Want to Love the Future? First, Figure Out What It Looks Like

Bringing forth a habitable planet will require energy, ambition, and purpose. What will fuel this work? Not data and doomsaying—instead, imagination.

Last week, I saw the future. Here is what it looked like.

  • Because of unprecedented investments in clean energy, the world still had a chance of staying under the 1.5°C heating target that 194 nations and the E.U. agreed to in Paris in 2015.
  • The building industry had finally prioritized decarbonizing existing buildings over predicting the energy use of new buildings.
  • Three celebrated people of color—each worried, but each equally driven to make sure the green building movement could finish the job it started—had given rousing keynotes on the main stage at Greenbuild. 

Here’s the thing: that was the past. It all happened last week while I was at Greenbuild 2023 in Washington, D.C.

a woman with sunglasses on is under water above sea grass and smiling joyfully at the camera.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson asks, “What brings you joy? What are you good at? What needs doing?”

Photo: Jeremy McKane
This year’s convention renewed my hope that our movement’s social justice aspirations may be achievable and that 1.5 isn’t dead yet (a 180 from what I wrote after COP27 last year). 

“A future we can see ourselves in”

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a scientist, writer, and climate activist who felt comfortable on the Greenbuild stage in part because her father was an architect. But she had long thought him a failure, as she confessed at the beginning of her speech last Friday.

Because of a naïve belief that great architects are iconic people who design iconic buildings, Johnson didn’t comprehend the great things her father was accomplishing.

  • She didn’t realize that he had helped found a groundbreaking all-Black firm.
  • She didn’t know that he had leveraged his position there to advance the careers of many younger Black architects.
  • She didn’t recognize his commitment to the idea that a more enlightened profession should and would invite, include, and value these younger professionals in the future.

About that future—and the better climate futures we could all end up in: we don’t get there by putting our own egos and careers first, Johnson suggested.

“I had missed the entire freaking point,” she said of her father’s career. “It is not about the glory; it’s about the ripples.” Acknowledging that, for many in the audience, “Bravado may have been the secret to some of your success,” she countered, “Now is not the time for that. Set your egos aside, collaborate, and change the world. We need you.”

Johnson’s forthcoming book, What If We Get It Right? is all about the future we need to create and how we’re going to get there. “They’ve shown us the apocalypse,” Johnson said, but “it can be hard to come up with new ways to say ‘wake up.’”

That’s why Johnson asks “What if?” She called this “a mind-expanding question,” one that helps us visualize a place worth fighting for. Because it’s a place we can only make real if we know what it looks like.

Elaborating in a conversation with entrepreneur Jarami Bond after her talk, Johnson said it’s all too easy to feel burned out and start asking ourselves, “What are we even doing? The odds are so long.” Having a vision helps us answer that question, which we must do, because “it’s the future of life on Earth. Like, we have to try.”

Why “Inflation Reduction Act” is the worst possible name

Actor, filmmaker, and climate activist Kal Penn seemed to agree with Johnson on quite a bit, especially on Johnson’s assertion that “the sexiest word in the English language” is implementation. Penn took to the Greenbuild stage on Wednesday, sitting across from New York Times columnist and podcast host Ezra Klein to talk about that exact thing.

Like Johnson’s speech, Penn’s conversation with Klein focused on creativity, imagination, and the central role of visualization and storytelling in achieving climate goals. That’s one of the reasons vivacious, committed young people are crucial to the future, Penn argued. 

But the tricky bit, he suggested, is ensuring young people not only hear the right stories but also have the right tools to change the course of history.

An example: to be successful, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) requires “a fascinating need for storytelling,” Penn said, one that shifts the focus of climate activism from “How do we get it passed?” to “How do we make it work?” This is where all the sexy implementation comes in.

The IRA’s dreadful name is just one of several barriers to understanding and fulfilling the law’s power, he suggested. Another untold story is that the IRA resulted directly from “decades of youth advocacy,” noted Penn. So the now-30-year-olds who were picketing the Obama White House when they were 18 probably have no idea they’re largely responsible for the first landmark climate law in the U.S.

The absence of that story and others leaves many of today’s young people in what Penn called “a cynical echo chamber” where history does not empower them and where the tools to build a better future don’t come into their hands.

How can we change this?

Penn said one element has to be trust. Trust between citizens and their governments, and between consumers and powerful corporations—even the ones with sordid track records of negative externalities papered over with greenwashing. Although he thinks ”the trust process [is] very much broken right now,” Penn also believes individual behavior change, collective action, and systems of accountability can help us build new relationships and reverse an overwhelmingly unjust power dynamic. 

“You’re one person,” Penn conceded, adding, “Until the structure is built for societal change, [individual action is] not going to be enough.” But “we are going to have to change our behavior,” he continued, arguing that collective change can drive powerful institutions to meet the demands of regular people. 

In order to work collectively in this way for the foreseeable future, we must believe collectively in the same story of the future, a future where we got it right.

How the IRA makes it all easier

If Penn’s solution seems unfinished or unsatisfying, consider an example that was sandwiched between the Penn and Johnson bookends.

The White House has been using the term Bidenomics to tell a new story—a story that empowers individual action, advances environmental and economic justice, and encourages decisionmakers across the U.S. economy to do the right thing. Biden’s national climate advisor, Ali Zaidi, told a version of this story during Thursday’s keynote.

a man in a gray suit stands in at a podium. a large plant is on the right, and a luminous blue backdrop is behind him.

Ali Zaidi speaks during Greenbuild 2023 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Moshe Zusman
Zaidi framed the IRA as the protagonist in a novel climate change narrative—one that envisions a thriving and equitable future. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change, Zaidi said, “can be the story of renewal and repair. It can be a story of hope and opportunities—opportunity in economic terms.”

Through the IRA and other programs, Zaidi claimed, the Biden administration has:

  • Invested in adaptation strategies in Louisiana, achieving a return on investment of $11 for every dollar spent
  • Announced $400 million in grants to help jurisdictions around the country “level up” building codes to require resilient design
  • Developed and begun a process to refine a zero-emission building standard
  • Begun leveraging IRA funds under the Justice40 initiative to ensure BIPOC and people with lower incomes don’t remain in and don’t have to move to the areas that are most vulnerable to climate change threats

I know what to do next. Do you?

I’m not expecting us to live happily ever after. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson told us, “I’m a scientist and a realist, and I can’t pretend that it’s all going to be okay.”

Venn diagram with three circles labeled "what brings you joy?" "what are you good at?" and "what needs doing?" with a rectangle on the right with the heading "climate action."

Is this on your to-do list?

Image: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
But Johnson didn’t stop there. She instead talked about moments of joy, the satisfaction of collaboration, and the pleasure we can get from “sparkles of imagination.” She said we need to “keep our eyes on how to build a future that we can all live in safely” and to figure out “what are the injustices that we need to either dismantle or not replicate as we start to create this world?”

To that end, Johnson called on us to work with diverse teams, emphasizing not only racial diversity but also a mix of ages, geographies, areas of expertise, genders, and abilities. 

And then there were the little things. Johnson noted the importance of naps. And she celebrated the pleasure of crossing things off your to-do list. Here’s what’s on mine. 

What’s on your list?

For more information:

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Climate Venn diagram template

Jarami Bond

Kal Penn

Ezra Klein

White House Climate Policy Office

Published October 1, 2023

Melton, P. (2023, October 1). Want to Love the Future? First, Figure Out What It Looks Like. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/want-love-future-first-figure-out-what-it-looks

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