arch-peace editorials

23 April 2009

Convoluted thoughts on the Global Crises, Scientists, Politicians... and

"Presumably you've never been in business. You're a scientist, you can't tell me about the economics of it (the effects of greenhouse emissions cut)." Senator Ron Boswell (Australian Financial Review, 16 April 2009, p.5)

Who would have thought - the global economic gloom only months after the euphoria of the Beijing Olympics and Barack Obama's election? News from the environmental front isn't any better and Victoria's Black Saturday provided a stark and immediate reminder of our vulnerability. Is there hope?

In the midst of the double global economic and environmental crises, 'valuing the environment right' has been touted as the tool that can, albeit imperfectly, best address both issues concurrently. This involves extending, global society willing, economic practices to mitigate Climate Change through emissions trading and giving value to other environmental 'products' such as the water, air, soil, forests and the flora and fauna that inhabit them, which could result in a more 'Genuine GDP'.

While the benefits sound very attractive, we need to tread very carefully in taking this route when our knowledge of ecological processes and functions, while significantly advanced, is still imperfect. This leaves the likely scenario that the market will be the most influential in 'costing' the environment, which merely continues the profit-oriented hegemony where big businesses collude with Governments to manipulate and narrow societal supply/demand for 'environmental products'. Examples that come immediately to mind are hi-tech, mega-project quick fixes such as nuclear power and/or carbon sequestration plants to address 'demand' for emissions-lite energy, and desalination plants to assuage for the increasing water scarcity. Moreover, our politicians are straitjacketed by the ‘short-termism’ curse, framed by the election cycles that encourage those 'quick-fixes'. Thus, large-scale infrastructure projects that clearly have detrimental impact on the surrounding environment are preferred over finer-scaled, more complex and messier solutions that engage with and respond to the locality (such as VEIL's alternative framework of 'Distributive Systems').

Based on these tendencies it is quite likely, even when environmental products are priced, that the market will still 'assign' higher economic value to mining the minerals than the pristine forest cover above it, which has traditionally been 'valueless'. It is also highly likely that the market will continue to favour urban sprawl into productive and ecologically sensitive landscapes as it will continue to contribute to 'growing' the GDP far more than food production which can always be industrially-produced/GMOed and/or imported more cheaply (even with emissions factored in). The huge irony is that this process of urban sprawl, accelerated over the past decade through ingenious 'financial engineering', has led to the subprime mortgages that precipitated into the current Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It is doubly ironic that this global recession has resulted in less consumption hence decreased economic activities down the line, which translates into lower GHG emissions from all economic sectors!

The dilemmas don't end there. While the environment seems to be temporarily 'benefiting', albeit in the form of slower exploitation, the GFC also result in lower societal uptake of green practices and technologies that often come with higher price tags (at least initially) and also diminished funding for R&D into the technologies. To top things off, we get conflicting messages from economists and Governments on how to get out off the "worse recession since the Great Depression". Essentially, they say, yes, we've been living way beyond our means and that this got us into this mess, but we need to consume more to get out of it! And not to worry if you don't have job security, here are 'tax bonuses' to lubricate the engine of the micro-economy, while awaiting big infrastructure projects (the aforementioned 'quick-fixes') to kick start the macro-economy.

These are indeed baffling times that, for once, have both the intelligentsia and the person on the street scratching their heads on what to expect next. For many hopeful commentators, these extreme uncertain times provide the 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity to "reset the compass" (to borrow from the title of Yencken and Wilkinson's prophetic book published a decade ago) at multiple scales. But to whom will we entrust this unenviable job? 'Everyone' is the obvious, but unfortunately too idealistic, answer - as, without a clear set of rules and directions, self interests inevitably kick in by default (as AIG executives sadly demonstrated). Just on the issue of Climate Change alone, as the opening quotation implies, scientists and politicians (advocating for the business world), have been at loggerheads for much of the past decades - in effect, neutralising each other out to the point that there's an emerging consensus that it's already too late to avoid Climate Change. The best 'we' can do now (and 'we' are still not doing much) is mitigating for its worse effects. While not enough has been done to tackle Climate Change (which is only one dimension of ecological issues), it is likely that not enough will be done to regulate the market off its proven excesses (being let off lightly, it will likely re-offend).

