Variation and brilliance

Reading Barnabas Calder’s Architecture: from prehistory to climate emergency for New Scientist, 9 June 2021

For most of us, buildings are functional. We live, work, and store things in them. They are as much part of us as the nest is a part of a community of termites.

And were this all there was to say about buildings, architectural historian Barnabas Calder might have found his book easier to write. Calder wants to ask “how humanity’s access to energy has shaped the world’s buildings through history.” And had his account remained so straightforward, we might have ended up with an eye-opening mathematical description of the increase the energy available for work — derived first from wood, charcoal and straw, then from coal, then from oil — and how it first transformed, and (because of global warming) now threatens our civilisation.

And sure enough the book is full of startling statistics. (Fun fact: the charcoal equivalent of today’s cement industry would have to cover an area larger than Australia in coppiced timber.)

But of course, buildings aren’t simply functional. They’re aspirational acts of creative expression. However debased it might seem, the most ordinary structure is a work of a species of artist, and to get built at all it must be bankrolled by people who are (at least relatively) wealthy and powerful. This was as true of the buildings of Uruk (our first known city, founded in what is now Iraq around 3200 BCE) as it is of the buildings of Shenzhen (in 1980 a Chinese fishing hamlet, today a city of nearly 13 million people).

While the economics of the build environment are crucially important, then, they don’t really make sense without the sociology, and even the psychology, especially when it comes to “the mutual stirring of hysteria between architect and client” that gave us St Peter’s Basilica in the 16th century and Chengdu’s New Century Global Center (currently the world’s biggest building) in the 21st.

Calder knows this: “What different societies chose to do with [their] energy surplus has produced endless variation and brilliance,” he says. So if sometimes his account seems to wander, this is why: architecture itself is not a wholly economic activity, and certainly not a narrowly rational one.

At the end of an insightful and often impassioned journey through the history of buildings, Calder does his level best to explain how architecture can address the climate emergency. But his advices and encouragements vanish under the enormity of the crisis. The construction and running of buildings account for 39 per cent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete is the most used material on Earth after water. And while there is plenty of “sustainability” talk in the construction sector, Calder finds precious little sign of real change. We still demolish too often, and build too often, using unsustainable cement, glass and steel.

It may be that solutions are out there, but are simply invisible. The history of architecture is curiously incomplete, as Calder himself acknowledges, pointing out that “entire traditions of impressive tent-like architecture are known mainly from pictures rather than physical remnants.”

Learning to tread more lightly on the earth means exactly that: a wholly sustainable architecture wouldn’t necessarily show up in the archaeological record. The remains of pre-fossil fuel civilisations can, then, only offer us a partial guide to what our future architecture should look like.

Perhaps we should look to existing temporary structures — to refugee camps, perhaps. The idea may be distressing, but fashions change.

Calder’s long love-poem to buildings left me, rather paradoxically, thinking about the Mongols of the 13th century, for whom a walled city was a symbol of bondage and barbarism.

They would have no more settled in a fixed house than they would have submitted to slavery. And their empire, which covered 23 million square kilometres, demolished more architecture than it raised.

Visit a hydrogen utopia

On Tuesday 3 December at 7pm I’ll be chairing a discussion at London’s Delfina Foundation about energy utopias, and the potential of hydrogen as a locally-produced sustainable energy source. Speakers include the artist Nick Laessing, Rokiah Yaman (Project Manager, LEAP closed-loop technologies) and Dr Chiara Ambrosio (History and Philosophy of Science, UCL).There may also be food, assuming Nick’s hydrogen stove behaves itself.  More details here.

Human/nature

Was the climate crisis inevitable? For the Financial Times, 13 September 2019

Everything living is dying out. A 2014 analysis of 3,000 species, confirmed by recent studies, reveals that half of all wild animals have been lost since 1970. The Amazon is burning, as is the Arctic.

An excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, meanwhile, has not only played havoc with the climate but also reduced the nutrient value of plants by about 30 per cent since the 1950s.

And we’re running out of soil. In the US, it’s eroding 10 times faster than it’s being replaced. In China and India, the erosion is more than three times as bad. Five years ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization claimed we had fewer than 60 years of harvests left if soil degradation continued at its current rate.

Why have we waited until we are one generation away from Armageddon before taking such problems seriously?

A few suggestions: first, the environment is far too complicated to talk about — at least on the tangled information networks we have constructed for ourselves.

Second, we’re lazy and we’re greedy, like every other living thing on the planet — though because most of us co-operate with each other, we are arguably the least greedy and least lazy animals around.

