Forging the philosophical and the practical

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It is emblematic of a larger condition that I've not reported before now on one of the most thought-provoking and valuable presentations from Building Energy '09, the annual conference of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association held earlier this month in Boston — the keynote by Marc Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum's comments were literate and far-reaching, on one of this century's most vital issues — how do we maintain life as we know it as traditional fuels decline and the climate changes?

But I chose instead to focus first on the contentious LEED public forum of the night, and the release of recommendations by the state's Zero Net Energy Task Force just before he spoke. There's some argument to be made for the latter — actual news — but I judged both to be shinier that Rosenbaum's topic, deep-energy retrofitting.

I have my reasons, but still, you could say my actions reflect the general outlook: people are more attracted to the glitz and gadgets around energy issues than they are to the real best solutions — conservation and efficiency. I'm totally sold on them, without reservation, and still, I'm getting to that portion of the conference three weeks later. 

If you're not familiar with Rosenbaum, becoming aware would be an adequate takeaway from this post. A Newton, Mass., native and New Hampshire resident (though his house, itself a milestone toward the sustainable future, is up for sale — where will he go next?), Rosenbaum has been espousing and helping people work toward energy efficiency for decades, making it entirely fair to call him a visionary on one of the most important issues of this century.

The slides from his presentation are on his website,, so you can check out the full breadth of his comments, but there were two threads I wanted to mention specifically.

There was the substance, of course: His thrust was a pitch for deep-energy retrofitting of structures, drawing in such facts as the decline of fossil-fuel sources, the extent to which energy powers homes and other buildings, and the inadequacy of relying on new construction to cut that energy use.

I am totally persuaded on this point, as longtime readers will know. I'd only add here my certainty that much of what I think I know originally came from Rosenbaum, directly or indirectly. He is an original thinker. 

What also caught my attention, though, were the broad underpinnings of his thinking, which he raised near the end as one of two bars to progress: "We need a fundamental shift of values in our culture." 

I believe we are entering what Joanna Macy calls The Great Turning - “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” One gift of the economic debacle is that everyone is focused on it, and it becomes clear that the powers that be have no idea how to fix it, and in fact are almost assuredly making it worse. As Einstein said, “we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Toto pulls the curtain back and all can see the Great and Powerful Oz for what he is. Our trust in experts is evaporating faster than our net worth, and perhaps we will begin to trust our own common sense.

A Buddhist teacher, a genius, and a wizard, all in one paragraph. He later drew on Margaret Wheatley, St. John of the Cross, Rudolph Bahro, Chris Martensen, Granny D, Charles Du Bos, and poet Kesaya Noda. (Dunno about you, but Einstein and the Wiz were the only two I could have referenced unaided.)

He urged those gathered, probably more than a thousand people, to "commit to being insecure together and to making it fun."  He advocated for integrity, equity across cultures, mutual trust, an end to struggling and knowing, in service to whatever comes next.

It was a moving, erudite presentation that made the practical case but connected it to spirit and higher motives. Perhaps it shows my own lack of imagination, but it wasn't the sort of presentation I expected from an engineer at a building conference.

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