Manpower vs. Mechanization

Recently, I read John Michael Greer’s The Long Decent.  In general it’s a fascinating non-fiction regarding the catabolic (i.e. long term) collapse of our current westernized civilization.  He uses historical examples from the Romans to the Mayas, and essentially puts a date of about 250-300 years until our own descendants are walking out of the cities and back into the forests (if there’s any left by that time ;)). His main driver for catabolic collapse is, of course, peak oil and all the many many sets of loaded commentary on the subject (which I will not go into here).

Why am I even bringing this up? In the book, and forgive me for not being able to cite a passage, he essentially states that the idea of machinery is nothing new. One only has to look at Da Vinci’s work, or sketches and drawings from ancient China to realize that the logical framework for machinery has been around for quite sometime.

Why then did machinery take such a hold on mankind in such a relatively short time-span (150 years)?  Greer cites the cheap and easy potential energy stored in oil and gas, allowing for simple, then more complex machines to be produced quickly and cheaply to replace labor that men usually do (think jackhammers, cranes, power-drills etc.).  This is a fascinating argument from the standpoint of low carbon construction strategies because basically, for thousands of years, the cost of labor has been so low compared to the cost of building conceptual machines until the discovery of oil and the cheap and easy implementation of electrical distribution via the ability to burn gas cheaply.

Take for instance the 220m bridge that Da Vinci designed for Sultan of Constantinople. The Sultan did not build the bridge because he felt that such construction “was not possible,” (as we in the construction business know, when a client says “it’s not possible,” it usually equates to “too expensive.”) Of course, in 2001, with bore-piling machines and tower cranes (all operated by inexpensive gasoline driven machines), a bridge was constructed across the Bosporus.

What does this mean for Green Building and Design? As I’ve seen here in the middle east,   when labor is cheap, and there’s lots of it, even with cheaper gas, Manpower seems to be the most efficient form of construction from a cost standpoint, and from an environmental one..  Weather or not 500 men or a bulldozer digging a foundation is more carbon neutral would be a fascinating carbon footprint study… My hunch is that the manpower might win out.