Heroism and the Quest for Sustainability: How Howard Roark Would Tackle Climate Change
There is an axiom in behavior science called status quo bias, which observes, when confronted with change, people tend to keep doing what they’re already doing, even when presented with objective evidence their actions are wrong or ineffective. Indeed, change is hard. It is simpler to leave things alone, more comfortable sleeping on new information than acting on it, easier staying the course than making a turn.
Habit is baked into the human condition, an evolutionary adaptation for minimizing risk. We’ve learned not to fix what doesn’t seem broken, so we put much out of mind, routinely driving on autopilot. Now and then, though, life forces us out of our lane. We take the wheel and find a new road, pave it if necessary. At that instant, we transform from passenger to pilot, a metamorphosis not unlike a literary archetype answering a call to action, a character known as the hero.
Heroes and heroines see things as they are and pine for things as they ought to be. They come in many forms, from tragic figures destined to lose to gung-ho types born to win. Ayn Rand began her novel The Fountainhead with architecture student Howard Roark standing naked on a cliff above a lake, resolving to take on the world. Not all heroes are that willing. George Lucas introduced Star Wars smuggler Han Solo as a man fearful of crossing a powerful force. Han eventually came around, as all reluctant heroes do, but it took some convincing.
In fiction, a character’s transformation from ordinary to brave is a plot point, a dramatic scene where they leave the familiar and venture into the unknown. Perchance they will solve a mystery, right a wrong, or slay a dragon. Perhaps they will die in the claws of a monster. The brave are okay with that. There is an analogous turning point in the birth of a new architectural idea: the moment when convention gives way to radical. Safety yields to danger. Uncharted territory lies ahead. Design at its most imaginative is a fiction, where there, too, are demons.
Reluctance to break the status quo, irrational or rationally driven, psychological or financial, is why today’s greenhouse gases continue polluting the atmosphere, raising global temperatures, and spawning erratic climate patterns.
Reluctance to break the status quo, irrational or rationally driven, psychological or financial, is why today’s greenhouse gases continue polluting the atmosphere, raising global temperatures, and spawning erratic climate patterns. Business-as-usual is also why, over decades, sustainable design has had little to no impact reducing global warming. In a story in need of a hero, architects have been minor characters play acting in a fairytale, unaware they were trapped in a horror film.
It is time for architects to come around, to break the habit of designing minimally resilient habitats. We’ve reached the final act of this saga, and the end is nigh. We are living the chapter entitled All is Lost, but take heart. This is not another doom-and-gloom story of the Anthropocene, yet more proof that man’s influence over the biome killed us all. Quite the contrary. This is a call for architects to shed their clothes, dive into a lake, and save the world.
Hang on to that metaphor for a moment.
October 8, 2018, will either go down in history as an inflection point, the moment humanity decided to reinvent itself—or the date homo sapiens opted for self-extinction. On the same Monday Hurricane Michael formed in the Gulf of Mexico, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a study concluding “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” were needed to avert imminent global disaster. Time is closing our window of survival. Only 12 years remain before we nudge Earth to the rim of inhabitability—and then irretrievably shove it over the side.
Responding to the UN Report, Larry Kudlow, President Trump’s economic adviser said, “I don’t think we should panic.” I respectfully disagree. I think now is an excellent time to panic. There’s nothing like a crisis to bring out the hero in all of us.
Fueled by global warming, Hurricane Michael went on to become one of the most intense storms ever to strike the United States. The ultimate fate of the IPCC report is unknown, but President Trump’s immediate reaction was dismissive: “I want to look at who drew it—you know, which group drew it.” The “group” was the world’s leading body on climate change, scientists who earlier substantiated humans were the cause of global warming. That earlier report spurred the world, including the U.S., to up its game against global warming.
In 2015, representatives from 181 countries converged in Paris with the long-term hope of limiting global warming to no more than 2°C, preferably 1.5°C. Planning was to begin immediately and mitigation efforts started by 2020. Unfortunately, the Paris Agreement set no target dates for each country’s voluntary goals.
President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement in 2017, although his decision may not ultimately matter. The latest IPCC report is a reevaluation of the Agreement’s aspirational target, a purpose embedded in the report’s wordy title: Global Warming of 1.5°C, an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.
Business-as-usual will warm the planet three degrees in about 80 years, a period within the lifespan of today’s youngest generation. Three degrees is the point of no return.
More than a hundred IPCC scientist/soothsayers pooled their crystal balls and found Doomsday in their tea leaves. Previous research showed global temperatures had risen 1°C from pre-industrial levels, and there is a longstanding consensus that climate warming will hit 1.5 to 2°C between 2030 and 2050. However, the IPCC found greenhouse gasses transforming the planet faster than anticipated. Commitments made in Paris were no longer adequate to slow the trajectory. Immediate and more extensive interventions are required to keep Earth’s temperature from passing 1.5°C. The report’s kicker, though, is that, if global warming isn’t under control in the next 12 years, it may never be. Business-as-usual will warm the planet 3°C in about 80 years, a period within the lifespan of today’s youngest generation. Three degrees is the point of no return.
