Reading the inspiring Letters to the Earth, I thought I would pen my own, in the runup to our election, when we have hope of a climate emergency facing government. The following, written on a recent train journey, influenced by (seasonal) tracks on the playlist and running around my head.
Letters to the Earth was an invitation early in 2019, open to all, to think beyond the human narrative and to bear witness to the scale and horror of the climate crisis, an opportunity to pause and reflect.
It’s late autumn, coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, forecasting winter snows.
The days are contracting, COP25 debates commercial carbon against a backdrop of daily bad news records. Increasingly it feels we are driving towards a cliff edge, slower maybe, but with reluctance to change direction.
Youth hope sails across oceans, raising many voices, as heat, ice, water, fire and carbon, our vital elements, move into interconnected feedback loops.
We now understand that in nature everything is connected and we have no free lunch. We are now paying for all the lunches we took without paying back, seeing ourselves apart from nature and not as a part of nature.
So, we now plant more trees, as it’s the thing to do, virtue signalling, for hope, for biodiversity, for futures, for carbon, if our trees reach maturity.
There is hope, in the days before our wet and dark winter election. Climate and biodiversity emergencies have been declared, manifestos outline promises, and we will vote. Our designers, builders, engineers, researchers, media communicators and others have declared, now called on to share actions of commitment.
And so, as we move into the time of red and green, through the dark of winter, what will birth of the new spring, new year and new decade bring? Will loud bells welcome in renewed hope, or foretell a silent spring?
We will move closer to our 2025, 2030, 2040, 2050 commitments, in time, although not so in progress. Yet. But we will.
“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”
Ursula Le Guin, 2014
FutuREstorative included a list of books that have inspired me along my sustainability journey. However since its publication in 2016, the world of sustainability has moved on, we now have recognition of a climate and biodiversity emergency, we are asking how, not why, we have IPCC, UN and UKCC reports, we have extinction rebellion, we have school-strike activists and record breaking protests demanding climate change action. We need and we have, an updated library of climate change sustainability texts and novels. Below is the wonderful text that appeared in the Guardian Review on the 5th of October, that promotes great writing on a planet in peril. Where, In Life Stories, Amitav Ghosh asks the question “How do we make sense of the Earth when it seems to be turning against us in revenge for its despoliation?”
The very act of writing about the devastation can sometimes create a kind of coherence. Elizabeth Kolbert shows us how with The Sixth Extinction, where she focuses on a few of the million or so species that are dying out in what is now known to be one of the greatest extinction events in the history of the Earth. The closeness of the focus creates a powerful sense of empathy, not just with the vanishing creatures but also with the writer as she struggles to account for the horrors to which she is bearing witness.
MB: Elizabeth Kolbert Field Notes from a Catastrophe 2006 was part travel, part reporting and for me an early eyeopener to climate change, which. in 2006 was not recognised outside of the science community
Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice is another unflinching attempt to grapple with almost incomprehensible realities. Jamail travels widely and listens closely to scientists, and to people whose ways of life are threatened by ecological breakdown. “The grief for the planet does not get easier,” he writes. “Returning to this again and again is, I think, the greatest service I can offer in these times.”
Our current predicament is both overwhelming and elusive, manifesting itself not in big events but in what the Princeton professor Rob Nixon calls a kind of “slow violence”, revealed in small but telling details. Such details abound in Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud, a memoir of her experience of building a house in a very challenging location in Wyoming. Proulx has always paid close attention to landscape and this is no exception: it is the terrain that awakens the writer to the effects of planetary changes.
MB on my reading list …
A memoir of a completely different kind is Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton served in Iraq as a private in the US army and he draws on that experience in trying to understand the implications of climate crisis for himself and his loved ones: the result is a book that is fiercely urgent and deeply poignant.
In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing goes in search of the much-prized matsutake mushroom, found only in certain damaged forests. The matsutake serves as both vehicle and metaphor for a giddying exploration of capitalism, networks of trade and the hidden lives of forests, ultimately opening up the possibility of salvaging meaning from an increasingly disordered reality.
The disrupted migration of monarch butterflies underpins a powerful human story in Barbara Kingsolver’s luminous novel Flight Behaviour.
MB Choosing the Monarch Butterfly as the symbol for FutuREstorative led me to reading and research, including a scan read (the sample kindle chapter I must admit) from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, it has remained on my ‘to finish’ reading since
We need stories that can accommodate other kinds of protagonists, and there is no better example of this than Richard Powers’s marvellous The Overstory, a novel that gives trees a wonderfully vivid fictional life.
MB Currently half way through and its changing the way I think of trees, in particular the huge difference in time frames between us & trees, and how our stories are linked & eclipsed by the arboreal overstory
Many people have always known that emotions are not exclusive to humans. But what does it mean when someone says they can understand the inner lives of animals, trees, or even forests? Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa provide a vivid sense of this in The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. The Yanomami of the Amazon, like all the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia, have experienced the end of what was once their world.
