GREEN BUILDING: CHANGING
THE WAY WE BUILD
This piece was initially on green building, but, in retrospect, that's not really what this article is about. What it's really about is something much larger, and that is vision and imagination. Not R-value or insulation, or even solar or renewable energy. I want to discuss thinking outside the box.
Because green building isn't really about green building. It's about visioning the kind of world that you want to live in - no holds barred - and then working backward to create a strategy on how to get there.
When we talk about building something, anything, it starts out as an idea in someone's head. Everything that we see in the human realm - whether it's a beeper or a clock or a car or golf course - got here from an idea. Remember that. It's very important.
From infancy, we're socialized. We're brought into the world and taught how to use sounds and symbols to communicate, we're taught how to think and what types of thoughts are more highly prized than others. We're even taught, implicitly or explicitly, as in the case of architects and engineers, about how buildings are built.
But somehow, with all of our brilliance, we sell ourselves short. We can get to the moon, we can clone ourselves, but the buildings and communities that we create, that we live and work in, are unhealthy – culturally, spiritually, and biologically.
There are reasons for that. In the industrialized world, thinking tends to be linear and fairly short-sighted. There's some creativity, but it often falls within the box, within the realm of accepted assumptions, theorems, and behaviors. There is not much thought given to what we take, what we make, and what we waste. And it works just like that. It's a linear pattern - you take or extract or harvest a resource, then you make something with it and then you get rid of it when you don't want it anymore. Take-make-waste. This product life cycle is often referred to as "cradle-to-grave," because you're taking a raw material, using it, and then throwing it away, and that's the end of its life. Cradle-to-grave.
But as many of us have learned, there's no such thing as "getting rid of" in a global ecosystem. You can't really throw anything away - you can only put it somewhere else, like in a landfill. So a good imagination has to think beyond the box and in terms that aren't linear. But what else is there, aside from cradle-to-grave thinking, in production? How should we think about production, about making buildings and other things, if we can't use the linear, take-make-waste model?
Well, there's no sense in reinventing the wheel. We just need to find some good models to pattern our production processes after. And it looks like we're in luck because we're surrounded by the oldest and most tested systems models.
Our planet has been going through evolutionary processes for millions of years. What better, more tested model could we have to learn from? Learning from natural systems is the key to our long-term survival and the survival of the other species on this planet.
For instance, in nature, there is no waste. Instead, one organism's waste is another organism's food. There is no "garbage" that doesn't feed into the processes of something else. Following the natural model, this means that we need to eliminate the concept of waste, in building, in production, and in our lives. We don't just need to reduce and recycle. We need to move toward zero-waste because waste is the product of inefficiency. We need to imitate the circular, closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle models found in nature.
Any waste that does result from a production process, like making a building or a pair of shoes, should be used as a food source for something else, to feed into the life cycle of another product or thing. That's where ideas like recycling and creating eco-industrial parks came from. Taking the waste from one production process and using part or all of it in another production process.
In our rethinking of the way that the world should be, in our thinking outside the current paradigms to design ones that better serve the needs of a global ecosystem, we have to keep in mind our planet's carrying capacity. Earth does not offer an endless supply of resources, but, depending on population growth and the amount of resources that we use, we may have enough to take care of our modest needs.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Nature can look after the needs of people. It cannot look after the greeds of people." We have to watch what we use and how we use it. This isn't just smart thinking. It's practicality at an impasse. The old way's not over yet, and the new way hasn't come into its own.
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