I seem to have drawn readers (and myself) deep into the dreariest labyrinths seemingly without any way out of this collective fate. But one has to have faith in human resourcefulness and hope (at least we have Barack Obama, the great entrepreneur of 'hope' [thankfully not Bush/Cheney!] hard at work, plugging holes on the battered Spaceship Earth). And here I look inward and ask: what about us designers? Do we - should we - have any role in this? Do we want to? Arguably we are best equipped to engage with the complexities, bridge differing, often competing multi-scalar variables to synthesise into formal and spatial processes and solutions, hinging and envisioning the issues in real space for real people. No I am not advocating for the Super-Hero designer of yesteryear (admittedly He meant well) nor contemporary Starchitects (purveyors of the spectacular, but on the whole, in the service of the [once] Masters of the Universe - the story of the 'previous era'?) nor the slick imagery conveyed by Hollywood disaster movies (often effective fictionalisation of environmental issues) - these are the 'new designers' who actually listen, empathise and engage with the highly diverse contexts and scales they are working in, establishing meaningful relationships and collaborations with people they are working with and for. Many have already been at work in various groupings such as Architects for Peace, Architects without Borders, VEIL, Urban Village etc...etc... In the times of plenty, they were working in the fringes of practice. In today's hard times, their work potentially provides possible blueprints and precedents that map out alternative pathways for practice (that at least bridge the concerns of 'scientists' and 'politicians'). Sounds like I'm patting like-minded colleagues on the back? I believe not. Design's raison d'etre can no longer be merely rooted in artistic, cosmic and/or commercial ideals. Design has to return to its basest instinct and relearn, to quote Kongjian Yu, "the art of survival"...

Sidh Sintusingha
Architects for Peace, April 2009


arch-peace said...

Well said Sidh. There is a sensible urgency in your words--not yet shared by our government or the general public (including most of us of course). What else do you think that "groupings such as Architects for Peace, Architects without Borders, VEIL, Urban Village etc...etc..." should be doing to assist awareness and a change of direction?

Anonymous said...

That is a very hard question and any answer could risk teaching a monk how to meditate! The time is very ripe for the messages and practices advocated by the various groupings tied by a genuine concern for social and environmental equity. That politicians, mainstream media, big business are talking green - even if predominantly green-wash - can count as a positive. At the very least the message is being spread to the general public. The challenge for us is in contesting the interpretation of those messages into socio-spatial practices. With coal as a major export earner, carbon sequestration becomes the solution; car companies may inevitably build cars powered by alternative energy sources; real estate developers 6-star rated homes in far-flung exurbs etc. We know that that needs to be vigorously challenged, that challenges are multiple in scale, and that we are against masters in media manipulation - and hence the militant environmentalism of Greenpeace that more effectively contests media space. Is that a path for designers to follow?

It is a hard one to answer - and maybe an alternative to militancy is celebrity advocacy (such as Michele Obama tending to her vegetable garden at the White House)? Taking another line of thought, maybe it is more practical to briefly state the strengths and weaknesses of the groupings (and work from there). What the various design groupings are already strong in is the depth of experiences and precedents of real projects. The relatively small-scale nature of most work, the ties with people and communities points to clear strength in bottom-up, 'grassroots' approaches ('slow democracy'). Crucially, there's also ties to educational institutions (the future generations of designers) - opportunities to ground youthful idealism in real practices. Just to cut myself short here before I go on and on - the design groupings are, most importantly, blessed with creativity in abundance, ready to be unleashed for the greater good! I might reflect further and follow up in a future editorial.


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