How to Survive on Planet Earth:
Changing Our Relationship with the Botanical World
We extol the virtues of nature and the botanical world in our work and the work of others we encourage. What the hell, it’s our business. If we weren’t pushing plants, we would have to find something else to push. Any junkie in Needle Park will extol the virtues of the poppy. Piles of expended Bic lighters under alley fire escapes will attest to the popularity of coca. Where would Lucrecia Borgia have been were it not for a working knowledge of plant derived poisons?
Where would ADM and Staley be in their agribusiness ventures were it not for the malleability of corn and soy beans? Just imagine all those diabetics so thankful for the ubiquitous presence of corn syrup in our prepared food! The bloodbath we call Juarez is all about plants, and a few other things. At different times of year many of us suffer from airborne plant products and use other plant products to alleviate the symptoms.
So, hurray for plants! I say this not to condemn plants but to illustrate that there is no universal ethic going on here. As living entities, we are all striving for advantage and increasingly competing for dwindling resources. The blessing in disguise is that we are mutually dependent. Now, like no other time in human history, we are in a position to connect dots.
Through the rapid increase in shared data and increasing sophistication of our means of inquiry we can start to see the connections between water use and drought, between slash and burn agriculture and build up of Co2, between ocean temperatures and jet stream variations and changing weather patterns. We are starting to see how some global functions are better given to the plants and not machine replacements.
Besides the global corporations and the national governments there is the natural world which is becoming a new economic heavy weight on the scene. The context of environmental goods and services is an economic principle that transcends both capitalism and socialism.
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations refers to an economic model that assumes growth based on increasingly advantageous specialization. It was written at a time when the world appeared to be infinitely abundant, at a time when growth had no limits. Two hundred and thirty some years later we have found that this is not the case. As our increasing specializations have revealed, fuel, arable land, and other natural resources can be stressed and even depleted as populations and their per capita needs increase.
Past wars were over oil. Very possibly the next ones will be over water. Mark Twain had an interesting idea when he said “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” We are beginning to discover the limits of technological solutions in that they too frequently assume the same infinite abundance that Mr. Smith did.
There are those who would say that we have nurtured a belief in the afterlife because we cannot bear to accept the finality of death. There are those who have clung to the belief that a sacred text endows man with the care taking responsibilities of our earth. Unfortunately, the owner’s manual was not provided.
There are those who have nurtured a belief in growth because we cannot bear to accept restraint. This is Smith’s Achilles Heel. After a long history of capital accumulation in pursuit of this illusion you can imagine how difficult it is to steer this Titanic away from the iceberg. It is the very self-interest that is the bedrock of Smith’s theory that is its undoing. It is blind to the likelihood that we, along with other natural forces, have set into motion the engine of our own extinction. The iceberg cometh.
Flawed but beautiful, and poetic in its irony.
To me plants are like next door neighbors who invite you to their BBQ, but whose teenage son might slit your tires, the productive co-worker who is a racist but keeps it outside the work place, or the too friendly acquaintance you try to keep at bay. We strike Faustian bargains with our botanical brethren, and they with us. Bargains not unlike the ones we struck with the Cherokee.
A look at a possible scenario -
Sequence 1: An unpleasant aftermath.
We know too little about the natural world to realistically consider ourselves to be enlightened. We have not fully shared. So now there are stark disparities that fuel highly focused myopias like fundamentalism, reformulations of imperialism, and defensive reformulations of our histories and even the nature of the world.
Sequence 2: Earth healing itself.
“Hey! Mr. Mouth! What the hell does this have to do with green roofs?” you say. My reply is that we should not expect our approach to green roofs and living walls to be any less flawed than our past approaches to anything else. For instance, if we need a living building element to perform certain functions our Faustian bargain is that we have to acknowledge it is alive and not some inert building part. This is a problem I call “The Bauhaus Syndrome.” It is the conviction that one can construct our built environment out of Legos that can be manufactured with cheap labor and uniformly distributed anywhere on earth for use.
For instance, if we truly believe that green roofs are good for us, and not just a reason to increase market share of our product or service, we should determine where the roof surface is and pursue a strategy to cover it. This is not being done.
