arch-peace editorials

17 October 2008

Too little, too late?

I recently attended the Sustainable Building 08 conference in Melbourne. This is an international conference held every 3 years that brings together leading thinkers in sustainability in all aspects of design, planning and construction. The conference opened with the ubiquitous addresses from local politicians, the first from Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett and the second from State Environment Minister Gavin Jennings. I have to confess to drifting off during both presentations, distracted by the book of abstracts and the goodies that the conference had to offer; but suffice to say the speeches contained the usual rhetoric, waxing lyrical about the various achievements and future initiatives of both Federal and State Governments. Both Ministers were quick to exit the building following their address and so missed the final opening keynote presentation from Bill Rees (of ‘Our Ecological Footprint’ fame). It was at this point that the mood of the conference drastically changed. The optimistic cheer of the politicians was replaced by a depressingly frank description of the current state of the environment: by 2015 half of all housing stock in China will have been built since 2000; floor space per capita has increased by more than 300% over the last 50 years in the United States; human enterprise exceeds global carrying capacity by 25-30%; we need to reduce ecological footprints by 80% in the developed world for an ‘equitable earth share’…. These ‘facts’ came as no surprise to the educated audience, but strung together they presented a bleak state of affairs. More worryingly, however, was the underlying message that permeated Bill Rees’s presentation and many others at the conference – that we have done too little too late. It seems that the pace of environmental degradation is outstripping even the estimations of the most conservative of scientific models. The question is not whether and how we can avert the devastating consequences of climate change, but rather whether and how we choose to manage the inevitable social and environmental crises that will result from the vast quantities of greenhouse gases that we have already pumped into the atmosphere. How and where should we accommodate climatic refugees? How should we choose to direct economic recession? How shall we reorganise our urban centres to cope with the impending sea level rises and increased temperatures? Bill Rees concluded that efficiency is not the answer and can only ever lead to what he termed ‘quasi sustainability’. In fact, he argued that if anything efficiency is making things worse - the more efficient we become, the more we consume and the really ‘inconvenient truth’ is that we must give up on material growth. This is not a picture that the world’s politicians are ready to hear and the message would doubtless have fallen on deaf ears had the Ministers elected to stay to the end of the session. Personally I have mixed feelings about these ‘truths’. I firmly believe that efficiency is not the answer and can lead us to some highly dubious outcomes (maybe the ‘eco-hummer’ will one day make an appearance?). This might be the way the world is heading and it is easy to give up hope in the face of such overwhelming statistics of consumption despite growing awareness of global environmental issues. Nevertheless, I’m not quite ready to batten down the hatches and settle in to weather the global environmental storm. We have doubtless done too little, and it may be too late, but I have to remain optimistic (after all I have recently brought two children into this world). As a member of the audience of the converted at the conference, the doomsday messages just left me feeling flat. While they weren’t all doom and gloom, I was left wondering whether the next generation of sustainability thinkers would be inspired and spurred into action as I was almost 15 years ago when I attended my first sustainability conference. Most of the leading sustainability thinkers at the conference came into this field thinking that they could make a difference. I hope we can present a bright enough picture so that the next generation feel they can too.

Ceridwen Owen
Architects for Peace, October 2008


beatriz said...

Great editorial as usual. It has to be a bit bleak if it is reflecting on the time we are going through, doesn't it?
I am perplexed by discussions about the market downfall which do not discuss our irresponsible consumption. In fact, the preoccupation is still with economic growth!

Anonymous said...

my hopes are with newly elected president Obama. let's hope that his leadership contributes to redress these ills.

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