To put out the fires caused by overconsumption, we’ll need more than a bucket brigade

This post is by Maria Smith, director of sustainability and physics, Buro Happold.

With the average person in the UK consuming two to three times as many resources as the planet can sustainably supply, it’s clear we need a more systemic approach to tackle our overconsumption of resources.

For the built environment, this means being much more resourceful with buildings, and the products and materials that go into them. For starters, we need to demolish fewer buildings. As the Architects’ Journal’s RetroFirst campaign has brought to the fore, we demolish 50,000 buildings every year in the UK. Instead, we need to prioritise retrofitting and refurbishing existing buildings and, where we do take them down, we need to disassemble them, recovering and reusing their materials..

But, for an individual architect, engineer, contractor, developer, this is easier said than done. This is a systemic issue and, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a metaphor for a walk.

Resource efficiency is optimising each stage of an inefficient system
The economy is a bit like a bucket brigade: one of those human chains used to get water from source to fire as quickly as possible. People line up between the fire at one end and the water source at the other and pass buckets of water as quickly as possible along the chain to put out the fire.

The world’s degenerative economy is a bit like that, except it’s not a line, it’s a network. And it’s not just water, it’s loads of different types of resources. Like the bucket brigade’s chain, stuff is extracted from parts of the global economy, such as so-called developing countries, and transferred to other parts, ie the richer nations, and each link in the chain tries to pass on their bucket as efficiently as possible.

The quantity of stuff in those buckets and the speed at which they’re being passed is unsustainable. We all know that. But if we’re going to address this, we need to stop telling each individual in the chain to solve the problem, and instead take a systems approach.

Too many calls for the ‘sustainablification’ of this system (to coin a term) are effectively asking each actor to grab a bucket and pass it to the person next to them. We’re being told to be stronger, pass it faster, don’t slop so much over the side and require less while you’re at it. On top of all this, there are pressures to optimise the bucket brigade by ensuring that there are as few people as possible standing around doing nothing. Spread everyone out so that they can only just reach each other without spilling the water over the sides. Too often, that’s what’s meant by so called resource efficiency. It’s going to make it more profitable for business owners in the system, and it will probably also make it less muddy underfoot as less water is wasted, but it doesn’t fundamentally solve the problem. It’s not a hose.

Too little attention is paid to the bigger picture
What’s more, the fewer people there are standing around doing nothing and the more exhausted everyone is from working at maximum capacity, the less likely it is that anyone is going to invent a hose, let alone a sustainable drainage system at the other end to capture the run off, prevent downstream flooding, contamination of groundwaters and avert biodiversity loss due to the abstraction of all that water.

Or what about having someone to address the causes of the fire in the first place? Would better building standards prevent the uninsulated home with the open coal fire that resulted in the occupant passing out from carbon monoxide poisoning and failing to notice the briquette that rolled across the carpet which set their curtains alight? (That’s just what happened to have occurred in this particular metaphor).

Underlying the cries for resource efficiency is a fundamentally good thing: more conscientious use of the earth’s finite resources. But we have to be careful we don’t focus too much on the efficiency and not enough on the resources. In fact, a bit of inefficiency can be a good thing because a bit of inefficiency can mean resilience and the capacity for change, things we desperately need.

The point is, should we be asking the bucket brigade to pass their buckets faster and faster and faster? Or should we be trying to fundamentally redesign the way the system works? If we do the first, we’ll end up with smart buckets with sensors in them monitoring how much water they carry each day, that determine the bucket passers’ wages and the fees that the sub-contracted bucket suppliers receive, leading to fantastically profitable international bucket provider conglomerates. If we do the second, we might just work out how to ensure everyone has a safe and secure home, both in the sense of the buildings we live in andthe planet that we live on.

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