18 October 2009

Swap vs Bright Green Lives: Neighborliness, Innovation and Sustainability


Excerpt from
Worldchanging, 7 April 2008

'Two approaches have tended to define the debate about sustainable prosperity in recent years. The first is conscious consumption, which manifests at the shallow end as green shopping (even greenwashing) but can prove out at a deeper level as strategic consumption. The second is green technology, which is a topic that we tend to cover here in great depth, and which covers everything from energy to transportation, housing to product design. Sometimes that technology is trivial, sometimes it is profound.

These approaches are complimentary, and both have a lot to offer as we try to negotiate our way to a bright green future. But there is a danger in thinking that all we have to do is design better substitutes for the products we already consume, and then convince people to buy them.

I call this idea "the Swap." It's sort of a middle stage on the road to a better future, where people have accepted that something must change, but have not really gotten their heads around the idea that everything must change. Therefore, the Swap is a form of denial.

It's an attractive fantasy - instead of diving a Hummer, living in a McMansion and shopping at the Gap, I can drive a Prius, live in an EcoMansion and shop at Gaiam - but it's still playing make-believe, because the systems that support and enable those choices are themselves unsustainable. Highways are destructive, even when full of hybrids; sprawl is unsustainable, even when the individual houses are green; we don't even know what sustainable clothing would look like, much less how to make conventional retail green.

No, if we're going to avert ecological destruction, we need to to not only do things differently, we need to do different things. We need to work to build dense, walkable neighborhoods composed of green buildings served by bike infrastructure and transit and green infrastructure, suffused with good design choices and smart technologies that let us live in a different set of relationships with our stuff, the materials we use and the energy that powers our lives. By embracing innovation in technology, design, planning and policy, we can transform the systems around us, and provide ourselves with a whole new array of much more sustainable choices.

Bright green lives will not look like the lives we live today. That doesn't mean that they'll be less attractive. On the contrary. If we do it right both our quality of life and our measurable prosperity may increase dramatically. Showing how and why this can happen is one of my major obsessions at the moment.

But there is a side to this transition which is less science than art: understanding how we can reconnect with one another and our better selves...to ignore the intangible, creative, emotional, even spiritual aspects of this transformation is to fail.

Many of the unsustainable systems we're trying to change offer as their major solace the idea of individual independence, substituting a layer of things and commercialism between the citizen and his or her community. This is not a new insight.

However, as we change those systems, we're going to have to embrace new ways of pleasurably re-establishing the reality of interdependence in people's minds. We need to remind people how to be good neighbors, how to build friendships, how to share, how to see their enlightened self-interest in public goods, how to be a good citizen.

Most North Americans, I'm afraid, have lost the arts of community. The same is true of a great many Europeans and Japanese. Indeed, this loss, this "bowling alone" mentality, seems to be a major symptom of the post-industrial transition.

So one of the major design challenges we face is figuring out how to use architecture, urban planning, the arts, new forms of community engagement and new forms of commerce to both lure people back into the public sphere and equip them with the mental and emotional tools to thrive there.

What might such tools look like? Some are simple placemaking tools, like benches in parks. Others are more technical, like open government tools or walkshed technologies. Still others more conceptual, like artworks that remind us to make heroic day-to-day choices or that sharing can be easy and fun.

But without a doubt, the best tools are the ones that incorporate their lessons into their operations. That's part of why I find A Pattern Book for Neighborly Houses interesting:

"According to national research studies, a large percentage of Americans would accept affordable housing in their neighborhood if it fit in. The goal of this document is to provide a resource for Habitat for Humanity to create houses that are neighborly and will contribute positively to our nation's great neighborhoods, while also playing a constructive role in the creation of desirable new neighborhoods."

While the pattern book is primarily focused on low-income housing, the patterns it recommends would make most any single-family house more neighborly than conventional construction. It's worth a look, and it suggests to me a whole new discipline in bright green design that aims at conviviality and expressed connection.

The point being, I don't think it's impossible to imagine us getting much better at hacking designs to create stronger communities. While we don't want to wait around for a mythical transformation of human nature, some very human inclinations and strengths go largely untapped in contemporary life, and I don't think that when we approach changing the world, we ought to exclude the possibility of changing ourselves.

So what do you think? What ways do you see to incorporate neighborliness into sustainable innovation, and visa versa? How would you go about building a bright green community?'

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comment here. Please note these stories are posted for information rather than for debate; if you wish to disagree with something posted, no problem, but since I post both things that I do and don't support, it would be appreciated if the criticism was about the issue.