COP26 is a Festival of Extraction

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Narrowing the scope

An advert was posted on the London Underground last month suggesting that commuters ‘try a half beef, half bean lasagne tonight for a dish that’s better for you and the planet’. Another, seen on high street billboards, proposed the same trick with shepherd’s pie (this time subbing lentils for lamb). The individualisation of climate change action down to the scale of an average person’s midweek dinner might not have been so odd were it not for the logo in the bottom right corner: that of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which would take place in Glasgow a few weeks later. Individualisation of response to the climate change has, after all, been dominant in bourgeois environmentalism or ‘environmentalism for the rich’ for decades. To directly associate individual responses with the responsibility now placed on states, however, makes a disturbing equivalence that seems designed to let the whole process off the hook.

If the abdication of responsibility for structural action on climate change makes us feel as if nothing is going to be done, then we must first avoid the assumption that we know what ‘we’ want. COP26 is frequently referred to as the ‘last best chance’ for effective action on climate change, or otherwise it is professed, without argument, that ‘we must act now’! What these declarations conceal by framing COP26 as a ‘will they? won’t they?’ moment is the question of what the conference actually aims to achieve. As a cacophony of voices from climate activists to politicians repeat the cry that COP26 must not fail, the question that needs answering is: at what? What is the point of these summits, and in particular, what does success look like?

Climate change is a massively, and highly unevenly, distributed existential crisis that is not going away. In this context, the 50/50 lasagne is easy to poke fun at: a trivial, individualist call for behaviour change which, whilst a perfectly sensible small thing that people can do, derives from a system that prefers to leave the status quo mostly as it is. Its function, instead, is to reinforce a form of ‘sustainability’ politics that is reproduced by narrowing the scope of ambition. The move here is twofold: by representing a compromised future that no one wants, they say ‘here’s what we can do’, whilst at the same time saying ‘it means we are going to take away the things that you like, we are going to make things less good’. The terms of the narrative serve to foreclose any real possibility of producing the world differently, whilst creating a structure of language in which even the tiny amount of action on offer seems unpalatable.

The individual-scale treatment of a systemic issue suggests that we have all benefited from the carbon state, and so it is our individual responsibility alone to deal with it. BBC Climate Correspondent Justin Rowlatt suggested at the start of COP26 on Radio 4’s Today programme that we have fossil fuels to thank for allowing ‘most ordinary people to begin to live more comfortable lives’. Furthermore, he suggested that the problem faced by COP26 is that ‘the wealth and comfort we all enjoy is really, when you think about it, a cocktail on the one hand of the easy energy from all that fossilised sunshine in oil and gas, with a good measure of human ingenuity, and that’s why it’s so hard to deal with: because potentially, it threatens the wealth that we’re all enjoying.’

Fossils fuels made your life more comfortable, capitalism gave you beef in your Wednesday lasagne, and now climate change means you need to give up the things you like. The suggestion excludes huge swathes of human experience, predominantly non-white and non-western, just as the door policies at COP26 seem to have been designed to keep as many as possible of voices out of the conversation. Closer to home, it also perhaps fails to consider Lanarkshire’s former coalminers, many of whom may not have felt their lives were enriched by the rapid extraction of fossil fuels—especially after they were closed with little support, leaving behind some of the most deprived areas in Scotland.

Climate change might mean that many aspects of life get a lot worse for many people, but it does not necessarily mean that the fundamentals of an economic system will change (even if it tells us that they should)—that’s something that needs to be done through collective action in response to the conditions that have created and constituted climate, and dealing with those conditions, not the effects. Climate change challenges certain ideals on which capitalism is built, but for this very reasons certain interests will therefore try to use this opportunity to shore up and sustain a particular mode of life. Precisely because climate change does not bring about imminent change, we are persuaded to imagine that things can stay the same—to an extent—if we make some small concessions to sustain it.

The Climate Project

What, then, is the action that COP26 proposes? If the first aspect of sustainability is that nothing really changes at all, then COP26 presents the second and contradictory aspect of sustainability: the project of solutions. The perception of finality is fundamental to Modern ways of thinking and being: working in combination with techno-optimism, hubris, and professing that the kinds of economies and technologies that generated climate change will ‘solve’ it, we just need more. This view in which Man is feigned over as being ‘awesome in our power to change things and awesome in our power to save ourselves’ is the one that Boris Johnson chose to put forward in the lead up to COP26. Such delusions, again based upon exceptionalism and power, only lead towards hubristic ideals of ‘progress’ out of crisis.