To this list I would add:
Climate Justice, Mary Robinson A Man-Made Problem With a Feminist Solution. An urgent call to arms by one of the most important voices in the international fight against climate change, sharing inspiring stories and offering vital lessons for the path forward, I picked up a signed copy after listening to Mary talk at Living Futures in Seattle back in May. Mary also has a wonderful podcast, Mothers of Invention with Maeve Higgins
This is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. Extinction Rebellion are inspiring a whole generation to take action on climate breakdown. By the time you finish this book you will have become an Extinction Rebellion activist.
“It is worse, far worse than you think” the opening sentence to Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace Wells, is perhaps one of the best openers for a while. David Wallace-Wells brings into stark relief the climate troubles that await–food shortages, refugee emergencies, and other crises that will reshape the globe. But the world will be remade by warming in more profound ways as well, transforming our politics, our culture, our relationship to technology, and our sense of history. It will be all-encompassing, shaping and distorting nearly every aspect of human life as it is lived today.
No one is too small to make a difference. The history-making, ground-breaking speeches of Greta Thunberg, the young activist who has become the voice of a generation. With the cost of this being les than 1/2 pint of beer – its one to gift.
Are commitments and actions towards Climate and Biodiversity becoming procurement criteria for consultants, designers, contractors and building product manufacturers, and criteria for selecting which contracts to bid?
Practices and organisations who are making climate and biodiversity emergency Promise of Declarations are questioned on their actions, and outcomes on issues pledged within the declarations, for example:
Moving to regenerative design practices
Set mitigation as critical measures for awards, prizes and listings.
Sharing knowledge on open source basis
Evaluate all new projects against (climate declaration)
Going beyond net zero carbon
Collaborate (on climate / biodiversity emergencies)
Shift to low embodied carbon materials in all work
It’s taken a while to read through the latest report from Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official climate change advisers, which forms the most recent assessment of progress in preparing for climate change in England, but here is an overview from a built environment perspective.
The report warns of a failure in cutting emissions fast enough, and adapting to rising temperatures, recommending that the UK Government raise the profile, and strengthen the governance, of preparations for the impacts of climate change. Actions over the next 18 months will determine the success of climate change ambitions. (See infograph below)
It also comes after a raft of Climate Emergency declarations from the UK Government, over 100 councils, Architects, RIBA, Landscape Institute and others that acknowledge the climate and biodiversity emergency with pledges to act on a raft of regenerative approaches.
The priority given to adaptation, including through the institutional and support framework in England, has been eroded over the past ten years.
England is still not prepared for even a 2°C rise in global temperature, let alone more extreme levels of warming. Only a handful of sectors have plans that consider a minimum of 2°C global warming – water supply, road and rail, flood defences and flood risk planning for infrastructure.
Many national plans and policies still lack a basic acknowledgement of long-term climate change, or make a passing mention but have no associated actions to reduce risk. This includes aspects of agriculture, the natural environment, health, other infrastructure sectors and business.
None of the sectors assessed has yet been given top scores for reducing the risks from climate change through appropriate action.
The UK Government must raise the profile, and strengthen the governance, of preparations for the impacts of climate change. It should ramp up resources and action on all of the urgent risks set out in the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, continue to take appropriate action for those classed as less urgent (but still relevant), and monitor the effects on climate risk over the next five year period.
Headlines (relating to the built environment)
Built environment and health, in respect of homes and hospital overheating, flooding % water, impact on biodiversity and air quality are singled out for lack of progress,
New policies must be found to help people lead healthy lives without fuelling global warming.
The report gives a low score to planning …. “short-term plans exist to provide guidance during hot and cold weather. However, longer-term adaptation plans to mitigate the long- term risks of climate change are missing, despite CCRA2 highlighting the risks to health from heat as an urgent priority. Plans are in place to review the Building Regulations, but as yet, there are no significant shifts in policy to ensure that new buildings are being designed with the future climate in mind and no strategies exist to help to adapt existing buildings.
It warns that the UK is failing to insulate itself from the knock-on effects of climate change overseas, such as colonisations by new species, changes in the suitability of land for agriculture or forestry, and risks to health from changes in air quality driven by rising temperatures.
Green space in parks and gardens, cools cities and helps reduce flood risks. But as more homes are crammed into cities, green spaces had shrunk from 63% of urban area in 2001 to 55% in 2018.
Heat magnifies the production of pollutants, so more people are expected to suffer breathing problems. Meanwhile, the proportion of hard surfaces in towns has risen by 22% since 2001, even though they make floods worse.
At the time of writing some 370 UK architect practices have signed up to Architects Declare, a declaration that acknowledges we are in a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. Founded by 17 Stirling Prize winners, Architects Declare makes an unprecedented statement with pledges for action on the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.
