The United States faces two immense and inextricable challenges: how to reimagine the American way of life to address the impacts of climate change, and how to build a new and robust economic structure that offers viable and sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles across the income spectrum for all Americans. The Architectural League today launches The Five Thousand Pound Life—an initiative of public events, digital releases, and a major design study—as a contribution to what must be a broad collective effort, spanning geographies, generations, occupations, disciplines, and ideologies, to address those intertwined challenges.
– Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director, The Architectural League
NOISE VS. SIGNAL
The scientific consensus is undeniable. Human-caused climate change will make the planet inhospitable to current patterns of settlement, consumption, and mobility, thus forcing a fundamental shift in our relationships to the natural world, to each other, and to the products we make and use. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, produced primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, have caused the planet to warm 0.8°C since 1880. The Copenhagen Accord reflected the scientific view that warming of over 2°C is an unacceptable risk: a probable tipping point into a fundamentally different climate from the one in which life has evolved over thousands of years. Extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy fit an ongoing trend and provide a tangible wake up call to the consequences of inaction. The latest foreboding milestone came in May 2013, when the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide over 400 parts per million: the highest atmospheric concentration of this heat-trapping gas in millions of years.
We seek to examine the interdependent scales of the individual, the neighborhood, the city, and the region.
Yet, the multiple voices, scientific and otherwise, that push information and drive opinions on climate change complicate the task of sifting the static noise from the data-supported signal of legitimate knowledge. The science-driven imperative for swift and bold action has been stymied by radically divergent sets of beliefs among the American public and by the contemporary inertia of our political and economic systems. 97% of climate scientists link climate change to human activity; only 41% of the American public make the same connection. Climate change makes vivid a tendency that has historically thwarted the development of productive policies: a consistent set of facts does not lead different people to the same conclusion. Confirmation bias — seeking new information that confirms current views while disregarding sources that contradict those views — only deepens the dogmatic trenches. As a result, aligning thinking and building democratic consensus — much less connecting those thoughts to decisive action — has proven particularly difficult.
Climate change has been called a “super wicked” problem: one that requires a level of expertise, coordination, and timeliness of action never before demonstrated on a global scale. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, frames it this way: “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.” Fossil fuels and the comfortable, mobile way of life they have enabled have been at the center of the American economy and development since the 18th century. Coming to terms with climate change not only demands recognition of the complex interactions of the natural systems that support our lives; it requires us to question and reimagine the most fundamental arrangements and relationships we have designed for ourselves.
Change seems impossible, yet change is essential. Where do we go from here?
IMAGINING AN ALTERNATIVE
“We are underinvesting in trying to develop a common vision of a future that is really worth having, the kind of future we would like to leave to our grandchildren. We need to do a lot more of that envisioning.”
– James Gustave Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute; Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos
The Five Thousand Pound Life is a new initiative of The Architectural League that seeks to do just that: to imagine an American future that is not only economically and ecologically viable, but also desirable. Our initiative will distinguish itself from the sea of interesting but limited approaches within architecture to “green” or sustainable design. Instead, we seek to unite disparate conversations across disciplines and to examine the interdependent scales of the individual, the neighborhood, the city, and the region. We seek to interpret research through debates and discussions on the most pressing challenges of our time: energy generation and distribution, structural economic change, environmental degradation, and the connections between these challenges. Through a series of public events, digital publications and discussions, and a design study, we will connect architects and designers to leading figures from other fields to create a fertile terrain of interdisciplinary thinking. The Five Thousand Pound Life will raise our collective discussion of living sustainably to a higher register, imagining the systemic change needed to live well, and to live well within the carrying capacity of the planet.
The Five Thousand Pound Life takes its title from an imperative articulated by Nicholas Stern, lead author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, and current Chair of The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics: “The world must emit an average of no more than four metric tons per capita of carbon-dioxide-equivalent by 2030, and about two metric tons per capita by 2050.” Two metric tons equals a bit less than 5,000 pounds. We have a long way to go: current per capita carbon dioxide emissions for the United States average over seventeen metric tons, more than eight times the limit for 2050.
The first public program of The Five Thousand Pound Life initiative took place on the evening of October 2, 2013, with a lecture by Anthony Leiserowitz on the sometimes surprising ways in which the divergent values of various groups of the American public reflect themselves in attitudes about climate change and the actions we should or should not take, collectively or individually, in response to it. Architect Paul Lewis, landscape architect Kate Orff, and philosopher Dale Jamieson engaged Leiserowitz in discussion about the implications of what his research shows for the possibility of fundamental change. Over the course of the fall and winter, political philosophers, ethicists, and economists will explore different aspects of our contemporary dilemma, considering how to formulate and enact a new ethos of what political philosopher Melissa Lane terms “sustainable citizenship.”
“Public programs are complemented by a series of articles published on The Five Thousand Pound Life feature page. A diverse group of guest authors joins the conversation by arguing views from their own work, creating reference points within the broader discussion. Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute relates the depths of the challenge and what it takes to build a new paradigm for us to live within planetary boundaries. Spelling out the dangers of the gross domestic product (GDP) as a metric of economic health, and the distraction of alternative metrics, Assadourian critiques the notion of economic growth in a finite world. Indy Johar, architect and co-founder of 00:/, discusses the role of the architect in the civic economy with Rory Hyde. Rachel Armstrong, co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) at the University of Greenwich, introduces “speculative science” and designing with the technology of nature as a living system. She explores what it could mean for buildings to have metabolisms and physiologies that adapt to the environment.”
