contemporary civilization, allowing households and businesses to continue operation after disruptions or disaster. In an important sense environmental design these days can be seen as the scaling-up of survivalism — as moving beyond the purchase of a backup generator, some tanks of water, or a photovoltaic panel to the conceptualization and design of autonomous, self-powered buildings. All of which raise critical questions. First: how independent can a household (or building or business) really be? And second: to what degree is environmental design just another form of disaster-preparedness, dedicated only to matters of survival? Or can it offer something different? To answer these questions we need to probe the kind of independence offered by self-powered buildings, which in turn leads to larger questions about scarcity and the competition for resources.

Illusions of Autonomy

Even a cursory analysis shows that the actual independence of self-powered buildings is limited. The fuel cells in Four Times Square produce clean electricity (and heat) from natural gas, which means they use one centralized utility to provide insurance against another; the photovoltaic panels now appearing on buildings everywhere have been designed, manufactured and installed using fuel and electricity from the same supply chain from which they provide a measure of independence. The point is not to impeach these projects, whose achievements are notable, but to question the very idea that any kind of desirable survival can be achieved through total autonomy. The photovoltaic panel, or the wind turbine, or the ground-source heat pump are all ways to use the expensive and high-density energies of fossil fuels to gather or leverage the much more diffuse environmental energies of sunlight and wind, which we think of as free. Self-powered buildings provide many benefits, but total autonomy is not one of them.

Indeed, we have to ask: Is autonomy is really the goal? There are so many claims about sustainability and so many systems that link moral imperatives — e.g., waste is bad — with achievable environmental goals — e.g., use less energy to heat your house— that it can be difficult to distinguish imperatives from goals. (This follows the general advice of marketing experts and political organizers to inspire people to perform concrete actions that build confidence for further action, but begs the question of how to identify the goal.) The development of autonomous buildings links the anxiety about energy supply and environmental degradation to a narrow focus on the reduction or elimination of annual utility bills (and sometimes grocery bills). Lower bills can be a fine thing (though not always), but there is real confusion about the difference between obviously purchased energy, on the one side, and apparently “free” forms of energy, on the other, with environmental or renewable energies generally viewed as simply available and inherently virtuous.

It is only from this relatively narrow perspective that we could even imagine calling a solar or wind-powered building “autonomous” or “zero-energy,” when in fact their dependence has simply been transferred, from (say) fossil fuels to the flows of environmental energies such as wind and sun. This has obvious economic advantages, but what is critical to realize is that any environmental benefit has to be assessed at the larger scale of the ecosystem; for at this larger, ecosystem scale, environmental energies are already doing some other kind of work — distilling water, moving nutrients, generally powering ecosystems. Any human use of such free energies thus begins as a diversion from some other activity.

After all, the earth itself isn’t autonomous or zero-energy; it is an open system, wholly dependent on the steady flow of energy from the sun to sustain the activities of the biosphere. In the years after the Ark was published, when the principles of passive solar design were being excitedly explored in numerous residential projects, Peter Calthorpe wrote a short article questioning the excessive attention to the free-standing house. [3] He argued that transportation and settlement patterns were just as important as household utility bills. Like my previous article for this journal (How much does your household weigh?), Calthorpe’s article was asking for an expanded understanding of the design project, one that would incorporate the multiple networks and scales in which buildings operate. The challenge for designers, then and now, is this: How to evaluate the environmental impact of elements so removed from their immediate area of expertise?

To meet this challenge, designers have been looking to diverse experts and sources of knowledge — from engineers to manufacturers to tradesmen — and then been balancing the often conflicting advice. Lately, much of this advice has focused on the efficiency and economy of buildings or their components. [4] But to understand the environmental value of free and purchased energies, we have to consult different kinds of experts — ones who consider not individual buildings but whole ecosystems. Which brings me to the ecologist Howard Odum, who developed a comprehensive system of environmental accounting in the 1990s, and also to George Bataille, a controversial French literary figure from the mid-20th century, who wrote a remarkably insightful book on the “general” economy of the planet. [5]

Accursed Share

In The Accursed Share, Bataille explored the difference between the abundant, continuous flow of energy from the sun that supports our planet and the apparent scarcity of energy and resources experienced by individual people and national economies. His most powerful insight was to focus on the principle of abundance itself — on the resources needed to transcend mere survival and growth — and to describe that abundance, or excess, as “luxury.” He used the term to be provocative: to set the framework for his claim that the really decisive issue is what we choose to do with excess resources, and in this way to highlight the very fact that we have a choice. To explain the concept, he described the (re)discovery, made by the French population during the Nazi occupation, that a plot of land will produce a greater yield of potatoes or wheat than of milk or meat. As the occupied French discovered in the early 1940s, if you are facing starvation, you eat lower on the food chain and you renounce luxuries. You become a survivalist.

