Text | James Soane
Visuals Courtesy | The Author
James Soane is a qualified architect, teacher and writer based in London and runs Project Orange with his partner Christopher Ash. He has taught at Kingston University and the Bartlett and currently is Director of Critical Practice at the new London School of Architecture where he is pursuing his interest in the practice of architecture and new models for education. He is a contributing editor to ‘A Gendered Profession’ (pub Nov 2016).
Inevitably we come round to discussing the question of risk; to ourselves, to the environment and to the future. We have seen how the idea of the future is often framed by a hetero/wealthy/white viewpoint, even when they are talking about threats, and where the threats are to their offspring. However the realization that this is not just a risk to the future, but a risk to the present is beginning to gain traction. Naomi Klein talks about how China is fast becoming an eco-conscious nation, not least because the children of the new establishment are sickly due to the toxic urban environments of the power cities.
The threat of climate change is also registering as a matter of national security, with the Pentagon concerned about the 1,774 coastal military installations the US operates; they refer to it as a ‘threat multiplier’. However the problem remains how to model this threat? In theory science should be able to provide useful data, and yet has proved risky time and time again. The Australian government have admitted that the emission cuts they undertook to implement at the COP 2015 summit were based on false data. Independent models have suggested little will change in the next 15 years. Meanwhile globally, some $14tr is slated for new fossil fuel extraction and freight over the next 20 years.
With so many examples to drawn on, we see that the real risks are being played out between government and big business. Government does not wish to alienate the business interests of commerce, especially the extraction industry, while industry wants to be seen as sensitive enough to the ‘issues’ in order to maintain their market share. In fact this symbiotic relationship is a closed loop, as they rely on each other to survive and thrive. There is no critical feedback in this co-dependence, no real consultancy with the people they serve and certainly no sense of urgency. Business is worried about the risk of not being successful in the political short term. We, on the other had, are increasingly desperate; searching for ways to shake up this cozy, dualistic reciprocity and to effect deep change. We therefore find that in order to make our voices heard, we have to resort to grass roots strategies – to tell stories between ourselves and for once technology is on our side. Communication has never been easier.
Networking the future
“Let us be clear. Our planet and all species are in serious danger, humans caused this - and our response must be substantive, urgent, and everywhere.”
The Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, WECAN, calls for a paradigm shift in how we all live on the planet and to protect the Earth’s diverse ecosystems and communities. They talk about the importance of leadership by women and of having a diverse network embracing a whole-systems approach. The urgency is reflected in calls for climate justice, again noting that those most affected by climate change are paying the price for the growth, development and pollution model that has not helped them. So, if we engage in the challenge to redefine the old view of our ecosystem as something that is straight-forward and under our control, how might a new definition or model advance the conversation?
A useful precedent resides in the progress made by the LGBT community who through strategic action fought for equality and rights for same-sex couples across the world. It is no coincidence the popular symbol of the rainbow flag, was conceived, in 1978, as a statement of human rights. Each colour conveyed a meaning and in this context, it is timely to remind ourselves that many of them reflect a deep connection to the planet: red is life, yellow is sunlight and green is nature. It is also a spectrum of colours and values, the significance of which continues to be understood and played out. While this flag is internationally recognized, it seems that there is no such symbol or flag for the environmental movement. The nearest universal symbol is that for re-cycling…which is hardly the same thing.In a world where ethical positioning has become reduced to a logo or a brand strapline we see how the wishes of climate change activists are mirrored in rhetoric, and yet there is no genuine follow through, no commitment to change. We need to move beyond petitions that live and die in a couple of weeks, hashtags that trend then disappear and headlines that become yesterday's news, into a progressive joined up a conversation with multiple participants. As Cam Fenton reported:
“It’s 2016, politicians don’t need the climate movement to apologize for them not doing enough, they need to us to organize to force them to do more…For the climate movement to be successful, we need a movement ecosystem that’s dynamic and full as the rainforest”
The crisis faced by many activists is whether it is better to attack from the inside or the outside, whether to assimilate or transform and can be particularly true when it comes to the examination of queer identity. However, I would argue that the question of how to rebalance our relationship with the planet goes beyond the question of individual identity, and even of national identity, to one of casting a new identity for democracy; one that is able to transform our worst habits of Capitalist consumption and to embrace a constellation of identities. In a world so deeply interconnected and entwined we have observed how so many facets of modern life have become similar; an indication that despite claims to cultural diversity, we are in fact being regularised. We want to wear the same things, eat the same food, travel to the same places and be the same people. The fight to be different is critical to the success of any climate-led strategy precisely because the very nature of our planet is one of massive diversity. This ecology is the result of millennia of evolution and yet in the past 100 years we have begun to effectively and systematically destroy it. The natural world demonstrates that the question of ecology, nurture and survival is a symbiotic paradigm where reliance is dependant on circumstance. Being different is the key to participating in the model. If you eliminate and destroy parts of the framework, then inevitably the laws of cause and effect will ensue. While the planet is not going anywhere soon, the nature of the plant is in a state of agitated flux, and we the architects. There is further concern that the so called success of the Paris Climate summit is being politically leveraged to suggest we have cracked the issue and made serious progress. As John Vidal puts it:
“Climate change has become for government an excuse to build nuclear power and ditch other green policies…After 20 years of battling to get the government to take the climate seriously, we must wake up to the fact that the very air we breathe is killing us and making us bankrupt.”
