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.