GREEN ISSUES IN A MULTICULTURAL SOCIETY
When you start looking at 'green' issues you soon come across several problem areas. The one I want to discuss here concerns differences of opinion which relate back to different philosophies or worldviews. This is less obvious, though no less important, in architecture and planning, than for instance in the area of food, for example whether we should eat meat, or how we should treat animals.
A few years ago the World Wide Fund for Nature drew up a declaration which was supported by representatives of all the major religions. While the main religions may agree on many principles and on an agenda for some action, and while Christians should be committed to working with others for the common good where that is agreed, there are in reality differences which are more fundamental when the beliefs behind particular principles or actions are investigated.
This is important not only for international organisations and for issues with global consequences such as the greenhouse effect, but also when it comes to local initiatives in a multicultural community, as many of our cities now are.
Before any agreement on principles or action can be reached we ought to understand each other's thinking and a general outline of the various worldviews. Indeed only then may we understand where our own ideas come from. It may mean that ultimately we cannot agree on very much but at least we will understand how the differences have arisen, hopefully be more tolerant of other viewpoints, and have had the opportunity of showing the relevance of the Christian faith to today's questions.
The World Views Themselves
In the context of green issues rather than the more explicitly religious concepts of humankind's quest for God, and to simplify matters, the Christian and Islamic worldviews can be grouped with the Hebrew from which they derive. Hindu, Buddhist and to some extent Chinese and animist worldviews can also be grouped together. Materialist twentieth century Western thought is the product of the Enlightenment on Greek and Christian ideas, while New Age thinking is a combination of Hindu ideas and twentieth century humanism.
The chart on the next page attempts to show just how different are the assumptions or beliefs of different cultures. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in a Creator God separate from His creation, and in separate categories within creation which make clear distinctions between humankind, animals and inanimate material. The Bible pictures humankind as a steward ruling on God's behalf and using the world's resources carefully.
In contrast Hinduism believes in a continuum from gods down to materials, from power to weakness, a scale on which individuals move up and down through reincarnation. This generates a respect for the whole of the environment without any distinction between the natural and supernatural, so for instance a tree may be preserved as the dwelling place of a local god. Though displaying compassion Buddhism and Hinduism appear fatalistic as people are content with their position - indeed often enduring poverty with dignity - hoping for something better in the next reincarnation. This characteristic is also illustrated by the low safety standards and dangerous working practices still common in India.
Compared with the family or community centred culture of Asia and Africa, Greek and all subsequent Western ideas are very materialistic, stressing the rights of the individual in capitalism and of the state in communism. In either case the common good is left for enlightened self-interest, and compassion is left either to the individual and the voluntary
Chart adapted from one given by Rosemary Dowsett at a conference on cross-cultural communication of the gospel
sector, or it is institutionalised and leaves no responsibility or incentive to families. The New Age retains the motive of self-interest but reintroduces a supernatural element of the Hindu rather than Christian faith, which can lead to promoting animal rights as equal to human rights (an important green issue relevant to interior design and furnishings if not to architecture and planning in general).
Good and evil; Right and wrong
Note that no reference has yet been made to good and evil or right and wrong. It is only in some Greek thought that the categories are divided on this basis, although it is a division which has had a detrimental influence on some Christian thought by equating anything spiritual with good and anything physical with evil. While only the Hebrew group of worldviews sees God as wholly good, they do not see humankind as wholly evil but as a mixture. Humanism manages to see humankind as essentially good, explaining people's evil tendencies as a result of social and environmental upbringing which better education and a greener environment will ultimately correct.
Most religions also operate at two levels, the official or orthodox one of stated beliefs and rituals which people usually follow concerning the big questions and events of life, and a second level of folk religion followed by many people in their daily life. The more fundamentalist (in both its true and derogatory senses) the believer, the more the orthodox rather than the folk ideas influence his daily life; so there is usually a difference between official doctrine and what people practise. For instance the Yemen is an Islamic country but the decoration of their vernacular buildings and clothing displays folk superstition; painted snakes are supposed to frighten away evil spirits.
Green Issues depend on World View.
Green issues are not therefore an end in themselves or an isolated compartment in life, but promote or follow particular worldviews, and are governed by their ultimate aims. Everyone may agree on some practical issues if only out of enlightened self-interest, but in the end adherents of different worldviews are heading in different even if greenish directions. Even if we agree to aim for a sustainable lifestyle for future generations, with the potential for continuing development, with social justice and equality of opportunities for all peoples, this is an unobtainable utopian ideal.
So the final question to put to the various worldviews is how they cope with this reality, tolerant to one another if not working together, dealing with conflicting interests, injustice between individuals and between nations, with pollution and with death, and what hopes they hold for the present as well as for the long-term future.
A Christian approach
To promote discussion on people's underlying philosophies a Christian approach to some green issues follows. Indeed the Bible begins by revealing God as the Creator and outlining His instructions to humankind which are, in their call for the responsible use of resources, a theme running throughout the Bible, essentially 'green'.
