What do over a thousand protests around the world last weekend in support of Occupy Wall Street have to do with Green Building?
When NYC Mayor Bloomberg was speaking via video-link at Greenbuild, and while the Toronto Airport security strike delayed green building practitioners from returning home, a growing group of "occupiers" continued a now one month old occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City. There are many attempts to explain what's going on there, but the best I've seen comes in the words of those on the ground–-this is no simple single-issue movement to be cordoned off as a faction. Nor is it a "left" or "right" movement; the call has appeal to original tea party members, greens, labor, and so many others who count themselves among "the 99%."
I won't attempt to create my own container to box-in what's happening there. I was there Sunday, and it's very clear to me that attempting to do so would do a disservice to the passion, creativity, community, diversity, and collective seeking found in Zuccotti Park. But I came away mulling over the links to what the green building community is trying to accomplish.
At Greenbuild I thoroughly enjoyed a session called Beyond LEED, which had Jason Mclennon from ILBI and Brendan Owens from USGBC exploring the interconnection of LEED and Living Building Challenge, and others also tackling the broader question with gusto. Where I go beyond LEED is beyond buildings, even living buildings, to resilient and generative communities and economies in a rapidly changing world. I also go to the question of what would material management look like in a sustainable society?
So what's the connection here?
Ultimately a smattering of living buildings in a dying economy won't take us much further than a smattering of "green" products in an economy where it's still cheaper to ignore ecological and social consequences of manufacturing and its supply chain. A smattering of companies taking "triple bottom line" and "corporate social responsibility" to heart is equally limited when publicly traded companies can get sued if they let anything get in the way of maximizing financial shareholder value, and where discounting the future is basic unquestioned business practice.
What I get out of this upswelling of activism is that many in this country and the world are ready for a new economic story. It's not just about jobs, although that's a big part of it. People are connecting the dots between things that don't work in our food system, our education system, our building industry, our government, and so much more–-and why the fixes we attempt seem to get stymied by the incentives and assumptions embedded in our current economic system. More and more people are actively looking for alternatives.
What's fantastic is just how many creative alternatives are out there–-just like the green building movement, there's a whole world of people and organizations testing new ideas and designing a new economy. There are new corporate structures that let publicly traded companies concern themselves with more than profits; proposals for a financial transactions tax and to replace labor taxes with resource taxes; new ways to get dollars circulating in local communities; even alternate frameworks and entirely new models for the economic system as a whole.
I'd like to see the building design and construction community approach the economic system as a design problem to be solved rather than a design constraint to operate within.
Don't get me wrong; I'm astounded by all the creativity and progress that's been made in "tunneling through the cost barrier", showing how green design is cost effective today–-but imagine if building green products, buildings, and communities was the no-brainer default option because the economy gave us the right signals. Just think what would be possible!