A post in response to The World in 2050: Creating/Imagining Just Climate Futures, an online conference organized by the University of California- Santa Barbara Environmental Humanities Initiative 

I am inundated with climate change talk this week, the sea-level of information rising past my ears. An online conference, the brilliant idea and no doubt laborious undertaking of UCSB’s EHI program, can be described, with misleading simplicity, as a collection of YouTube-like videos and online discussion forums. In no way do I wish to downplay the work involved or the sophistication of the organization of this event, but for those fresh to the idea with this post, that’s a pocket description good enough to go on with. For the real thing, see here or my earlier post about the conference here.

New perspectives beget more new perspectives. Naomi Klein’s “this changes everything” implies that climate change and its impacts are too big to affect only the usual suspects in environmental issues. Participation in climate change is not voluntary. Its impact is coming for you, even if you don’t believe in it or if you’ve elected to do something with your life that has nothing to do with climate change – or so you thought.  

If this changes everything, it changes your field, your career, your day-to-day. How will it change environmental design fields? Bill McKibben’s conference keynote gave me his idea of “changing the zeitgeist,” as he says that’s what movements do – they spur this change in spirit and that makes their impact much bigger than it would be otherwise.

What would it mean to change the zeitgeist of architecture and related fields?

It would mean changes in the technical, practical craft that lies at the heart of these professions; changes to the daily grind of practice and course curricula of degree programs; shifts in the skill sets we own as our core, regardless of where we as individuals stand politically or geographically.

It would mean changes like: 

The rise of reuse
Dig very far into conversation about climate change impacts, mitigation, and adaptation, and you find population decline or shifts. This ranges from the radical and apocalyptic – massive population declines due to disaster or choice – to the moderate and incremental – people moving back to the city core from suburbs. These scenarios share the image of a built environment grown too large for its current residents, the footprint of a former age profligate with square feet and asphalt. What will happen to these redundant buildings and parking lots and sidewalks and so on? A large part of what we do as architects and what we learn in degree programs is about construction – how to build, how to detail, how to communicate to others how we want these things done. That emphasis should shift from use to reuse, flipping the script of new construction as the norm and adaptive and material reuse as the specialty. New construction and manufacture of materials takes energy and resources, as does demolition. What’s needed is greater thrift with materials and  existing conditions.

Transportation after cars
You saw this coming when you saw the huge carbon footprint of transportation in this earlier post: that’s 25% in transportation alone. Others have noted that this is a promising place to cut; Erik Assadourian’s conference keynote goes farther and calls for essentially no private cars, part of the One Planet Lifestyle. “No private cars” is a tangible goal, and it’s also a firm foothold to imagining the design implications of the coming world. We know how to do this; it’s how cities used to be, and how many of our older city cores still are, really, imperfectly adapted to the age of the automobile. Without cars, does your city look like the 19th century, or is it something different – an update or a new creation? We’ve spent a long time and a lot of ink mourning the passing of a host of other characteristics of that 19th century pre-car city, the collateral damage of our love affair with combustion: the front porch, the walkable city, street life, neighborhood social ties, etc. We could put those pieces back together with our 21st century necessities and preferences. What’s your neighborhood without the car? Your subdivision? Your house? (That’s a great studio project – someone make a note.)

Infrastructure off the coast
McKibben also noted the spatial correlation between the location of a majority of US infrastructure and coastal areas that will be inundated as sea levels rise. Even without the private car, that still leaves energy, utilities, water, wastewater, and other transportation – and remember, that’s more important without that car. Interconnection is a basic characteristic of infrastructure, so if you lose a large proportion of it, no guarantee that what’s left will work on its own. Decentralization is the way of the moment (the zeitgeist?) because of calls for greater resilience to events like Superstorm Sandy, but we need to push that further. The bottom line seems to be that the center of the country will need infrastructure to serve more people (one of those population shifts), and it will need to be more modular and decentralized, and of course, we need to accomplish this with a minimum of GHG production. Meanwhile, in the developing world, improvement in services in some places has come through a kind of leapfrogging approach that skips development of large centralized 20th century installations (eg the interstate highway system, the electrical grid) in favor of the direct adoption of current decentralized technologies (eg: cell phones, portable solar chargers for devices, water sterilization pens). This kind of lighthanded, individual service provision is a new model for us here in the US, but we’re tiptoeing toward it as smartphones replace land lines. Maybe it’s time to borrow back some of that technology and mindset for our own country.

Whether these are the right new emphases or not, we environmental designers need to lead our own change in this, because the world is changing and we need to change with it if we’re going to keep shaping it. We are, by nature, doers more than dreamers, people who chose the practical route over art school (or after art school). People like us, who aren’t professional advocates or activists for the environment, are exactly what the fight to grapple with climate change needs. This is your problem, not just someone else’s, because…this changes everything, and everything includes you.