Where we fall down is in our tendency to freeload on our future selves. “Discounting the future” is one of our worst habits, and one that in large part explains why we leave even important, life-and-death actions to the last minute.

Here’s a third reason why we’re dealing so late with climate change. It’s the weirdest, and maybe the most important of the three. It’s that we know we are going to die.

Thinking about environmental threats reminds us of our own mortality, and death is a prospect so appalling we’ll do anything — anything — to stop thinking about it.

“I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time,” wrote Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer-winning meditation The Denial of Death in 1973.

“The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are ‘right’ for us because the alternative is natural desperation.”

Psychologists inspired by Becker have run experiments to suggest it’s the terror of death that motivates consciousness and all its accomplishments. “It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan,” is the memorable judgment of the authors of 2015’s best-selling book The Worm at the Core.

This hardly sounds like good news. But it may offer us, if not a solution to the current crisis, at least a better, healthier and more positive way of approaching it.

No coping mechanism is infallible. We may be profoundly unwilling to contemplate our mortality, and to face up to the slow-burn, long-term threats to our existence, but that anxiety can’t ultimately be denied. Our response is to bundle it into catastrophes — in effect to construe the world in terms of crises to make everyday existence bearable.

Even positive visions of the future assume the necessity for cataclysmic change: why else do we fetishise “disruption”? “The concept of progress is to be grounded in the idea of the catastrophe,” as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin put it.

Yes, we could have addressed climate change much more easily in the 1970s, when the crisis wasn’t so urgent. But the fact is, we’re built for urgent action. A flood. A drought. A famine. We know where we are in a catastrophe. It may be that our best is yet to come.

Will our best be enough? Will we move quickly and coherently enough to save ourselves from the catastrophes attendant on massive climate change? That’s a hard question to answer.

The earliest serious attempts at modelling human futures were horrific. One commentator summed up Thomas Malthus’s famous 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population as “150 pages of excruciatingly detailed travellers’ accounts and histories . . . of bestial life, sickness, weakness, poor food, lack of ability to care for young, scant resources, famine, infanticide, war, massacre, plunder, slavery, cold, hunger, disease, epidemics, plague, and abortion.”

Malthus, an English cleric driven up the wall by positive Enlightenment thinkers such as Godwin and Condorcet, set out to remind everybody that people were animals. Like animals, their populations were bound eventually to exceed the available food supply. It didn’t matter that they dressed nicely or wrote poetry. If they overbred, they would starve.

We’ve been eluding this Malthusian trap for centuries, by bolting together one cultural innovation after another. No bread? Grow soy. No fish? Breed insects. Eventually, on a finite planet, Malthus will have his revenge — but when?

The energy thinker Vaclav Smil’s forthcoming book Growth studies the growth patterns of everything from microorganisms to mammals to entire civilisations. But the Czech-Canadian academic is chary about breaking anything as complicated as humanity down to a single metric.

“In the mid-1980s,” he recalls, “people used to ask me, when would the Chinese environment finally collapse? I was writing about this topic early on, and the point is, it was never going to collapse. Or it’s constantly collapsing, and they’re constantly fixing parts of it.”

Every major city in China has clean water and improving air quality, according to Smil. A few years ago people were choking on the smog.

“It’s the same thing with the planet,” he says. “Thirty years ago in Europe, the number-one problem wasn’t global warming, it was acid rain. Nobody mentions acid rain today because we desulphurised our coal-fired power plants and supplanted coal with natural gas. The world’s getting better and worse at the same time.”

Smil blames the cult of economics for the way we’ve been sitting on our hands while the planet heats up. The fundamental problem is that economics has become so divorced from fundamental reality,” he says.

“We have to eat, we have to put on a shirt and shoes, our whole lives are governed by the laws that govern the flows of energy and materials. In economics, though, everything is reduced to money, which is only a very imperfect measure of those flows. Until economics returns to the physical rules of human existence, we’ll always be floating in the sky and totally detached from reality.”

Nevertheless, Smil thinks we’d be better off planning for a good life in the here and now, and this entails pulling back from our current levels of consumption.

“But we’re not that stupid,” he says, “and we may have this taken care of by people’s own decision making. As they get richer, people find that children are very expensive, and children have been disappearing everywhere. There is not a single European country now in which fertility will be above replacement level. And even India is now close to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.”

So are we out of the tunnel, or at the end of the line? The brutal truth is, we’ll probably never know. We’re not equipped to know. We’re too anxious, too terrified, too greedy for the sort of certainty a complex environment is simply not going to provide.

Now that we’ve spotted this catastrophe looming over our heads, it’s with us for good. No one’s ever going to be able to say that it’s truly gone away. As Benjamin tersely concluded, “That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe.”