A New Mindset for a New Future

It is imperative that radical change be implemented in order to develop a more sustainable view of the world, especially the buildings that we work and live in. Due to the discourses that dominate today’s society, the general population is bombarded with rhetoric telling us to consume to our heart’s content whatever resources may be available.  Furthermore, the existing discourses are very anthropocentric, a mindset that places humans as the most important factor on earth and thus implies that they are the only species that deserves moral standing.  As a result, this way of thinking causes further environmental destruction as the innate value of resources to nature and to other species is completely forgotten (Liu et al., 2016).  With respect to buildings’ construction and energy consumption, it is this inability to value other aspects of the world besides ourselves that will drive the human population’s continued degradation of resource reserves throughout the planet.  

As a result of existing anthropocentric ethics, buildings across the United States consume natural resources that exist in large quantities and are fiscally conservative.  Buildings alone consume over 47% of the energy generated within the United States, with 74.9% of that energy used to meet building electricity demands (Architecture 2030, 2013).  Additionally, much of the nationwide electricity generation comes from nonrenewable resources, including 38.8% from coal and 27.4% from natural gas (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014).  It is widely acknowledged that combustion of both coal and natural gas results in a warming of the earth (Akorede et al., 2012) as well as widespread environmental disturbances (Lutz, 2013).  Unfortunately, due to the immense reserves of both resources, their continued extraction and exploitation will likely continue in order to power buildings across the country, thus benefitting human populations without accounting for the well being of the rest of the environment.  

Humans have long put themselves before the environment and other species, and this is shown in the way buildings are constructed and maintained.  From continued to overuse of energy to using unsustainable materials, humans rarely retrofit buildings to make them more sustainable, which highlights why it is so important to think about the effects on other species.  Thinking about the life cycle of buildings and the energy they consume is imperative because energy is used through embodied energy, the energy it takes to produce the materials, and operation energy, which is the energy required for lighting, heating and cooling, among others (Cole and Kernan, 1996).  Furthermore, the operation energy takes the most energy (Cole and Kernan, 1996), so that is where humans should work to limit the most energy.  However, it is difficult to see the impact on other species and the environment since they are not directly affected.  In other regards, environmental movements focused on moral extensionism, such as whaling and critiques of farming and livestock practices, have proven to be successful.  Thus, it is possible to become more environmentally friendly through these kinds of actions.  Given that there currently exist more sustainable practices for both of these issues, moral extensionism is one valid way to change society.

Unfortunately the difficulty is that we rarely see the direct adverse effects of energy consumption on animals and nature, such as whaling for example, which likely causes the apathy seen with energy consumption.  However, with more education on the negative effects of buildings, this could become a more prominent part of the movement to green buildings.  Moral extensionism related to buildings could consist of showing the effects of pollution on the nonhuman world.  Air pollution, which comes in part from energy usage, has several direct effects on plant life, including delayed growth (Honour et al., 2009). This not only affects the plants, but everything else in their food chain. Thus, by caring more about other species and the lands that they inhabit, the current unsustainable discourse could be changed for the better in the future.

Whether it is necessary to convert to renewable energy sources or to reduce energy consumption entirely, one fact remains: unsustainable consumption of resources benefits human populations but fails to place moral standing on other species besides ourselves. So long as buildings remain unchanged and do not undergo processes to become more sustainable, the anthropocentric mindset will continue to dictate resource consumption in buildings and to permeate throughout society.  In order to green buildings and improve their level of sustainability, we must change how we view ourselves and our place on earth.  It is necessary to transition from a human centered perspective to one that thinks about our impact and places the environment before anything else, as that is what fostered human development in the first place.

A change that is up for consideration is implementing the practice of Deep Ecology throughout society.  Deep ecology is a worldview that has been widely interpreted as a fundamentally different ethical value system.  In many regards, it is a reaction to consequences of the dominant paradigm.  It is much less widely understood or accepted, though as a political movement it has been growing in recent years.  “In its current form, it is an attempt to synthesize many old and some new philosophical attitudes about the relationship between nature and human activity, with particular emphasis on ethical, social, and spiritual aspects that have been downplayed in the dominant economic worldview” (Nash, 1989).

