The intersection of climate, architecture and kindness

A conversation with architect, educator and climate activist Pete Gang.

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The following is a transcript of “Nonviolence Radio’s recent interview with architect, educator and climate activist Pete Gang.

Today’s show is going to be about climate coping, and the ways that different professions can shed light on constructive avenues that we go in, in order to build a more just and resilient and sustainable future that improves human thriving and incorporates the human being with all the rest of life in a way that deeply addresses what the true crisis is at the root of climate disruption.

And this will be the first in a series that we’ll be doing with the different scientists and activists on climate over the next few months. So do stay tuned for all of these interviews.

Our interview today is with Pete Gang and he is an architect, an educator, and what he calls, “a reluctant climate activist,” like many of us are. In 2003, he cofounded the Green Building Professional Certificate Program at Sonoma State University, as well as the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. And he launched and taught a course at the Academy of Art in San Francisco called, “Climate and Energy Solutions, Sustainable Strategies.”

And now he’s working with friends and allies to get to pass meaningful climate emergency resolutions. And he says that he hopes one day to be a good ancestor, indeed, like us all.

Stephanie: We’re happy to have you too because your perspective is so rich, this sense of wanting to be a good ancestor. Let’s start off with what does that mean to you before we go into your actually work.

Pete: I am old enough to be a grandparent, though I’m not now. I have one child. And from the adult perspective, it is innate in us, I think, to want to give our children and succeeding generations a better world, more opportunity, more abundance than what we enjoyed in our lives. And on the course that we’re on now, we’re doing exactly the opposite. And it just feels so wrong to me to be depriving future generations of at least a liveable planet. And that is really a big part of why I am motivated to be a reluctant climate activist.

Stephanie: I was thinking of the youth and what they’ve been saying too, that’s why it matters so much to the youth to be involved in climate strikes and the climate work now is because it is their future. And those folks who are older who only have maybe 20 years left, 30 years left, they say, “Oh, it’s not going to affect me.” And the youth are saying, “Wait a minute. This is going to be the rest of our lives and it’s going to get worse.”

As we were saying before the show, there’s been this sort of wave of calls to action around climate over the past 20 years, over the past 10 years, where it sort of started out as telling people the worst of what’s going to happen. We are on the brink of climate catastrophe. Everything is dying. We’re going to die. Our planet is going, you know, going to a bad place.

And people really turned away from that and started to say, you know, “We can’t motivate people on those – with that fear. And we need to tell people about the constructive solutions.” And now, I feel like we’re back in that place of reminding people of the wakeup call of how bad things have gotten. So, with that said, can you really center us in the climate emergency. What is happening right now in our planet?

Pete: Well, I hope so. There are a lot of threads there. And yes, 15, 20 years ago, when we were talking about climate issues, climate change, it was pretty well understood that we were about to face a serious issue with serious consequences, but climate change was in the future – at some point in the future. And we, as humans, by our evolutionary past, are not well-equipped to take meaningful action about future dangers.

We are well-equipped to immediately react if we think we’ve seen a snake in the grass in front of us. But for some ill-formed possibly debatable long-term risk, we don’t do well. These days, now in 2019, we have abundant evidence that climate change or the climate crisis, climate disruption, climate chaos is here right now. And that’s one of the things that I think is shifting the dynamic, shifting the conversation.

And especially for young people, kids in high school and junior high school, they are approaching adulthood or entering adulthood with a daily or a weekly barrage of unprecedented climate disasters and weather disasters. And they don’t face that difficulty of trying to acknowledge a future problem because for them it is a real and present problem.

And that, I think, is one of the things that allows so many young people to take to the streets and make demands and do it in a very clear and forceful and uncompromising way. And that’s exactly what we need.

Stephanie: And I agree with you, that is what we need. And I love the way that you’ve contextualized that into future thinking versus present thinking. And yet, about 20 years ago, maybe more, you also did some present thinking of green solutions and thinking about what kind of future we want to live in. And you got involved with the study of green architecture and I thought that was a really interesting constructive way to talk about climate disruption because it ends up branching out into all of the different areas that do need to be addressed. So, what has been your path into green and sustainable architecture?

Pete: I could trace it back to my childhood, having spent summers in a very rural setting, in a very primitive cabin without – well, with electricity, with running water, but none of the services. And I think that set me on a path to feel a connection with the real world, the natural world around me. And also, to appreciate simplicity, simple solutions. So, as I progressed through my life and got involved in building and design and construction and pursued the career path of architecture, green environmental concerns were always at the heart of it for me.

So, early in my career when I was diligently trying to figure out how to be an architect, how to do the things that architects do, I was also getting deeper and deeper into environmental considerations and, fortuitously at that time, the world of environmental building, green building was just getting started. So, I rode that wave for years and years.

