Last week, while discussing China's rapid development into a leading world consumer nation, we touched on the future of our oil-based...everything. But in our research for that piece, and in subsequent discussions in the media after the election furor has died down, we've come to see how much larger the world's dilemma is. So, we thought it was important to once again take a look at the current and future oil situation, and it's pertinence to design. More importantly, we want to offer some ideas that you as designers can use right now to make a difference.
First off, please understand that many of our references come from very, if not radically liberal organizations. Unfortunately, sites like "Peak oil and the extinction of humanity" tend to make people dismiss the issue as ridiculous. But bear in mind that even the most conservative experts, like the USGS and Bush Administration Energy Advisor Matthew Simmons acknowledge that peak oil is a problem which will come at the most in the next 10-20 years, and at the least, in the next 2-4. This problems is very real, and will have very real consequences, whether we act to solve it or not. If we do act though, we have the opportunity to lessen the blow or even dodge it altogether.
As we covered in the previous post, peak oil is a point in history at which we are unable to increase oil production. This is not the point at which oil "runs out". It is simply a place where, due to economic and technological factors, and the easy to find oil being used up, the world's oil supply will be unable to match increasing demand. Supply and demand economics are pretty simple, and when the demand is higher than supply, the price increases. And here we arrive at the problem.
You've heard a million times that we "live in an oil economy" or "we're addicted to oil" or "everything you own was touched by oil's influence at some point", so we won't drill the same old message into your head. But we would like to point out a few not-so obvious places where it will effect us:
Suburbs and Exburbs -- living is low cost and high value now in the world's suburban and exurban (suburb-like housing developments which do not lie around an urban center), but if the price of gas were even to match Europe's $4.00 per gallon norm, the cost of commuting could easily make affording the mortgage payments on the large suburban houses very difficult. There is the potential for problems like those faced in Pittsburgh and Detroit when heavy industry moved overseas. But now the problems could apply to much larger populations -- in the U.S. over 72% of metropolitan populations are suburban.
Food -- How many of you northern hemispherians had fruit last week? Know where it came from this late in the season? Shipped, flown, trucked in from the tropics. But even the foods grown in your own country are often shipped huge distances to take advantages of the low cost of central processing of things like meats and cheeses. In the U.S. for every 1 calorie of food in your refrigerator, it took 10 calories of oil energy to harvest, store, and get it there. With higher gas prices, that low cost goes away. How do you feed a city like Las Angeles with local produce when the closest farmland is hundreds of miles of suburbia away?
Retail Outlets -- This might be the kicker for designers. Walmart and Target, depending on your product market, control as much as 50% of the business in the United States (with Walmart expanding to the rest of the world aggressively). A large part of their success is based on being able to ship large amounts of product to stores located in the middle of nowhere at very low shipping prices. If it begins to cost more to ship goods, then it will cost more to sell the goods, and these store's everyday low price strategy becomes inefective. Now, as a product designer, how are you able to sell the same number of products per year in order to get the same numbers to pay your overhead?
As you can see, our oil interdependency reaches many more parts of your life than you may have planned. But luckily, as product designers, you are in a unique position to do something about it. Any one of the below concepts implemented in a huge-selling product would definitely go a little way to saving out butts:
Use Alternative Materials -- If you have an opportunity, suggest using bio-plastics or wood rather than high energy items like plastic and metal. Don't get carried away; we're not looking for a bamboo bike or anything. Any little piece of plastic saved, multiplied by hundreds of thousands of units could equal real change.
Use Less Plastic -- Even if you can't include alternative materials, at least shrink the design to it's most compact size. Same principle, save a lot of little pieces of plastic and save a lot of plastic.
Consider Local Manufacture -- Not only will local manufacture cut shipping costs, it will also generate jobs which can be filled by non-commuters from the neighborhood.
Cut Product Energy Consumption -- In Germany in 2000, nearly 20 percent of electrical power use was due to "invisible drain" or standby circuits on TV's, VCR's, computers, and DVD players. If a designer had stepped in at the beginning of each of these products and said "I won't allow 20% of this product's power to be wasted just to use a remote" what could have been done to prevent its poor design? Also, careful insulation of heat-generating items, and use of LED lighting can cut electrical loads even further.
Standing up to the rest of the product team isn't going to be easy, and there will be plenty of times when you won't be able to do anything positive toward this problem. But don't let anyone push you around, or try to convince you that it is an un-necessary worry. Your job as a designer is to make the product work as well as possible with whoever the usergroup is. Part of that responsibility is understanding the problems that are yet to happen, even when your usergroup doesn't believe they will. It's a tough job, but we've got to get through it, and we can do it together.