Bioneers speaker asks: “What if every act of design and construction made the world a better place?”
Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute and author of Zugunruhe, appeared at The Central Coast Bioneers Conference in San Luis Obispo on Oct. 14. McLennan’s presentation, which included an impressive stage set and imagery, was extended for more than an hour at the request of attendees. Simply put, after McLennan had wrapped up, said goodnight, and was leaving the podium, the audience wouldn’t budge.
Halfway down the stairs, he appeared puzzled, hesitated, and then returned to the microphone, asking “Do you have some questions, or –?”
“Yes!” was the enthusiastic response.
One person who was in attendance was Paul Rose, Head of Production for Semmes & Company, a local construction firm with an eye towards responsible environmental stewardship.
“We do a lot of alternative construction, straw bale, solar,” Rose said prior to McLennan’s presentation. Asked why he attended Bioneers, Rose replied, “This is in incredible group of people who are actually trying to change society from a baseline system, and that’s a common interest. I just happen to be in the building aspect of it. This is a good opportunity to get together with those people and compare new ideas.”
He added: “I’m here tonight because I don’t know, specifically, Mr. McLennan’s ideas, and I look forward to hearing them.”
McLennan is the visionary behind the Living Building Challenge, considered by many to be the world’s toughest design code of ethics. The goal is net-zero energy – the building uses no energy at all that it doesn’t itself produce – or better.
More than 100 projects are underway worldwide that seek the program’s certification. Many were described during McLennan’s presentation, and a few, which were very impressive, were followed by “that one almost made it – but not quite.”
McLennan’s design work has been featured in Time and National Geographic magazine, among others. He is the author of four books on environmentally sound architecture.
EXCERPTS FROM Jason F. McLennan’s BIONEERS CONFERENCE Address
“We don’t need to wait. We know how to build these now. We know they’re cheaper. But we live in a society that doesn’t value efficiency. We live in a society that subsidizes all the wrong things.”
ZUGUNRUHE (Zoo-Kahn-Roo-ah): “The word means ‘migratory restlessness.’ It’s a biological term that describes a known phenomenon in the natural world. Before a species migrates, they have to prepare themselves physically and psychologically for this incredible journey. They change everything, sleeping, feeding, and they begin to display anxiousness and restlessness, and they don’t even understand why. And they’re compelled to gather, and they’re anxious about change that is yet to come.
We are a species that migrates ourselves. We have the same instincts, often buried in so much personal and cultural baggage that we fail to see the signs right in front of us that tell us ‘there are storms coming …’ Any migration of any kind, it may seem like a sudden thing, but there is always this period of restlessness, of preparation, and my sense is that our society is going through this same kind of migratory restlessness. And we might not absolutely understand that change, the storms that are coming, but the herd is gathering, and you are part of the herd; in fact you are the first of the herd that are gathering together and saying, ‘Hold on – we think that winter may be coming, and maybe we ought to make a change.’”
This sewage treatment plant at the Omega Center in New York state hosts yoga classes and has become a destination tourist attraction.
THE THREE-QUARTER-BAKED PHILOSOPHY
“We need to be providing not merely a pointing finger saying ‘this is bad,’ but also hope, inspiration, and a positive vision of where we’re going.
I bet you are holding inside you something that you haven’t shared, that the community needs to know about. And that’s something we need to change, because right now, we need all the passion and the sharing of ideas.
I know some incredible musicians, that are more talented than anyone recording today, but they’re afraid to get out of the garage. And I know some amazing writers, that are incredible at describing things, and they’re afraid to put their writing out in the world because they’re chasing some sort of perfection. They’re chasing an ideal that they’ll never reach. And I think that one of the first changes we need to make is to get over ourselves, to get over this need to be perfect before we put our views out there. We think that we have to perfect our ideas before we share them because we fear failure, rejection, or disapproval. But the harder you chase perfection, the more elusive it becomes … there is a time at which, anything you work on, it is your obligation to get it to the community for them to decide. This is the Three-Quarter-Baked Philosophy. I’m not saying we need to put out every idea that pops into our head, because you don’t want to waste people’s time, so there is a tension there. But there comes a time, when it is strong, it has integrity, it is thoughtful, it is honest – it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, so you put it out there and be open to the criticism.”
An Interview with Green Architect and Author of ZUGUNRUHE, Jason F McLennan
IP: In your article The Tyranny of the Big, the Beauty of the Small, you wrote, “Decisions should not be made by people who neither understand the consequences of their decisions, nor empathize with those their decisions affect.” How does that apply to reforming our political system?
JM: “I was referring primarily to the economic system, and the notion that people were making decisions about resources where they had no connection to the communities that they were impacting – in fact they may never even have visited the place where they were extracting materials. Obviously there’s a fundamental disconnect when the captains of industry have no idea or don’t understand or care about the impact on the indigenous people. What about our democracy? I’m Canadian, and we have a much smaller population – representatives tend to get to know their constituents to some degree. There doesn’t seem to be the kind of socio-economic gap between the people in power and those they are governing. That’s more to the heart of your question: Do they relate to the average person they represent? And (in America) they don’t, because you have to be a multi-millionaire to even play the game.”
IP: In the same article you wrote ‘We cross the scale barrier with buildings somewhere between twelve and fourteen stories high,” and “we’ll be done with new buildings over 500 feet by 2020.” How does that work for someplace with a limited geography and dense population like Manhattan?
“What I was getting at is ‘is that a model we’re going to keep replicating?’ I don’t think so. We have a few years left in this paradigm. Then I think it’s going to be too expensive, from an energy standpoint, to maintain that kind of infrastructure that is so disconnected from basic physics, even. I think Manhattan will be one example of such a place that will be maintained from a cultural standpoint, but it won’t be the model. We’re going to have a lot more density, but we’re not going to have these giant skyscrapers. We’ll have low-rise buildings, five, six, seven stories.”
IP: Why specifically do skyscrapers stick in your mind as unsustainable?
“They get less and less efficient beyond a certain height, where you can’t realistically walk from one part of the building to another, and you’re relying on electrical energy. If you look at the energy profile of larger buildings, they begin on a square foot basis to become less efficient.”
IP: Why would you believe that you can affect these changes, when the culture and the power structure are so powerfully aligned in support of the status quo?
JM: “Things can change in second. I think if you go back in history you can see that empires, when they crumble, crumble really quickly. Very close to a tipping, the people in power think that they’re going to be in power for a long time. I think that we’re very close to a moment of tipping.”