Unless you’re living in a news or social media bubble, it’s unlikely you’ve missed seeing the devastating effects Australia’s climate change exacerbated wildfires and drought have had on the continent. One of the images that still sticks with me is that of the young boy, mask over his face, steering his family’s boat as they flee a large bushfire – flames and smoke enveloping the entire scene within an apocalyptic reddish-orange glow.
The loss of life (humans and wildlife), the destruction of property, infrastructure and habitat, the negative impacts on air quality, biodiversity and access to water, and the resulting refugees will have long term impacts on Australia’s economy and general well-being. What’s worse, these negative impacts have been, and will continue to be, inequitably distributed among the continent’s populations. Not surprisingly, the resulting stress already placed on individuals and social institutions has weakened community cohesion through anti-social actions like water theft.
Some view Australia as a Canary in the Climate Change Coal Mine, though similar climate change exacerbated disasters are already showing up in the rest of the world. Examples range from the damage and death resulting from flooding in the U.S. Midwest and Great Plains, to the exacerbation of violence against women in countries with already high degrees of gender inequality, to an increase in international conflicts.
Many of the horrors of climate change that not long ago were thought to be decades in the future, are showing up in the here and now. The terrible costs now being extracted at the individual and societal levels will only get worse, with some parts of the globe predicted to soon be dealing with up to six extreme weather events at once. As a result, forward-thinking governments, NGO’s, businesses, scientists, and our youth are among those calling for significant climate action now.
So, what does this mean for those of us working in the AEC Industry, in our day to day, scattered across the globe? With the built environment generating nearly 40% of the annual global GHG emissions, embodied carbon responsible for approximately 11% of these annual emissions, and building operations roughly 28%, it means we can no longer just strive for zero emissions.
It means that every project we work on that isn’t effectively Net Zero, accounting for embodied carbon and dirty electric grids, is pushing us toward the climate precipice. Less bad, Net-Zero ready, LEED Gold, etc., may slow us down some, but they won’t be enough. With so little distance to the edge remaining, more rapid deceleration is required. Nor will design innovation, technical prowess, or even creative financing be enough to obtain this rapid deceleration.
Ultimately what’s needed is more consistent prosocial decision-making – deciding to take actions that benefit others and society as a whole. It’s about decisions being guided and constrained by feelings of connectedness to those across the charrette table, in your community, as well as those on the other side of the globe. Annual profit margins that directly benefit a smaller group of people, particularly at the expense of others either in the now or in the future, can’t be what drives decisions during charettes, design meetings, or construction meetings. Value engineering (VEing) as it’s typically carried out must cease to exist.
In our day-to-day, on all of our projects, we must push the boundaries – and I’m talking Living Building Challenge, Well Building Standard, and Passivhaus (Passive house) type of boundary-pushing. We must maximize passive and regenerative strategies, make use of renewables (onsite or offsite), and account for embodied carbon while also meeting other occupant and organizational needs related to health and general wellbeing. At every meeting we must aggressively push back against common short-sighted VE processes. And every project must be evaluated post occupancy, and really throughout its life, to verify that it’s performing as needed.
Prosocial decision-making is about finding the most appropriate contextual solution that maximizes human health & well-being at the individual occupant level, at the community level, all the way up to the global level. And this must take into account how our short and long-term health and well-being are impacted by varying interactions with other species.
This includes solutions that have a direct individual impact, such as eliminating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from our interior environments to those with a more indirect and/or larger species level impacts, such as minimizing energy consumption or embedded carbon within construction materials. It's about "selfishly" looking out for our species long term through design, construction, and operations actions that ultimately help maintain a healthy global ecosystem for the long term.
At the individual project level, I’ve provided suggestions on how to facilitate the necessary prosocial decision-making in the following publications: Constructing Our Niches: The Application of Evolutionary Theory to the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industry and Blurring the Line Between “Others” – A Practical Application of Cultural Multilevel Selection Theory. Essentially this is about formulating and maintaining a common set of aspirations and goals that links all of a project’s key stakeholders together as well as connects them to the larger world. And evolutionary theory along with anthropology and other behavioral sciences offer key insights into structuring the design, construction, and post occupancy building management processes in a manner to facilitate prosocial decision-making.
But this isn’t enough to rapidly get us where we need to be. There are larger organizational, political, governmental, and economic spheres of interaction that work against pro-social decision-making at the individual project level. They do so because these spheres of interaction are driven by such things as the myth of “homo-economics” and an incomplete understanding of what’s most valuable to sustainably-functioning human social systems. Hint, short term annual profit margins aren’t as valuable to us individually or as a species as some would portray them.
Mariana Mazzucato, professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London (UCL), and Founder/Director of UCL's Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, has argued “… the way the word ‘value’ is used in modern economics has made it easier for value-extracting activities to masquerade as value-creating activities.” Most of us don’t think about this in detail, but what’s deemed valuable in our free market economy has been defined and manipulated by those benefiting the most from the status quo. Pharmaceutical companies demand exorbitant fees for the drugs they produce because their assessment of value ignores the contribution of taxpayer dollars to the drug’s development. And they lobby and fund political campaigns to help maintain that definition of value for the drugs they produce.
Trapped in the capitalistic worldview of never-ending growth, communities often make use of various tax incentives to lure businesses in exchange for the not always fulfilled promise of job creation. This may come at the expense of using tax dollars for such things as subsidizing affordable housing, encouraging infill, or creating/maintaining walkable and bikeable communities, things known to strengthen communities and increase the health and wellness of its citizens.
