Bending the Rules
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).
Climate is commonly defined as the weather averaged over a long period. Today statistical evidence shows that our climate is changing fast, which in turn is affecting the architecture of our planet. The model is now in flux.
Recent research has led me to explore the connections between climate change action and the LGBT rights movement. Both require creative narrative-led strategies in order to affect changing perceptions. It seems that grassroots level action can be more powerful and more effective than political debate. At its most basic, these are human rights issues. This paper seeks to further interrogate the changing political, economic and physical environment as we find that the very fabric of our world is mutating. No longer are we in a space where the cause and effect of climate change can be debated – it is now about working backwards to change the cause. How might the inclusive thinking of fourth wave feminism coupled with the inertia of LGBT campaigning, be instructive when considering the need for radically re-modelling our world? As Naomi Klein points out in ‘This Changes Everything’1, the capitalist system is unable to react and resists change, so we need new narratives and new ideas to engender critical transformation.
As evidence of how this is being enacted the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network is particularly clear in its goal as being:
“To stop the escalation of climate change and environmental and community degradation, while accelerating the implementation of sustainability solutions through women’s tempowerment, partnerships, hands-on training, advocacy campaigns, and political, economic, social and environmental action.”2
I will present alternative models of engagement and seek out architects of change prepared to challenge the status quo with reference to what Nicole Seymour calls ‘Queer Ecology’3.
Keywords: Climate Change, Ecofeminism, Queer, Model, Architect, Intersection.
Architects love physical models: they can be empowering and yet cute; they can be made of junk yet be profoundly spatial; they can be perfect or they can be an approximation. At best a model is a way of understanding a context, a scale and a form. Conceptually they were seldom the thing itself but rather a tool for representation. Today the idea of ‘model’ has been disrupted; it has morphed into a series of phenomena through gaming, art-practice and predictive science to becoming a fetishised purpose and the object itself. Our gaze is distracted and we struggle to separate fact from fiction, dream from reality. We model ourselves to fit into a world we believe we can control; but the truth could not be more different. The behaviour of our model is capricious.
Traditional forms of climate modelling take data from the atmosphere, oceans land surface and ice in order to study and predict future climate trends. The World Climate Reseach Programme (WCRP) recently reported:
“While as a climate research community we do not tune our modeling efforts to achieve specific temperature targets, we must be aware that political interest in these targets is high and growing.”
It is increasingly clear that society, whether political or social, is unable to conceptualize a future that will be progressively disrupted by climate change. Whilst the weather is understood to be both natural and sometimes destructive, the idea of it being fuelled by our own pollution seems impossible to digest (although it is actually happening). To many, while the question of futurity is mediated through a belief in Geoengineering technology, that may even be able to disentangle or at least mitigate our own mess, this option belongs to a far future, rather than a near present that is measured in decades if not years. As architect and critic Peter Buchanan describes, the crisis we face is that the model has evolved:
“Constant change has been the backdrop of our lives. But now the nature of change has changed. Instead of, or besides, being subject to the forward propulsion of ‘progress’, we are in the throes of comprehensive systemic collapse.”6
We must necessarily engage with perceptions of the ‘modern’, where modernisation equates to progress and progress equates to success. Increasingly critics suggest that the project of modernity and unsustainability are intertwined. David Roberts suggests that this is a scale problem, which pitches climate against the individual:
“Climate is so unfathomably large and diffuse, and our actions — individually, even as countries — so local and parochial in comparison. It’s difficult to live with that gap.”
So, if we know that big-change is happening, and we recognise that something has to be done, then we need to engage with those in power. Not surprisingly this has proven to be anything but straightforward. But who are ‘we’?
Straight to the Point
One of the conflicts at the heart of the identity question remains one of labels – queer theory often pitches LGBT identity against the heteronormative paradigm as a binary opposition where, as Jose Munoz states:
“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and insistence on potentiality of concrete possibility of another world”?
This reflects an underlying belief that normative existence is seen as the true blueprint for the future. However in light of the knowledge that climate change is and will continue to disrupt the circumstances that have created the arguably successful Neocapitalist project, we require new narratives that recognise the entanglement of identities as well as an understanding that the future will not be conditioned by what is or what has been, but what it may have to be. Even if current generations will not be affected by the build-up of greenhouse gases, there is no question that the next generation will be. And yet to fully understand the question of futurity we need to interrogate the common presentation of the future as belonging to straight, white nuclear families. Certainly we are used to seeing pictures of ‘happy families’ with scaremongering slogans suggesting that the hetronomative lifestyle is under threat. Futhermore by pushing the connection between family and home with environmental health and wellbeing, the responsibility is privatised or at least deferred by the very system that causes environmental instability. As ecofeminist writer Greta Gaard9 writes, it is significant that those who link queer with anti-nature claim to value nature – when in fact these are the very people who sanction destructive behaviours.
Returning to the common cultural paradigm that cisgender is natural and therefore, by extension, belongs to nature in contrast with queerness which is understood as unnatural and therefore not belonging to the natural order, we see how redundant this two dimensional position has become. Indeed this belief is convenient and useful precisely because it validates the stable, powerful minority; whereas looking in the other direction at environmentally unstable settings we see the poor, those who work in low paid jobs and those with few choices. In other words climate chaos has been created out of societal inequalities with those most at risk being the least responsible. However this pervasive view has been called into question, not least through the lens of ecocriticism, to the point at which Nicole Seymour is able to suggest that in order to empathise with environmentalism it is necessary to do so through a queer eye.10 Her arguments invite us to rethink what we know about our relationship to ‘mother nature’ in terms of gendered readings and power structures. This kind of radical re-thinking is necessary if we are to have a chance of critiquing other more tangible and dangerous responses.
We want NUCLEAR power But the question remains: R-U-CLEAN? The answer appears to be: UNCLEAR"
In 2006, in an extraordinary apparent turn-around, environmental activist James Lovelock wrote that he supported nuclear power. To many this seemed to be a reversal of all that he had held dear; the idea that humanity would introduce further jeopardy to an otherwise fragile world. However reading his book ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ one senses the deep pain with which the author has reached this conclusion. His argument is that things have got so bad, we do not have time to incrementally repair the damage; and that given society is addicted to electricity, he suggests nuclear generators may be the least harmful way to produce power for now. However he warns over any reliance on technology as a permanent fix, reminding us that we can never replicate the natural process’ and cycles of the earth:
“The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards on the Earth is amongst the most hubristic ever”.
He makes the point that we all know we need to do something, but what? Looking from the position of deep ecology, where the right to wellbeing of all the living and non-living is seen as equal, we begin to sense that the very foundations of our civilization were predicated on the idea that the world was so big, it was an endless resource. We have since come to know that this is not the case. We are running out of space and materials – poisoning the earth in the process – but more importantly we have run out of time. Whether nuclear power is the answer is a big question, and I doubt it, there is a surge in building such power plants, so clearly it is happening. However this is not a sign that government is subscribing to the Lovelock model of Gaia, but rather the re-emergence of the lucrative nuclear energy industry. In the UK the £18bn Hinkley Point deal was signed in September 2016, making it the most expensive infrastructure project in the world, ever. We seem to be hedging our bets.