Sustainability and the moral right

Austin Williams | 12 May 2005

‘The problem is that people like you think that they can deny the reality of events: like David Irving, you are denying the problem.’

Now I’m used to being insulted, but it still amazes me how many people that I have never met before, feel as if they have the right to insult me simply because they are unable to come to terms with the fact that I have a contrary position to them. However, Professor David Strong’s personal slight, after my relatively muted introduction to the AJ’s ‘Creating Sustainable Architecture’ conference on December 1st 2005, took contempt to a new level, I thought.

I had simply said that I was ‘hostile’ to the concept of sustainability and, as chairman, I was going to have to bite my tongue throughout the day. This was obviously a red rag to Mr Strong’s bull.

You wouldn’t have thought that anyone – let alone the managing director of BRE Environment – could be so publicly blase about such a charge. It was apparently my refusal to accept that humans were ‘killing’ the planet that moved him to draw an analogy with the genocide of millions of human beings. However, apart from demeaning the very real human tragedy that was the Holocaust, simply by disagreeing with such a self-appointed guardian of environmental rectitude as Strong, was enough to condemn me. The irony was rich indeed. So much for open and honest debate in the tradition of liberal democracy.

Funnily enough (or not so funnily) Bill Gething of Feilden Clegg Bradley started it by proudly stating, that when it came to environmentalism: ‘I am a fascist.’ Even though he recognised that the right-wing language could seem to be a glib use of heavily loaded concepts, he explained that he was serious. ‘No,’ he retorted, ‘I am a fascist on this.’ He wanted the authoritarian power to ‘to force people to change their ways’. Coming from an environmentalist, apparently, that’s alright then, but seems to fit the tenor of the times, as the UK government becomes more interested in behavioural change..

Fortunately, there were many positive things coming from the conference. David Lloyd Jones of Studio E presented an interesting thesis that an environmental aesthetic needn’t look ‘earnest’; Ted King gave us a few clues – but not many – about the new Code for Sustainable Building and; Duncan Baker-Brown of BBM Sustainable Design presented a refreshingly honest, warts and all, run through of his recycled material projects. His use of coppiced chestnut in Glulam beams could catch on, and by using fairly untreated lambs’ wool as insulation which ‘smells a bit when it gets wet’ he said it is ‘easier to detect leaks.’

King insisted that the proposed nationally recognised qualifications for surveyors for self-certification schemes, is not meant to develop into a new construction profession. Instead, it will be a modular extension of the architects’ professional qualification. Furthermore, the government intends to publish a new Code for Sustainable Homes to increase standards over and above building regulations, developing the EcoHomes standard with ‘star ratings’ (3 stars being the minimum standard requirement).

However, there were other contributions – as far as I’m concerned – that were more problematic for open and critical debate, with Rebecca Miller, sustainability manager at Gallions Housing Association saying it has imposed smaller baths on its tenants to ‘encourage’ them to use less water; and Adrian Hewitt, environmental manager at Merton Borough Council (at the forefront of forcing through the 10+percent renewables’ requirement on new developments) told the conference that to get projects through ‘you have to square it with me’. The authoritarian tradition of sustainability was much in evidence.

‘The thing is,’ said Bill Gething at the end, ‘you seem to have a vastly more positive view of humanity than me.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do.’


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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