Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dwelling on San Francisco


I was in San Francisco this past week to attend Dwell Magazine's conference focused on "Building Communities in the Modern World." I had few expectations but was impressed by the line up of speakers so I was sure that I had to take something away from the two-day event. San Francisco loves design, loves the color green and of course loves itself, as it should. San Francisco has, by far, the most comprehensive set of environmentally friendly initiatives and incredibly strong public and private support for all things "green," of any American City I have traveled to in the past few years. The steering wheel for the green bandwagon is most definitely in the bay area. That said, with all the free tree-hugging love oozing from the central west coast, how does the 'sustainability conspiracy,' spoken of by moderator John Hockenberry, conspire to win over the rest of the United States?

The answer, I believe, is with a shift of attitude expressed in the communication of this movement. For years now the liberal pockets of the US have been nurturing the family of green movements that have evolved out of environmentalism. This nurturing has led to a great deal of momentum but also a great deal of protectiveness. The choir may be growing but not at the exponential rate needed for the ideals of sustainability to hit home with a large populace of the US that dismisses the green movement as elitist. Hollywood is buying hybrids faster than automobile companies can make them. Fast food now serves locally grown products and organic coffee. Fair trade is cool and green is chic. This may be a move in the right direction. If sustainable, responsible products can infiltrate mainstream America perhaps we do not need to convince anyone. We can herd the sheep right into the fresh green pasture and they can unknowingly graze the fair trade grass until the earth heals itself, right?

I foresee a backlash. I, who once thought the only way to save us, was to stop driving SUV's and go back to some type of neo-hunter-gatherer society, find myself frustrated with the liberal elite who want to keep this movement to themselves and away from American industry. We get it, why don't you?

This exclusionary attitude is exactly what the conspiracy needs to move away from, for example, treehugger.com. Discovery Channel recently announced that the purchase of treehugger.com to compliment their new eco-channel 'Planet Green' as part of their push to bring green to the mainstream. I have visited treehugger.com, I have used Treehugger to look for jobs and research topics. I also know people who use the term tree hugger as derogatory slang. Perhaps the people at Treehugger and the Discovery Channel can make it safe for the closet environmentalists to come out and win over young professionals who have discovered the joy of organic fair trade lattes, but by nobly trying to change the social connotations of a negative term they have limited their potential for broad social change.

Not to say that the sustainability movement is entirely exclusionary or elitist. The excellent lineup of presenters at the Dwell event showed that the notion of inclusive action and communication is alive and well, so, back to the conference.

Alice Waters and her presentation of the edible schoolyard exemplified this attitude with her push to empower every child with the skills to grow and provide for their community. The Architect Frank Harmon opened eyes to other parts of the country by introducing the California design community to modern North Carolina prefab; a doublewide trailer home on stilts, which was received by a chorus of nervous laughs. Reed Korloff, former Dean of Tulane University's School of Architecture demonstrated how a student designed and built green home can be affordable, appealing, and a strong investment.

The last question posed to the final panel by moderator John Hockenberry was, how much of the current green initiatives would remain intact in our society and how much would become fad. The panel, consisting of Frank Harmon, Reed Kroloff, Geoff Manaugh an editor at Dwell and author of Bldg Blog, the architect Lorcan O'Herlihy, and Gwynne Pugh of Scarpa Architects, answered with overwhelming realism leaning toward pessimism ranging from 50 to 80 percent fad. I agree that this is an uphill battle and much of this green-chic will fade to fad but Geoff Manaugh had a different take, one that hints at a fully charged youthful push. This push, naive as it may be, will not only help to get the ideals of social and environmental sustainability into mainstream America, but make it second nature so that eating locally grown organic foods, building self cooling / heating buildings powered by renewable resources, and placing human and environmental health above fiscal prosperity will become the system that we live in.

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