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.
- 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.