Thankful for the (Possibility of) Good Anthropocenes

Water catchment systemTraditionally, anything published on U.S. Thanksgiving Day must be about being thankful. In the current political environment, it can be difficult to feel that way.

Fortunately, there are people doing outstanding work on sustainability and resilience – the keys to making the coming anthropocene epoch a good one instead of the dystopia we all fear. I’m thankful for all the people – artists, scientists, activists, and so on – doing that work.

I’ve had two recent experiences that highlight the work that’s going on and the possibilities that flow from it. One was a lecture by Prof. Elena Bennett from McGill University, who works on ecosystem processes and interaction and is behind the ambitious project, Seeds of a Good Anthropocene.

Bennett’s project is seeking the pockets of a better future that already exist. She is also working on ways of doing scientific storytelling about good anthropocenes by using various positive projects and having groups develop scenarios starting from that point. “Stories are powerful things,” she said.

She also said “Hope engenders agency. Agency engenders hope.” I really like that thought.

The other positive experience was a tour of the Sacramento offices of the architectural firm Arch/Nexus, which has renovated an old building with the goal of meeting the Living Building Challenge. If they succeed – and they’re close – they will be the fifteenth such building in the world and the first in California.

The two events merged together nicely, because the Living Building Challenge is one of the kinds of “seeds” Bennett is talking about.

The living building challenge is energy efficiency, water saving, and general conservation on steroids. / Here are a few of the things buildings must do the meet the challenge:

  • Be net-zero on energy use – that is, generate at least as much energy as they use.
  • Be net-zero on water – that is, bring in all their water and get rid of water waste without being part of a water system.
  • Avoid using dangerous chemicals in the construction or renovation process – a tricky problem, since everything from paint to carpet to ceiling tiles can have some problem chemicals.
  • Give the people living or working there natural light and ventilation.
  • Use edible plants for landscaping.
  • Make sure any water run-off (from parking lots, etc.) goes to the natural location for that area.
  • Plus a lot of other things.

The Arch/Nexus building in Sacramento uses PV on its roof for energy. Its generation has created 150 percent of its need, which means it has been able to sell energy to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

They’re using rain barrels to collect water. By their calculations, even in a drought year – a very key issue in California — they can collect enough using three large storage tanks to provide all the water needs for 45 employees.

This is partly because they put in composting toilets, which use very little water. The end product of the composting process is collected by a company that then uses it on non-food agriculture.

Gray water – water from showers and sinks and such – is used to maintain a living wall of greenery in the office and to water plants outside. Because of both those things, they don’t use the sewer system at all.

They have designed a filtration system for using rain water for drinking water, but they still need to meet state and city water district rules, which are arcane and not designed for their system. But once that’s done, they will get no city water at all.

Making sure they didn’t use any bad chemicals in the renovation was one of the more complicated tasks. They had one person whose job was solely to research every product they wanted to use to make sure it complied. In the case of paint, they had to get a company to mix a paint specifically for them – though now that company is marketing that paint to others.

The building they chose was an old printing shop and was – to put it bluntly – an ugly box building. They saw renovating it to make it both more beautiful and to meet the challenge as a real plus.

One of the things I liked best about the building is that people were involved and engaged in making the good energy systems happen. For example, the system doesn’t automatically switch from air conditioning to open windows when the temperature changes; instead, people are alerted so they can do it themselves.

They have a full-time employee whose job is to make sure all the systems are working. She goes up on the roof to clean off solar panels and goes into the utility room to crank the composting devices so that they aerate properly, along with many other tasks.

Even on a cloudy day, they get enough natural light through skylights and windows to need very little additional lighting inside. And they found in the summer that even when the temperature reached the mid-90s, their air conditioning system wasn’t necessary until about 5 p.m. That is, building design alone kept the building cool on medium-hot days. (It does hit triple digits in Sacramento in the summer.)

This kind of project is pricey now, but that, like the price of PV panels, is going to drop. It also shows that sustainable doesn’t have to mean uncomfortable.

I find thinking about Bennett’s talk coupled with the Arch/Nexus building and many other things I’ve been reading about is inspiring me on two fronts.

One is science fictional. I’ve written several short stories (including “Chatauqua” in Nevertheless, She Persisted)  set in a future where people are creating a better – if shaky – world despite the problems caused by climate change. I have a long term plan to mine these stories and other research for a novel.

The other is more personal: I want to be part of some project that can be a seed for a Good Anthropocene. Right now the thing that speaks to me most is housing that is sustainable, is affordable for everyone, and creates community, but there are many, many more.

Go find one for yourself and dive in.



Thankful for the (Possibility of) Good Anthropocenes — 7 Comments

  1. Here are some things that speak to me as ways to create a better future; I try to promote them whenever I can – sometimes I get on a soapbox on the internet, but mostly I try to show by example, talk to people when the subject arises, and I also try to put my money into projects that work towards these outcomes.

