By Linda L. Leake |
With every spin of Planet Earth comes change. That change includes how, where and “in what” people live. But what if we’ve got it all wrong, and we’re trying to control every aspect of our indoor environment, when instead we should focus on the variables that are most problematic?
“The use of energy is one variable we can and must control,” says architect Edward Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, a research organization committed to solving climate, energy and economic issues via the far-reaching impact of our built environment.
Mazria developed and issued the 2030 Challenge: “an achievable strategy to dramatically reduce global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030.”
Inspired by architect Louis Kahn, he believes that humans are polluting the silence in the natural environment by eliminating both time and nature from design.
“By sealing out the environment and using fossil fuels to make buildings comfortable,” says Mazria, “we are left with only form and space.”
Richard Heinberg, senior fellow of the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), Santa Rosa, California, agrees that the design of our homes and work places has gone astray.
“We have to make peace with wind, rain, weeds, and bugs in our buildings as much as in our food and energy systems if we expect to be successful,” Heinberg says. “That doesn’t mean we have to live naked in the forest, but it does mean we have to take account of limits, and work with nature rather than against it. We do that first in attitude and intent. These then influence things like building orientation, choice of materials, air flow, choice of energy source, what happens with waste water, and so on. If a building helps us be more aware of our relationship with our environment, then it’s performing a much greater service than just keeping us warm and dry.”
By becoming more psychologically distanced from nature—the effect that most buildings have on us—he argues that we are undermining our own survival prospects, because adaptation is a better long-term survival strategy than dominance.
“It’s understandable that our goal in the design of buildings is to increase the amount of control we have over our immediate environment,” Heinberg says. “That’s why we have buildings in the first place. But we can’t really control nature in the long run. We can wall out wind and rain and weeds and bugs temporarily, however in the end our buildings will revert to dust, as will we.”
Buildings: Guilt by Association?
Since the 1950s, Mazria says, we’ve accelerated our use of imported energy and fossil fuels in buildings. “Today, the same building design can be placed anywhere in the world, irrespective of its environs, and operated and conditioned with energy produced by burning these fuels. Does that make sense?”
This connection between fossil fuels, uranium, and the built environment means that our planning and design decisions influence major world events, Mazria points out—including BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, two wars in Iraq, the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan and the armed intervention in Libya.
“By consuming massive amounts of energy and fossil fuels, the building sector is directly connected to these problematic world events,” Mazria says.
Futurist and author Jerry Mander, distinguished fellow of the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), says housing is just one part of a bigger shift that’s needed. He says that all of our current lifestyle choices are in play.
“Since we are running out of oil and it’s getting more expensive to recover fossil fuels, we need to decrease our use of these things,” Mander says. “We need to change, but, unfortunately, new energy systems don’t have the scale to match the efficiency of those powered by fossil fuels and so will not be able to promote growth and financial self sufficiency.”
“We are suffering the worst resource crisis in history,” laments Mander. “We are operating on the assumption that we can keep achieving high levels of economic growth forever on a finite planet, that there will be ever increasing resources, markets and economic activity to sustain expansion, profit and growth,” he adds. “But critical resources such as energy, water, forests, fisheries, arable topsoils and key minerals like lithium, coltan and rare earths are rapidly running out.”
In a couple of decades they will be nearly gone, and without this resource base, continued economic growth won’t happen, he says. “We need to make very rapid responses now,” he asserts.
“We are unquestionably moving into a period of resource scarcity—more expensive energy, minerals, food, you name it,” says Heinberg.
“The evidence is simply overwhelming that this is the case,” Heinberg says. “Where we do see an increasing availability of resources—for example, of unconventional “fracking” natural gas—production costs are higher or environmental hazards are greater. We can move from increasingly scarce high-grade mineral ores to more abundant low-grade ores, but that means using more energy for extraction and processing. Wherever you look, we’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit.
“By the latter part of this century low-lying coastal areas will most likely be inundated,” Heinberg continues. “Food production will have fallen sharply as a result of more frequent floods and droughts. The only good news with regard to the future of our climate is that the amounts of oil and coal we will be able to extract are probably much smaller than the amounts assumed in the worst-case emissions scenarios of many climate experts.”
Divided We Fall
One major obstacle to a green future, Mander says, is the vast and growing rich-poor wealth gap.