And it helped me get a more comprehensive, complete overview on the world that we live in. It was not just getting a better view of the buildings that I was designing, but getting a better view, a better global perspective of humanity on the earth. Yeah. Oh, I can’t really say where that interest was first sparked.

Stephanie: But more like what was that perspective? Let’s talk about that.

Pete: That perspective is looking at our species, humanity, on our little planet at this point in our evolution. Looking at our 7.6 – 7.7 billion population. Looking at the state of the natural world. Looking at our water resources, at our topsoil, at our air resources. And just getting a sense of how all of these things interact in a hugely complex systems way. And, you know, it’s barely comprehensible by any one person, but it’s fascinating to try to get a sense of how it’s all working on a planetary scale at this very pivotal moment in the history of our species and the history of our planet.

Stephanie: What I’m hearing you say beneath that as well, is there’s been a bit of a paradigm shift from seeing the topsoil and buildings and the materials and our environmental health is somehow separate from each other. In your perspective that you’re bringing in is that, no, these are all interconnected. They’re all woven together. You can’t separate them, actually. Can you – is that –

Pete: That’s right. And that is a perspective that I have come to over the course of my building into these things. And I really believe that that is the perspective that we – as a world community quickly need to come to, is the understanding that we, as a species were not put here to control the natural world, to control nature. Instead we are an integral part of nature.

It seems so simple when we say it. I think most, if not all, pre-industrial societies had this deep understanding. But we, somehow, have allowed ourselves to stray from this very deep and essential truth.

Stephanie: Michael Nagler tells this story of E.F. Schumacher visiting one of his classes that he taught at U.C. Berkeley. And he comes into the building, into the classroom and he says to the students, “You know, look at this place. We’ve done everything we can to block out the light and block out the air so that we sit here and learn. And then pump back in air and connect these electric lights.”

And it was really saying something that also I heard you say in one of your writings or in your talk that I saw on YouTube that you gave at Sonoma State, I think. And you said, “The best green building is no building at all.” Can you more about that, how green building, what does the profession of green building – what should we know as informed citizens about green building?

Pete: I think that’s really interesting that you remind me of that. I didn’t know I had gone public with that statement.

Stephanie: Is it true?

Pete: But yeah. I think so. Yeah. I admit that my own perspective on green environmental building is a little bit different. I obviously have my own perspective. Yeah. One of the things that I came to over the years in looking at how to reduce or minimize the environmental impacts of the buildings that we build. You know, to minimize the carbon impact, the water impact, the solid waste impact.

And it occurred to me that if we just don’t build the building, well, we’ve reduced all our impacts, 100%. But that’s a standard to strive for. But obviously, it’s a little bit tongue in cheek because we need to keep building. As long as we exist, we need to build. But we certainly don’t need to keep building such large resource intensive unconnected places as we have been doing.

Stephanie: Why? Why can’t we keep doing that? What does it say about human community, Pete Gang?

Pete: Well, one reason we can’t do it – we can’t keep building the way we have been building is because we know that the earth, our planet, cannot sustain the level of resource throughput that we have been extracting from it. It’s, you know, ecological footprint and just all kinds of studies and evidence.

But the other reason that we can’t keep building the way we’re building is in terms of the human – the impact on us as human beings. It’s so clear to me that there’s been such an emphasis, at least in this country on privacy, individual everything. Personal everything. I’ve got my own phone with my own password and my own preferences, and I’ve got my own private vehicle, and I’ve got my own computer. And sometimes I may feel like sharing them with other people, but they’re mine.

And that idea of an exaggerated emphasis on the individual and the personal is expressed in how we organize our communities. We live in individual apartments or single-family dwelling. There’s not much attention in our urban spaces to parks, town squares, places for people to sit and gather. We create them. We have them. They’re not completely absent in our world.

But we as a society don’t pay that much attention to the needs of the commons. We pay most of our attention to the needs of the individual. And obviously, the needs of the corporate entities, but that’s a separate discussion.

Stephanie: And when you were talking about the sense of resilience, in a previous conversation you and I had, these three terms came up which were kindness, communication, and self-knowledge. How do you weave those into our human community and how they help to address some of the climate crises that we’re facing? Kindness, communication, and self-knowledge.

Pete: I’ll start to answer the question and then I’ll go off the rails a little bit. The communication part ties to community. We absolutely need to break out of this tyranny of individual, individual-ness. These prisons that we lock ourselves in of doing everything for ourselves. We absolutely have to return to that wisdom of pre-industrial cultures and understand how to live in community – in family groupings, in clan, tribe, extended family, extended community. Because that’s hardwired into us as human beings. That’s the communication community part.