It’s not difficult here to see the parallel with architectural thinking: the architectural project and the climate project are both wedded to Modern ideals of getting ‘past’ a problem. We need to problematise the idea of the solution because sustainability (as it is practiced under capitalism) only seeks to sustain a mode of life based on growth, accumulation, and inequality—in short, a mode of life that exists at the expense of others. Such a way of being is only possible because of extraction: an operation fundamental to capitalist sustainability that includes not only the exploitation of the earth in terms of the exploitation of natural resources, but also the dominance of certain forms of knowledge that allow this to continue (not in despite of, but through forums such as COP26).  Capitalism jumps on the idea of solutions to engage its existing mechanisms in new fields, to capture the language of change into the creation of new markets. Mark Carney, Finance Lead for COP26, boasted of the enormous commercial opportunities, and potential profit to private finance in the transition to net zero as he unveiled plans to ‘deliver new private capital flows to emerging markets’. These are continuations of extractive regimes that are tied to what Tina Ngata—an for advocate for environmental, Indigenous and human rights—describes as the severance of relationships: slicing up, and apportioning control of resources to transnational corporations, and decontextualising energy, materials, and labour.

Treating climate as a project of design is to simplify it. Problem-solving is not neutral but reinforces certain ways of being whilst foreclosing others, and so the design way of thinking that marries sustainability, solutionism, and extraction needs to be confronted. The first part of this would be to ‘force it into the open’ so that it ‘stands before us on the world’s stage in all its brutish, iniquitous nakedness’ as Arundathi Roy told the World Social Forum in 2003. Instead, climate-as-project does the opposite: it obscures the conditions that constitute climate change, foregrounding its effects rather than its causes. Framing climate as a technical problem with a technical solution then locks the conversation into a reductive framework from which it cannot escape. It is for this reason that the discourse around architecture and climate has remained so restricted.

Aside from its internal problematics, it is clear that the fundamental strategy behind COP26 will not work on its own terms: the upgrade to Nationally Define Contributions (NDCs) required in order to limit warming to the levels agreed in Paris are not forthcoming. In fact, countries such as the UK are going the other way, buoyed by consumption-based carbon reporting that allows the government to boast of significantly reduced emissions whilst pointing the finger at countries to which it has exported production for goods and energy, as well as the discounting of historical emissions in favour of current and future metrics. The group of ‘Like-Minded Developing Countries’ including China, India, and Saudi Arabia jointly produced a statement demanding that developed countries acknowledge ‘historical responsibility for the predominant majority of cumulative anthropogenic emissions’ and ‘leave the remaining atmospheric space for the developmental rights of the developing world and aim for their full decarbonisation within this decade’. (A report published by Carbon Brief in October 2021 with the aim of overturning the idea that developed nations have greater historical responsibility for GHG emissions made the clever trick of ‘not including overseas emissions under colonial rule’.)

With ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’—in the terms of the Paris agreement—who pays? The same approach to distributed responsibility operates in the construction industry, as carbon emissions are passed between parties. This all suggests that low-carbon architecture, if it fits into existing modes and markets, will never be sufficient, since it is still fundamentally wedded to an idea of design based on fossil fuel consumption.

Beyond sustainability

On the positive side is the growing sense that, as James Meadway notes, ‘the slight air of unreality about climate change policy is beginning to dissipate’ as the distance between targets (future), and the action required to meet them (soon/now), shortens. Two excellent publications in the lead up to COP26 by the RIBA and Architects Declare reflect how the rhetoric around climate responses in the built environment is progressing at pace, and how the narrow framings that have operated for the past decades are increasingly being recognised as insufficient. In the RIBA’s Built for The Environment, the problem is framed as systemic, and demands ‘going beyond the actions and role of each person, group, or business operating in the built environment to considering how we are organised and the ways that we all influence and impact each other’. The report applies this kind of joined-up thinking to one of its central demands, for production-based carbon reporting which does not externalise environmental costs. Architects Declare in their recent Practice Guide propose moving on from ‘the current paradigm of merely targeting Sustainable design, which often simply mitigates negatives, into the realm of Regenerative design which strives for a net positive impact of our projects.’ Both imply the need to shift from thinking about climate change as a moment (which might have a solution) to thinking about it as an ongoing condition in which we live and will continue to live (to varying degrees, since inequality of exposure to any risk is also fundamental to the Modern world).

What is more, even Boris Johnson is starting to chip away at the edifice of bourgeois environmentalism, saying ‘[recycling] doesn’t work! […] If people think that we can recycle our way out of the problem, we’ll be making a huge mistake’. COP26 is poised between the potential for necessary thinking outside of the current system, and determined efforts to capture that thinking in the current one. The conference continues to operate on terms of sustainability—shown up as an exercise of maintaining extractive regimes—even whilst sustainability discourse cracks and is abandoned by both sides. The lesson for architecture in COP26 is to drop sustainability as a mantra, as the RIBA and AD reports already have started to do. More interesting, and urgent, are collaborative architectural processes that represent new ways of producing and shaping space.

The predominance of capitalist sustainability won’t be undone by the end of this week, but perhaps somewhere in Glasgow on Thursday 11 November—Cities and Built Environment day—there might be some connected thinking that allows disciplines to escape the narrow scope that they are unable to see outside of, to think about different and differentiated ways of (re-)making worlds, to admit a lack of knowledge rather than compete about which narrow sustainable solution will work. If systemic change is off the table, however, then COP26 is just a festival of extraction.

Anthony Powis on Behalf of MOULD

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