A 3°C hotter Earth is not wild speculation; it is also the Trump administration’s official estimate. A July 2018 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Environmental Impact Statement noted, “Global mean surface temperature is projected to increase by approximately 3.48°C (6.27°F) under the No Action Alternative by 2100.”
British environmentalist Mark Lynas knows what a 3°C warmer world looks like. His book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, is based on previous IPCC reports and reams of climate data. Lynas vividly describes arctic glaciers and ice sheets melting at that temperature, the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, and the destruction of low-lying communities. Life barrels downhill from there. Three degrees triggers an avalanche of self-reinforcing events that push the needle to 4°C, causing arctic permafrost to melt and the massive release of more greenhouse gases. That leads to 5°C and all south pole ice evaporating, which raises sea levels that drown most coastal cities. When the planet reaches 6°C, it’s time to say goodbye. Earth returns to the hothouse climate of its Cretaceous past, with oceans generating cyclones of unimaginable force. We enter Dante’s Inferno, and 95% of Earth’s cold-adapted species go extinct (maybe Gone with the Wind would be a better reference). The small part of humanity that remains subsists in a bleak Steven King dystopia (The Stand comes to mind) waiting for Earth’s happy pre-20th Century Holocene climate to return—millennia down the road.
Press reactions to the October 8 IPCC report were swift and passionate. The day after the report’s release, The New York Times opined, “Wake Up, World Leaders. The Alarm Is Deafening.” A week later, The Guardian screamed, “There’s one key takeaway from last week’s IPCC report: cut carbon pollution as much as possible, as fast as possible.” The Japan Times despaired, “Solving global warming is mission impossible.
A rise of 3°C presages an apocalypse, but capping global temperatures at 1.5°C also yields a hostile planet. Catastrophic superstorms like Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Mangkhut, Florence, Michael, and Yutu won’t be outliers; they’ll be the norm, and they will strike further north, putting ever more populations at risk. Inland flooding like the “king tides” now regularly encroaching on Miami will be common in other coastal cities. Wars will be fought over fresh water. Low-lying communities will dip into the sea, and small islands, some of which are nations, will go under.
At the other extreme, epic heat waves and wildfires will rage across previously habitable zones, the Tropics, in particular, spurring mega-droughts and crop failures. As desertification turns historically green pastures into dust bowls, stable cultures will succumb to turmoil, creating economic disruption, igniting violence, and upheaving politics. People will vote with their feet, which is already happening. El Niño brought severe drought to Central America in 2018, stressing the “dry corridor” economies of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. At the time of this writing, five thousand Central American refugees are trekking hundreds of miles to the US-Mexican border, many of foot. Waiting for them are five thousand US troops laying hundreds of miles of razor wire. According to a 2017 United Nations University paper, “Climate Migrants Might Reach One Billion by 2050.” By the end of the century, two billion people (one-fifth of the planet’s population) could be climate change refugees.
Thought experiment #1: The UN World Food Program says hunger is replacing socio-economic pressures as the driving force behind mass migration. Climate-induced starvation, thus, will propel historic demographic shifts. What if the exodus from Central America was 100 thousand strong, not five thousand? What if it was a million?
Conclusion: No border wall and no border army could stop them.
Global warming is the result of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere through human activity. Temperatures began rising after the North American and European industrial revolutions increased the burning of fossil fuels for manufacturing and transportation. Warming picked up speed over the past 60 years. Industrializing the food industry contributed, in particular, meat and dairy production.
Also to blame is the built environment. Although carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons are the primary components of greenhouse gases, CO2 is the most long-lived. Buildings, through heating, cooling, and lighting equipment, make up the largest segment of US CO2 emissions, almost 40%.
Thought experiment #2: What if desperate third-world masses shook their collective fist at the first world and shouted, “It’s all your fault!”?
Conclusion: Draw your own conclusions.
Architecture’s epochal response to climate change has been LEED, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program developed in 1998 by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). If LEED has played a role in mitigating climate change, it’s been a small one. The USGBC itself admitted in a 2017 press release that, “Over the next 25 years, CO2 emissions from buildings are projected to grow faster than any other sector, with emissions from commercial buildings projected to grow the fastest—1.8% a year through 2030.” Note that USGBC’s predicted 45% growth of CO2 by 2030 is in stark contrast with the IPCC’s plea for a 45% reduction in greenhouse gases during the same period.
Either the design profession’s effort to LEED its way out of carbon loading isn’t working, or it’s not working fast enough. Both cases are academic because time is running out. It took 30 years to begin shrinking the ozone hole over Antarctica, and that was with all hands on deck. Once damage to Earth’s protective atmospheric layer was identified in the 1980s, every country in the world banned the ozone-depleting refrigerant chlorofluorocarbon-11. Thankfully, the hole is healing and predicted to disappear by 2060. Diagnosis to cure, however, will have taken 80 years.