Au contraire, green roofs are most likely put on buildings that represent less than 1/5th of the roof surface. Why? Because it is looked upon as an extension of existing business models and not as a particularly green solution. It is a way of selling more of what we already were selling, only with a green twist because green sells.
We produce research based on what research can be funded. So, when a particular research topic becomes hot (fundable) an inordinate number of research papers come out on the subject. An example of this is the plethora of storm water retention research that has come out in the past 10 years. The publications serve to keep some academics employed. For some, it starts further publications and book tours. This becomes a closed circle when other, competing; research information becomes available - anecdotal research dealing with unfunded topics.
For instance, design professionals who need to expand their reputations by claiming design credit for projects they did not design. By “design” here I mean the selection and placement of all green roof or living wall elements. Once a project has been properly publicized it is frequently forgotten by the designer of record and left to the maintenance staff to either correct the designer’s mistakes or left to evolve on its own. The “designer” of a green roof who relies on a single source provider is like the car purchaser who claims to be an auto mechanic, yet design credit is usually most zealously guarded by those with the least understanding of waterproof membranes, geotextiles performance, growth media composition, botany, and maintenance requirements.
Sequence 3: She's almost there.
Some green roof design books have been authored by people who have never designed a green roof. Arranging “where the plants go” is a very small part of this design process. Yet this aspect gets the biggest attention because it is the most obvious.
One prism we can apply to history is our relationship with plants and landscape. We scraped away topsoil for high impact development, drilled wells, redirected watercourses, and started incinerating fuels. After a time we got dope-slapped into seeing at least some of what we had done and also seeing some possible solutions that could be provided by plants. Neighborhood garden plots, urban reforestation, green roofs, living walls - both exterior and interior - all started to contribute to the replanting of the built environment.
Sequence 4: The natural environment is reclaimed.
There is a media series that speculates what will happen on earth after man’s departure. We get inklings of this from viewing overgrown Mayan, Aztec, Buddhist, temples and monuments. The plants return. Like barbarians at the gates of Rome they stand triumphant in their “chaos” before our “ordered environment.” We have the hubris to place them lower than us on the phylum scale. But, after all, it is OUR phylum scale. In introducing serious vegetation back into the build environment as a partner instead of a servant, we must learn to follow as well as lead. Too few of us have tried to do this.
Buddhist ruin returning to Nature.
The idea I am laboring at is the need to create some distance between our individual needs for revenue, fame, quick solutions, etc., and to pay attention. We are flawed in so many ways. Our understanding is insufficiently informed. Our logic is easily corrupted by our needs, desires, and weaknesses. Our psychological needs are many times too complex or opaque to analyze.
To reach a point of harmony with our environment – the idea of “green” right? - will require us to step down and back from our “Sheppard” status or “top of the phylum scale” status and get down there with our botanical neighbors who we currently treat like vassals or worse. This is a huge evolutionary step to take for us. We are still at the point where we cannot tell the difference between religion and science.
Steven Hawking just came out with a book that suggests that God did not create the universe. This is getting flack from a few quarters. I find it ironic that ancient religious shrines and temples are overgrown with plants, their walls gradually being opened by protruding roots, their images being obscured by foliage reaching for water and light.
It tells me we have a very long way to go in a world whose extinction we are hastening.
The natural world is a survivor, and the plants will return.
Patrick Carey, principal of hadj design
Patrick Carey, GRP, has a degree in architecture and lives in Seattle, WA, and also has backgrounds in Philosophy and Professional Theatre. Director of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild's Green Roof Project since 2000, Patrick is also principal of hadj design, a green roof design-build company. hadj has designed and installed over 75 green roofs that range in size from chicken coops to complete houses to commercial installations. hadj design has pioneered the cross-training of its crews in all aspects of green roof installation and has taken on the challenge of getting green roofs of all scales up and running.
Patrick is also a trainer for the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Green Roof 101, 201, 301, & 401 Courses.
Contact Patrick at ArchitectureEditor@greenroofs.com
Past "A View from the Sky Trenches" Articles
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