Monday, November 15, 2010

Reflections on an Emerald Vision

Don Kahle (photo by Erik Bishoff)

One more post about last month’s 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference. This one is guest-authored by AIA-Southwestern Oregon Executive Director Don Kahle, whose writing inspired my previous blog post entitled “Ambition.” An address to the AIA-SWO membership, Don’s “Reflections on an Emerald Vision” is a testament to the broad-ranging dialogue stirred by the 2010 Conference.

I am most grateful that I came away from our region conference with a few big ideas for myself. I’ve pondered them for the past few weeks and they have grown and fed one another since. I thought it might be useful to share.

Alan Durning started his talk with a series of “highly improbable” outcomes from seemingly small events. He identified one as the beginning of abolitionism, a hundred years before the end of slavery. Another marked the start of what became the women’s suffrage movement in America. He could have added the civil rights movement, which happened — miraculously — in our lifetimes.

He suggested that these movements began with the articulation of a moral imperative — a cause that was so self-evident that the chaos to the system reached an inevitable conclusion, that people should not be considered property, or that women deserve what men have. I read recently that America’s 1788 presidential election in America had only 39,000 voters — even though there were approximately 4 million people living in America at the time.

That got me thinking that maybe there’s only one moral imperative, only one self-evident truth that’s powerful enough to shape a society and maybe a world. How does the Declaration of Independence put it? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ….” What if “equal rights” is the only moral imperative?

Can’t then stewardship of the planet and whatever is “beyond green” be understood as equal rights for future generations? Isn’t it really that simple? We’ve learned that people are equal, even if they aren’t land owners, even if they are of a different race or gender. Maybe the next step is for us to consider the rights of the unborn!

Alan Durning (photo by Erik Bishoff)

This is of course not new. The Great Law of the Iroquois is to consider the impact on the next seven generations, but it’s not an easy concept for Western minds. As Groucho Marx once quipped, “What have future generations ever done for us?” Exactly. If we can’t see it, it can’t be real.

Durning quoted Wendell Berry, challenging the idea that ours is a materialistic society. Far from it, the farmer-poet insists! If we were materialists, we would take care of things. We are symbolists, so the make-model-color of the car we drive speaks volumes about who we understand ourselves to be. That’s not materialism! It’s the opposite.

Tom Bowerman showed a graph during his talk about the Happiness Index. It turns out (building on the argument that we’re not materialistic in the truest sense) that wealth doesn’t make people happier. What does seem to correlate strongly to happiness is distribution of wealth. In nations where everybody has roughly the same wealth, happiness was higher. This was equally true in poor Latin American countries or rich Scandinavian countries.

This is an important discovery, because Bowerman’s research shows that consumption habits may be easier to change than conservation habits. It’s also heartening because people seem more willing to change than governments. When people are happier, they can be less susceptible to the lure that they will be happier if they consume more.

Tom Bowerman (photo by Erik Bishoff)

Bowerman and I have started exploring whether the same dynamic that shapes happiness might also turn up in “job satisfaction.” If people are satisfied at their work, could they be more easily persuaded to curb their consumption and become materialists in the literal (and Iroquois) sense?

Even more exciting, could employers have a direct impact on their employees’ lives and choices by dividing the salaries at the company more evenly? It’s very possible that a fair and transparent salary distribution would bring better results for the planet than all the recycled paper and car pooling a company can devise.

Wouldn’t it be exciting to see that the impacts are that direct for the planet and the unborn generations, and so completely within our control? Healthy work environments might be the best expression of what’s “beyond green.”

But when you look at it closely, you see that environmental threats are only one of the perils we face as a planet. Hunger and war for starters, but a hundred others as well. If we solve global warming, we’re gonna crash and burn a different way, and maybe just as soon.

That makes me believe now that we’re shaking the wrong end of the rattle. We know what’s going to be necessary to avert a climate disaster — collaboration, inclusiveness, equality, far-sightedness. These are all values that architects practice every day. But those values will also be necessary to solve the other quandaries we face as a species.

I now believe that your profession — your discipline — is what will bring us beyond green. That’s really exciting to me.


Don Kahle

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