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A Radical Ecology


By Christopher Kieran

Chrisna du Plessis is principal researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa. A keynote speaker at international conventions including the Triennial World Congress of the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (CIB), Greenbuild, and this year’s American Institute of Architects convention, she is a strong voice for sustainability in Africa. As a member of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) advisory group and as cocoordinator of a CIB task group on urban sustainability, she prepared the UNEP/CIB Agenda 21 for Sustainable Construction in Developing Countries.

Christina du Plessis
Photo courtesy of Chrisna Du Plessis
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Greensource: Without political stability, when even basic needs are not consistently met, how are developing countries situated to make a contriution to sustainability?

du Plessis: One of the key concerns regarding the global future is what will happen if the two-thirds of the world’s population that live in developing countries were to “develop” in the same way and, by implication, to the same levels of consumption and pollution as current developed countries. Developing countries are in a position to avoid the mistakes of what is currently considered the developed world, adopting not just different technological options but also unique definitions of what development means and how human needs are met. Some examples include Bhutan’s decision to opt for a Gross Happiness Index, instead of GDP, as a measure of development, Costa Rica’s choice to disband its army and channel defense spending instead to health and education, and initiatives such as the Colombian village Las Gaviotas, which managed to develop and implement a number of ground-breaking green technologies on a large scale, despite the country’s constant political upheaval. A lot of innovation in sustainable development comes from developing countries, where finding viable, low-cost alternatives to “conventional” solutions is a matter of necessity.

GS: In developing countries, what is necessary to ensure that when development happens, it will be sustainable?

du Plessis:The current rates of urbanization in developing countries are historically unprecedented. The biggest mistake would be to try and address this growth using conventional, centralized urban planning and management methods. Instead, it might be more useful to learn from how nature handles growth—ecological communities are allowed to self-organize in interlinked patches, making use of indigenous resources and adapting to local constraints. This sort of growth is happening in the large urban slums of the developing world. Instead of trying to control the uncontrollable and enforce ideas of centralized municipal service delivery and bulk infrastructure projects, the focus should be on making use of this tremendous energy, to assist new areas to develop localized systems of service delivery, governance, and harvesting resources available within the locality.

GS: What kind of institutional environment can encourage people to make their behavior more sustainable and give people reasons for changing their behavior, yet not conflict with their culture and values?

du Plessis: Positive environments for change can range from educational programs that teach built environment professionals how these new technologies work and how they could be incorporated into building projects, to legislation that enforces certain performance standards that cannot be achieved without using more sustainable alternatives, or even legislation that overrules the rights of home-owners’ associations to ban certain technologies, for example solar heaters, on aesthetic grounds.

GS: What about the future of construction? Are we seeing the right kind of changes in the construction industry?

du Plessis: A lot of what is currently happening amounts to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Improving efficiency and performance might buy time, but are not enough to deal with some of the critical problems that lie in the future. The brutal truth is that during the past ten to fifteen years, the contribution of sustainable construction to the global green effort has been negligible, even though the built environment is the single biggest anthropogenic contributor to resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

GS: What will it take to bring us around?

du Plessis: If mainstream sustainable building and construction remains stuck in the eco-efficiency model of development, we will miss the small window of opportunity left in which to avoid systems collapse. Existing models are not geared to encourage innovation outside the norms acceptable to the market. The sad thing is, to create the conditions favorable to such a fundamental change in the social system, we may very well need to have a systems collapse first.

The ultimate goal is to make the built environment like an ecosystem—to create buildings like trees and cities like forests. This simple change in perception is difficult to achieve, but we need radical green buildings and we will have to become more radical in our thinking, more daring in our creativity, and more idealistic in our visions of what a sustainably built environment can look like.

Dr. Michael Braungart is a chemist and cofounder with William McDonough of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) in Charlottesville, Virginia

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This article appeared in the April 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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