Why Standing Rock Matters to Green Building (and How You Can Help)

The green building community must choose its battles carefully. And Standing Rock should be one of those battles.

Supporters from around the United States have joined the Standing Rock Sioux in protesting development of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Photo: Jake Green/Montana Kaiman
I can’t believe how hard it is to write this op-ed piece. All I want to say is that building professionals who care about the health of planet and people should actively support the growing movement at Standing Rock—where Native American tribes and their supporters have gathered to stop development of the Dakota Access pipeline.

It’s hard because I’m stepping out of my comfort zone, out of the domain that I consider within my professional scope, and into the understanding that unless I take direct action in support of the struggles of those harmed by racism and systemic injustice, I am complicit in that injustice.

And part of that stepping up for me personally is making the case to you that this is also true for us as an industry.

Interconnected struggles

I thought I was going to make a different case for why Standing Rock matters to our industry. It goes like this:

The math of climate science is stark, and it will take more than our best efforts to keep 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Given that a different kind of math holds sway in the fossil fuel industry, those standing directly in the path of fossil fuel pipelines are green building’s vital allies.

I’d then proceed to lay out a similar argument about so much else we strive toward in green building, and how those priorities benefit from the largest gathering of Native Americans in 100 years, coming together to protect the Missouri River, which is the Standing Rock Sioux water supply. But that wasn’t the crux of it.

Taking a supportive role is powerful

Standing Rock presents us with a vital opportunity to look deeply at the systemic and historical roots of today’s sociopolitical and ecological crises, and how truly interconnected our struggles are.

Both Bill McKibben and #BlackLivesMatter have given voice to the game-changing potential of Standing Rock in potent statements of solidarity. By supporting this native-led struggle without subsuming it, they model how we best strengthen each other’s movements toward shared goals.

We are already doing critically important work in the built environment to reduce fossil fuel use and address the environmental and human health impacts of buildings, materials, and infrastructure. As an industry, we are also increasing our focus on the direct social justice implications of design, construction, and procurement. We are working to advance in our practice the healing concepts of regenerative design and living buildings.

But we in the green building community can’t truly create a living future until we acknowledge the scope of our power and privilege and leverage that—in solidarity and humility—in direct support of the struggles championed by others.

Our attention matters

We in the green building movement have resources and clout, both individually and collectively, that we could bring to bear. Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the International Living Future Institute, the U.S. Green Building Council, the brand new group Architects Advocate, and others could put out statements of support.

Even just keeping our eyes on what’s going on makes a difference. It’s harder to get away with using mace and private security attack dogs on peaceful Native American protesters while bulldozing ancestral graves if business professionals and white people are paying attention and outraged.

If we keep paying attention, much more becomes possible. Last Friday, the Obama administration paused construction, pending further discussion. The wording of the statement by the Office of Public Affairs cracks open a door to reform. But this will only happen if we all stay involved. If the statement simply defuses tensions and deflects attention, it is a loss, not a gain.

We all have to pick our battles, and a continued focus on our own work to address sustainability and social justice directly within the built environment is vitally important.

At the same time, what we do now is pivotal. Will we simply go about “our” business of making the world a better place—by our definition only? Or will we pay attention, listen deeply, and act in humble solidarity?

Our collective choice will reveal our true capacity to manifest the world we strive for.

How to support the efforts at Standing Rock

  1. Join one of many solidarity actions scheduled across the country through September 17.

  2. Call the White House at 1-888-369-5791 and demand that President Obama take further action to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, or add your voice by signing here. Demand more than a temporary halt to construction of DAPL. As Bill McKibben has pointed out, after halting the Keystone Pipeline, fast-track review of everything else has become the norm. Substantive review would look at the environmental and social impacts of construction and possible oil spills, climate change impacts of burning the fuel, and native rights.

  3. Consider providing direct financial or material support to the protectors’ camps at Standing Rock, or contribute to the Sacred Stone legal fund.

  4. Share information and keep this on your radar. Talk with friends and colleagues, and keep an eye on social media #NoDAPL, #ReZpectOurWater, and #StandWithStandingRock to understand and share what is going on. Continued public scrutiny makes a difference.

  5. Make this your responsibility. The more we recognize our shared struggle, the more effective we become. Think creatively: if this were your local community and your water source at risk, you’d pull out all the stops, right? Who do you know who could influence decisions going forward? Do your investments support companies making the pipeline happen? How could you energize groups that you are part of to engage in acts of solidarity?

Op-ed contributor Jennifer Atlee is principal at Atlee Research. Her work has focused on improving the capacity of the green building industry to assess the sustainability of products and make actionable sense of our rapidly evolving materials ecosystem. She has engaged in research, writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainability issues since 1999.

Published September 15, 2016

Atlee, J. (2016, September 15). Why Standing Rock Matters to Green Building (and How You Can Help). Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/why-standing-rock-matters-green-building-and-how-you-can-help

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September 26, 2016 - 7:34 pm

Thanks for this, Jennifer. It definitely fits with the evolution of the green building community.

September 27, 2016 - 5:10 pm

Thanks, Jennifer!  Well said, and more than appropriate in this context.