We often think of progress these days as coming from carefully planned research conducted by government- or corporate-funded laboratories with large staffs of scientists and technicians. As it turns out, many of the key innovations in history have arrived serendipitously or resulted from trial and error.
Most people know the story of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. He wasn’t looking for antibiotics, but simply noticed that a certain area on one of his cultures was devoid of bacteria. He deduced that the mold he observed was producing a substance that inhibited bacterial growth.
As for trial and error, when we think of modern airplanes, we don’t normally imagine that their current configuration is largely a product of trial and error. In fact, the Wright brothers spent much of their time testing models in wind tunnels to observe their performance. This method is still used today for modern aircraft design though computer simulations have made it possible to evaluate the most promising designs before going to the expense of building and testing actual models. Today, an occupation called test pilot still survives, proving that despite all of our vaunted technology, we must yet rely on trial and error even in the most technological of pursuits. The modern management argot for this is: “Fire, ready, aim.”
It should come as no surprise then that efforts to create a sustainable society will require a lot of trial and error. This is true in part because we are still only starting to understand what practices in areas such as building, farming, transportation and energy production might be sustainable in the long run. (It is also true because people differ on what they mean by “sustainable” though that deserves a discussion all its own.)
The rather leisurely pace of early 20th century life in which the Wright brothers did their first experiments with aeronautical engineering has been replaced by the breakneck pace of modern 21st century society, a society which finds itself hurtling toward a rendezvous with limits in energy, water, soil and population. Hence, the admonition from Pat Murphy, the current executive director of what is now called the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, that we must make a lot of mistakes quickly.
Murphy and his organization have been promoting German passive house design, a design that can reduce energy use by 80 to 90 percent. A builder by trade, he experimented with retrofitting a carriage house standing behind the offices of his organization. He said he used several types of insulation and made many mistakes. But his trial and error endeavor has advanced his thinking enormously about the problems of and solutions for passive house design in North America.
The “quickly” part of his admonition comes from his concern that world peak oil production is near or has already arrived, and that it will be followed by peak natural gas and peak coal production. That means that the trial and error process somehow needs to be speeded up in the area of sustainability.
Fortunately, many people around the globe are busy with wide-ranging experiments in building design, intentional communities, local food production, alternative energy, new forms of transportation, traditional neighborhood design, energy efficiency and the whole host of issues that fall under the rubric of sustainability for a lower-energy world.
It is important to keep in mind then that sustainability efforts are not likely to move from success to success, but as with every other endeavor will be marked by many useful failures and partial successes. That is why it is imperative that we “make a lot of mistakes quickly” so that successful formulas can be found soon in order to help others to avoid elementary mistakes that will slow our evermore urgent movement toward a sustainable society.