We have a mere 12 years to arrest global warming, and most hands are working below deck, ensconced in their cabins. Only 2% of new buildings are designed green, typically low-carbon footprints, not greener zero-carbon footprints, which aren’t green enough to be meaningful, anyway. Ninety-eight percent of the planet’s 1.6 trillion square feet of existing buildings are carbon-positive, belching CO2 into the biosphere, overwhelming LEED. Granting tax credits for low-carbon or carbon-neutral projects will not stop Earth’s incipient descent into hell. Neither will government regulations, especially with climate change denial the party line in Washington, and Big Energy spending big bucks to defeat state initiatives to rein in greenhouse gasses.
But there is a group that has the imagination, ethos, and the social responsibility to save the planet—or at least, buy it some time.
Carbon capture and sequestering (CCA) is the process of absorbing CO2 from the air and safely storing it. Trees do this by photosynthesis. Heavy landscape, grass roofs, and green walls scrub carbon dioxide from the sky. Carbon-absorbing concrete has been invented, and other regenerative technologies are coming online. If sufficiently scaled, carbon-negative architecture can reduce the harm of other buildings’ carbon emissions. According to the Climate Institute, only carbon-capture and sequestering has the power to prevent Earth from reaching 3°C by 2100.
Converting the designed environment, built and planted, into carbon sinks walks us back from the abyss, granting time to bring transportation, industry, and food production into conformance. In theory, the strategy will work. In truth, it won’t, unless all new architecture is designed carbon negative—and starting today.
A Hail Mary, go-for-broke dive for sustainability? Impossible, those with borrowed vision would say. CCA technology isn’t proven, or it’s too costly, or too unconventional for owners to agree. Howard Roark would disagree. He’d say solving the unsolvable is what imaginative architects do every day. He’d also sense an opportunity to translate LEED to leading. “Most people build as they live—as a matter of routine and senseless accident,” Roark said in the novel. “But a few understand that building is a great symbol.”
Zero-carbon buildings will only sustain themselves, not the planet. Sustainable development should be reserved for carbon-negative projects that measurably remove more carbon from the environment than they contribute.
It is time to acknowledge the dictionary definition of sustainable—something maintained at a fixed level—is at odds with the status quo. Low-carbon emitting architecture hasn’t worked. Zero-carbon buildings will only sustain themselves, not the planet. Sustainable development should be reserved for carbon-negative projects that measurably remove more carbon from the environment than they contribute.
The Fountainhead was published in 1943. Millions of copies have been sold over 75 years. The book is still in print; the story still resonates. Ayn Rand preached the gospel of individualism, “the concept of man as a heroic being.” She chose an architect to illustrate her philosophy, someone willing to risk everything for an ideal. In the introduction to her book, Rand offered “profound gratitude to the great profession of architecture and its heroes who have given us some of the highest expressions of man’s genius.”
We could use some of that genius now. Which brings us back to architects standing naked at the edge of a lake.
Classical Greece depicted its heroes nude to represent physical, mental, and moral strength, but also vulnerability, which was honored. Hercules was the strongest man alive but realized he was mortal. Howard Roark epitomized confidence, but he, too, was aware he could suffer for his convictions. “Thousands of years ago,” Roark said in The Fountainhead, “the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burnt at the stake he’d taught his brothers to light, but he left them a gift they had not conceived and he lifted darkness from the face of the Earth.”
Like Hercules wielding his club, The Fountainhead opens with our hero holding a weapon: a grudge against the architecture of the time, the Beaux-Arts. We see Modernist Howard Roark perched on a cliff dressed in his birthday suit, about to plunge into the headwaters of a lake. The ancients rendered their values in marble. Rand sculpted hers on paper. The parallel is not coincidental. Myths and mythmakers are in the same business: persuasion.
Thought experiment #3: What if architects, strong of character, armed with unbridled energy and uncompromising principles, refused any commission that did not result in a carbon-negative building?
Result: Reluctant other architects may follow. A public divided by partisan climate politics might notice. Recalcitrant property owners and denying governments could be compelled to take serious action on global warming. A monster would be tamed.
On Friday, November 23, 2018, as California counted the dead from its latest infernos, the US Government issued Volume II of its Fourth National Climate Assessment. The report confirmed, “While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.” Translation: it’s time for heroic action. The cavalry isn’t riding to the rescue.
Ayn Rand believed in government noninterference and unbridled capitalism, ironically, the root causes of global warming. But by elevating individual effort above government initiatives, she presciently described a solution to today’s status quo failures. In a perversion of Randian logic, an architect force of nature might become a force for nature, a wellspring of design ideas and activist ideals for climate regeneration. A fountainhead.
Featured image: Hercules rescuing Hesione from the Sea Monster, from Scenes from the Labors and Exploits of Hercules by François-Alexandre Verdier, via Wikipedia Commons.