- March 28, 2016
JONATHAN MOLLOY (MArch ’18): Questions
ALAN ORGANSCHI: Responses
What is natural?
Everything or nothing…which is to say that a philosophical construct that positions the relatively recent development of human culture in counterpoint to some unquantifiable terrestrial condition that predates it is dangerously obsolete. The concept of the “natural” may have served as a compelling origin story about our struggle to control the physical conditions, climatic forces and biological competitors that first comprised our experience of the environment but it has now become ingrained as cultural habit and evolved into a set of institutions and technological artifacts with profound global impacts. We have anthropomorphized our environment.
Is humankind natural?
Theorists of the Anthropocene have described contemporary human agency as inextricably bound up in a kind of terrestrial metabolism. No global biomes remain that are unaffected by our consumption of the planet’s resources, either the direct result of physical intrusion or the indirect climatic side effects of anthropic activity. From a different discipline and the perspective of evolutionary biology, Richard Dawkin’s concept of the extended phenotype may serve as another useful model for the complex but inevitable interactions of homo sapiens with the earth’s physical, biological, and chemical systems. The evolutionary growth of the human prefrontal cortex represents a series of adaptations of the hominid brain. This enabled our capacity for abstract thought and problem-solving that produced such human technologies as nitrogen fertilizer or the internal combustion engine along with the processes of mineral and fossil extraction that supply them. One could argue, then, that the rapid and potentially catastrophic increase in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations is a natural phenotypic extension of a successful species.
Our evolutionary success has resulted in a kind of demographic hyperplasia, a relatively unchecked growth of human population and the extreme distortion of its role within the global ecosystem. That this is unsettling doesn’t make it less natural, nor does the fact that significant distortions within a “natural” system — be it a homeostatic chemical equilibrium, a forest stand, a bacteriological culture— may naturally result in its collapse.
We seem to be entering a strange time in our relationship with the natural world: namely, that we spent much of our history destroying it — through extraction, pollution, over-construction, razing, etc. — and now find ourselves trying to bring it back to life. In many ways, we are trying to reconstruct the natural world we increasingly depend on.
One might view the Anthropocene age as the simultaneous acceleration of geologic time and a compression of geographic scale in which previously rare terrestrial or climatic distortions now occur with increasing frequency, their cause rooted directly in the machinations of human industry and its associated global economic networks.
Lacking evidence of either the collective inclination, political will or technical capacity to recover some lost environmental moment, I do recognize our propensity to create images and construct narratives that reflect our longing for a kind of mythic ecological redemption.
With that, it seems that we are approaching, or have even crossed, natural boundaries or limits of the natural (making this a rather profound moment), and now find ourselves trying to backtrack. Where do you see the limits of reconstruction? Can we successfully re-naturalize the world, or are we in an inherently new paradigm where the world is now only quasi-natural?
How does one measure the threshold of the natural? Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and its greenhouse gas equivalents? The surface area of global wetland and forest cover? Some number of animal and plant species expected in a particular biome? Rates of pollination? The flows of phosphates and nitrogen through oceans, soils, and the atmosphere? The weight of biomass? We have already surpassed several critical thresholds of irreversible environmental change, as we continue to satisfy the needs and habits of an exploding human population through the economic institution of what Andreas Malm called fossil capitalism.
No matter the metric, the fantasy of reconstructed nature is as unstable and improbable as the concept of the natural itself. Perhaps the recognition that the current status of the planet is “natural” just as the complete extinction of numerous species, the thawing of arctic ice, are all, in a sense, natural (albeit anthropogenic) phenomena. Better to seek to understand and begin to manage the metabolic exchange between terrestrial systems and human activity. Rather than artificially recreating some particular planetary moment, we may instead, through various analytical systems, administrative institutions and technical practices, find and sustain some sort of new global equilibrium, some balance of biodiversity, atmospheric and oceanic chemistry, and social equity.
With the unparalleled levels of contemporary production/construction, a man-nature symbiosis like that of ancient Japanese cultures – in which human consumption was determined almost entirely by natural systems – seems impossible. Does an idea of global equilibrium, then, increasingly depend on deliberate stewardship, where advancing technologies facilitate and invigorate the natural? (e.g. sustainable forestry) Or is this an inherently flawed conception of resource/production?
The example of early Japanese culture is an interesting one. Today Japan is a rapacious consumer of Indonesian lumber, despite its reverent preservation of its own forests. The vestiges of spiritual animism that motivate the protection of local timber exists simultaneously with the capitalist imperative to exploit distant landscapes.
The Nobel Prize Laureate Elinor Ostrum described a kind of best practice in the governing of the Commons (i.e. any shared pool of resources such as a fishery or a forest.) Ostrum observed, on the one hand, that large, geographically detached economic or political institutions with vested interest in maximizing consumption tend to be poor (or, at best, clumsy) resource administrators. Local populations, on the other hand, receive direct feedback about the impacts of overuse and are therefore more likely to arrest exploitation and successfully govern their resources. Contemporary Japan’s relationship to timber as both a local cultural treasure and a global economic commodity is a perfect expression of the NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) of that country’s advanced economic status within the social and environmental ranks of industrial modernity. Effective environmental stewardship would call for a system-wide assessment, an accounting of the ebbs and flows of material and energy through the entire economic supply chain.
