Friday, February 19, 2010
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Monday, February 15, 2010
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Tuesday, February 9, 2010
I tuned into NPR the other day and Tom Ashbrook was leading a panel discussion where he and several guests were summing up the events of the past decade and discussing what they mean/have meant for life in the
I bring this up because there has been a very similar conversation taking place recently on Justmeans.com, amongst two of the Sustainable Development writers, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Sara Wolcott. Kendra and Sara have been discussing the high number of young and well educated people who have recently found themselves out of a job, and pondering the shortcomings of higher education, in general.
Tom Ashbrook had a caller, James – an unemployed, 27-year-old graduate from a fancy university – who phoned in to say, basically, this:
“I’ve spent the last decade doing everything I was told I was supposed to do. I did well in high school, went to a good college and studied something that I was passionate about that had real-life applications; I worked internships to get experience and went to another good school to get a graduate degree to set myself apart. Now, I’ve been unemployed for over a year and can’t make my student loan payments. Where is the world that I was promised?”
I was at the edge of my seat by the time the caller got to this point. I was thinking about how many people I know who have found themselves in a similar situation recently and I was desperately awaiting what I knew would be Tom’s reassuring advice to James. I was waiting to hear: “the economy’s tough right now, but hang in there; everything will be okay; you’ll find work; you’ll do great things, etc.”
No such luck.
Tom and two of the other panelists basically told James that they felt his pain over the crappy situation [I don’t think they actually said “crappy” on the radio.] Then, they agreed that everything – the economy, the climate, the way we live our lives – was changing so fast that there wasn’t really any way to anticipate what was going to happen or what skills/jobs/careers would be necessary over the short or long term. Basically they just told James that he was right, that it was very possible he wouldn’t find the world he had been expecting.
Really? That’s it?
In their posts, Kendra and Sara addressed some of the unsustainable aspects of our educational system. I guess all I want to add is that we can’t wait for the system to fix itself. We all know that the world is changing really fast and we’re all looking for better ways to do things – more sustainable ways to live, work, and act. It’s hard to think about big picture things like changing the system when you’re worried about day-to-day things like paying your rent.
Yet, at the same time, maybe the rough job market is an opportunity – a chance to avoid getting sucked into the unsustainable ways of old and to experiment with different lifestyles and different priorities.
Who knows, maybe we couldn’t do it any other way.
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Monday, February 8, 2010
Practitioners and preachers of sustainable development generally adhere to the importance of empowerment. Especially the empowerment of women. Give a poor woman in a village a cow, and she will lift not only herself but her family and many friends and neighbours out of the depths of poverty. If you set up micro finance, set up microfinance with women. Then you will have sustainability.
But what does this really mean? Can we really buy into that common narrative? In different places, empowerment means different things. In Ramallah, Palestine, some women feel that the term 'empowerment' is something they associate with a Western, neo-liberal agenda that seeks to give women material things rather than help them face the inherently inequal, unfair and deprived political situation that keeps them away from land and justice.
Self-determination is impossible - an extra goat won't do a lot of good in dealing with the underlying problems of Israeli occupation.
Other ways of enabling women to be empowered - establishing quotas for women in parliament, for example, can disempower certain groups of women with more radical ideas than 'the system' would allow. Technologies, especially movile phones and the internet, for example, have opened up new worlds and enable them to stretch to new horizons. But technologies can also be seen as sources of moral dangers. Similarly, NGOs, which are 'supposed' to empower civil society, are often far removed from the community and grassroots concerns that people have. In a situation like Palestine, empowerment of women needs to confront Israeli occupation. Which may or may not empower women in Israel - depending on how it is done. Regardless of their Israeli sisters, dealing with the hot political potato of Israeli occupation is something that many many NGOs and their donors are very reluctant to do. Sustainable development may well include empowerment, but empowerment means different things to different people in different contexts. Let's not forget the complecations - and that empowerment means dealing with power, and power means dealing with politics, and sometimes those politics are very complicated and very difficult and not, primarily, about gender.
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Monday, February 1, 2010
What sustainability means for architects, and what we can do about it. Also included is a look at the changing meaning of “footprint” -- from to plan drawing to carbon counting.
Okay, you’re right. Architects don’t really hate sustainable development; no one hates sustainable development.
I mean, if we take the Brundtland Report’s definition of sustainability -- “a process or act that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”– then sustainability is basically a premise that is impossible to oppose. You can’t hate it. Hating sustainability would be like rejoicing in mass destruction…or hoping for environmental apocalypse…or wanting to kill kittens.
This said, the premise of sustainable development poses some really tricky issues for architects, i.e. people who are in the business of designing new buildings…people whose job it is to make things that use lots of natural resources and consume lots of energy…people who build new office towers for wealthy corporations, replacing open space [“nature”] with overly-air-conditioned cubicles. See the problem?
Let me illustrate the dilemma a little further by explaining a change that has taken place with regards to the architectural conception of “footprint.” Pre-sustainability, a building’s “footprint” was simply where [and how] it interacted with the ground – the surface or space occupied by a structure. Today, the understanding of an architectural “footprint” has expanded to incorporate the much more abstract notion of the building’s impact and demand on the environment at large – the embodied energy it consumes and the carbon it emits. This change was initiated in part by ecologist William Reese’s book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Impact on Earth, and has been expanded by the recent media emphasis on carbon counting and offsetting. Whereas the first type of footprint can be represented by a drawing of the building [a “plan”], the second requires a vast array of scientific modeling and measurements, life-cycle analyses, data tables and excel spreadsheets.
The premise of sustainable development carries with it a moral imperative to “minimize footprint.” Taken to its logical extreme, this injunction is incompatible with the very act of building – not building always has a smaller footprint than building. Architects, from the outset, find themselves in a compromised position. Unable to achieve the ultimate goal [“minimize footprint,” “leave no trace,” etc.] they must constantly weigh various options, trying to anticipate which undesirable option will make their work the least bad.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. The outlook doesn't have to be so bleak. Architects can simply do their best to minimize the environmental impact of their buildings. The result may not be perfect, but with new technologies and different strategies, it can be more sustainable than what we’ve got right now. Of course, you are right, and let me assure you, there are lots of architects who are working in this way. There are even more architects who are making lots of money pretending to do so, but that is another issue altogether.
Let me just leave you with one thought. In my mind, it’s not enough to blindly accept the premise of sustainable development -- to assuage our guilt by offseting carbon in an effort to minimize our collective footprint. We shouldn’t be afraid to be critical of the premises of sustainable development and our critique shouldn’t be interpreted as a dismissal of the problems at hand. We should embrace today’s tone of looming crisis as an opportunity to reevaluate our priorities and to think really carefully about what it is, exactly, that we’re interested in sustaining.
As an architect, I guess what I’m searching for is a way to carve out a position for myself that’s somewhere in between loving kittens and hating sustainability.
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