It matters how we think

Posted Wednesday, December 26, 2012 in Sustainable Maine

It matters how we think

by Paul Kando

When Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen set out to prove the hypothesis that the Arctic ice sheet floats slowly from west to east, he decided to sail to the Western edge of the sheet during the summer, winter on the ice, and emerge on the east with the spring thaw.  Two problems held him back: (1) how to keep from have being crushed by the expanding ice in a wooden boat and (2) how to keep warm through the long Arctic winter. Conventional solutions did not look promising. No one has yet built a wooden hull strong enough to withstand the pressure of expanding ice and carrying a winter’s worth of heating fuel would have required a hull too large to be practical. Rejecting conventional wisdom, Nansen formed a creative team with shipwright Colin Archer. The result: Fram (“Forward” in Norwegian), a wooden ship that lifted above the expanding ice, making it impervious to its crushing force; one that required no indoor heating even in the harsh Arctic winter.

… Fram is a comfortable abode”, wrote Nansen in the diary of his 1893 voyage. “Whether the thermometer stands at 22° above zero or at 22° below it, we have no fire in the stove. The ventilation is excellent, especially since we rigged up the air sail, which sends a whole winter‘s cold in through the ventilator; yet in spite of this we sit here warm and comfortable, with only a lamp burning. I am thinking of having the stove removed altogether; it is only in the way…”  How could this be in the Arctic cold? “The sides of the ship were lined with tarred felt”, the diary explains, “then came a space with cork padding, next a deal paneling, then a thick layer of felt, next air-tight linoleum, and last of all an inner paneling. The ceiling of the saloon and cabins . . . gave a total thickness of about 15 inches. …The skylight which was most exposed to the cold was protected by three panes of glass one within the other, and in various other ways.. .” Super-insulated, free of air leaks, with good comfort ventilation and even a skylight with multiple glazings, Fram,  preserved in the Fram Museum in Oslo, is the first known Passivhaus structure ever built. More than a century ahead of its time in energy efficiency, it is also a great example of non-linear, holistic thinking.

Fram comes to mind because of a phone call. The caller decided to postpone improving the energy efficiency of the family home. First, he explained, he needs to upgrade an out of fashion bathroom. “There is no money left for weatherization. Maybe after the loan for the bathroom rehab has been repaid”.  No money for weatherization but enough money to pay for oil wasted on excessive heat losses, even as the family struggles to repay a bathroom-improvement loan? Classic linear, compartmentalized thinking. The bathroom is one compartment the energy use of the house is another (even though the bathroom is part of the house). The conventional solutions: remodel the bathroom, buy more fuel to heat an energy-wasting home. This is the way we’ve always done it.

Most of us have been educated to think this way. Born with the full array of intellectual gifs, we were expected, test after test, to give someone else’s “right answer” or get an F; to chose a field to  make the most money rather than one we were interested in or good at; to not “rock the boat” by thinking out of the box. Yet the era of major changes we live in demands creative solutions, not extensions of what may have worked in the past. Can we creatively re-think our conventionally conceived systems and approaches? I believe we can. We have choices: to process information in a linear fashion or holistically; to proceed logically or follow our imagination; to follow a sequential order in our work or move randomly from task to task; to focus on next steps or on the end result. In short, we can conceptualize analytically (more like an engineer) and creatively (more like an artist). There is no right or wrong choice. Our complex brains can custom-mix our approach to fit the challenges we face. We are born with these capabilities: why not use them?

This week we celebrate with lights, gifts, and good wishes. Light is a metaphor for creation and the life-sustaining energy radiated to Earth by the Sun. Menorahs, Christmas candles, the kinera candles of Kwanzaa, not to mention pagan rituals going back to the Neolithic era all invoke light in winter’s darkness and celebrate rebirth. We also have this unique gift to share: our capacity to think and solve problems in multiple, creative ways – our light to combat the darkness. Our future may well depend on opening this gift. It is the season!

Happy holidays! 


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