Op-Ed

Our Economy is Broken (and We Can Fix It)

Green building practitioners must take on the challenge of our broken economy, in our work and in our lives.

April 4, 2017

Jennifer Atlee

Photo: Joanna Rueter
The business case for green building keeps getting stronger, and we have many cost-effective technologies and design strategies for high-performance buildings. 

But we’re still stuck. None of it is moving fast enough or far enough to meet the challenges of our time. Over and over again projects aim low because of perceived cost limitations, or set ambitious goals only to see them thwarted by so-called “value engineering.” Communities that don’t hold project purse strings are still too often left out.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just reframing our approach to project financials can make a difference. What if instead of accepting our economic system as a design constraint we approached it as a design problem to be solved? What if our economy were designed to maximize the things we really value?

Is this the best we can do?

Imagine a post-occupancy evaluation of our economy. From extreme levels of wealth inequality to a growth model predicated on liquidating our natural and social wealth, the more questions we ask the worse it looks. So, what’s taking us so long? To redesign our economy, we have to see more than just the problems. We need to let go of the myth that there is no alternative.   

Barely visible under a dominant neoliberal economy, new models are being tested from the ground up. Overlapping communities of practice as rich as ours are offering new frameworks, design principles, and a broad expanse of practical projects. These efforts are woven together via a framework that shifts economics from a zero-sum (win-lose) game to one that recognizes cooperation, community, and healthy respect for natural limits as keys that unlock an interconnected, thriving abundance for all.

The time is now

In uncertain and volatile times like ours, it is particularly important to step outside of the bounds we’ve been provided and paint a new, more inclusive picture of where we can go from here. There is precedent for this, as George Lakey points out in How Norway Avoided Becoming a Fascist State. The context we work in can be radically shifted, particularly in highly polarized times.

If we are to achieve either the broad policies or specific actions relating directly to the built environment that Alex Wilson champions in 20 Ways to Advance Sustainability in the Next Four Years, we need an economic system that guides us on the right path.

It's a design problem

Check out this month’s feature article, Embracing the Economy as Design Challenge, to learn more. It shows how projects can go further within the dominant economic paradigm, and how they can challenge that paradigm.

This doesn’t have to be daunting. We don’t have to do it all at once; we can live into it. Through a multitude of successful efforts, we already are. 

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