Reflections on “Authenticity + Action”

Authored by: Thea Rozenbergs, July 17, 2018

Think of a flower. A flower adds beauty to our world. A flower provides sustenance to pollinators, and is a contributor to habitat. Some flowers have roots that burrow into the soil, creating tiny highways that allow rain to penetrate deep below the surface, so that it eventually recharges ground water reserves rather than flowing across the surface as runoff. Some flowers sequester radiation. A flower gives back as much to the environment, if not more, than it takes. A flower uses only the energy of sun that radiates down on it, the nutrients and minerals in the soil below it, and water that passes by it. What if we built buildings that behaved like flowers? That is the main question behind the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge. The Living Building Challenge is just that – a challenge, to build buildings that will not only allow us to subsist in the future, but to live in a better future.

I became involved with the local Twin Cities Living Building Challenge Collaborative, hosted by LHB, in 2013. This past May, I was able to spend a week in Portland, Oregon attending my first International Living Future Institute’s 2018 Unconference dubbed “Authenticity and Action”. It was an especially exciting time to attend because my client, Industrial Louvers, was being awarded for certification under the Living Product Certification for their line of building sunshades – but that is a longer story for another post.

Every year the UnConference is a catalyst for a group of people who come together to talk deeply about sustainability. It is a safe place where advocates for sustainability/resiliency can share ideas, successes, and failures. It is a place where sustainability advocates don’t have to debate if climate change is real, why it matters if 2 degrees Celsius average global temperature is actually a tipping point, or if so, how much of a responsibility we as humans in the developed world bear – we can skip all of that just jump right in to the discussion about what we can, and are, doing about it.

To be clear – climate change is real, and its impact on our world will be increasingly significant unless we act. But I would suggest that hope is found in the very fact that humans are responsible for climate change – because our responsibility means that we have the agency to do something to address it. And more than that, we must act and do something about it – for in the words of Ban Ki-moon “There is no plan B for action as there is no planet B” (New York Climate Week, 2014).

So – what are we doing now?
At the UnConference we discussed the Paris Climate agreement. A lot. We discussed the US’s withdrawal from the agreement, and we discussed all the amazing things that cities and companies in the US are doing to step up, take personal responsibility – and act. Chris Trott, Partner and Head of Sustainability at Foster + Partners gave an inspiring presentation on the Paris Climate Agreement and showed some of their research on the impact of buildings on the climate. Foster and Partners works globally, and to help them understand how they are impacting sustainability worldwide, they normalized over 200 international rating systems by creating tiers of sustainability, and then evaluated the impact of each tier on global climate change. LEED Gold – which is widely considered current best practice – comes in at a “Tier 2” and Platinum is a “Tier 1”.

Presentation slides from the Big Bang Dinner Keynote Speaker Chris Trott, Partner and Head of Sustainability, Foster + Partners

The punchline of the presentation is that if all buildings were built to a LEED Platinum level, our global temperature would still raise by 3 degrees Celsius. That reality may seem bleak – it never feels good to realize that when we are doing “our best” we are not doing good enough. But at the risk of sounding like an overly idealistic emerging professional that still thinks architecture can save the world – I still think we actually can.

So what else can we do?
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman, Coraline

I believe that we can beat Climate Change. I believe that design and architecture can be part of the solution. I believe that technology is a tool that we can use to solve a problem – not the answer to that problem. I believe that we can all start doing just a little bit better, and that there is reason to hope that small actions can lead to large impacts. There. I said it.

We can plant urban trees – trees sequester carbon, cool our cities, provide habitat, and improve property values.

We can eat locally and support local economies.

We can drink less coffee, eat less meat, and walk or bike more.

We can pledge, as individuals, companies, or cities to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement, the AIA 2030 commitment, or any other pact that inspires us to do better.

We can benchmark how much energy and water our buildings use, and set goals to reduce our consumption.

We can turn off electronics in our homes and offices when they are not in use.

We can work towards building regenerative human environments, by building collaborative teams based on trust, so that we can take chances on new ideas, fail fast, and learn from those failures.

We can envision a better world for all life on spaceship earth, and we can act to make it happen. We can believe the fairy tales when they tell us we can beat the dragon. We can accept that we cannot succeed alone, that no one person holds the answer, and that we need to listen to all voices – especially those that have been marginalized – because the answers to this problem will not come from repeating our current history over and over.

We can beat this dragon – but only if we are willing to try.

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