I remember feeling incredibly fortunate in the 1990s. The Soviet empire had fallen, the U.S. economy was enjoying an unprecedented run of growth, AIDS was in check, computers and the internet promised a technological utopia, and Frank Gehry, FAIA, was leading architecture into a new era of apparently limitless formal possibilities. Of course, there were still terrors—in Bosnia, for instance, and Rwanda—but they could be categorized as post-communist and -colonial aftershocks rather than emerging dangers. At long last, the world had been made safe for democracy.
Whether the ’90s were ever truly a moment of possibility, or I was just being naive in my privilege, today the options are unquestionably narrower. No wonder Greta Thunberg is so upset. Unchecked development since World War II—aptly named the Great Acceleration—has left her generation holding a malodorous bag of social inequity, political instability, and extreme weather.
The three issues are inextricable, and they won’t just go away. Deteriorating conditions in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America have already compelled millions to migrate in search of security—and hundreds of millions more will be displaced by flooding and desertification in coming decades if we fail to act on climate change. Even the rich West won’t be immune. As anthropologist Bruno Latour observes in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity, 2018): “To the migrants from outside who have to cross borders and leave their countries behind at the price of immense tragedies, we must from now on add the migrants from inside who, while remaining in place, are experiencing the drama of seeing themselves left behind by their own countries.”
Why didn’t humanity heed John Ruskin’s warning, in The Stones of Venice, about unfettered commerce? The week I wrote this, 6 feet of water swept over the Piazza San Marco and wildfires licked at the base of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Lines on a map mean nothing to nature, as it reacts violently to humanity’s abuse. With governments across the globe immobilized by corruption, even citizenship in rich countries offers no guarantee of protection. Any resident of New Orleans or Flint, Mich., can tell you that.
It feels at times like we are backsliding, when we could be implementing an organized realignment. So I felt palpable relief when AIA overwhelmingly adopted the Resolution for Urgent and Sustained Climate Action last summer, and I felt it again in November when AIA president William Bates, FAIA, and CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA, released a statement opposing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, describing the move, with suitably diplomatic reserve, as “shortsighted.” The leadership is important.
Architects have significant power to mitigate climate change, and the path forward is straight and simple: Join the AIA 2030 Commitment and take responsibility for your buildings’ carbon emissions. Bewilderingly, only 252 signatories reported data for 2018, out of some 20,000 firms in the U.S. The profession can and must do better. Please forgive me for hectoring. It’s just that we live in a most delicate time, and only through united, sustained action can the profession meaningfully help to make the world safe.