What’s more, when assessing such “growth,” the decision-making process rarely takes into account wider impacts, such as increases in greenhouse gas emissions, decreases in air quality, and the inequitable impacts of all this on its citizens. And the businesses on the receiving end of these incentives, or the developers hoping to capitalize on the luring of such businesses, will often heavily lobby communities promoting the “value” of what they offer while ignoring the value-extracting elements.
These incomplete definitions of value impact the adoption of energy codes by states, the regulation of utilities, the development/adoption of municipal ordinances, the business plans of corporations, the ability to finance regenerative construction, the nature of life cycle cost analyses, and so much more. All of these in turn work against design decisions to incorporate renewable energy, pursue the Living Building Challenge, or the like, even if a design/construction key stakeholder group is striving to be pro-social in its decision-making. We need the right policies and norms in these larger spheres of interaction to push us in the direction needed. If you’re interested in delving into this more, I recommend starting with the following online magazine: Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics.
Despite these systemic roadblocks, there are nevertheless positive things happening, driven by the increasingly inescapable reality of climate change and its widespread impacts. Communities and organizations are divesting themselves of fossil fuels, with Georgetown University being one of the most recent to do so. The Guardian announced it will no longer run ads from fossil fuel extractors. Corporations, cities, and even nations are setting carbon neutral targets. “Flyover” states in the U.S., like Kansas, are beginning to enact state level energy plans with a renewable focus, as well as engage in climate discussions. Actions like these, combined with the general increasing competitiveness of renewable forms of energy compared to fossil fuels, are having an impact on the fossil fuel industry. It was recently reported that Exxon’s market valuation has declined by $184 billion since 2014.
But there’s still a lot of ground to cover, and the AEC Industry must do what it can from an educational and advocacy perspective to promote more rapid changes in these larger spheres of interaction. We must aggressively advocate with manufacturers and others along the supply chain to a) document the embodied carbon in everything used to construct a facility and b) develop new technologies and processes to reduce the embodied carbon. We must aggressively advocate with building owners, regulatory agencies, government officials, and politicians to require the accounting and reduction of embodied carbon.
We must aggressively advocate for Carbon Neutral at a minimum, from the mining of the needed raw materials to the day-to-day operations of the final building. We must aggressively advocate to purify our power grids of fossil fuels. We must aggressively advocate for the use of a more comprehensive definition of “value” in life cycle cost analyses and other processes influencing construction-related decisions.
Like it or not, we’ll have to get our hands dirty. We’ll need to take some very public stances that will not endear us among certain politicians or others with economic and political power. The Trump administration is perhaps the elephant in the room here, having taken numerous actions requiring resistance, including the recent holding onto nearly $1 billion of funds allotted for a clean energy research and development program.
But such actions occur at all levels of government. As individuals, and more importantly as businesses and other organizations, we must search for opportunities to testify before government bodies, have one-on-one conversations with elected officials, support allied politicians, speak out at city council or school board meetings on relevant issues of development and construction, write op-eds, speak at events, and appear on TV, radio, and podcasts.
And yes, we may even need to walk away from certain projects that are more value extracting than value-adding. Granted, that’s not necessarily an easy ask for many companies, particularly small and mid-sized firms, but there are ways to mitigate this risk.
Supporting organizations such as USGBC, UKGBC, IWBI, ILFI, AIA, Architecture 2030, ACE, DBIA, ULI and others, at their national, regional, and local levels, provide one avenue for advocation that shields firms and individuals to a degree from potential advocacy blowback. The AIA has stepped up to rebuke the Trump administration on a few occasions, including for past budget cuts impacting the environment and communities, its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and it’s draft order for a uniform federal architectural style. But I think one could argue that such advocacy from these groups often isn’t this aggressive or consistently done from the local to global levels. Nor are they likely by themselves able to do enough of it. For this reason, as well as the risk posed to individual firms from turning down projects, the creation of other industry organizations or alliances may be required.
The Australia Engineers Declare movement could be a model, or at least a source of inspiration, for such alliances among other AEC Industry organizations/firms. As of October 2019, this movement consisted of 1000 Australian engineers and 90 organizations committing to “evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate change.” Another source of inspiration may be the “climate club” proposed by Mark Jaccard, Professor of Sustainable Energy at Simon Fraser University, for nation-states to assist in the international collective development, implementation and monitoring of domestic decarbonization policies.
For individual AEC firms, such an alliance would help mitigate the risks from advocating or walking away by distributing it more equally among individual members, and therefore minimizing it for any individual firm. However, this requires reaching agreement with competitors and partners on the specific advocacy and value add criteria for evaluating whether or not to walk away from a project, along with the necessary monitoring and sanctions mechanisms. Assuming that’s accomplished, an alliance like this could very well facilitate more direct action from individual firms, increasing the pressure placed on these larger spheres of interaction to change.
And such alliances would be more likely to succeed if they were formed using methods designed to build cooperative groups at multiple scales, such as the evidence-based method found at Prosocial.World. Also covered in “Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups,” this method, grounded in contextual behavioral science and evolutionary theory, is built on the contextual application of eight core design principles of human cooperation discovered by Nobel-Prize winning political economist Elinor Ostrom. Perhaps not surprisingly, the governing or structural frameworks that come out of such applications place greater emphasis on activities that are more comprehensively value-adding as opposed to value extracting.
And that’s what we need, a more comprehensive definition of value. One that recognizes what’s necessary for creating environments that maximize short- and long-term human health & well-being. That also accounts for how human well-being and social stability are impacted by our varying interactions with other species. Without this recognition and subsequent action, life on this planet will experience increasingly extreme natural disasters without adequate preparation to adapt. Images like the Australian boy fleeing a burning apocalypse will become the norm.
Don’t let our collective inaction build a future of despair. If we come together and act with purpose, we may yet build a future worthy of our children.