Uneasy Green

Doug Jackson

It’s not easy being green It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things
And people tend to pass you over
‘Cause you’re not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water
Or stars in the sky Kermit the Frog [1]

The frog is right: it’s not that easy being green—although we are constantly being led to believe that it is. Millennia of human technological civilization have hardwired into our brains an unfailing confidence in our perception of the natural world, as well as in the ability of technology to easily intervene on our behalf in order to ensure our comfort and security—and, when necessary, to ameliorate or repair any damage we may cause in the process. In addition, while the past decades have seen an increasingly extensive campaign of information directed at the public detailing the seriousness of the environmental crisis, there has also been a parallel campaign by a burgeoning green industry of newly available technologies and products marketed to this public—products that prey upon individual consumers’ dual desires to both make a positive environmental impact and to do so with a minimum impact to their daily lives. [2] Accordingly, many such “green” products and technologies either overtly or implicitly extol their very ordinariness—implying that their everyday and familiar qualities will make them more broadly and easily acceptable. Meanwhile, the architectural discipline has adopted a similar strategy with respect to its own work—relying on the agency of technologies that achieve measurable environmental performance on our behalf, but which are otherwise so unremarkable that they fail to cultivate a necessary doubt or hesitation about our conception of the natural world and our habits and behaviors with respect to it.

These conditions have conspired to frame the environmental crisis as a large, but otherwise relatively ordinary, problem with a correspondingly easy technological solution. However, the apparent easiness of such efforts is contrary to the actual difficulty of the problem at hand. While these products and technologies are commendable in their aspiration to have a meaningful environmental impact, their cumulative effect is minor at best. The scope of humanity’s environmental degradation is so vast, and is fueled by such a deep-seated and long-standing anthropocentric misperception of the environment and humanity’s position within it, that such small moderating efforts do little more than distract from the enormity of the underlying perceptual problem.

