(Part of the No Sweat Solutions series.)

Previously I pointed out that efficiency, doing more with less, is a key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (A lot of people on Gristmill are fans of conservation, doing less with less. I have nothing against this, so long as it is a voluntary choice, but I won’t be spending a lot of time on it.)

Normally, when people think of efficiency they think of direct savings — insulating homes, electric cars, and so on. That is: make the same sort of goods we make now, but more cleverly, so they require fewer inputs to operate. And that is an extremely important kind of efficiency.

But Amory Lovins and Wolfgang Feist pointed out long ago that there is another kind of efficiency. Instead of looking at how to provide the same goods, look at what those goods do for us, and see if there is another way to provide the same service. For example, it remains essential to start making steel, cement, and mill timber more efficiently.

But in building our homes, what we call today green building can also use less of those resources. A home that reduces high intensity inputs saves industrial energy before we change one cement plant or timber mill; and by reducing virgin lumber demand, it makes sustainable forest management easier as well.

But the principles that many of us are familiar with in green building can apply to just about every good and service in our society. Note that what Lovins and Feist call “Reducing Material Intensity” is not even primarily about energy. It is about reducing total environmental footprint — water use, land disturbed, mineral and organic resources consumed, air polluted. But, as we shall see, reducing material intensity reduces energy use and greenhouse emissions as a side effect. As we work through examples, we will find (on average) that cutting material intensity by 90 percent reduces energy use by about 80 percent; a 75 percent material intensity reduction on average cuts energy use in half.

You will note that this post contains no end notes. That is because it is not demonstrating anything, but explaining what is to be demonstrated. The next post in this series will be the first in a very long stream of concrete examples.