The self knowledge part, in a way, I have a funny perspective on all the smart things that we surround ourselves with. Our smartphones and smart water and smart socks and smart everything. Sometimes I think, “Well, what about people?” Should we not make a goal of making people smart as well?

And partly, the ‘smart,’ to me, implies knowledge and understanding of issues that affect us all. But it’s also smart about who we are on the inside. It’s the understanding that reflection and mindfulness and often a practice will lead us to. And that inevitably, that links directly to communication and community because the more we open up – the more we delve into or interiority we realize that we are deeply connected, one to another.

I don’t know where it comes from, but I have latched onto that phrase of, “The illusion of the separate self.” And that to me is a very deep understanding, that all of us human beings trying to make our way through our lives in many ways, we are all experiencing the same kinds of things, the same fears and doubts and frustrations and joys and sorrows. And we all go through the same things together.

If we are able to go through our day with that understanding, that we’re not different, that we’re all deeply connected, then that results in kindness – inevitably. And it’s not immediate. It’s not just snap your fingers and, you know, wave a magic wand and you will automatically look at everybody as your sister and brother. It takes time. It’s a practice.

But we all need to approach each other and the world that we’re helping to organize with a deep sense of love and kindness. That is so essential.

Stephanie: These are really helpful ways of thinking about the paradigm shift that’s necessary. And it’s so interesting, Pete Gang, that’s coming from somebody who is in architecture and taking an academic look at things. I imagine your students are very lucky to have somebody like you and your broad vision as a teacher.

I feel like we’ve gone through some of the personal awareness shift and we’ve gone through some of even thinking about how we do things differently in society, what we call constructive program, building the world we want to see, really. And you’re also doing some other work on climate emergency resolutions. And you helped pass one of the first climate emergency resolutions in Sonoma County in Petaluma. Can about that and how people can learn from what you’re doing?

Pete: Yes. With an understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis, that I don’t take for granted, but I’m not going to go into now unless you want me to. But with an understanding that we are facing a climate emergency and time is not on our side. Obviously, the level of personal actions – shorter showers, riding a bicycle, changing lightbulbs, those are all the things that we were encouraged to do 10, 15, 20 years ago. And they are all necessary, but woefully insufficient.

We need action, emergency scale action at all levels. Prior to the 2016 presidential election I involved myself with a non-profit called, “The Climate Mobilization,” which at the time, was the only group calling for war scale mobilization in order to address the climate emergency.

Pete: Prior to the election it seemed possible that we might be able to get our federal government in big bold action. Well, it didn’t turn out that way. And so, we all went back to our corners and licked our wounds for a few months. And then the Climate Mobilization suggested enacting city by city and county by county the climate emergency actions.

And for me, following the 2018 midterm elections, where it was a confluence of events. Things on the political scene – things changed. Also, around the same time last fall there was the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco convened by Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg. There was the IPCC Special Report, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, and other events that just kind of said to me, “Now is the time to get things happening on our local level.”

And so, starting at the beginning of this year, I and a small group of people here in Petaluma started meeting with our mayor and our city council people to talk about what a climate emergency resolution might look like. And we, the community members, worked with our elected to figure out how to get it done. And it just gathered momentum. People jumped onboard with enthusiasm.

And as it played out, at our city’s goal setting session on April 6, we the community, presented a climate emergency resolution along with endorsements from 50 non-profits and businesses, and signatures from 450 local people. And at a city council meeting a month later, that resolution passed. And so, we, Petaluma, became the first jurisdiction in Sonoma County to pass a climate emergency resolution.

And we’ve received been joined by the cities of Windsor and Cloverdale. And next Tuesday, the County of Sonoma will be considering a climate emergency resolution. So, things are gaining steam. Momentum is building here within our region to really get serious about acknowledging the climate emergency and focusing our energies as city and county entities and as communities of people to get us all aligned in the same direction and get our sights focused toward a carbon zero, regenerative, locally oriented, people friendly Sonoma County within 10, 15 years. That’s where we’re headed.

Stephanie: That’s a really inspiring vision, Pete Gang. We just have a little bit more time left in hearing about the climate emergency resolutions. It’s very, very inspiring. And so is your big vision. So, I wanted to give you the last word in this interview to remind us of the deep paradigm shift that we’re heading toward that we need to make happen.

Pete: Oh, the paradigm shift, I think, if I were to try to state it briefly, it’s a shift from man in control of nature to humankind as an integral part of the living planet. And extended that same understanding to all of our fellow inhabitants, that we are not in control of other people. We are all part of one big humanity. And if we are going to survive as a species, we have to hasten this understanding and work together, all in this together, toward a future that works for everybody.

Stephanie: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Pete Gang, for joining us today.

Pete: You’re so welcome. I enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

Transcription provided by Matthew Watrous.

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