There are two ways to do something wrong.
You try to do something worth doing, but you botch it somehow.
You try to do something not worth doing. It doesn’t really matter if you botch it or not because it shouldn’t exist anyway.
Attempting to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and winding up with peanut butter on the ceiling and jam in your hair is an example of the first way of Doing It Wrong. You tried to do something worthwhile and you failed.
Attempting to make a Vaseline sandwich is an example of the second way. No matter how expertly and evenly you spread the petroleum goo over slices of bread, making a Vaseline sandwich is just a terrible thing to do. It’s stupid, wasteful and unhealthy.
Our economic system generally fails to regard the second method of Doing It Wrong. In capitalist logic, if you can convince people to buy Vaseline sandwiches, then you have just discovered a new market and have helped expand the economy and the health of the nation. “Should it be done?” is reduced to “Will it turn a profit?” If the answer is yes, then we build it.
(If you think a Vaseline sandwich is too bombastic of an example, take a look at the ingredients in any of the “food” you can buy at a gas station.)
Vaseline Sandwiches in the Built Environment
In the green building industry, we take our cues from society at large and tend to not think or talk much about projects that maybe shouldn’t exist. We tend to focus very much on the “how” – how to make a building green, sustainable, and energy efficient, without giving much thought to whether or not the building should actually exist.
If we do have reservations about the function of the building, we tend not to dig too deep. It’s not our job to say if the building shouldn’t be built. If we don’t do it, someone else will, and they won’t make it as energy efficient as we will. There is good work to be done. We need to be saving every kWh we can, and if we walk away from this project then we’ll be responsible for all those lost energy savings.
This is a touchy subject. There are good people in both camps, and I do respect the opinions and positions on both sides. But this is an issue we sideline way too much. It’s the sort of issue we talk about over beers at the pub. We (and by we I mean the green building industry in general) sweep this one under the rug. I think we should daylight this discussion and feel responsibility to engage with the issue.
How vs. Why
A lot of the things we include in our buildings blur the line between how and why so let me clarify a little.
By “how” I mean “how does the building function?” The physical-material aspect of a building is the how: the materials of the structure, the solar panels on the roof, the rainwater system, the lights, the furniture, the doorknobs, the angle of the windows with respect to the sun, etc. Is it net zero energy/water, is it very low embodied energy, is it toxic-material free, etc.
By “why” I mean “why is this building being built?”What is the building used for, what will it do? Will it be used to educate children? Will it hold healthy food for people to buy? Will it hold the prisoners of a commodified justice system? Is it a luxury condo tower with a mall in it, designed to get people to consume stuff?
There is a lot of critique and discussion in green building circles about the how. It’s all we talk about. Is it net zero energy? Net zero water? Are there any PVCs, VOCs, formaldehyde, any Red List materials in it? How about siting – is it in an urban environment, close to public transportation, is it walkable?
These are all excellent questions to be asking and discussing, but as green building as a whole becomes more mainstream I see a danger in not also asking the question “Why is that building being built? Should it be built? Does its function have any place in the sustainable, resilient, just, ecological future that we all want to live in?”
Deep Green Bomb Factories
It’s one thing to build a net zero energy, walkable, toxic-material-free, renovated children’s science museum. It would be bizarre to get worked up over a project like that. We like those, we all want to live in a society where we have things like children’s science museums. Deep green children’s science museums are the poster children (so to speak) of our industry.
It’s entirely a different thing to build a highly energy efficient Wal-Mart. It’s another thing to build a net zero energy McDonalds. Or a sustainable prison. Or a LEED Platinum bomb factory.
As we get deeper into this project of making the world a sustainable place to live, we’re discovering that it’s not enough to make buildings that function great. The scope of our work is to make neighborhoods, communities, and cities that function great. And just as PVC has no place in a truly great deep green building, so too do certain types of buildings not have a place in a truly just, sustainable, and resilient world.
Ultimately these are all shades of gray, and as professionals and activists in the sustainable built environment, each one of us at some point has to walk up to to the line that stretches between “children’s science museum” and “bomb factory” and put a push-pin in it somewhere and say “that’s me: that’s my limit. Right here is where I’m not willing to go beyond.”
I will not help you build your bomb factory.
This is the first post of a three-part series on refusal.
Part II posits that refusing to do certain kinds of work, and risking financial loss, can powerfully perturb the status quo.
Part III clarifies that refusal is a tactical, and not necessarily a moral, decision.