Mongolian chieftain Timur was invading India when he ran into an opposing army that included 120 war elephants with poison-coated tusks and covered in armor. Lacking any elephants of their own, Timur’s men responded to the charging war elephants either by running away or by frantically digging protective ditches. Timur’s response was simpler, and much more successful. He ordered his men to move their camels to the front lines, attach straw and oil to their backs, and send them running towards the elephants. Faced with flaming camels streaking in their direction, the easily-spooked elephants panicked, turned around, and trampled through their own army, allowing Timur and his men to easily advance and capture the city of Delhi. Timur was a brutal ruler who committed horrible atrocities on people (and camels) but his flaming camel solution was an elegant one.
While our goals are nobler, we are facing similar odds as Timur. Our armored elephants and opposing army are climate change and other sustainability challenges. Yet many of our so-called “sustainable” places are more akin to frantically digging ditches. Designing new buildings to use 30% less energy is better than not doing anything, but not by much. Any new building, no matter how green, is just adding to overall energy use. Similarly, green roofs could be considered sustainable places, reducing runoff and urban heat islands and providing additional usable space. They even look green. Yet, does anyone really believe that even if every building in the world got a green roof, we would put a substantial dent in our climate and resource challenges? I don’t mean to discourage these efforts, which clearly are part of an overall solution. The point is that incremental changes alone aren’t getting us anywhere close to where we need to be. We need flaming camel solutions for sustainable places.
While rare, there are some encouraging examples of flaming camel sustainable places. Take, for example, more intelligent use of space in our existing buildings. Not only does it reduce the cost and impact of new construction, it also brings people closer together. How many of us count college, when we likely shared more space than any time before or after, as among the happiest years of our life? Or consider road “diets,” where lanes are removed from main thoroughfares to encourage multiple uses. This is less expensive than adding lanes and, in many applications has revitalized struggling downtowns, thereby discouraging driving, which leads to greater density, smaller housing and less energy use.
Solutions like these are elegant. While they appear simple in hindsight, they actually represent simplicity on the other side of complexity. To implement a road diet or improve space utilization requires a detailed understanding of the problem and of user needs. Coming up with these solutions requires an understanding of a range of more conventional alternatives. Then, it requires the creativity to identify and courage to choose the flaming camel solution instead.
Flaming camels and road diets are the subject of my presentation at the upcoming Engineering Sustainability Conference April 7-9 in Pittsburgh.