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Manifesto for a Biosphere Ethics:
Ending Indifference

Manifesto for a Biosphere Ethics:
Ending Indifference

Markus Appenzeller

by Markus Appenzeller and Thijs Spaandonk

This Manifesto emerges from, and reflects on, a series of talks by a diverse group of climate specialists and students that Thijs van Spaandonk and Markus Appenzeller, as heads of Urban Design at the Academies of Architecture in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, organized in the spring of 2021 under the title ‘Beyond Peak Indifference’. It has previously been published by archined.

The times in which we live call upon us to start doing almost everything we do differently. We have to learn to let go of that which we hold dear; at the same time, we are all partly responsible for the problems humanity is now facing. We, as designers, have to learn to do things differently. The question is: What is this ‘differently’? What will guide us in the future? What is right and what is wrong, and who is to say which is which?

We are only on the threshold of what may well become the greatest transformation our generation will ever experience — perhaps even the greatest transformation the whole of humanity — that is, the whole of the world’s population — has ever experienced. While the old order provided us with definite notions of good and bad and a clear moral compass, the new age is terra incognita.

The ethical standards and thought processes of spatial designers are dominated by the central role they assign to human beings. Our anthropocentric ethos has led us to always assess and value everything from our own position. The user of a building is a human being, the pedestrian in the public space is a human being; the infrastructures we have developed are meant to make our lives — the lives of human beings — easier, safer and more enjoyable. This must change. We have to move towards a biosphere ethics in which human beings no longer provide the only frame of reference.

The street is a complex ecosystem in which different types of animals and plants live that all need to be able to thrive. Its users are not only human beings but also, for example, bats, or the bricks and wooden beams (raw mate- rials) from which buildings are made. We have to approach not only the built environment, but also infrastructures more broadly, as beings that benefit the entire planet.

Underpinning this new ethic is a different attitude, one we designers have to adopt. It is an attempt to translate this new ethic into instructions that we must start to internalize and deepen, all of us, together, now, today.

The world is in crisis and we architects, urban designers and landscape architects must put our indifference aside and act.

Embrace a perspective that shows the world and all living beings on the planet as a single, interdependent biosphere.

The prosperity of (a part of) humanity has always been at the expense of not only other parts of humanity, but also of all other living beings. All the policies we pursue and measures we take must be based on solidarity between human beings and all other beings in our biosphere.

Our projects are determined by requirement programmes, local preconditions, client’s wishes and budgets. But what is the impact of our projects on the biosphere as a whole? What does it mean that, as of this year, the weight of human-made materials on the planet is greater than that of all biomass combined? Where do the raw materials for our building products come from, and what impact does their extraction and processing have on the biosphere?

Recognize the complexity of the challenge we face! Nobody has the silver bullet.

Architects and other designers often claim that their particular vision will yield the solution to this or that complex problem. The fame of individual creative geniuses now rises to mythical proportions. This has led to great deeds, but even greater disasters. In the eyes of many, designers are now immediately suspect. If we set aside our egos and place ourselves at the service of others, we can use our instruments to fathom the complexity of the challenges we face and to develop prospects for action. The success of architects is currently measured by the amount of followers they have on Instagram and the number of projects they have published and square metres they have built: more is better, growth is the key! Can we just put our egos aside and appreciate the collective achievement of the profession more? Can we stop taking numbers of square metres as measures of performance and reduce human beings’ impact on the biosphere? And why is the end product of design always a building or some other form of physical plan?

Every decision we make, or do not make, represents the balancing of interests.

Which principles and values underlie this balancing depends on which ideals we pursue, and making decisions is therefore political. Beyond political preference or moralism, it is important to realize that certain values and interests are not repre­sented in the trade­offs we make.

The question we constantly have to ask ourselves is: For whom are we working and which values do our actions represent? Our current spatial planning model centres on property accumulation. But our living environment includes many more values than property values alone. These other values almost always lose out to achievable real estate values. Any investment in the living environment depends on the earning model of the property developer involved. So how can we jointly arrive at a different model for spatial development, one in which a wide range of values is represented and weighed? How can we represent these ‘other’ values in the interventions that we as designers propose?

People adopt different attitudes in the face of the crisis in which we find our­ selves. Denial, ignorance, indifference and cynicism are just a few examples. Once we start to despair, all that is left to us is fatalism. Fatalism will get us nowhere.

Yes, the challenge is substantial. Yes, we have to be critical of our mistakes. But above all, we have to continue to search for rays of hope!

Perhaps we can find those rays of hope close to home, in our immediate environment. Unconsciously or subconsciously, we may already be contributing to a sustainable future or to ‘being ecological’, as philosopher Timothy Morton calls it. But we have to start to think beyond the immediate as well, and not shun grand gestures. The challenge is too big to solve with a façade garden here and a PV cell there. The question is: How are we going to approach this challenge? The modernist approach with its faith in technology alone will not hack it. The challenge we face is primarily social and cultural by nature, so the question is: How do we get society to commit? Are we, as designers, able to come up with an alternative vision of the future? And how do we raise a broad movement of communities committed to working on an alternative living environment? Because we can only make the necessary transition in time if we make it together. After all, 30 years is not much time to realize the climate goals set in Paris and to start doing everything differently.

Our current extractive economic system considers the ecological system one that can be exploited as a source of free raw materials. It is an economic system that takes advantage of some part of the ecological system, more precisely: it is an earning model.

We have to recognize that the damage our economic system inflicts on the ecological system also damages the economic system itself, in the short as well as in the long term. Therefore, we have to stop thinking of these two systems as opposites. Economic profit is the motive, profit maximization the goal. As spatial designers, we accept this as a given. We optimize our designs to facilitate economic profit maximization. Can we define profit differently, by prioritizing ways to achieve the best possible results for the environment and society?

