Reflections on Richard Register’s and John Knott’s Presentations Gaining Ground at BUILDEX 2012
Vancouver Convention Centre, Feb. 2012

Gene Miller

“America is broken.”

Coming from John Knott, these words had the ring of a drumbeat.

You never know when words will catch you by surprise.  Such a phrase would seem unexceptional in James Kunstler’s blog, since that theme frames much of his thought.  But coming from a man who describes himself as a third-generation builder (when John says “builder,” you understand it means more than hammers and nails), the idea triggers a longer interval of consideration.

John Knott, developer of Noisette, a visionary 3,000-acre social values-driven development in North Charleston, SC, and sustainability co-champion Richard Register, Founder of San Francisco-based Ecocity Builders and head of a growing global network of partner ecocities, were keynote presenters, under the Gaining Ground banner, during BUILDEX 2012, at the Vancouver Convention Centre in February.

John’s presentation felt like a sermon from a pulpit; Richard’s felt like a studio tour with the world’s coolest architect.  Together—for the many attendees who caught both presentations—they were a full-course feast of ideas and a revealing picture of the potentials and risks defining the current state of the sustainability agenda.

Remember, both are Americans, and while well-travelled and globally informed, are a strong reflection of the state of play in their highly conflicted and polarized nation.  This, of course, is exactly what makes their presentations so valuable: it gives a Canadian observer the grounds to ask two key questions:

  • Do sustainability challenges and obstacles in the US speak to or foreshadow the Canadian reality?
  • What does the US ideological tug-of-war in the sustainability arena, and the kinds of policy and legislation that flow (or fail to flow) in such conditions, tell us about the key factors or ‘presets’—social, economic political—needed for successful ecological and sustainability outcomes?

Register and Knott were using entirely different vocabularies, but speaking exactly the same language.  You couldn’t help but realize that reversing the dereliction of disinvested communities and successful jail-to-work programs (Knott), or the design of tools to measure and strategies to improve the ecological resilience of urban settlements (Register) are two approaches to tackling exactly the same issue.  Both call for a similar way—at once conserving and regenerative—of seeing resources and capacity, human or natural.

If I call John’s presentation warm and Richard’s cool, it says nothing about the relative levels of passion of the two men.  And as I note, if you caught both presentations, it was the full-meal deal.  Toggling between their two sets of ideas, you could survey the core stuff of sustainability: the ideas of finding balance, of improving efficiencies, of doing more with less, of celebrating human connection and community, of addressing social equity.

I have planned and organized the Gaining Ground Urban Sustainability conferences for eight years.  In that short time, I have noticed a dramatic, if easily understood, shift of focus—though not at all times or amongst all people—away from the theoretical or moral content of sustainability (the ecological poetics and moral principles of balance), and toward leading practices.  As I note, this is completely understandable; we are a practical society and in the minds of many, the challenges associated with sustainability have less to do with hand-wringing or protest than they do with technological fixes and practical applications—financially and technically viable waste-to-energy systems, materials re-use, waterway restoration, innovative mobility strategies, local food production, and so on.  Also—probably because of a perceived weakness or vulnerability in basing the ecological case on moral arguments—there has been a significant effort to justify the ecological agenda in terms of valuing ecosystem services, and monetizing environmental services, systems, products and ideas.

Obviously, there are still extraordinary numbers of environmental advocates, champions and right-minded worriers; but if you doubt the rapid evolution I’m describing, consider how the word ‘green’ was received, say, a decade ago compared to today’s dismissive gagging response and ‘been there, done that’ cynical eye-rolls from all-too-many people.

The challenges facing John’s agenda, which in my view emphasizes social ecology, and Richard’s, which emphasizes urban and living systems ecology, are largely the same: a world stuck in the full-on consumption and full-bore growth model; destruction of the culture of modesty; insufficient literacy about the operating limits of natural systems; head-for-the-hills panic and complete distraction with the urgencies of the economic downturn; inadequate skills addressing the arts of mutuality (a very ecological principle); and the lack of either tools, will, or both for crafting a life based on social equity.

This brings me to a subject I have raised at Gaining Ground conferences, in numerous magazine columns and in extensive communication with colleagues: is catastrophe itself ecological?  I’m not trying to be intellectually ‘cute,’ or a ‘doomer;’ just raising the thought that catastrophe—any of a number of disruptive conditions in a wide variety of forms or manifestations—exists in nature, and appears to serve the same game-changing or system-altering purpose in human history—when our skills of self- or ecological management fail us.  In this view, we may be well inside one of those ‘climax forest’ periods when everything burns so seeds of renewal can be triggered by the conflagration.  The problem with collapse, while it makes for fascinating undergraduate conversation at the coffee shop, is that it generates an enormous amount of real human hardship and suffering (Kames Kunstler writes, mordantly, of social ‘mischief’—a reminder that we are far from our best in lengthy periods of panic over resource decline).

I steer away from this depressing topic out of generosity to John and Richard, both of whom are, if not outright optimists, then makers and problem-solvers.  Both have dedicated not just their entire professional lives, but their souls, to their respective programs.  You had only to think it through, after their presentations, to realize that John discussing reduced recidivism rates amongst people who leave prison to become involved in the Noisette community life, and Richard describing an Ecocity as a “human settlement modeled on the self-sustaining resilient structure and function of natural ecosystems,’ were telling us exactly the same thing and laying out two of many projects in a great plan of work.  If America is broken (I prefer the more reasonable ‘bent’ or ‘cracked’), both men eloquently framed strategies for repair.

Thank you, Richard and John.


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sponsors Real Estation Foundation of BC BCIT School of Construction and the Environment Center for Urban Innovation