    1) That last is made easier by banking with a green bank, like Triodos or ASN – I can be sure they won’t put my money into unsustainable industries and industries that treat their workers badly, nor into weapons and such.
    Green (solar and wind power, organic farming, and much more) and socially responsible projects (like microfinance loans to women in developing countries, or setting up a bike-building shop to make adapted cycles for handicapped people, and much more) tend to have just as good financial results as what other banks invest in, and the peace of mind I get from knowing my money isn’t enabling profiting off (child) slave labour, munitions factories, mountaintop removal, fracking, etc.etc. is worth a lesser interest return percentage for me if it ever comes to that.
    So I can really recommend switching to a green bank with good safety ratings, though I’m not sure which American banks would be in that category.

    2) Promoting making active travel (walking and cycling) safe & easy by design, which leads to much more livable cities; in combination with improving (light)rail fast public transport between cities, and between suburbs and cities, this can even keep the American sprawl model of city design from imploding when the oil runs out.
    Safe & easy walking and cycling, while inhibiting unnecessary through-traffic by cars, can lead to large improvements in public health (more built-in activity in people’s ordinary days leads to less obesity and disease), less air pollution, less noise pollution, less CO2, a lot less people killed and seriously injured in traffic crashes (I’ve seen estimates of 20.000 victims per year less in the US, if they’d followed the same “systematic safety” path as the Netherlands did since 1973 regarding traffic design!) and less congestion which makes people stressed and angry, while replacing that with more human interactions which is good for people’s mental as well as physical health.
    The potential benefits are so huge, and as I experience them all around me every day I know they are fully attainable within a decade (or two, depending on how much one wants to invest in their realisation) and people would be happy with them once they got over their reflexive resistance to change (as that is exactly what happened here on the 80ies and 90ies), this is my core thing I want to put my energy towards; but I fear I sometimes get carried away by my enthousiasm when trying to promote this and people will just stop listening.

    3) Eating vegetarian. When going out with friends, I order the vegetarian option so they can see how tasty it is (and give them a taste if they want one), and then talk about how I generally prefer the vegetarian option even just for the taste. Getting people who eat meat to try a day without meat every week, then when they find they don’t miss it, the meals are just as tasty but generally cheaper, get them to try doing without meat every other day. Gradually, you can see people eating less and less meat. If they do still eat meat sometimes, talk about how the organic version where animals have been treated humanely both tastes better and feels better on my conscience. As the organic meat is more costly, switching to that will also lead to less meat consumption overall.
    This is not something I proselytise about on the internet, but in my real-life circle of acquaintances this is something I see happening.
    Less meat consumption, and going organic where you do eat meat, are good for animal welfare, human health, and the planet. Most people aren’t ready to go full Vegan, and strongly resist being pushed that way; but an occasional meatless day is a wedge that can start daily meateaters on an acceptance of alternatives, and I’m glad to see that happening in our society.

    4) Beter agricultural practises, from using much less water, fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics etc. to improving animal welfare and the crop yields on the available area. I know little about this, but can see how important this is for the future of our planet; and I’m proud of the part my country plays in developing these. Here’s a short YouTube film, and a longer article by National Geographic about this.
    Things like this give me hope for the future: there are a lot of people working really hard to make it better.

    • Those are all excellent examples. We use a credit union for banking and are looking into some other options for retirement savings as well. And we get a lot of our food from our local farmer’s market. (In fact, I’m going to do a post soon on the guy we get our flour from — he mills heirloom wheat. Makes the best bread you ever had.)

      I’m constantly frustrated by the fact that even our pretty good public transit system doesn’t connect up easily throughout the region. I can get into San Francisco easily, but getting down to San Jose or up to Marin County is so much trouble that driving makes more sense.

      The better ag policies and the vegetarian eating are also important. I’m an omnivore, but I mostly cook vegetarian.

      And there are so many good programs out there working in these areas. We just need millions more like them!

    • Wow! All those are great things to know, specially about the green banks. I didn’t know those existed. I will check them out. Also, I was thinking about your comment about eating vegetarian. My husband and I do that sometimes also, eat vegetarian just because of the taste. We do eat meat, and animal proteins but try to go organic when we have the choice, and also to eat less meat overall just because we feel physically better that way. I don’t think I will ever stop eating meat completely, but I can see that I don’t eat to eat so much to feel satisfied, and we can spend several days without eating any. It does feel good that it helps the planet too. 🙂

  2. Sorry, I think my answer had one too many links… I should have left out the report about the CO2 and kept to the YouTube links.

    • I retrieved it. I usually check the comment section once a day to make sure that no spam slips through and any real messages that get held up get published. So don’t worry about too many links!