“The wealthiest half percent in the U.S. now has more economic wealth than the lowest 45-50%,” he says. “The current system is structured for the benefit of billionaires. Unless we break away from their control, a small number of powerful rich will continue to rule the system with increased private power.”
Mander explains that America’s most affluent base their perception on how things will go in the future on how well they’ve gone in the past. “The system worked well when we lived in a resource-rich world,” he says. “But that’s not the case anymore. Now that our base of resources is gone, the established ways of capitalism are too expensive and destructive to keep up.
“What’s more,” he continues, “we’ve gone from a material economy to a virtual, fictional economy in which Wall Street uses money to buy money and has no connection with anything in the real world, so it’s increasingly a casino economy.”
Mander says the super rich have been increasingly able to cripple government’s ability to develop sustainable modes of transportation, sustainable resource management or protect “the commons.”
“By buying politicians through their expansive campaign donations they can gain control of government regulations, including those that impact daily living for everyone, such as environmental regs, privatization of public utilities and water, tax breaks, and subsidies for industries,” he explains. “With industry in nearly no growth mode, service areas of government provide a new way of gaining control and profits. If you have enough money, you can effectively buy-up politicians, and influence the government process.”
Heinberg believes that the trend toward increasing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands could soon end—and it may not be pleasant for those at the top.
“As the economy contracts, people with enormous wealth will no doubt go to great lengths to maintain current levels of disparity,” he says, “but—as we’re seeing in the Middle East, North Africa, Wisconsin, Ireland, and Greece—there are limits to the general public’s willingness to go along with that.”
How will people experience coming decades? Will they live in smaller, but comfortable housing, in a more co-dependent society—or follow the status quo no matter what the cost?
“If we don’t change our expectations, people will experience the coming era as one of privation and disappointment,” Heinberg asserts.
“If, however, as a society, we deliberately start paying less attention to consumption and more attention to non-material quality of life indicators—such as health, education, cultural expression, and environmental quality—then we can adjust happily.”
Mander puts the emphasis on localism.
As all resources dwindle and economic growth declines, mankind needs to “power down and use less,” he advises. “We need to embrace a ‘less and local’ mindset. We need to develop local systems as much as possible to produce basic needs for our communities, including food and shelter. Local systems tend to be inherently more efficient, as they don’t require as much energy intensive transport. This transition won’t be easy, but if we don’t achieve this, we risk an even greater lack of equity between rich and poor, possibly new resource wars and loss of democratic control of resources.
“Large homes won’t continue to be the standard,” he adds. “Wood and other materials won’t be as available for building, and viable new energy sources are yet unknown. Where will we live? If distribution channels are viable and equitable, for example, cities will be OK. If we have enough arable soil, topsoil and clean water, people in rural areas will be able to grow their own food. But the first step is to stop speaking of economic growth, rather than sustainability, as the standard for future economic performance.”
Can the right approach to co-habitation with nature actually allow us to leave ecosystems better off than when we found them?
That’s a hopeful idea that’s coming of age, in part because millions of young people are looking for non-traditional careers that focus on cleaning up our generation’s environmental perversions.
Schools are catching on too. Goshen College, a private Christian school in Indiana, now has an Institute for Ecological Regeneration. The school is “committed to bringing renewal and vitality to ecosystems through research and education.” Or would be eco-champions of any age or interests can take roving courses with the Regenerative Design Institute before setting out to save the world.
Architectural firms, too, have identified regenerative principles as key to fixing the housing footprint. Fantastical designs of the future mimic natural shapes, rely on clean, non-extractive energy, and generally stay out of the way of wildlife.
“I’d like to think that we can leave behind evidence of our habitation that somehow enhances this already unspeakably, breathtakingly beautiful planet,” Richard Heinberg says, “but that probably requires a lot of humility and an approach that is slow, thoughtful, and sensitive.
“In a way, we can’t do any better than nature is already doing,” he adds. “Carbon cycles, water cycles—those are already happening, and the best we can do is avoid screwing them up. But maybe there is something that humans can add to nature’s conversation that is uniquely ours. When I look at some ancient and vernacular structures, I see buildings that appear to grow out of the landscape, and add beauty to it in the same way that a tree or songbird does.”
To view this article as presented in our June 2011 issue, including additional photos and case studies, please visit our Magazine Archives.