At the moment, deep ecology is far from a unified and consistent philosophy.  Some of its advocates consider this to be a strength rather than a weakness, promoting diversity and flexibility.  Deep ecologists advocate merging appreciation of some of the more scientific aspects of systems ecology with a bio-centric and harmonious view of the relationship between man and nature.  Basic tenets of the bio-centric attitude of Deep Ecology include the following: intrinsic bio-species equality, major reductions in human population, bioregional autonomy, promotion of biological and cultural diversity, decentralized planning utilizing multiple value systems, non-growth oriented economies, non-dominant technology and greater use of indigenous management and technological systems.  Deep ecologists see technological fixes as commonly leading to larger, costlier, and more intractable problems, rather than progress (Colby, 1991). In practice, these strategies often mean making man subservient to nature.

The application of this philosophy would result in radical changes in social, legal and economic systems, and definitions of development of ourselves and our surroundings. “While some of these principles can be used to inform future development planning approaches, to expect the whole world to return to pre-industrial, rural lifestyles, …  would probably be impossible at current population levels. While Deep Ecology may be more ‘organic’, it tends not to be creative – one of the fundamental cogs in the evolution of both nature and human society” (Colby, 1991).

The simplest change that we can make would be the adoption of a land ethic that is similar or identical to the one proposed by Aldo Leopold.  Leopold suggested that we should define right and wrong in relation to the natural environment.  More specifically, he believed  that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Kobylecky, 2015).  While this is a fairly vague idea, the general principle behind it is difficult to refute.  If we could all make a point to consider our environment when evaluating the merit and necessity of choices, then we would be able to do a much better job of conserving our resources and preserving our lands.

In terms of our buildings, a land ethic would guide decisions about locations, materials and power consumption.  It is not practical to expect a population of our size and seniority to abide exclusively by Leopold’s ideals simply because we would no longer be able to support ourselves if we only acted in accordance with nature’s best interests.  However, acting with these principles in mind would result in far fewer instances of supermarkets replacing forests or campuses that run lighting, heating, and cooling systems 24/7.  We would see a rise in the use of recycled materials and a decline in habitat destruction for the benefit of human growth. It may not be realistic to ask for a full conversion to eco-centrism, but we can definitely afford to be more considerate of the natural world.

References:

Akorede, M. F. et al., (2012, June). Mitigating the anthropocentric global warming in the electric power industry. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 16, Issue 5, 2747-2761.

Architecture 2030, (2013). Why the Building Sector? http://architecture2030.org/buildings_problem_why/

Colby, Michael E. “Environmental management in development: the evolution of paradigms.” Ecological Economics 3.3 (1991): 193-213.

Cole, Raymond J., and Paul C. Kernan. “Life-cycle energy use in office buildings.” Building and environment 31.4 (1996): 307-317.

Honour, Sarah L., et al. “Responses of herbaceous plants to urban air pollution: effects on growth, phenology and leaf surface characteristics.” Environmental pollution 157.4 (2009): 1279-1286.

Kobylecky, Jen (2015, May). Understanding the Land Ethic. https://www.aldoleopold.org/post/understanding-land-ethic/

Liu, X. et al., (2016, May). Comparing natural environmental and economic performances through emergy sustainability indicators: Moving environmental ethics beyond anthropocentrism towards ecocentrism. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 58, 1532-1542.

Lutz, B. D. et al., (2013, September). The Environmental Price Tag on a Ton of Mountaintop Removal Coal. PLoS One. 8(9).

Nash, R.F.. 1989. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.

United States Energy Information Association (EIA), (2014, August 14). Electricity Data. http://www.eia.gov

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One thought on “A New Mindset for a New Future

  1. randypeppler April 23, 2017 / 10:01 am

    It does take a whole new mindset. You did a great job of bringing discourse analysis and applying a number of environmental ethics to your object in question. Excellent post. Well researched as well.

    Like

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