The design community’s engagement with the issue of climate crisis has been unfortunately uneven. Virgil Abloh designed a series of “sinking” pieces of furniture as a statement on rising sea levels. The Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial’s approach is a bit more inspired, tapping scientists and biologists to produce a show that’s as much exhibit as it is a call to action. Paola Antonelli’s exhibit at the Milan Triennial, Broken Nature, represents perhaps the most nihilistic take of all: that we can do nothing about our eventual “extinction,” and that our best hope is simply to design ourselves a “beautiful ending.”
We can’t meet this potential catastrophe with glamorized fatalism. As hard as we try, if we go, we’re not going to go gracefully. Coastal cities across the world—the centers of the global economy—will be wiped out first. This will not only put millions of people, those who are lucky enough to evacuate, out of jobs, but it will also bring the global economy to a halt.
Entire species will be wiped out, not just humans, altering the composition and balance of our ecosystems. Climate patterns will become erratic and unpredictable, making farming, and therefore feeding 7 billion people, nearly impossible. We’re already seeing this happening in the Midwest, where an extremely rainy spring caused mass flooding that disrupted the planting of two essential crops, corn and soy.
We have to take big, momentous, literally world-changing steps to restructure our economy and prioritize the health of our planet in order to save it from what will surely be a disastrous, calamitous, chaotic end.
Over the last few months, the idea of a Green New Deal has gripped people’s imaginations across the globe. The resolution, put forward by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), has garnered criticism from both sides of the political aisle, with those on the purported “left” dismissing it as unrealistic and a “dream,” and those on the right criticizing it in much more vicious and extreme ways, from ad hominem attacks to calling it a “front for nationalizing our economy.” For many of these politicians and pundits, the Green New Deal presents a threat to business as usual, and therefore to their way of life. For most Americans, especially those under the age of 40, it represents their best hope for a future.
Polls show that more than 50% of millennials support the Green New Deal. This is likely because the high possibility of a burning earth means that they can’t plan for their lives. Having children, buying houses, pursuing a career — what’s the point if we’ll be in full-blown climate crisis in a decade?
We have around ten years to prevent global warming from reaching 2 degrees Celsius and to curb all of the potential disasters that level of warming would bring about. The U.S., as the country with the most powerful economy and the second-highest emissions in the world, has a crucial role to play in averting climate catastrophe. And for the 170 million Americans under the age of 40, this is a top priority. Polls show that more than 50% of millennials support the Green New Deal. This is likely because the high possibility of a burning earth means that they can’t plan for their lives. Having children, buying houses, pursuing a career—what’s the point if we’ll be in full-blown climate crisis in a decade?
For these hundreds of millions of people, the Green New Deal offers hope. It would open the door to a new era of experimental and aggressive policymaking aimed to mitigate the damage done to our environment and avoid this climate crisis. We’re on the brink of it, so we have no time to lose. The Green New Deal would put the U.S. on a path toward prioritizing cutting carbon emissions to zero by 2030 and counteracting the systemic injustices caused by an economy that places profits for the many over the health and safety of people and of our planet. It would also enact a jobs program, giving thousands of Americans good union jobs, making them a vital part of the transition to this new green economy.
The importance placed on organized labor and its vital role in building what will essentially be a new world is an important component of the Green New Deal. The creation of new jobs in the green economy has the potential to change how Americans understand politics and power by making significant structural changes to our society. As the percentage of unionized workers increases and significant numbers of people move into jobs that are essential for the growth of the green economy and the survival of the planet, the cultural value placed on labor, both by workers themselves and by the public at large, will increase and change in nature. We won’t have to wait until teachers across the country go on strike to see the power of workers; we’ll bear witness to it every day as we build our new world.
Architects, landscape architects, and designers will have a role in this new economy, and many of these new jobs will be in their fields. Architects entering the profession with aspirations to do good in the world will have a clear way to act on those desires; they’ll be able to apply their newly learned skills to projects designed explicitly to improve our lives—to save the world from climate meltdown, no less!
The Green New Deal will also give most architects and designers their first experience with being in a union as they are pulled into the public sector, building deep class consciousness among a new generation of professionals and forging bonds of solidarity among them—so different from the competitive ethos that currently plagues our profession—and with workers in other fields.
There’s a great opportunity here, one that stands to bring a wholesale change to our profession…We won’t be decorators of capitalism anymore; we stand to become crucial agents of the ushering in of a new era.
There’s a great opportunity here, one that stands to bring a wholesale change to our profession and the way we understand our role in society. We won’t be decorators of capitalism anymore; we stand to become crucial agents of the ushering in of a new era.
The Architecture Lobby has put forth a vision for architects’ involvement in addressing the climate crisis that addresses the promise of the Green New Deal and contrasts with the nihilistic cynicism of the high-design world. The Lobby’s principles are rooted in the opportunity to exercise their power as organized workers that the Green New Deal will give architects. As hundreds of architects and designers move from working in the private sector to working in the public sector on projects explicitly designed to improve our world, the myth of the lone architect genius will begin to dissipate, and in its place a new kind of architect will emerge—one dedicated to building not for profit, but for people. In a recent interview with Keefer Dunn, Caitlin Watson, one of the leaders of the Lobby’s Green New Deal campaign, says that designing and building for the Green New Deal would help us “move past the idea of buildings as real estate” and open up the possibility for a new era of buildings actually serving the people they are designed for, not just the handful of developers who own them.
For Watson, the project is about capitalizing on the agency that architects would gain by being organized, and thereby also “changing the way we value architecture.” The Architecture Lobby’s Green New Deal statement includes demands such as housing for all, expanding the practice to recognize architects’ agency as workers, and advocating for public infrastructure over market-driven development.
It’s an exciting proposition, and the entirety of the architecture profession stands to change. As Billy Fleming, director for the Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design and co-author of the Indivisible Guide, recently put it in an article in Places, the Green New Deal “will be realized and understood through buildings, landscapes, and other public works.” In order to rise to that challenge, architects need to organize and change the profession, and take seriously their role in designing society’s future. We don’t have to wait until the Green New Deal is enacted. We can start now, by making our profession more equitable, by organizing in our workplaces, even by having conversations with our coworkers and friends about the Green New Deal. The more organized and committed to averting climate crisis we are now, the more ready we’ll be to hit the ground running once government programs are put in place. The clock is ticking, but we’re not out of time yet.
Featured image via Wikipedia Commons.