This diverse group make the point that buildings and construction account for approximately 40% of carbon dioxide emissions, with more action done to tackle the’ most pressing issue of our time’.
Raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the urgent need for action among our clients and supply chains.
Advocate for faster change in our industry towards regenerative design practices and a higher Governmental funding priority to support this.
Establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of our industry’s success: demonstrated through awards, prizes and listings.
Share knowledge and research to that end on an open-source basis.
Evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach.
Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice.
Include life-cycle costing, whole-life carbon modelling and post-occupancy evaluation as part of our necessary scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use.
Adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, to design architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use.
Collaborate with engineers, contractors and clients to further reduce construction waste.
Accelerate the shift to low embodied carbon materials in all our work.
Minimise wasteful use of resources in architecture and urban planning, both in quantum and in detail.
In May when the UK parliament declared a climate emergency, I was attending author and environmentalist Bill McKibben’s keynote at the ILFI conference in Seattle. Bill McKibben praised the action from the UK, to the applause and cheers of the 1500 or so delegates. Also on the stage, that evening was 17 year old Jamie Margolin from Zero Hour (an intersectional movement of youth fighting for a livable planet for all) who commenced her talk with the words, “I am here tonight because our lives depend on it” Such is the feeling and passion of today’s young generation
We no longer have the luxury of being less harmful. Over the last thirty years or so, in what we could call our eco era, with a focus on reducing impact and taking actions not to compromise tomorrows generation, we have seen increases in C02 and global warming. We have not moved the needle; instead, we have watched the needle move in the wrong direction
Now then is the time for these 370+, and other practices, to put these pledges into action. Attendees at my talks and presentations over the last few months would have heard me mention of Greta Thunberg, who asked us not only to be hopeful but to panic. And by panic, we are talking about moving out of our comfort zone to take action.
Materials that are safe for all species, through time
As an advocate for regenerative approaches through programmes such as the Living Building Challenge, the Living Product Challenge and the COST Restore network, I am convinced we have the built environment tools, methods and technologies to address the pledges, and the climate emergency. What we lack is the mindset to act and transition towards regenerative designs, buildings and economies.
One of the vital tools in addressing the health aspects of climate emergency and biodiversity loss, is the ILFI Declare Label, that we are launching in the UK on 13th June in London at Fosters and Partners. Created in 2012, Declare, rather like food ingredients labelling, provides architects, clients and specifiers with the necessary transparency to ensure we do not include toxic materials or chemicals of concern into our buildings.
Only with such material and product transparency can we fully address the Architects Declare pledges and the climate and biodiversity emergency that we face. And we have no time to loose, with the recent IPCC Report stating we have until 2030 to avoid an irreversible climate catastrophe.
COP23 located in Bonn, Germany and hosted by Fiji takes place from 6 – 17 November.
The hosting by Fiji is significant as as a island nation they already feel the impact of climate change more than other nations. Fiji will also bring a new consensus building and discussion approach to COP23 – ‘Talanoa’.
Talanoa is a Pacific, story telling, term for discussions aimed at building consensus, airing differences constructively, and finding ways to overcome difficulties or embark on new projects. It is one of the building blocks of Fijian society, used for centuries to foster greater understanding among a people distributed over many small islands, and carry them through a tough existence. It is hoped that Talanoa will break deadlocks that have limited COP progress over the last 20 years.
The built environment
In recognition of its crucial role of the built environment, (as part of the climate change ‘problem’ and part of the solution for reducing CO2 emissions) the sector should receive high levels of visibility at this year´s COP.
To harness innovation, enterprise and investment to fast track the development and deployment of climate solutions that will build future economies with net zero greenhouse gas emissions, in an effort to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
You should be able to follow discussions, comments and outcomes from the four days via a combination of #COP23 #GABC twitter hashtags
Setting the scene: Building Action Symposium
9 November action is very much at the heart of the Building Action Symposium, a public event that will kick off the four-day event programme.
The objective of this action day is to identify key ingredients to achieving a low-carbon, energy efficient buildings and construction sector that will help to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement from 2015.
Turning theory into practice: Best practice examples on the ground
To illustrate that it is possible to walk the talk, the following day, a guided tour by the Federal Chamber of German Architects will showcase a selection of local buildings that are exemplary for sustainable architecture, including a day care centre and student housing.
Bringing about change within the construction and real estate sector: Human Settlements Day
Taking onboard recommendations from the Building Action Symposium on 9 November, this event will explore high impact change agents and measures, the role of private sector engagement and how to link buildings to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Linking buildings to the Sustainable Development Goals: SDG11 Day
Finally, Monday, 13 November is SDG11 Day will see a high-level dialogue between country representatives and senior industry leaders focused on ensuring the buildings sector delivers against key relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals:
SDG11 – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
SDG7 – Ensure access to affordable and clean energy
SDG13 – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts