How to Thrive in the Next Economy by John Thackara

How to Thrive in the Next Economy by John Thackara

Author:John Thackara
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780500773055
Publisher: Thames and Hudson Ltd
Published: 2015-02-20T16:00:00+00:00


I was emboldened, upon arriving at the Mayo Clinic’s Centre for Innovation, to learn from the conference host that ‘people with deep domain knowledge do not make the best innovators’. I concluded that I was therefore well qualified to warn one of the top academic medical centres in the world, each of whose 60,000 staff knows more about medicine than I do, about the risk of catabolic collapse in the US health system – and what to do about it. My core proposition at the Mayo event was that peak oil, and peak fat, are transforming the logic that currently shapes the global biomedical system. Firstly, because the energy transition that’s upon us will render one of the world’s most energy-intensive systems unsustainable. And second, because until the medical system addresses the causes of illness with the same brilliance with which it addresses the effects, the population will continue to get sicker.

The main Mayo Clinic building is a vast silver facility that shouts two things: authority and energy intensity. If one Googles ‘health’ and ‘energy efficiency’, most results are about hospital buildings and attempts to render them ‘greener’. But hospital buildings are just one element within a vast distributed system that is both materially heavy and energy-guzzlingly complex. At a practical level, most of the consumables within any hospital are oil-based – from analgesics and antihistamines, through heart valves, implants, and prosthetics, to ambulances and helicopters. But energy that you can measure, such as that used by buildings and suppositories, is only one part of the picture; the total energy demand of any business operation, including health ones, is four or five times more than is ever measured. A recent UK study, for example, found that 5 per cent of all vehicle movements on British roads are health-related. This energy blindness is significant; because the true costs of so many activities is neither perceived nor counted, no thought is given to their possible replacement.

My sombre words at the Mayo conference were met by a sea of blank stares. I was not offended: the medical world is preoccupied by other issues than the consequences of energy transition. The danger facing complex organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, nonetheless, is that, by postponing consideration of energy issues, it risks ‘catabolic collapse’ down the line. This is the situation, as described by John Michael Greer, in which, by the time a system realizes that its energy regime is not sustainable, the money, energy, and resources to do anything about it are no longer available.


From catabolic collapse I moved on in my talk to peak fat. I was perplexed at this fascinating conference by a weird imbalance. I saw several case studies about innovative ways to deal with consequences of the diabetes pandemic; by 2030, it’s forecast that 438 million people will have diabetes worldwide – a 54 per cent increase on today’s total.1 The response of designers and doctors present was an array


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