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Extract from

[1] These lyrics are an excerpt from the song “Bein’ Green,” written by Joe Raposo in 1970 for the television program Sesame Street. Although the song ostensibly deals with issues of identity and self worth, the lyrics also relate the struggle to discern the remarkable qualities of nature in the face of familiar, conventional associations. This therefore serves as a useful introduction to this essay, which seeks to outline a critical role for architecture in the context of the burgeoning “green” movement—a role which would avoid the prevailing emphasis on simply showcasing new but relatively innocuous “environmentally-friendly” technologies that preserve an uncritical appreciation of the environment in favor of creating alternative spaces that dramatize the remarkably variable and emergent qualities of the natural world.
[2] Underpinning the efforts of the green industry are two prevailing fallacies, both of which align with basic marketing principles. The first is that a “butterfly effect” of small individual efforts can add up to a measurable environmental correction—which is a message that recognizes that the most susceptible market for environmentally conscious products is the individual consumer. The second fallacy is that minor lifestyle changes and/or newly available technologies can be easily deployed to render the status quo “sustainable”—which is a message honed by the understanding that this particular market of individual consumers values small, incremental changes while being simultaneously reluctant to embrace radical or profound ones.
[3] Arne Næss, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary” Inquiry 16:1-4 (Routledge: 1973), 95-100.
[4] Friedrich Nietzsche and R. J. Hollingdale, Human, All Too Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 20.
[5] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 12-17.
[6] Neil Evernden, The Social Creation of Nature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 130-132.
[7] The original quotation is: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” See Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (New York, Harper & Row, 1966), 15.
[8] Leo Marx, “Environmental Degradation and the Ambiguous Social Role of Science and Technology,” in Jill Kerr Conway, Kenneth Keniston, and Leo Marx eds., Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 324. This point is echoed by landscape architect James Corner, who has specifically called for a greater design emphasis on the cultural and perceptual issues that relate humans to their environment. “Only the symptoms of ecological distress are dealt with,” he contends, “while causal cultural foundations—the social structures that underlie dualism, alienation, domination, and estrangement—are ignored and unchanged, if not actually upheld.” He also observes that the prevailing approach to the ecological crisis fails to recognize the relatively insubstantial effect that constructed work based on such principles has had in rectifying current ecological problems, especially when compared to the magnitude of the problem. See James Corner, “Ecology and Landscape as Agents of Creativity,” in George F. Thompson and Frederick R. Steiner eds., Ecological Design and Planning (New York: John Wiley, 1997), 87-93.
[9] Amy Kulper, “Ecology Without the Oikos: Banham, Dallegret and the Morphological Context of Environmental Architecture,” Field: A Free Journal of Architecture 4:1, (2011): accessed October 1, 2016, www.field-journal.org. In this essay, Kulper clarifies that ecology and morphology are fundamentally interrelated, and examines this relationship in the context of the so-called “environment bubble” characteristic of a number of speculative architectural proposals from the 1960s—specifically that depicted in Reyner Banham’s 1965 essay “A Home is Not a House,” illustrated by François Dallegret. In this example, Kulper notes that the bubble envelope can be read either as a displacement of the technology of environmental control from the envelope to a suite of other technologies, or instead a possible embrace of the morphological tenuousness of the envelope as a critical lessening of architecture’s environmental control. This essay will argue for an approach to architectural space—a traumatic space—in accordance with the latter.
[10] However, the LEED certification program has been transformed by the value system it helped to inaugurate. The desire to achieve increasingly higher levels of certification as a way to promote the client organization’s image as “environmentally responsible” has created a program in which the goal has in some sense shifted toward the certification itself, rather than the level of environmental performance the certification is meant to represent. One example of this is that it has become possible to earn points toward building certification through abstract means that have nothing to do with the actual performance of the building in question—such as purchasing Renewable Energy Credits that support offsite renewable energy facilities.
[11] Suzanne LaBarre, “Ultimate Client,” Metropolis (June 2009), 104-114, 126-127.
[12] Ibid., 104.
[13] Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11.
[14] Craig Calhoun and Richard Sennett eds., Practicing Culture (New York: Routledge, 2007), 5-6.
[15] 2005 publication by the American Heart Association notes that only 7% of the entire population of smokers will quit on their own, while patients who have experienced a traumatic event directly related to smoking—such as the diagnosis of a chronic disease or the death of a loved one—are more likely to attempt to quit smoking. Meanwhile, other studies have cited cessation rates at 78% for individuals who have been diagnosed with certain smoking-related cancers. See C.M. McBride, K.M. Emmons, and I.M. Lipkus, “Understanding the Potential of Teachable Moments: The Case of Smoking Cessation” in Health Education Research, 18:2, 2003, 160.
[16] To be clear, Yeang’s work also includes a number of other environmental design strategies—typically passive energy strategies—that align with the discipline’s emphasis on quantifiable performance. What is being focused on here, however, is the aspect of his work that falls outside of environmental metrics: the planted sky terraces that, beyond the shading they afford, are intended to bring the building’s occupants into a supposed affinity with the natural world through an ecological aesthetic.
[17] The original proposal for the Amagerforbrænding Waste-to-Energy Plant also included a heat-tracking laser capable of projecting a pie chart related to carbon dioxide production on the underside of the mock smoke rings. This proposed “informational” overlay does not aspire to convey a particularly profound or arresting message—merely the quota of fossil carbon dioxide production—and this essay has anyway already covered the relative impotence of such information to alone effect any profound change to humanity’s practices with respect to the environment. Furthermore, such a tactic seems somewhat out of place in a project that is otherwise focused on a relatively non-didactic program-based strategy that merely juxtaposes social and recreational activities with the infrastructural activity of waste-to-energy conversion in the hope of some kind of emergent public consciousness. See BIG.dk and also realities-united.de,197,1.
[18] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 2-6.
[19] Evernden, 132.
[20] Of course, granting the occupant enhanced authorial control through spatial transformation can be beneficial with respect to making daily life less routine and unconscious, and this heightened consciousness can be instrumental in cultivating a more active and aware engagement with the environment as an interconnected ecology. This is spectacularly demonstrated in the previous six projects featured in this book. However, ratcheting up the control over one’s environment might also come at the price of reinforcing a problematic assumption of environmental mastery. As such, this essay suggests the need for a complementary approach.