Both agricultural and mineral resources are God-given for the benefit of all humankind. The wilderness is to be subdued and cultivated like the garden of Eden to produce food for all; gold is there for the arts and crafts, and later as the Israelites enter the promised land they are told of its mineral wealth of iron and copper.
A particular concern in the developed world today is the balance between conservation and development, where most of the land has been filled and subdued, and there are conflicting pressures on it for agriculture or industry, housing or recreation, and over whether some wilderness should be preserved. In fact most 'wilderness' in the developed world is man-made, as is also the desert wilderness though not the jungles of the underdeveloped countries. This whole question is only just beginning to be considered by Christians.
Much more thought has been given to the issues guiding the use of different kinds of material resources:
- renewable resources like timber and its products should only be used at a rate which ensures replenishment.
- some materials can be recycled like metals, glass and paper, as raw materials again, while others like brick and stone can usually only be recycled as hardcore.
- some materials like plastics come mainly from non-renewable resources but cannot usually be recycled, nor easily disposed of, so should be used with this in mind.
- consideration should also be given to the repair and continued use of building components and consumer goods, and to designing them to last longer.
Care must also be taken to ensure that hazardous materials are not used, such as asbestos and lead, which are directly harmful to people. Other materials may give rise to harmful by-products during manufacture or disposal, for example CFCs. Even where waste is not particularly hazardous it can leave large tracts of land as derelict tips, while the extraction of materials leaves pits and tips. Land is a limited resource and should be restored after the extraction of minerals or when industrial plant becomes redundant.
Land use at a town-wide or regional scale is discussed below under transport but it is also an important consideration at the level of individual developments. Where possible existing planting and other natural features including water courses should be retained and further planting carried out to maintain ecological diversity. Attention to the microclimate, influenced by building form and landscaping, can reduce the energy requirements of the building as well as allowing greater use of outdoor spaces. The importance of ecological diversity and the avoidance of monocultures as seen in the sheer variety of God's creation is increasingly recognised by ecologists. Plants also play a vital role in removing carbon dioxide from the air.
A principal concern today is energy sources, not simply due to the depletion of fossil fuels, nor to the instability of the Middle East, but also to combustion leading to the greenhouse effect and acid rain. Opinions differ as to whether nuclear power is the answer or whether its radiation dangers during generation and waste disposal are too great.
As well as utilising ambient energy sources like windpower and renewable energy sources like biogas, the energy used in running buildings, which is about half the total energy use in Britain, can be reduced by better insulation and by utilising solar gain. The latter applies mainly to new buildings; and affects town planning and urban design as much as architecture, while insulants themselves must be assessed for any undesirable side effects in their manufacture and use.
Energy can also be saved by using low energy content materials such as sun-dried brick, stone, and timber products, rather than materials such as steel, aluminium and cement which consume large amounts of energy during manufacture. The use of local, often low energy, materials would also save on transport costs and fuel, as well as contributing to retaining local character.
Need for Transport
While transport does not represent a large part of the cost and energy use of building materials, nevertheless vehicles overall account for 25% of carbon dioxide emission in Britain. Transport planning, affecting everything from the use of private cars up to regional planning, could therefore make a significant contribution to reducing the greenhouse effect. It also has architectural implications, in the development of new building types such as the 'cottage office' and housing with associated office or workshop spaces, and in planning mixed use areas to reduce the need for transport. Low energy business parks are no good if more petrol is consumed to reach them, but nor is the 'cottage office' if it eats up the countryside in low density sprawl and discourages meetings between people. Rather walking and cycling should be encouraged by mixed use areas linked by pleasant and direct routes where pedestrians are not forced into subways or onto exposed footbridges, or on long diversions at road junctions. Priority should be given to people, not vehicles. While commuting and unnecessary goods transport is to be discouraged, travel, though not necessarily tourism, should be encouraged for bringing about understanding between nations and cultures and hence for enriching life.
The renewal and replacement of transport systems also occurs at a much greater rate than that of buildings, apart from their services elements, so energy savings could be instituted more quickly in this area. Though the upkeep of transport facilities may be seen as a liability the existing building stock should be seen as an asset.
Reuse of Buildings
While some buildings are preserved for their historic or aesthetic importance all redundant buildings should be considered for upgrading and reuse rather than demolition, for uses compatible with the building, rather than as has happened, virtual rebuilding to suit a particular use. While not necessarily making a financial saving (though government financial policy should encourage the conservation of resources*) it does save on materials and energy, and being labour intensive suits times of rising unemployment, or areas of high local unemployment.
Indeed people should be seen as a resource, not of course for exploitation, but enabled to use and increase their understanding and skills to contribute in the broadest sense to sustaining and developing their own built environment. Technology should be appropriate to this human context, and tools of whatever sophistication used to enhance people's skills and potential, rather than machines, however simple, which enslave or replace people. Again political considerations enter here, as political systems are needed which allow communities the self-determination needed in order to exercise their God-given responsibility for the use of every kind of resource.
*The implementation of green concepts through codes of practice and laws is not discussed here, but again depends on one's view of the appropriate type and role of government.
From ACPA Newsletter No. 19, Autumn 1990.
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