In the classic ecological food chain, carnivores (and omnivores) occupy the top spot: the carnivores eat herbivores, which in turn eat green plants, which begin the chain by converting sunlight into edible organic molecules. The chain is actually a kind of pyramid, with a large population of herbivores (prey!) needed to support a single carnivore, and an even larger quantity of green plants needed to support the herbivores. With each step up the pyramid, more land and more sunlight is needed to deliver the same amount of food-energy. When we eat the meat from a cow, we are, in effect, also eating the large volume of greenery they consumed to live and grow. In this sense, then, Bataille declared that the “eating of one species by another is the simplest form of luxury.” [6] But the critical question is not what the French ate under occupation. The more relevant question is: What they did with the abundance — the luxury, the excess — that followed the war?

Defining luxury as Bataille does would seem to confirm our collective, common-sense inclination to respond to resource shortages with frugality and survivalism, and it would seem also to confirm our judgment that the consumption of more than we need is wasteful and somehow wrong. But his work is interesting precisely because he looks at the general planetary economy and reaches a different conclusion. Life on earth is an open system wholly supported by the continuous flow of energy from the sun; but from a thermodynamic perspective, our complex ecosystems serve both to dissipate and maximize the effects of the daily solar flow. Planets without life are just rocks-in-space: they absorb that solar flow as heat and immediately re-radiate it back into space as waste. In contrast, the infrastructural features of earth — an atmosphere with free oxygen, large bodies of water, concentrations of minerals and compounds, and environmental engines for moving and distributing those elements — can be viewed as sophisticated by-products of the many interconnected processes that dissipate that flow of sunlight. As individuals within this larger ecosystem/planetary economy, we share in the task of making use of all that energy — of what Bataille calls “the source of life’s exuberant development.” In simpler terms, the message is this: “use it or lose it.”

But why not just save and store it? That is what green plants do when they use sunlight to manufacture organic molecules, and what the herbivores do when they eat those molecules and grow high density tissue; and this is even what inanimate natural processes, like the hydrologic cycle, do when they use the energy of sunlight to move tremendous amounts of water into the clouds and then into mountain lakes. Again, Bataille saw this not as a question of personal ethics but of the general economy — it involved a balancing of the solar budget. He argued that any share of the flow — of the sun’s energy in whatever form — that was captured and stored would have to be expended in some form of growth (more plants, more cows, a larger mountain lake) or “wasted,” dissipated as a form of waste. Think of that mountain lake: the more rain that is deposited into it, the larger it will grow and the greater the pressure will be for the water to escape its containment and continue its downward journey — and the more spectacular the dissipation of stored energy will be when it occurs. This was why he called our earthly abundance of sunlight both a gift and a curse — because of the constant pressure to dissipate it in less destructive ways. This logic led him to argue that the ultimate human act of dissipating stored energy was war: a senseless expenditure of resources brought about by too much accumulation. This turns the ethic of the survivalist on its head. Beyond a certain amount of accumulation (or a certain number of survivalists), stockpiling will only increase the risk of greater instability.

Bataille’s interest lay in the many less-extreme examples of dissipation or gift-giving that seemed to moderate that risk. [7] These examples include dissipations of accumulated wealth made with no expectation of return — from Native American potlatch, or wealth-destruction ceremonies, to the Marshall Plan of U.S. aid for postwar Europe. He saw these as concrete social examples that reflected the ethic of a general economy that was transcending survivalist self-interest. From self-powered buildings to the nation-building Marshall Plan might seem like a leap; but the point that Bataille’s examples underscore is that the use environmental energies must be evaluated within a framework larger than that of monthly utility bills and building efficiency.

What might appear to be waste, then, or even a wastefully risky investment of resources, might instead be understood as a gift with powerful secondary benefits that stabilize or even increase the productivity of the larger system. The multi-year, multi-billion reconstruction program devised by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall and authorized by Congress was intended to revive not only the European but also the American economy, which would benefit from the buying power of the recovering nations; and while economists still debate how different the European recovery would have been without the aid (not unlike the debate about the 2009 stimulus package), it’s evident that the U.S. write-off of that massive expenditure simply disappeared in the general prosperity of the postwar boom. The economies of Europe and the United States were improved as a result of aid that was in essence understood as a gift, given in recognition that the actual debts, no matter how structured, would never be fully repaid, and that what mattered more were the vital interconnections between countries, and the mutual prosperity that would reduce the likelihood of another war. (How different would the following decades have been if Russia had accepted a similar aid package, which the U.S. offered?) In these terms, the value of a specific autonomous building must be measured not just in terms of its savings for the individual owner, or the safety of the individual survivalist, but instead in terms of its capacity to use its waste — the stored abundance it is under pressure to dissipate — to contribute to the overall productivity of the eco- and techno-systems in which it operates.

