J500 Media and the Environment

How’s that for framing? by alejandrooj840
October 24, 2008, 2:31 pm
Filed under: Society + Media | Tags: , , , , , ,


            Today, I witnessed something very unusual.  At the AIACS conference, I saw Mark Johnson explain in front of a large audience that sustainability in architecture is really not that important.  He even used the expression “playing the fiddle while Rome burns”.  To make it even more shocking, he said this as an answer to a comment made by Bob Berkebile.  Now, before you dismiss him as a nutjob, Mark is a respected lecturer and speaker, a graduate from Harvard’s GSD and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Colorado.

            Furthermore, Mark’s argument was very compelling.  He said that sustainability has become comodified, and elitist and of little relevance to the majority of the population in the world who lives below the poverty line. (In the sense that those who can not eat need to fulfill those needs before they worry about their impact on the environment).

            Ultimately, he said that equity and poverty and not sustainability are the key problems of our time and that they will continue to outpace sustainability as the main challenge of our time.


Alejandro Ogata


4 Comments so far
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I get it. You’ll worry about recycling the cardboard around that Big Mac after you secure the funding for the Big Mac. Makes sense. Did the chicken or the egg come first and all that. Is this guy implying that as architects you should figure out a way to give poor people a job building a new building before you design the building to be green? Can’t the two work in tandem? I think your friend is a little too black and white. There is some grey here. Embrace green as an opportunity to create companies and jobs folks haven’t even thought of yet. While I understand Mr. Johnson’s point, let’s embrace the grey.

Comment by jillwilder14


I can imagine your surprise at hearing that, especially in response to a comment by Bob. Granted I’m no expert, but it seems to me that he’s been one of the biggest proponents of green and sustainability in the KC area (with BNIM’s involvement in Greenburg and other things). That said, I wrote a previous post about fads. Maybe this is the first chink in armor of sustainability.

I’m not saying to give up on sustainability, rather that we need to recognize that the world is so interconnected these days that many things have a ripple effect into other areas. How many times in the past month have we seen the DOW, S&P and other US financial markets tank after the overseas markets fall?

We’ve got a lot of complex problems in the world today. An former high school teacher of mine used to always say that there are no simple, easy answers to complex problems. At the time, I thought he was a quack. Now, with some more experience and knowledge under my belt, I understand he was right on the money.

This interconnectedness (is that real word?) must be factored in when framing our messages for CEP, at our workplace, at our homes, etc.


Comment by shawng


I agree with you. Mark Johson’s argument is very compelling, similar to Angelique’s comment during class. Poverty creates the biggest waste (of hummanity) on this planet, and right now, sustainbility tends to be a luxury of the rich. Who else has the time, money and energy to recycle, build green houses and drive hybrids.

However, I think Jill also has an excellent point. There is grey area. Visit: http://www.carbon.org.za/. This organization called PACE is dedicated to “making carbon work for the poor.” They are determined to create a carbon market in South Africa that directly benefits the poor. They are creating solar ovens, installating of solar water heaters, compact fluorescent lighting, solar cookers and/or gelfuel, and electricity for households in poorer communities. They’ve found a way to help the poor improve their quality of life, live sustainably and get those more priveleged to pay for it. Clever. And they are not the only ones. Once our own culture catches on to thsi idea, I’m convinced jobs, a separate economy and a different, healthier way of life will trickle down below that poverty line.

Thanks for sharing Mark Johson’s thoughts, Alex. It got me thinking a little harder about this issue. I hope some day soon Mark Johnson’s cynicism will soften, as groups like PACE take off.

– Cheri

Comment by cherileb

Thanks for your comments. I agree somewhat with them. Yes, there is gray; and yes, there is always something we can do. It is not all black and white.
However, let’s bring this into the context of framing. Two of the most effective arguments I have seen on sustainability are its importance and its urgency. We must act and we must act now. Mark was not dismissing sustainability. However, he was able to reframe the conversation on the importance and the immediacy of sustainability by invoking a different context. I would like to hear a more sophisticated message that is capable of being re-framed into a larger context.
The “Do what you can” message, does not appeal to me personally (perhaps it does to others). Thus think that there is value in crafting a message that talks about sustainability within the context of the other great challenges of our time; namely poverty, injustice and inequality.
This has been a topic of lively discussion within my CEP group (labor). How can one make a compelling argument while still ascribing to the notion that there is a hierarchy of needs in the tradition of Abraham Maslow and Calayton Alderfer? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierarchy_of_needs)
Unfortunately I have no answer yet. But as we proceed with more interviews I hope to post our findings.

*There was an interesting discussion on the McLaughlin group this morning. The topic was on the need to continue NASA’s mission and to maintain the US leadership in space exploration. All of the panelists agree that NASA is (was) a great program and it benefitted the US in terms of education, technological achievement and national security. However, there was also a concensus that it would become a dead issue given the more pressing issues of the day. (http://www.mclaughlin.com/)

Alejandro Ogata

Comment by alejandrooj840

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