How does a model of this kind of stewardship delineate the natural world into that which is for our use – the constructed natural – and that which is preserved – the truly natural (or at least conceived as truly natural)? Further, as we see with the conception of national parks which pose as truly natural but are, of course, deeply affected and maintained by human intervention, to what extent is this delineation constructed itself?
In directing increasing quantities of energy and material from global sources through processes of industrial production and commodification, we have turned the nested relationship of man within nature inside out. Today, and for the remainder of this relatively new geologic era, we will seek to isolate and preserve what will amount to a series of zoological or botanical exhibitions dotting the vast geo-economic and technological landscapes of a rapidly changing planet.
The concept of preserving nature, which presupposes the existence of closed ecological systems (such as the much debated “climax” forest), accounts for neither the inevitable distortions and catastrophic events that occur over time within ecosystems nor their capacity to recover from those events. As with the preservation of animals within a zoological park, the act of artificially sequestering and protecting the natural may produce unintended existential threats, novel management problems, and new demands for energy and material.
How do you position architecture in this duality? Certainly, it both opposes nature in producing shelter and depends materially on it for its manifestation. How do you see this playing out in contemporary architecture – particularly that which concerns itself with “sustainability” or new construction practices? Is there value in biomimetic, symbiotic building practice? Or is it no longer applicable?
Sentimental notions of the natural as something we can retrieve — or, failing that, mimic — aestheticize and trivialize the complex political and environmental interactions of human society and culture with the physical resources and ecosystem services on which it depends.
This is the real danger we face, particularly as architects, who are at once avid technologists and all-too-convincing story-tellers. We make claims for our work but often fail to substantiate them. Recent vintages of “sustainable” architecture boast enormous energy performance benefits but call on excessive quantities of material and carbon-intensive technologies to produce and maintain them. The formal (as well as material and technical) luxuries of our most celebrated buildings often come at significant cost to the populations that subsidize them and offer only bespoke solutions without broad application or sufficient ecological import. We propose dramatic increases in the consumption of energy and matter to build adaptive (read defensive) buildings, without acknowledging that the production of infrastructural megaprojects usually fails to mitigate, and may actually exacerbate, the accretion of greenhouse gases that produce the effects of climate change we seek to defend ourselves against in the first place. This reflects either too narrow an analytical framework, deeply flawed thinking, or gross hypocrisy. It is the inherent contradiction embedded in the concept of “sustainable development.”
Rather than suggest specific solutions— there are many that at the moment that seem at least superficially attractive but demand real scrutiny and assessment rather than uncritical promotion (these might include building materials drawn from the waste stream or synthesized biologically; design approaches that mimic or even incorporate biological systems; building practices that capture and store carbon; planning that reduces not only the embodied impacts but also the literal footprint of building and infrastructure…)– I’d simply note that the architect’s toolbox has everything needed to research, analyze, experiment with, visualize and ultimately work within a paradigm of scarcity, instead of under the pretense of infinite natural abundance and implicit technological capacity.
Where does this leave us? How does an understanding that humankind participates in this global ecological metabolism – the growth of which seems to depend deeply on a reciprocal system of phenotypic interaction – inform our conception of…well everything, but specifically architecture? Particularly when considering that the destructive nature of humankind can be considered a natural phenotypic extension of a successful species, it becomes complicated to discuss an idea of stewardship or conservation without its implications inside of this genotype-phenotype interaction. Further, it seems to bring up the possibility that to do so might be either evolutionary or moral, or both. What might architecture seek to accomplish, then?
Architecture, the conception, visualization, and production of the built environment, is a discipline which operates at and around the center of the global environmental “disturbance” that has become the most significant planetary marker of our species. This is not at all to say that architects have been the motive force in each of the incremental conceptual shifts that have culminated in the current modes of thought and human behavior or the economic and political institutions that have arisen from them. But architecture, with its cultural narratives of vision, orchestration, and mastery (of form, of space, of land, of material, of technology, of social organizations) has sat at the right hand of those motivators of institutional and environmental change, providing vivid visualizations of new forms of human settlement, facilitating enormous transactions of material and energy, and helping generally to give shape to the habits of extraction and consumption in the global marketplace. So as both a means of conceptualizing the use of material to form human habitation and of communicating a set of values embedded in that form, architecture is at its best a flow of ethical (rather than purely aesthetic) decisions, sweeping in purview but, in their realization (taking up as metaphor Dawkins’s formulation of the extended phenotype) necessarily incremental and adaptive. Can these decisions be both better informed (by a more profound analysis and understanding of geochemical, geophysical, and geo-biological systems) and more critical of the institutional apparatus (economic, political, industrial, professional, etc) that prescribes the means by which we work, the materials we call up, and the expectations of those inhabitants for whom we would build? I would say yes, without a doubt.