From crisis to hope

I spent last week (June 11, 12) at the Canadian Green Building Council's (CaGBC's) second annual summit, Every Building Can Be Green. It was a fantastic conference with expert speakers from a range of disciplines talking about everything from sustainable community development to building performance simulation. I'd like to briefly summarize on this site, over the next week or so, what I saw as the highlights among the sessions I attended.

The conference opened on Wednesday morning with a sobering keynote from Thomas Homer-Dixon, a well known scholar at the University of Waterloo whose research is focussed on how societies adapt to rapid and complex changes in technology, in economics, and in our environment. Homer-Dixon's keynote started with an overview of the many challenges posed by rapid climate change. In summary, the latest evidence shows that we are in very deep trouble. Unprecedented changes in our climate will rapidly accelerate in the coming years; positive feedbacks which amplify climate change are outweighing negative feedbacks that might dampen it (Arctic sea ice is disappearing 30-50 years faster than even the worst-case climate models have predicted); heat waves and drought will place enormous pressure on global food supplies; and the nonlinearity of the climate system means that the climate could rapidly swing to a new, less hospitable, equilibrium from which it may not be able to return. Recent research suggests that carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for a very long time, and that slowing and stopping climate change requires us to get to zero carbon emissions as quickly as possible. Homer-Dixon summed up the first two thirds of his talk with a cartoon reading simply "We're fucked". It was meant as a joke, and like a lot of good jokes, it was probably funny because it had the ring of truth.

After this depressing beginning, Thomas Homer-Dixon started to slowly bring us back up. He expressed the hope that this crisis will create opportunities for the deep changes in behaviour, in institutions, and in our cultures that are needed. He pointed to coping strategies, such as efficiency, conservation, large-scale development of renewable energy, carbon-capture and sequestration, nuclear energy and, in the longer term, geo-engineering, and atmospheric carbon capture. Although I might quibble with the need for more nuclear energy, what I found particularly interesting in this last phase of his talk was Homer-Dixon's emphasis on the need for new economic models which are not based on relentless, rapacious growth. He pointed out that economic growth has been a useful tool in reducing friction between rich and poor, and that a new economic model will require us to develop a more equitable planet. He further argued that we need to design our technological and social institutions with greater resiliency by loosening couplings, increasing redundancy and diversity, decentralizing, and maximizing flexibility. By moving more to the local, but not too much.

There was a part of me that felt discouraged and disheartened after listening to Thomas Homer-Dixon's talk, but what I came away feeling was the "fierce urgency of now". His address crystallized the urgency of what we are doing, of the absolute need for us to stop overloading the world and to start regenerating it. Every building must be green.