Bataille’s “general” economy — the solar energy budget of the global ecosystem — has since his time been extensively studied by ecologists and climatologists. It is easy to forget how different the earth is from our neighboring planets; our biosphere has developed remarkable networks of cooperatively competitive arrangements in which the key to prosperity is that no one individual or species or system can have it all. Again: we can say that the system runs on the sharing or recycling of the abundance of solar energy that falls on the surface of the planet. You could even call it self-taxation (with no central authority), but the overall productivity comes from the many instances in which what seems to be waste or excess is used and then moved on.

Here it’s helpful to consider the various survival tactics of species within natural eco-systems — and how these tactics can differ from those of sophisticated human households. We don’t expect the algae growing on a pond to stop halfway across the surface of the water, persuaded somehow to conserve or share the energy. On the other hand, the oxygen that the algae give off as waste (and which is toxic to them) is vital for the support of many other life forms — which is one reason why algae is so basic to whole food chains. Natural eco-systems readily grow to the limits of immediate resources — but to succeed and endure they must increase the richness of their inter-connections and must find cooperative arrangements for recycling their waste. This is no longer survivalism, but environmentalism.

Beyond Survivalism

So to fully understand the general economy of the biosphere — and to move beyond the temptations of survivalism — we have to employ the more rigorous environmental accounting developed by ecologists like Howard Odum and still continued by his students and colleagues. Working at several U.S. universities from the 1970s to the ‘90s, Odum and his co-researchers produced a comprehensive system describing the many energy exchanges in an ecosystem, tracing the cascade of individual transactions, feedback connections, and recycling loops involved in a specific process or product. [8] Beginning with the original incoming sunlight, the system they devised can be used to account for all the energy expended along the way; to describe this accumulation of energy, Odum coined the term “emergy,” meaning “energy memory” or “embodied energy.” To show how this accounting system works, Odum’s colleagues calculated that the total emergy required to produce one energy unit of corn was 83,000 units of solar emergy (solar em-joules); in contrast, one energy unit of mutton required a total of 2,000,000 units of solar emergy, or almost 25 times as much as the corn. Specific proportions vary in different production chains, but the study confirms and quantifies the discovery made by the occupied French about the luxury of eating meat. [9]

The temptation of survivalism, then, is to take the understanding about waste and luxuries and simply eat lower on the food chain — which is to mistake the reduction of consumption and the stockpiling of resources as the goal, when these are only tactics for a population facing a shortage. Fully appreciating that eating meat is a luxury depends upon recognizing that waste can be more or less wasteful, that the two million units of solar emergy required to produce the meat have to be expended somewhere; so the crucial ecological issue is the health and productivity of the food chain in which they are expended. Which brings us back to the Living Machine, the alternative sewage treatment process developed by John Todd in the years after the Ark bioshelter was completed. Using techniques developed in the bioshelter research, a Living Machine takes human waste and transforms it by passing it through a series of contained and engineered wetland ecosystems, producing clean water and organic nutrients that can be used directly or fed back to the local environment. Living Machines can be built at different scales, from the household or neighborhood to the city or the region. Unlike the survivalist overtones of the Ark, they establish explicit connections between human settlements and their locales, making them culturally visible and intelligible (which is one thing that distinguishes human activities from other natural processes).

So one answer to the temptation of survivalism is to attend to the waste — not just to what is discarded but also to what is expended in the production of the things we buy and use and eat, and to understand this expenditure as the key to the prosperity of our larger ecosystem. For many good reasons, we have been taught to believe that environmental energies are inherently better than those extracted from fossil fuels, but both are forms of solar energy, each with their particular chains of transformations and waste. Environmental activism begins with the awareness of damage caused by pollution and other destructive forms of waste, but it is instructive to remember that the oxygen on which we depend began as a form of waste toxic to the plants that produced it; it’s our cooperation and co-evolution that have made it productive. The excess energies lost in a complex food chain or industrial process aren’t really wasted if they foster a supportive environment — if they increase overall prosperity.

Incorporating the lessons of waste requires a new kind of designer, or new kinds of design processes, ones that incorporate the techniques of ecologists and the principles of our general economy.


  • 1. John and Nancy Todd, editors, The Journal of the New Alchemists 4 (New Alchemy Institute, 1977), 84-123.
  • 2. Nancy Todd and John Todd, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1994).
  • 3. The conference paper by Calthorpe redirected his work from residential to urban scale. Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis : Ecology, Community, and the American Dream (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1993).
  • 4. See, for instance: LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
  • 5. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
  • 6. Bataille, Accursed Share, 34.
  • 7. In this Bataille was drawing on the earlier work of Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W.D. Halls (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).
  • 8. Howard T. Odum, Environmental Accounting: EMERGY and Environmental Decision Making (New York: Wiley, 1996). H. T. Odum’s remarkable body of work is still being continued by his many students and collaborators.
  • 9. Odum, Environmental Accounting, 311

The Temptations of Survivalism, or, What do you do with your waste?: Places: Design Observer.