Citizenship in the 21st century

Carpet by Interface, a role model for sustainable business.

Car­pet by Inter­face, a role mod­el for sus­tain­able busi­ness.

Nicholas Stern, the for­mer chief econ­o­mist of the World Bank, sum­ma­rized the chal­lenge of humanity’s future demands on the plan­et with the cal­cu­la­tion that we must find a way to fit our indi­vid­u­al lifestyles with­in a 5000 pound lim­it of CO2 emis­sions — rough­ly equiv­a­lent to allow­ing 250 gal­lons of gaso­line, per per­son, per year, for all fos­sil fuel ener­gy use.

In the US, our dis­con­nect from this loom­ing phys­i­cal real­i­ty is deep and per­sis­tent. Cur­rent­ly, the aver­age Amer­i­can cit­i­zen emits more than 17 tons — 34,000 pounds — of CO2 — far from our tar­get of 2.5 tons. (Some wealthy coun­tries are already much closer: Switzer­land comes in at 5.4 tons.)

An ongo­ing series of lec­tures host­ed by the Archi­tec­tural League of New York, col­lec­tive­ly named The 5,000 Pound Life, expands on Stern’s fore­cast. 

The emis­sions chal­lenge is new but, as this sec­ond talk in the series notes, the under­ly­ing philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions stretch back to clas­si­cal Athens. How then shall we live? 

Pame­la Soto reports here:

In her 5000 Pound Life talk Sus­tain­able Cit­i­zen­ship, Melis­sa Lane draws on her back­ground in clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy to show how our attempts to under­stand the roots of our cur­rent envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis are part of mil­len­nia-old debates about free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty. In ancient Athens, lead­ing thinkers also con­sid­ered what an indi­vid­u­al owes to the col­lec­tive whole. From look­ing back to that foun­da­tion­al dia­logue, Lane, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, then asks us to exam­ine our lives as what she calls cos­mopoli­tan cit­i­zens and pro­fes­sion­als; every cit­i­zen plays a role with­in their pro­fes­sion to cre­ate (or hin­der) a soci­ety built on a robust and sus­tain­able eco­nom­ic struc­ture.

Being a cit­i­zen should inflect every­thing you do. You are not just an archi­tect. You are a cit­i­zen archi­tect.
Cos­mopoli­tanism is the belief that all human beings are mem­bers of the same com­mu­ni­ty. This con­cept has its roots in Ancient Greece: the word itself derives from Greek cos­mopo­lites, which is trans­lat­ed to “cit­i­zen of the world” or “cit­i­zen of the cos­mos.” In her lec­ture direct­ed towards the Archi­tec­tural League of New York, Lane urges the audi­ence to posit them­selves as cos­mopoli­tan cit­i­zens. “Being a cit­i­zen is an adverb that should inflect every­thing you do,” she explains. You are not just an archi­tect. You are a cit­i­zen archi­tect.

If a part of the body could think, it would nev­er think it could sur­vive at the cost of the whole. If we accept the extreme inter­con­nect­ed­ness of dif­fer­ent sys­tems and process­es on the Earth, this same con­cept can be applied on a soci­etal lev­el. As work­ing pro­fes­sion­als, we tend to think about our con­tri­bu­tion to soci­ety in terms of what our pro­fes­sion asks us to do. In this sense, Lane argues that our cur­rent divi­sion of labor is very blind­ing. We need think crit­i­cal­ly about whether our cur­rent divi­sion of labor actu­al­ly cre­ates sus­tain­able social val­ue, adopt­ing “new anten­nae” that look above what we assume our respon­si­bil­i­ty to be.

Ray C. Ander­son was a high­ly suc­cess­ful indus­tri­al­ist. He found­ed Inter­face, Inc., the world’s largest man­u­fac­tur­er of mod­u­lar car­pets. Inter­face is cur­rent­ly a mod­el for sus­tain­able busi­ness­es. Anderson’s wake­up call came when he read Paul Hawken’s book The Ecol­o­gy of Com­merce.

There should be no role that does not share a respon­si­bil­i­ty for the whole.
Ander­son began to view indus­tries such as his own as “legal thieves” as a result of per­verse tax laws that allow busi­ness­es to exter­nal­ize many costs — most crit­i­cal­ly, glob­al warm­ing. Done with view­ing him­self as an accom­plice in this crime, he vowed to change his company’s mis­sion. He set a zero-waste tar­get for his com­pa­ny and defined all ener­gy derived from fos­sil fuel as a waste. He did not just set­tle for a “do no harm” approach, but aimed to trans­form his indus­try to a restora­tive force in the world. In this sto­ry, Ray C. Ander­son went beyond what was asked of him in his role as a CEO. He was a cit­i­zen of the cos­mos.

There are three lev­els of “anten­nae” we can all put out as pro­fes­sion­als to look beyond our cur­rent divi­sion of labor. First, we need to ask our­selves whether our prac­tice is falling short of the cur­rent under­stand­ing of the role of our pro­fes­sion. If we meet this first cri­te­ri­on, we must then test the cur­rent stan­dards again­st the larg­er goals of sus­tain­able cit­i­zen­ship and rede­fine our own pro­fes­sion­al norms. Every pro­fes­sion needs to set its own set of stan­dards for what is pres­ti­gious, inno­v­a­tive, cut­ting-edge and sus­tain­able.

Last­ly, we must advo­cate for legal and polit­i­cal change. An exam­ple of this would be pes­ti­cide com­pa­nies demand­ing stricter reg­u­la­tions from the gov­ern­ment. How­ev­er, a lack of a clear polit­i­cal man­date is not an excuse for not doing any­thing in the mean­time. Redefin­ing the norms for our­selves pres­sures the gov­ern­ment into man­dat­ing it. We need to adopt a ‘both-and’ approach to pro­gress.