The mantownhuman debates

Challenging the Orthodoxies 1: ‘Architecture & Climate Change’, 25 March 2010

Reportback by Austin Williams

The first in the series of mantownhuman debates – held at BDP and sponsored by BD – got off to a fiery start with a row about “Architecture and Climate Change”. 

My opening provocation concentrated on the way that the climate change discourse blames humanity for its consumption patterns, leading inexorably to catastrophe unless we accept restraint. It is a culture of fear, of limits and of misanthropy. As if to reinforce the proposition, the eco-evangelist Mayer Hillman said that he wanted to ‘alarm’ the audience ‘so much that you won’t sleep’ and spoke of the need to impose constraints on society’s growth, whether we liked it or not.

Ken Yeang drew and angry response when he said that even though Bangladeshis were poor, they were happy that way. Craig White, of White Design was upset that there wasn’t enough love in the room; and Charlie Peel of Building Futures asked whether we should be rebuilding New Orleans. Unfortunately, the answer (drawing out the fact that the retreat from building in New Orleans represented a philosophical retreat from man’s ability to conquer nature) was shouted down before it could be debated.

There were many interesting questions from the audience:

Doesn’t humanity have the engineering knowledge to overcome ‘natural limits’?
For a zero-carbon future, shouldn’t we be arguing for nuclear, rather than turning down thermostats?
Isn’t humankind (unlike any other animal) above nature in our ability to transform it?

One person walked out, annoyed that I had suggested that nature wasn’t sacrosanct. Another had to leave because she was ‘disgusted’. A third left, apparently so appalled at the level of debate that he could only shout the odds while leaving. And a fourth claimed that my speech had willfully ignored the 500,000 people threatened by 1 metre sea-level rise. ‘Facts’ such as these – that the IPCC wouldn’t recognize – and a refusal to engage, give reasoned debate a bad name.

Basically, whatever the ‘science shows’; what we do about climate change, carbon emissions and energy use is a political choice. This debate, however ill-tempered at times, was a useful reminder about the need for meaningful engagement about the future visions for our society. As audience member, Amin Taha said: ‘It’s the first time that I’ve heard such a full-on argument about theses issues’. Kim Quazi of Arup said: ‘You never see passions raised like that in any other architecture forum’.

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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