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Sustainability in the Architecture Discourse

Guy and Farmer (2001) provide a succinct synopsis on the discourse of sustainability within architecture. The overarching approach to sustainability within the architectural discipline tends to be technologically driven, rarely taking into consideration the latent effects of a technological solution. Sustainability needs to be viewed within the parameters of a complex system, taking into consideration latent potentials and their impacts on society. In considering resilience, the architectural discourse should be more inclusive of non-technological viewpoints, such as non-expert local knowledge. Sustainability is in fact a cultural and a societal issue in need of approaches from both science and society. If we take into consideration Ulrich Beck description of the “Risk Society”, the technological solutions produced by scientists leave the power in the hands of a few. Arguably, power and the reproduction of that power have led to the current crisis of global climate change. As Urlich Beck (1992) demonstrates, technological advances have inherent risks that require technological knowledge to interpret – thus perpetuating the cycle of the risk society. Through interpreting Bourdieu’s theory of practice together with Beck’ theory of the risk society, it is apparent that the discourse of sustainability is promoted by the very power structures that have led to global climate change[1]. The very definition of sustainability, as promulgated through the Brundtland report, demonstrates the extent of these power relations, and the reliance on a largely western, scientific approach. The World Commission on Environment and Development was commissioned by the United Nations to seek solutions that would reduce the negative impacts of industrialization in developing nations. The commission largely consisted of Western European delegates, who were still rooted in an epistemology that saw the world as us and them (the developed and the undeveloped world). Thus the solution to unsustainable practices became reliant on technocratic solutions, such as green technology. The post development discourse provides an extensive critique of issues inherent to sustainable development (refer to James Ferguson and Gupta (1997) and Arturo Escobar (2008) ). In addition, Jacka argues that development fails in its bureaucratic processes – it simplifies complex local practices and ignores the contribution of local knowledge (Jacka, 2015). Development practices concerned with rendering technical problems, separate the expert scientists from the non-expert (local) knowledge. Within the overarching field of global climate change, the appropriation of sustainable development should be seen as a contentious matter, if we are to approach the discourse through a critical lens. It is especially important to utilize and develop this critical lens in undertaking urban and rural development projects that are in response to the outcomes of global climate change, such as rising sea levels, draught, and receding snow pack. Perhaps, utilizing the term resilience rather than sustainability allows for a more productive method for continuing the development discourse.

[1] The following is an example based on a synthesis of arguments developed in Urlich Beck’s discussion of the dark side of technological advancement that gives rise to wicked problems, such as global climate change, and Bourdieu’s theory of practice. The elite industrialists held the power at the turn of the 20th century and reproduced this power through capital gain, which put a tremendous tax on the environment. These power positions largely remain as privileged decedents hold onto the accrued capital, but rather than industrialists, they have taken on new vocations of power, such as a politician, who might lobby for continued resource exploitation. Here, this decedent might directly affect global climate change through petroleum extraction, release latent implications of drilling technology, and hold the knowledge to understand the negative consequences of such practice, thus truly holding onto the power.

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