THE ROLE OF DESIGN
With so many potential actions—from embracing less consumptive lifestyles, to changing land-use patterns and investing in public transportation, to harvesting carbon-free energy sources—where do we start? There is no direct roadmap to follow, no “silver bullet.” Restarting our stagnant conversations on climate change hinges on highlighting connections: the mutual influences of science and behavior; design and policy; economics and ecology; land use planning and energy use. This space of intersection should be nurtured not only as one of mixing and colliding, but also merging conversations to support collective action. The transition from theory to practice is essential to address climate change effectively.
Systems can be redesigned and rebuilt to nurture the planet rather than pollute it or destroy it.
Design has a vital role to play here. Climate change is a problem that design and architecture can help us to understand, untangle, and ameliorate. Rather than linear, step-by-step problem solving, design facilitates a response to climate change that speculates and prototypes many possible paths towards prosperous future scenarios. Therefore, it rejects the misguided notion that a universal, dominant, singular solution exists. For designers to marshal the potential of design, however, requires that they go far beyond “green” buildings. While the value of this technical skill should not be overlooked, the predominant green discourse distracts us from grappling with the scale shift necessary for systemic change.
The good news is that the economic, social, and political systems that fuel climate change are human constructions: systems can be redesigned and rebuilt to nurture the planet rather than pollute it or destroy it. The economic dogma of “more for some” can be replaced with “enough for all” while preserving, perhaps enhancing, freedom of choice. Political subservience to moneyed-interests can be replaced by responsiveness to scientifically proven imperatives. The bad news is that attempts at systemic change demand the correct identification of the disease and not merely its symptoms and require massive collective effort. A personal habit of driving a gas-guzzling car pales against the millions of others who do the same, and the millions more who aspire to.
THE FIVE THOUSAND POUND LIFE:
A DESIGN STUDY
The culmination of The Five Thousand Pound Life will be a sequenced design study that will commission interdisciplinary teams of architects, economists, entrepreneurs, planners, scientists, and sociologists to work together to propose new frameworks for living, organized along the themes of water, food, shelter, land, and communication. The Architectural League takes on Gus Speth’s challenge to envision “a future that is really worth having” and Nicholas Stern’s framing of the carbon dioxide-imposed constraints of that future in a design study that imagines American lives that are both aspirational and sustainable. Rather than simply asking “how much?” in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions without altering the relations that produce them, teams will be challenged to ask “how?” How do buildings and infrastructure mediate our relationships with each other and the natural world? How can design restructure these relationships to create desirable futures? To answer these questions, each team will create aspirational scenarios of lives lived in major American cities that integrate economic and energy solutions, that thrive harmoniously with the source of our sustenance: the Earth.
The Five Thousand Pound Life will be one of progress and innovation, not of sacrifice and devolution. Our aim is not to present a remote and unreachable future as a sensational thought experiment, but to imagine our lives in their present realities, transformed so that our most critical and complex problem—climate change—is confronted through collective action as well as individual choice.
We choose to focus this work on the causes of climate change, rather than on adaptation to its effects, because adaptation without behavior change merely delays catastrophe and fails to solve the problem. Ultimately, dealing with causes is the more cost-effective and efficient approach: through extensive macro-economic modeling, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change has found that the cost of coping with the effects of climate change is several times greater than the cost of swiftly dealing with its causes.
The project focuses on the United States because we must lead by example. The level of production of greenhouse gases per capita in the United States is so radically out of alignment with what must be our collective global goals that we cannot in conscience begin with calling for change in other nations. For better or worse, the United States, as the world’s foremost economic engine and second largest carbon polluter, sets a strong precedent on climate change discussion and action. We also begin at home because climate change is too complex to be solved by a blanket solution implemented across the globe. Meanwhile, there are still nations so economically impoverished or newly industrialized that they fall below the greenhouse gas emission targets for 2050, and they need to have the freedom to develop in their own way. While the people of each nation have the same end targets in controlling emissions—which ultimately unites us in our five thousand pound lives—we also each have different paths to lead us there.
Some forecast a dystopian and bleak future, ripe with depictions of a regressive or oppressed society. By contrast, The Five Thousand Pound Life places people at the heart of a prosperous future that does not deny the depth of our challenges, but promotes innovative thinking to overcome them. Extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, record heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flash flooding have greatly intensified our focus on the need for adaptation to the already obvious effects of climate change. While adaptation is essential, the goal of The Five Thousand Pound Life is to confront the causes of climate change—in our patterns of consumption and ways of life—in the belief that it is critically important not only to adapt but also to do everything we can to ease the severity of the crisis. The central goal of our project is to demonstrate that reducing carbon emissions need not imply all-around austerity, but is in fact a precondition for individual and collective prosperity.
Originally published: September 11, 2013
This project is supported, in part, by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Art Works.
Additional support is provided by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The Architectural League also thanks Frances Levine for providing research support for The Five Thousand Pound Life.
 As stated in his interview with University of California Television on February 4, 2013, available for viewing online. [Quote: 37:55 – 38:11].
 As stated in Nicholas Stern’s review of Bill McKibben’s Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet in The New York Review of Books, paragraph 30. Published on June 24, 2010. World Bank data on per capita CO2 emissions shows the United States at 17.6 metric tons from their latest year on record, 2010.
 The Stern Review was released on October 30, 2006. The executive summary is downloadable here. Debate regarding the cost of mitigation, including details like the social cost of carbon, has continue since.