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sustainability debate

Austin Williams thinks sustainability is the new Protestant ethic

When I was younger, my mother used to tell me off for turning the central heating up in the house. 'Why don't you put a jumper on?' she would say, as she turned the thermostat down to an invigorating 15 degrees C. Fair enough, I suppose, she was paying the bills.

Undoubtedly this sort of exchange has been going on for as long as teenagers have been invented and is typical of parent/child arguments all over the country. Unfortunately, nowadays we are all being treated like children. In almost every arena, there is an obligatory demand that we should tighten our belts, sit up straight and eat our greens. Apparently, we are using up too much energy and it is bad for the planet. It is not just costing money - it is costing the earth. I can't see it myself.Energy is plentiful and we have the good fortune to have lived in a sufficiently productive era to have advanced our standards of living by leaps and bounds.As with most examples of human ingenuity, the by-products and consequences of energy use have been turned into usable resources. This is not some deep philosophical revelation but sound business sense combined with a desire for efficiency.

Unlike the hype, technology has not led to environmental destruction, but to improved yields; science has not resulted in Frankenfoods but in better medicines.

People are living longer and healthier lives than ever before and yet we are not supposed to enjoy it. Rather, we are told that we should be anxious about what the potential effect our enjoyment might have on the lives of future generations. The question of what effect sustainability might have on future generations is equally unknowable, but it is peculiar that we now find society looking on the black side - viewing the future with trepidation, rather than expectation.

Precautionary principle There is a ouiji board mentality to sustainability, which says that we should not mess with things that we do not understand lest we bring down the wrath of Gaia upon ourselves.Apart from the mystical nonsense spoken about the environment - which now permeates mainstream thinking in terms of Feng Shui, 'Living Cities', environment as organism, world stewardship, etc - it exemplifies the precautionary principle approach to development by always assuming that man's actions will be detrimental. It mistakenly assumes that nature is somehow sacrosanct, and that humanity is over-reaching itself.

My criticism of this argument is that I believe progress to be about overcoming natural barriers, not kow-towing to them.

Asking that we restrain our adventurism or even that we exercise conspicuous caution in all that we do, can only lead to a lowering of horizons, and a restriction upon our aspiration to change the world around us.

Unfortunately, there are too many emotive issues in this debate. Given that the believers in sustainability have the moral highground, they are able to parody any opposition as advocating profligacy. However, in a period when 'over-development' is criticised more than 'under-development';

when 'appropriate technology' is prioritised over 'advanced technology' and where 'limited consumption' is counterposed to 'satisfactory consumption' it is a sad indictment that there is no forthright opposition to the reactionary consequences of sustainability.Luckily, there are still some who resist the safe option and explore the new.

As Norman Foster said of the Millennium Bridge design: 'I would rather be seen as over-ambitious than lily-livered - harking back to a past that never really existed.'

It is a shame that not everyone is so contemptuous of caution.

Problems or solutions Amory Lovins - the thinking man's environmentalist - was obliged to condemn the 1972 Limits to Growth tract on the basis that the limited resources argument has been disproved by historical precedent. The discussion moved, therefore, from a concern about resources to a concern for the effect of our extraction, use and disposal of resources. In effect sustainability is no longer concerned with the actual impact of our actions, but the possible impact. Nothing is considered in its own terms any more. Housing issues, for example, are presented as having more to do with social exclusion, health and modernity, than with getting a roof over one's head.

As a consequence of thinking that these issues are too big for single solutions we end up with no solutions. In this respect, sustainability has become an evasion of reality and has become a mechanism for perceiving the world in terms of potential problems. It is risk assessment gone mad. It is also a recipe for disappearing up one's own posterior.

Soon we will all be spending our time auditing our own behaviour. We can always do better, but we can never do enough. By ceasing to be an objective-driven programme, to becoming an end in itself, sustainability has taken on the guise of an Orwellian social policy. As Al Gore wrote in his book, Earth in the Balance:

'We must make the rescue of the environment the central organising principle for civilisation.'

In the Annex of Blueprint for a Green Economy (Pearce, Markandya and Barber, 1988), there are 23 different interpretations of sustainability, from ecologists as well as the World Bank and Margaret Thatcher.Even only one year after Brundtland, it just goes to show how irrelevant the meaning is. Regardless of the definitions - to quote another Thatcherism - 'there is no alternative'. Sustainability has become something that needs no definition, it is simply something to get immersed in.

Dirty linen I have noticed that hotels often leave notices on your pillow these days to the effect that 'in the interests of conserving water, we will only wash the sheets every two days'.Very responsible. I can't wait for architects to offer smaller buildings in the interest of conserving energy. Or maybe doing fewer drawings! What about restaurants offering smaller portions to maintain sustainable diets: a commercial win-win situation.

Sustainable frugality seems to be the vision of the future. As Richard Best, director of the Rowntree Foundation, wrote in his introduction to the Best Practice guide, Living For the Future: 24 Sustainable Development Ideas from the UK': 'The north offers numerous examples of over-consumption of the Earth's resources. The south gives us inspiration by showing how participation and sharing is becoming a reality.'The Third World as a model for responsible consumption?

Indeed, the focus of the 1992 Rio Summit on the small-scale and the local has generated a new form of parochialism.

Architecture, by its very nature, uses energy, alters the existing fabric and imposes a structural form upon others.

This is an unavoidable part of the process of being an architect and so unless architects give up practising altogether so as to minimise their environmental impact, they will always have some 'detrimental' impact.The sustainable response is a clamour to limit our detrimental impact - not in terms of design, but in terms of a checklist of worthy objectives.A call to behave 'responsibly'. As if architects don't behave responsibly!

Responsibility in current terms means something qualitatively different to what it did in the past. If we have to use energy, we should do so responsibly, and those who impose a vision on others are deemed to be irresponsible, arrogant, in need of partnership and compromise. Even though responsibility is also prone to a non-definition status, woe betide the architect who is perceived to behave irresponsibly. Energy audits, ethically-sourced products, environmentally-friendly materials, renewable sources and so on, will all become the norm.

There is a school of thought that says that the constraints imposed by sustainability give rise to more imaginative architecture. I'm yet to be convinced. By reducing the palette of materials and by engaging in audits and checklisting, we are in danger of bureaucratising architecture.

However, I am more concerned about the tendency to reduce our aspirations.

Sustainability argues that we should not aspire to make a truly dramatic impact upon the so-called natural world. What then is architecture?

Austin Williams is a qualified architect and the technical and practice editor of The Architects' Journal.We welcome comments and criticism of the issues raised in this series of articles

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