As governments collectively fail to meet UN climate targets, Stephen Cousins asks whether it’s time to reject the capitalist conceit of ‘progress’ and allow ideas of post-growth/degrowth to transform society and the way architects design and do business
Warnings from the United Nations that the world has made ‘woefully inadequate’ progress cutting carbon with ‘no credible pathway’ in place to limit global warming to 1.5ºC are not just another wake up call for governments. They demand what the organisation called the ‘rapid transformation of societies’ at COP27 last November.
Followers of the philosophy of post-growth, or degrowth, strive to bring about such a radical shift by shrugging off society’s ingrained notions of ‘progress’ predicated on continued economic growth, which have been shown to accelerate damage to the natural world and social wellbeing.
Timothy Jackson is an ecological economist, author of Post Growth, Life after Capitalism and director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. ‘Look at the long term data and there’s a high correlation between economic activity, as measured by GDP, and material and energy throughput and environmental impact,’ he says. In contrast, a post-growth approach puts human wellbeing and social good at the centre of economic activity with the pursuit of profits and power pushed to the back of the queue.
According to Jackson, post-growth starts by recognising the need to reduce our impact on the planet; it then asks to what extent economic activity can be decoupled from that impact through different design, improved efficiency and substituting different technologies. Finally, it considers ‘what an economy should look like when it is not constantly expanding’, he says.
Part of the problem
As key drivers of demand for buildings that consume natural resources and energy, architects are part of the economic growth problem, but they can also help shape the development of a post-growth world. Instead of driving the creation of ever larger city infrastructures, more materialistic lifestyles and humanity’s expanding carbon footprint on the planet, they can design in ways that are more sustainable and energy efficient and create spaces that build a different idea of prosperity.
Post-growth architecture isn’t primed to drive economic growth or encourage people to spend money, instead it encourages engagement in more participatory, creative and meaningful activities such as sports, recreation, study and learning.
Post-growth starts by recognising the need to reduce our impact on the planet
Questioning the principle of growth is radical, but some architects and consultants are aligning with its principles. The Architects Declare steering group has said the idea ‘that we can carry on growing and just hope technology will eventually save us is a reckless and unscientific delusion’.
‘I try to understand principles of degrowth and post-growth and apply them in my work at every opportunity,’ says Smith Mordak, director of sustainability and physics at engineering consultancy Buro Happold and one-time RIBA Journal columnist. ‘If we want to cultivate a human society that doesn’t degenerate the ecosystems that support all life, then we need to apply them.’
An Architecture Degrowth Manifesto, posted anonymously on Twitter last summer, synthesises what its author, a US architectural worker, claims are the frustrations of many architects who feel the profession is intractably complicit in climate degradation.
The manifesto’s 25 ‘acts of refusal’ include a rejection of ‘the dominant response of the industry to urgent environmental and human rights injustices, which we see as inadequate, accommodationist, diversionary, and, in some cases, opportunistic.’
It states that governmental regulations and industry standards pertaining to the climate and the exploitation of workers ‘are insufficient ethical guidelines for architects’. Further, the manifesto includes a refusal to recommend the use of energy, the contribution of emissions, or the extraction of raw materials by the building industry ‘for any reason unless it is absolutely necessary, and demonstrably will benefit the public’.
‘I wrote the manifesto in response to what I felt was the industry’s inability, or unwillingness, to respond to the climate crisis as a systemic problem, rather than one that can be solved by industry reforms, such as the frenetic adoption of low emissions products and carbon accounting schemes,’ the author told RIBAJ in an email. ‘There has been increasing dissatisfaction with the profession for a while, especially among young architects, who less and less share the aspirations of their clients and bosses.'
Embedded in growth
Switching to a post-growth mindset is tough in a sector driven by growth, where clients are often blinkered by capitalist considerations and where architects can make good money promoting and designing buildings to meet their needs. As Jackson puts it: ‘You’re sitting on the design side of an equation that’s embedded in a growth-based economy.’ So how do architects disentangle themselves?
‘No individual architect or single practice can extract themselves from this toxic system. Growthism is the water we all swim in and are co-constituted within,’ says Mordak, who suggests that a shift towards post-growth may be possible if architects strive to understand their complicity in the growth-based status quo and work together ‘to unpick systems that perpetuate harm and creatively imagine alternatives.’
No individual architect or single practice can extract themselves from this toxic system
Jackson encourages practices to take a twin-pronged approach – from a projects perspective they should be working to ensure designs have minimal materials impact, for example by engaging more in refurbishment and reuse, and adhering to national net zero targets, including interim 2030 targets.
Reassess business models
They should also take on projects that emphasise human and social well being over profit-making considerations.
The second, arguably tougher, aspect for architects is to reassess their business models, deal flows and the ‘footprint of income generation’ to realign away from a growth-based model.
The pursuit of economic expansion beyond the sustainable needs of the business and its employees should be avoided, says Jackson: ‘You need to ensure your business model isn’t like a pyramid scheme where you have to continually expand the portfolio,’ he says. This might seem counter-intuitive, but not if the move to post-growth is coming from all stakeholders in construction and across wider society.
‘You want that effort to be coming from everywhere, in the procurement procedures of the government, who are enormous procurers of building, from corporate clients,’ he says. ‘Architects need to have post-growth principles embedded in codes of practice and declarations of intent.’
This could spell the end of the type of grand statement, iconic architecture that perpetuates material and energy growth in favour of more modest buildings with minimal environmental impact, attuned to the needs of a smaller economic system.
Given humanity’s continued path of destruction and the planet’s limited resources it may become the default approach. If so, ‘early adopter’ architects will be well placed to help society get there through design. ‘It’s impossible to keep growth going indefinitely on a finite planet, we have to face this at some point. The question is whether we want to wait for societal collapse, or facilitate a softer landing,’ concludes Mordak.