ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM BY DESIGN
AUTHOR: COLEMAN COKER, SARAH GAMBLE, KATIE SWENSON, AND THOMAS FISHER
Towards a wholistic ethical and resilient architecture born of its place with hope and deep possibilities.
AN ARCHITECTURE OF SENTIENT BEINGS
by Thomas Fisher
I write these words as the U.N’s 26th Conference of the Parties, the annual gathering of national leaders and environmental activists, just wrapped up its work in Glasgow, Scotland. While the conference produced agreements on how to address some key environmental challenges, such as curbing deforestation and clamping down on methane emissions, COP26 also showed the generational divide that exists across the globe between mainly older, government officials and the youth who will inherit the environmental damage those officials and their predecessors have done. One sign of that divide: over 100,000 youth protested in the streets of Glasgow as the politicians inside the conference center prevaricated. Meanwhile, the health of the planet continues to plummet.The lack of urgency on the part of those in power in the face of extreme weather events of all sorts can cause one to give up hope in humanity’s long-term survivability. No other species depends as much as we do on so many other types of plants and animals in order for us to thrive, and as we harm them through our environmental negligence, we only harm ourselves—which may be the greatest paradox humanity faces. Never has there been a species more powerful than us, in terms of the knowledge we possess and the technology we deploy, and yet never has there been a species more reliant than us on the diversity of ecosystems that we continue to damage and more vulnerable to the climate change that we continue to cause. We are in the midst of what ecologists have dubbed the planet’s sixth great extinction, and the first one caused by an earth-bound creature: us.
At the same time, we seemly ignore the possibility that one of species that we might cause to go extinct, through our own ignorance and carelessness, might be us.In a situation like this, considering our responsibility to others—ethics—becomes not just an academic exercise but also a matter of life and death, to us as individuals and to humanity itself. Ethics asks us to think about the common good as opposed to our personal self-interest, although that typically occurs within a context in which we assume the future of the species is secure. But we can no longer assume that, given the speed with which we are extinguishing the very species we depend on. Consider the loss of bees, which pollinate one third of humanity’s food supply: without them, there will be fewer of us, and fewer of the other animals that also depend on the plants that bees pollinate, which means even less food for at least the meat eaters among us.This requires a new way of thinking about ethics and about how we steward both the natural and built environments we create. The ethicist Peter Singer offers some useful guidance here. He argues that we need to judge the utility of our decisions based on their effect not just on other humans, but also on other animals, “sentient beings” as Singer calls them, who feel pleasure and pain as much as we do. And while plant life does not have the consciousness of animals, our well-being as sentient creatures depends upon the plant communities that they—and we—need in order to live. Singer has placed the classic utilitarian goal of creating the greatest good for the greatest number in a broader context and in a way that is well-suited to the environmental challenges we face, forcing us to ask who we must include in the greatest number when trying to do the greatest good. If we only include people in that calculation, we fail the utilitarian test, and end up harming the plants and animals whose numbers far exceed ours, and whose continued existence predicates our own. Singer’s ethical stance has had its share of controversy.
“Holding a positive view of our environment as a valuable source of information encourages us to embrace and study our surroundings.”
It leads to the conclusion, for example, that we should all become vegetarians, since we do not have a right to kill other sentient beings, any more than we have a right to kill other people, in order to eat. Many people, of course, ignore such qualms and continue to eat meat, which should not surprise us: our intelligence as a species also increases our capacity for self-defeating delusion and self-serving denial. Which may, in the end, be humanity’s Achilles heel: for all of our power and prowess as a species, our penchant for placing blame anywhere else except on ourselves, the cause of most blameworthy activity, may yet prove to be our truly fatal flaw. Singer’s ethics, instead, urges us to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions on all of the other species with whom we share this planet, and to recognize that doing so also has the greatest utility for us. Singer’s view of utilitarianism has equally controversial consequences for the built environment. Of all human activities, the construction and operation of buildings demands a tremendous expenditure of material, labor, and energy, with environmental impacts all along the supply chain and across the life of the structure. Buildings, of course, have great utility, sheltering us from the elements, securing us against harm, and providing us with the space we need to live. But rarely do architects include other species in calculating the utility of our built environment; rarely do we think about the other species that occupied a building site before we arrived, and rarely do we ask how we might provide habitat for them in the process of constructing it for ourselves. Nor do enough architects consider the social and environmental consequences of material choices or design decisions, especially on far-off places or on the people producing what we specify.
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