28 June 2005

future of sustainability --> toward interdependence

Following is my response to an article published in the journal Design Intelligence regarding the future of sustainability. The article, "HOK Reexamines Future for Sustainable Design", was written by Sandra Miller, an architect with HOK.


Thank you for your article which raises a number of important issues. The quality of the series of comments and replies here attest to their significance. I believe strongly that humanist values need to be incorporated into sustainable work (in fact in all work, architectural and otherwise). Measuring and analyzing human values is problematic at best. At worst, it can lead to horrible rigidity, regulation, and a lack of freedom (fascists, communists, and corporate capitalists are all culprits). My hope is that a series of common human values can be delineated; Perhaps in the form of a "Declaration of Interdependence".

Measuring and monitoring work against human values will necessarily have to be a work-in-progress that ideally should include the entire community of users, designers, engineers, public, ecologists, sociologists, urbanists, politicians, etc. Trying to strictly quantify qualitative issues will only have terrible consequences. Many of the arguments for sustainability have their root in ethics and morality. Some of the ideas are based on objective scientific research and the dangerous circumstances facing humanity. I will never accept the idea that a widespread success of sustainable practices will be possible if it is based solely on rational, scientific analysis. Human behavior is just way too complex to ascribe a specific method of thinking toward achieving a worthy goal. The American revolutionaries had a wide variety of reasons for wanting to break away from Great Britain. We need to work to consolidate such common interests in the interest of advancing the sustainability movement.

Sustainability, just like the 70's environmental movement before it, resonates with the public for a wide variety of reasons. Many of the reasons are self-serving, as I'm sure you're more than aware. People and corporations eager to earn the mantle of being judged "sustainable" have a mass of motivations, some of which are based on ethics and morals. Other more self-serving motivations relate to public relations, marketing, establishing brand identity, earning customer loyalty, increasing profits, etc. The fact that multifarious motivations are contributing to move sustainability forward doesn't diminish the positive nature of the changes. I believe that ultimately to be fully successful, the principles of sustainability will have to be lived and understood in a much more holistic way than is possible today. When decisions about design, materials, fabrication methods, energy use, transportation, pollution, etc., can be thought about without constant direct reference to "hard numbers" (i.e., when these principles become integrated into our thought patterns and overall approach to life) only then will more significant progress by made toward achieving the greater goals of sustainability.

In the meanwhile, we need to use all means necessary (financial, aesthetic, moral, and personal) to help move it forward. Eventually, sustainability will have to be intrinsically understood and applied in every small action and decision made by millions/billions of people on a daily basis. My hope is that children growing up today will learn to recognize the patterns of behavior required to further life on this planet. While humanism sounds wonderful (and I believe it is), it has some drawbacks as well. I believe these are the source of many scientists' concerns when they begin hearing about touchy-feely issues that smack of subjectivity (like beauty). For them, you're already on the slippery slope of things with only relative value and beyond what is not objective and measurable.

Another concern I have relates to defining humanism. Does it get defined? According to what the human race seeks to accomplish? By whom? How do ecosystems, animal life, plant life, and other natural features become measured and incorporated? What about controlling population growth? Increasing food production and distribution? What about the ethical treatment of animals in food manufacturing? What about future implications related to exploiting the world's natural resources in general? Is it possible to integrate spirituality into sustainable practices? If that's possible, then many difficult problems can possibly be addressed.

I realize that the over-arching goals of sustainability relate to some very large, relatively difficult questions and concerns. Several programs produced by National Geographic (cloaked in the form of a mystery series on PBS, i.e., "Strange Days") relate directly to some of these issues about the depletion of natural resources, the reduction in sufficient genetic variation in life forms, and other large issues. This series suggests that looking historically, that every step forward in human development from developing the use of fire, to tools, to metalworking, to agriculture, to military organization, to urban development, to today's digital/virtual world and on; that all of these "accomplishments" have in part been achieved through the sacrifice of some other species, resource, or other feature of our world. The dominance of humans on the earth has remade it altogether, such that it would be impossible to return even a few hundred years to revisit the industrial revolution, darwin, and scientific knowledge and technology in general.

If we knew then everything that we know now, would we have been able to chart a significantly better course for the world? Would the world as a complete planetary system be better off with two billion people rather 'X' billion? How can that issue be addressed meaningfully with respect to sustainability? Expecting the federal government to take control of this movement and the direction it takes would be foolhardy. A mix of private and public funding should help to balance the true results of sanalysisc anaylsis and the desirable results that one manufacturer might like to obtain over another. There needs to be independent oversight of the LEED process, which I believe is starting to take place.

Like McDonough, I agree that saying that things are "sustainable" isn't terribly captivating. For the movement to continue to grow and expand, it will need new words, new terms to help "sell" the idea to the public at large. To make this happen, more than facts and figures will be required. Financial incentives, education, local cooperation, national organization, and many other elements will have to fall into place for the kind of more substantial results that many people seems to want.

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I'm a Saint Louis architect with a small practice. I continue to develop and learn sustainable practices and incorporate them into my projects where applicable. I see this process as one of lifelong learning with a clear goal, but not entirely clear steps toward achieving those goals. Our progress in this area will most likely involve trial and error, case studies, and local and regional variations of approach. A multiplicity of approaches considered simultaneously will get us closer to our goal more quickly than following a single, unified theory that could later be proved faulty. The example of the concept of natural selection could be an entirely appropriate model for this movement. Thank you for considering my comments. I look forward to learning more.

Andrew L W Raimist, AIA
Raimist architecture, Inc.

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