Dear Chris…

Beijing-and-China-Air-PollutionThis is a series of letters between Chris Twinn, Arup Fellow & Senior Sustainability Consultant in Shanghai; and Austin Williams of FCP, after the publication of Williams’ article in China Daily (here)


Dear Austin

Having read your article in the China Daily criticising sustainability and sustainability consultants, I would like to say that I agree there are there are too many Western consultants peddling low level ‘sustainability’ in China. Unfortunately this is what the immature Chinese market wants, so everyone jumps on the bandwagon. At the moment there is insufficient awareness of what is involved in achieving meaningful change to a better way of delivering the necessary health and wellbeing improvements. Actually, those designers who have spent time understanding sustainability will readily admit that their buildings alone can never be sustainable – the built environment is but an enabler. It is for the occupants to make the choice, or not, to use these buildings to live sustainability within a fair share of our one planet’s ‘carrying capacity’.

But this immaturity does not make the issue of sustainability any less imperative for China. Indeed the Chinese central government is acutely aware of the impossibility of following the developed world’s path. They are aware that there is insufficient planet capacity to supply sufficient natural resources, or absorb the developed world level of pollution, or finances to buy their way out for another 800m Chinese, let alone the other developing countries around the world. The challenge for the Chinese leadership is that they do not yet know how best to encourage their rollercoaster of a ‘free’ market of 1.3 billion people to head in the right direction.

I also note that you get lost on the issue of ‘real growth’ without defining what it is. Architects have always worked within the technical, social and economic constraints of the time! In the context of architecture, the real issue of today’s age is the architects who have yet to recognise the constraints and so bring their creativity to solving the real underlying development needs! And by that I do not mean everyone achieving LEED standards, because I suspect that 7 billion people (even living in the highest Platinum standard homes) couldn’t evade the predicted devastations of 6ºC of climate change.

Many regards
Chris Twinn, Arup
Dear Chris

Thanks for your email. It’s always nice to engage in a discussion about sustainability (which is slightly different to climate change, by the way) but is often a similarly closed topic.

So firstly, may I be so bold as to say that it’s not that you don’t understand by what I mean by growth – it’s simply that you don’t agree with me. For whereas I see ‘real growth’ in the economy, in productive forces, in improved standards of living, in mobility, freedom and in the human population itself, as hopeful and potentially positive; you don’t.

Ironically, the veritable industry of eco-consultants (from which you understandably may wish to distance yourself) makes a very good living by not defining sustainability, but you make quite a good fist of it in your celebration of constraints. Architects may have to work within constraints – as do we all – but this is the first time that they have welcomed those constraints and demanded more. In the past, we always sought to free ourselves from constraints, now we find people believing that more constraints provide us with greater liberation, rather than less. This way lies madness.

It seems clear to me that China – a country that still has 200 million people living in absolute poverty – would benefit from even more rapid industrialization (carbon-centric or otherwise) in order to lift them from penury. Unfortunately, under the moral constraint of sustainability, the fact that poor people have a smaller carbon footprint is often celebrated without irony.

Finally, you make a point of suggesting that the China should be better at making their population ‘head in the ‘right direction’. Advising the Chinese state to be more interventionist in the lifestyles of its people is a little worrying, but I perfectly understand that the small matter of democratic accountability plays little part amongst sustainability advocates. However, the idea that there is a ‘right direction’ – a Confucian ‘correct path’ – once again takes on the mantle of an incontrovertible truth. It’s a recipe for social conformity.

For me, the ‘right direction’ is to reject the restrictive ethos of sustainability. You see, we have a political disagreement.

Best wishes
Austin, Future Cities Project
Dear Austin

You say climate change and real growth are not sustainability. Yet to sustain a world for our kids, climate change (cause and effect) is a fundamental issue. Likewise in response to your growth strap-lines:

• Economic growth – should be growth that avoids pollution, with its public disquiet, that unbridled growth is delivering.
• Productive forces – should move towards the intellectual value-added like adding apps instead of the six monthly phone replacement consumption of raw materials.
• Improved standards of living – is a prerequisite, but at a fraction of current resource consumption and waste, plus addressing increased ‘happiness’ which the West has failed on over the last 20 years of ever more consumerism ‘stuff’.
• Mobility – as in providing ‘accessibility’ to amenity, but for all, not just the Beijing car ownership model for the privileged 25%.
• Freedom – is all about offering choices. So why are we not presenting the choice of a pollution-free built environment for that better world for our kids?
• Human population – with the West’s waste of 50% food, 20% vehicle efficiency, etc., there is vast potential for serving a population expected to stabilise close to 9 billion.
• All positives sustainability is quite capable of delivering.

Your reference to democratic accountability is interesting. As China develops its own democracy solutions I have a sneaking suspicion they may end up with E-governance that better taps the public’s desire for a better world for their kids, rather than the West’s five yearly tick-in-the-box for the largest political minority to kowtow to big business!

Sustainability and politics are certainly well entwined. My concern is architecture so often hides from this behind a wafer thin wallpaper veneer stuck on the outside of ‘signature’ edifices.

Architects should be ideally positioned to integrate all of these challenges into an attractive built environment for our kids.

Kind regards
Chris Twinn, Arup
Dear Chris

Firstly, I don’t think I argued in favour of pollution, Chris, but let me indulge you. If you would like to put off the industrialization of large sections of the developing world until you are kind enough to grant them access to technology that you approve of then, I’m afraid that you are condoning underdevelopment. You are more concerned at people’s ‘disquiet’ at wanting more materially comfortable lives.

Secondly, with production comes waste (I don’t care what eco-millionaire Bill McDonough says) and the pretence that ‘apps’ are somehow the miracle cure, or produced from thin-air, is naive.
I cannot go through all of your points, but let’s take a few more:

Suggesting that eking out more resource efficiencies is the only way to serve “a population… of 9 billion” is just politically-correct Malthusianism. A better way of looking at it is that more people will potentially lead to greater human ingenuity and more productive capacity. Focussing on ‘human efficiency’ rather than ‘resource efficiency’ is key. It is this that will liberate humanity from your reductive approach to the environment.

On e-voting: who knows what will happen in China in the future, but your technolphilia discredits that ‘demos’ in democracy. Pressing a button or ticking a box might be the same thing, but for all its flaws, the West still holds elections every five years

Finally, you say “freedom – is all about offering choices”. Actually, freedom is about having choices, not being offered a selection (otherwise they are not ‘your’ choices, are they?). But that’s my point: sustainability advocates are happy to be given a limited range of ‘freedoms’ and find a masochistic enjoyment in pretending that they aren’t being limited. I on the other hand, believe in liberty as a universal value, but one that obtains to humans and not to nature.

I have no time to talk about how sustainability is anti-human, misanthropic, low-aspirational, parochial, process-driven, risk-averse and conservative… so I’ll stop there.

Very best regards
Austin, Future Cities Project


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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