The Potency of Scale

Peter Syrett, Senior Urban Designer/Sustainable Advisory Services Leader at Perkins+Will

In 1977 Ray and Charles Eames made a short documentary called the ‘Powers of Ten‘. The Eames documentary shows how perceptions of our surroundings change at different scales. The film starts by looking at a couple having a picnic in Chicago and zooms out in steps. Each step is a factor of ten. In 40 steps they take us out into space millions of light years away and back down to one angstrom – the size of an atom. The film eloquently shows us that the vastness of outer space also exists at the atomic level.

I have been thinking a lot about this film lately and how it can be a tool to illustrate how a simple act like turning on a light has a multitude of environmental impacts at an exponential range of scales – or how a light’s components, the electricity it uses, and the disposal of its lamps all contribute to larger environmental problems.

If we follow the Eames narrative, we should start with me sitting down at my desk to write this blog. I turn on my desk lamp and then start tapping away on my keyboard.

10+01: Extraction Economy
If we zoom out to an area of 10 meters, we will see that I’m sitting in a large open office with a desk light next to me. That desk lamp is made from a myriad of different metals and plastics. The plastics and metals in my lamp are part of 3 billion tons used annually for manufacturing building products and furniture. According to a 2010 Living Planet Report, at the current rate of comsumption, by 2050 we will be using 2.3 times the available resources on earth.

10+02: Energy Hogs
Even further out to the building scale of 100 meters, we will see my office just off Union Square in New York City. Even though this building is a LEED CI Gold-certified space, a city-wide energy benchmarking tool shows that 64% of the energy used here is to power computers and lights and that the building consumes much more energy than many of its neighbors.

10+03: Toxic waste
Now at 1,000 meters, we see my work neighborhood and the frantic traffic of lower Manhattan. Amid the cars are garbage trucks hauling away some of the estimated 600 million fluorescent bulbs that are thrown away each year in the U.S. The disposal of these bulbs, like the one used in my lamp, results in the release of 30,000 pounds of mercury, which is a persistent bio-accumulative toxin.

10+04: Air Pollution
Then at 10,000 meters, we are shown the whole of New York City. My desk lamp is powered by one of NYC’s power plants that is on average more than 30 years old. These plants aren’t as efficient as newer ones and use up to 60% more fuel and produce more pollution.

10+06: Climate Change
Finally, zooming out two more steps to a million meters, we can now see as far west as the drought-stricken farm fields of Indiana. A new study, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests that climate change may permanently create El Niño-like conditions in the Pacific basin, and the number and severity of droughts may also increase as a result. In other words, turning on my desk light, because it results in Greenhouse gas emissions, is in a very small contribution to the drought afflicting more than half of the continental U.S. this summer.

10-09: Body Burden
Then the camera would zoom in back all the way to me at my desk and continue zooming in to my arm and then through my skin down to 10-09 meters. At this scale, the made-man substances that I’ve absorbed into my body though ingestion, breathing, and touch can be seen. On my arm, we’ll soon find a molecule of Bisphenol A (BPA) floating around. BPA is absorbed in our bodies through touch and according to a recent study, is found in 91% of Americans’ urine. BPA is an estrogen-mimicking chemical that has been linked to obesity and to developmental effects to the brain, thyroid, and behavioral problems. It is used as a liner for metal cans in thermal paper and for more than 40 years as a hardener and an antioxidant in plastics. It is a key ingredient in epoxy resins, polycarbonate plastics, and other plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC – a.k.a. vinyl). The desk light that I just turned on has polycarbonate lens and PVC wire jacketing, both of which are made with BPA.

All said, these different scales and more importantly the issues associated with them don’t exist in isolation. For us to succeed in solving problems like global warming, we’ll need system-based solutions that work on a molecular scale upwards. The impact of turning on a single fixture may seem minor, but the collective effect of 8 billion people turning on lights is significant. The Eames’s examination of the potency of scale shows us that everything is connected and that our actions matter.

In 1879 Edison forever changed our world when he invented the light bulb; if Edison were alive today, what would he be working on? I would like to think he would be hard at work on a desk light that did no environmental harm, regardless of the scale at which it was considered.

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