If we put nature — including people — at the centre of our approach, is there a chance that this will increase economic profits, too? Can we move away from cost reduction and towards the maximization of returns for the environment and the people?

Laws and regulations are intended to warrant certainties and prevent unwanted  behaviour. They are often considered absolute preconditions for the projects on which we work. However, laws and regulations are of human manufacture and can therefore be redesigned.

Preconditions for the construction of sustainable buildings still have their limitations. They concern buildings as clearly delineated objects. The immediate environment of the building, the environment in which the building leaves its footprint through the use of materials and energy, is insufficiently addressed by the preconditions. There ought to be reciprocity between building and environment. In addition, legal standards are too often seen as ends in themselves, rather than as the minimum requirements they are. Laws and regulations also often obstruct radical change. This is partly due to the nature of laws and regulations, which are intended to prevent unwanted behaviour – their starting point being a (justified) distrust in builders, developers and landlords. Can we design a system based on trust that actually starts from and encourages the shifting of boundaries?

Spatial design is a powerful instrument to activate people. We should not hesitate to use it unsolicited, to reach large groups of people. If communities succeed in harnessing the interactive, transformative nature of design, this will strengthen their sense of ownership of the enormous challenges we face.

We have to unhesitatingly open up design activities and design products — open them up in the sense that, as designers, we allow outside input into the process. Sometimes the designer is not the one in charge for a while, sometimes other actors take the lead – preferably from the community for which the designer works. Other beings have to be able to appropriate the product, the design, as well. A design has to have the capacity to develop in the future, also and especially at the time when the original designer is no longer involved. This requires a willingness on the part of designers to share their ownership with others. Can we do this?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has indicated that the climate crisis requires the kind of action of which there is no documented example in the history of humankind.

This means we have to do something while we do not know how to do it. This calls for experimentation, for a stumbling forward, and it means that we have to accept that things will not work out from time to time, that we will make mistakes. It is imperative that we ensure that we bear the consequences of these mistakes collectively and, more importantly, that we learn from them.

Spatial design practice is characterized by competition: competition among firms, to win commissions, but also competition between individual designers, to produce the most projects. Success is measured by competitions won and projects published.

Climate change has no precedent, and therefore we have to develop a new design culture. One of the great secrets of the success of tech companies is that they are not afraid to take risks. They often fail, but sometimes they create something unprecedented, something that really takes us forward. There is no progress without failure. The best in the business are not only good at achieving success, but also at failing successfully. What the world needs badly now is to learn how to fail and how to draw sound conclusions. How can a professional community of people who constantly take each other to task on, among other things, the working out of details, one that has perfectionism in its DNA, overcome its fear of making mistakes and discuss any made constructively? How do we learn to make mistakes together?

It is impossible to work on our living environment and not have any sustainable ambitions. Unfortunately, we still see too many designers only pay lip service to these ambitions in their projects. We must teach ourselves and others to assess projects on what they actually produce, rather than on what they promise. Nor should we hide behind certificates. We must ensure that we do not indulge in greenwashing. Only if we follow this professional ethic can we, as a discipline, make a real contribution to a just world.

Green is good. Everyone is busy adding as many trees, bushes and grass to their designs as possible. They look nice on the renderings and it sells well. In reality, such plans often come to nothing. The omnipresent lush green turns out as puny twigs for budgetary reasons. And green is not necessarily good, anyway. In the first instance, a tree on a balcony on a façade causes more CO2 than it absorbs because of the extra structures it requires and the energy it needs to stay alive. Can we, as designers, escape this marketing trend? Might we say that the greenest building is the one that is never built? And what does that mean to our disciplines, which always focus on making?

Yes, we have to say goodbye to things to which we currently attach great emotional value, such as the aesthetics associated with certain materials and uses. People love beautiful things, and we cherish and take care of that which we find beautiful. Making our living environment more sustainable also offers an opportunity to discover new materials, customs and routines, and thus to develop a new aesthetic. The climate crisis also means that we have to face up to the impact of our use of materials and act accordingly. Some materials will be put on the Red List.

With that, the aesthetics that go with these materials may also disappear. It is up to us, designers, to find a new aesthetic. What are the criteria of this new biosphere aesthetic? The quality of the materials? The quality of the details? The timelessness and contextlessness of the design? And what part can the context, the regional, the site-specific play in finding a new aesthetic? Can we develop a vernacular for the twenty-first century?

Like no one else, spatial designers have the ability to imagine what futures we can want. Showing that a future influenced by the consequences of the climate crisis is primarily different and not necessarily worse, we may be able to more easily part with a past that has brought us much, but has first and foremost taken much from others and from the biosphere.

The media show us the strength of imagination every day. A news report with the right image has a lot of impact, even wordlessly. Earthrise, the photograph of the earth as a vulnerable sphere made during one of the first flights around the moon in 1968; Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth; Iwan Baan’s 2012 photograph of a dark and flooded Manhattan after hurricane Sandy; and the look on Greta Thunberg’s face during her speech at the 2019 UN climate summit are just a few examples. But are they images that actually lead to change, or do we absorb them and then get on with our day? The images call for change, but they do not explain how we can bring it about. Are we, as designers, capable of outlining prospects for action? Can we show that a sustainable and durable future is perhaps within our reach, closer than we dare to think? And can we use this skill to impassion the masses, move them and make them act?

It is the responsibility of us all to translate the above manifesto into education and into our own professional practice.

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