An introduction to The Five Thousand Pound Life

October 1, 2013

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 presents The Five Thousand Pound Life—an initiative of public events, digital releases, and a national 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

The Five Thousand Pound Life, a special project of The Architectural League, began in 2013 as an initiative to imagine an American future that is not only economically and ecologically viable, but also desirable. We seek to foster innovation and new ideas related to the built environment through debates and discussions on the most pressing challenges of our time: energy generation and distribution, structural economic change, environmental degradation, and the connections among these challenges. Our initiative is distinguished from the sea of interesting but limited approaches within architecture to produce “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. Through public events, digital publications, and a national design study, we connect architects and designers to leading figures from other fields to create a fertile terrain of interdisciplinary thinking.

The project 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 sixteen metric tons, almost eight times the limit from 2050.

Architecture and its allied disciplines have a critical role to play in reshaping our physical, social, and economic systems to sustain life on this planet. Climate change is a challenge that design 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.

For designers to marshal the potential of design to tackle these challenges 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. Greenhouse gas emissions come from many components of the built environment, including energy use, transportation, water use and treatment, material sourcing, and construction.

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.

Our project 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 Harvey, 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 root 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 foster innovation that lessens the severe pull on our resources. The central mission 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.

For more information on this project, sign up for the League’s newsletter and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Executive Director, The Architectural League
Project Director, The Five Thousand Pound Life

Rosalie Genevro

Manager of Climate Change Initiatives, The Architectural League
Ginny Hanusik

The Five Thousand Pound Life Project Lead (2013-2015)
Andrew Wade