Happy Earth Day, I thought. I turned on the coffee maker. I opened the refrigerator. I turned a light. Oh, and of course, my hot water for my shower came from the electric water heater. I turned on NPR and listened to the latest news. I just can’t get going in the morning without my electricity!
None of us can, which is why there’s a lot of concern these days about the price of energy, and whether now is or is not the time to push through various pieces of legislation to regulate carbon emissions, or encourage renewable energy. In this morning’s Washington Post Bill Gates himself and Chad Holliday make a strong case for more investment in energy research from the government. Mr. Gates couldn’t be more correct, frankly, and I’m not just saying that because I am hopelessly dependent on Microsoft products to communicate with other sentient beings. He and his co-author are just two of the extremely smart people out there trying to make the case that the energy status quo is wholly unacceptable on almost every level. I had the chance to hear a few more this past Monday at the German Embassy.
I would have gone just for the chance to get into the building, a striking 1964 work by Egon Eiermann, because it was one of the few modern embassies that I hadn’t visited. But there were so many other reasons to hop the D6 bus uptown: speakers included Michelle Moore, landscape architect Herbert Dreiseitl, architect Stefan Benisch, and, live and in person, Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough…and that was just the morning session. Braungart, whom I had never heard speak before, left the podium and stood right in front of the audience, tossing one counter-intuitive thought after another at us. “There is no green architecture; there is only good architecture or bad architecture.” I’ve made similar points, here and elsewhere, but probably using more words and being more elliptical, so it was really refreshing to hear someone like Braungart say it better and more succinctly.
He also made the unassailable point that we have gotten quite good at making the wrong things perfectly, so we’re making things that are perfectly wrong. This is unfortunately all too true in the design professions, where we can optimize a type, trend, a trick, so efficiently that we never stop to ask whether this is in fact what we meant to do. Here in the comfort of the uber-first world, which is the life to which I was randomly assigned by fate, everything works so perfectly—my coffee maker, my lights, my radio, my computer—that I don’t even really see the true price of energy. Until, that is, my electrically powered radio tells me about more violence in the Persian Gulf, about a group of miners in West Virginia who have died for my convenience, and a group of oil riggers in the Gulf who have died for suburban sprawl. Now, let’s have an honest talk about the high price of energy…