Some radical thinkers there is only one solution; to deploy all the resource currently used in the extraction industry and elsewhere into making tools for renewable energy. Only by cutting out CO2 emissions can we expect to keep some kind of climatic status quo. The situation has been likened to a war, and it is hard to argue that the aftermath of nearly all climate-related disasters resembles a war zone. The problem is no one wants another war, and the metaphor is unhelpful.
Less power is more power
“This is a change model which requires us to reimagine leadership from being an organizational issue to one of the building movements around shared purpose and mission”
Of course, the supreme irony when it comes to climate justice, is that all of us are in the about-to-be if not already oppressed majority. In thinking about any major societal change; be it gay marriage, legalization of drugs, the age of consent, human rights, we know that such changes to the law are preceded by years of grass roots campaigning.
“Twenty years ago, nobody would’ve thought that gay marriage was possible, but the culture has changed. And a lot of that definitely has to do with smart, strategic, interesting and nonstop organising and campaigning by LGBT people and their friends, family and allies”.
The problem for climate action is that it requires more than a few new amendments, successful legal challenges and high profile political wins. This question comes down to the architecture of our power base, the accepted model for (unsustainable) growth and for the ongoing plundering of our resources. So far, stories of destruction, the tracking of lost environments and the death of species only seem to re-enforce how lucky and privileged ‘we’ are (especially when the ‘we’ are the powerful few). Large corporations, nationalised industries, banks and the global financial system are based on a model that is not only out of date, but has become carnivorous. We are now feeding our own destruction.
The only way we can mitigate the damaging consequences of future disasters is to recognise that we can build alternative societal models, ethical financial structures and systems enabled by technology that work to nurture not destroy. Wehave to be radical; we have toengage in queer tactics to celebrate diversity and we have to beat on the doors of power. As architects, we know that within experimental new forms we can create a sense of place, a house and a home, a habitat and an environment. We can find the familiar within the unfamiliar. We need to believe the mantra ‘think globally, act locally’ has traction. The future is not an organization or a manifesto, not a government or an industry rather it is a communal consensus with multiple opportunities; shared intentions to redefine what climate leadership can look like. Stop extraction, stop burning fossil fuel. This means living with less, changing our routines and investing in other ways of living.
If there is one thing we can take away from the political debacles of recent years, it is that change happens unpredictably. Not always in a good way, but in a way that reminds us that we have responsibilities to make the right sort of change happen. As architects we also know that the future lies in our creativity; the design is projective. We are trained tomodel the future.
By chance I came across a recent interview with Lovelock who, at 97 in 2016, is energetically provoking the establishment, revealing that some of the climate change predictions and models he had referred to in his earlier work had proved to be overly pessimistic and doomsday. In fact he has turned his gaze to the future of artificial intelligence and robots, which he sees as another path towards destruction, reflecting that robots won't care one bit about climate change. And yet, while indeed there may be other causes for concern, surely as the unelected custodians of the planet, we know we have to believe we can do better.