Thanks to all of the participants in the 2015 Symposium!
Over the next few months, the CENHS blog will be posting a series of commentaries on the work of energy humanities, building on our 4th annual Cultures of Energy symposium. We begin this series with Albert Pope’s “Next Level Up.”
Read more about Rice School of Architecture’s Albert Pope here.
‘the next level up’
When a scholar studies cities, he or she quickly learns that urban problems are rarely solved on the level at which they were created. He or she also learns that the bigger the problem, the more levels away from the original problem the solution exists.
For example, problems that plague the urban environment often cannot be resolved by intervening at the level of architecture. It goes without saying that you cannot solve the many ills of suburbia by redesigning a tract house. I might be moping about the house feeling horribly alienated—nowhere to go, nothing to do—but redesigning a house is not going to help that problem despite the fact that house feels very much like a prison. It’s a problem that is instead played out at the base level of urban organization. What this means is that the problem has less to do with the house and more to do with the cul-de-sac development in which it sits.
By the same token, you cannot solve climate change at the level of changing lightbulbs, making green roofs or buying a Prius. Even if we all did it, it would not be an adequate response to the climate problem. The problem of the Prius, then, is a false one: it cannot be addressed by the choice of a car but by the existence of the car in the first place.
What the humanities can bring to the climate problem is the ability to broaden the temporal, scalar, and conceptual bandwidth within which we define our common problems. In addressing climate change “humanists” can go farther backward or forward in time; they can consider ever larger scales than the those at which it is manifest. They can pare back our concepts to their root form. They can find the simplest form of the argument.
We should not ask whether we use electricity or gas, but ask, what is energy? We should not ask if we should buy an electric car, but ask what is a city? We should not ask if we should vote for the democratic or republican politician, but we should ask, what is a politician? We should not ask how we should save energy, but we should ask how should we live? The list has no end.
These are the most basic questions: “what is energy?, what is a city?, what is a politician? How should we live? Their clear formulation opens up a space for synthetic activity or, to use another term, an ontological revaluation of the present society. A broad “conceptual bandwidth” makes possible synthetic speculation such as we find, for example, in fiction. Good Science Fiction (such as the The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi) reimagines an entirely integrated world based on extrapolations of existing circumstances— reimagining what is energy, what is a city, how should we live? Insodoing, it does not merely reproduce answers to those most basic questions of energy, of dwelling, of politics, of being, it synthesizes them. Much like other generalists—anthropologists, film directors, urban designers — fiction writers synthesize an integrated world.
Addressing climate change often feels like drinking from a firehose. Overwhelmed by the complexity of the world, and the raft of specialized information with which we routinely confront it, we are often blind to the need to reimagine and reproduce the larger picture at a higher level. In our present situation, the tyranny of the specialized, the circumstantial and the particular are as deadly to climate action as the Heritage Foundation. What the humanities offers is synthetic activity, activity that is capable of addressing a problem on a level other than the fragmented and circumstantial level at which we routinely act. As regards the wicked problem of climate change, it is not a matter of how much (specialized) information or knowledge we can throw at the problem, but how much of it we can synthesize.