Naturalizing Civilization - Aaron Kotulek
Updated: Aug 4
The blue jay builds its nest in the brown, resuscitating trees outside my window in Amherst, Massachusetts. Its blue plumage strikes against the brown, leafless branches as it picks and plucks the building blocks for its new home. Snow covers the ground from a late-March storm. I watch from the window of my one-bedroom, ground-floor apartment. I am insulated from the cold and the sound; I can only barely hear the birds chirping over the hum of the dishwasher I loaded after lunch. Often, any noise gets drowned out by the waste pipe running down the outside of my window. I have my desktop lamp on because the midday light from the window is not enough to see my notes on the yellow pad on my desk. My relationship with nature is far removed.
It was not always so. Before I came to school in western Massachusetts, I was a geological surveyor for the United States military from 2012 to 2017. Back then, I knew quite well what it meant to live in nature. My job required me to use a combination of mathematics, theodolite telescopes, and land navigation to pinpoint exact locations on the earth to provide information for cartographical operations. I lived in nature for weeks at a time in the southern Philippines. I did it for even longer spells in the mountains of southern California. I knew but didn’t appreciate what it was like to live with the true basic necessities of life, to not need any more than food, clothing, and shelter. We had Meals, Ready-To-Eat, cold or hot weather clothes and boots, and tents that we could pack up within minutes. Now, in my senior year of college, I have lost that gumption. I have spent more days than not in this chair at this window, watching the birds come and go, the trees wilt in the fall, and the flowers bloom in the spring. Writing, but not living. Reflecting, but not experiencing. My food is at the grocery store less than a mile away, so I hardly need to worry about starvation. A Brita filter in the refrigerator filters my tap water into drinking water, so my thirst is always quenched. It has become very easy to isolate myself from the world, and it is getting easier. Now, in 2020, it is possible to live and never step foot outside or interact with nature.
Thoreau spoke of self-reliance as the worthwhile journey of the human, and I am beginning to see why. It is independence and freedom from neediness that gives us meaning in life. It gives us authority within ourselves. Thoreau maintained that independence is hard to come by in modern life, which if true in the 1800s, then doubly so for now. We have trains to take us everywhere, although it isn’t clear what good going to far-away places does for us. Telephone signals connect us with anyone from anywhere, although it is not clear why that is a good thing if there is nothing of real importance to discuss. The majority of transportation and phone usage is not spent on anything significant. It seems the more we build our society up, the more it constrains us, and the more we lose touch with our natural roots.
We have relinquished nearly all control of our lives. We build and advance, build and advance, and so on. We build taller, sleeker offices hoping to impress competitors and clients. The first Ferris wheel ever created was built for the Chicago World Fair in 1893, with the explicit purpose to outclass the Eiffel Tower, which had been built at the previous Paris “Exposition Universelle” in 1889 (Blazeski). Most of the buildings we construct are not built with any sort of consciousness, but animalistic competition without regard for the earth that supplies the materials and space for it. Most of our technological improvements do not have any significant effect on society’s happiness or well-being, but are merely a result of competition in a market economy. Does a step-by-step navigation system improve the daily life of the average user? Or, does it make things easier for them so they don’t have to put any effort into a trip? If you don’t have to put any effort into something, does it have meaning? If the success or failure of a trip depends on a piece of technology, then that technology becomes, at best, a shortcut and, at worst, a scapegoat for failure, something to take the blame off the user so they never have to feel upset. The technologically-dependent user can walk through life numb, never challenged.
My point is, our advances in technology have thus far been self-serving. It seems that most major advancements have been in communication devices, vehicular safety and technology, or logistical shipping and delivery. Most of our advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence are for the sole purpose of reducing the amount of work that we humans have to do. It will not be a stretch when I say that these advances have come at a great cost. Most of our technological devices are built with what is essentially slave labor in poor, impoverished countries. Those countries that are rapidly trying to increase their wealth and status are polluting the earth in the process via unregulated factories. Our vehicles are still dependent on oil and gas, both in production and operation. Even the vehicles that run on electricity are produced with coal, nuclear, or some other finite natural resource that pollutes when burned. This is not even to mention the environmental cost of shipping via jets, cargo ships, and trucks on the road. What I am saying is, I think that we are focusing on advancements in all of the wrong areas. As a society, our entire philosophy needs to change. I am not suggesting a “back-to-basics” lifestyle like someone pining for the “good old days.” Rather, I want us to use the tremendous amount of intelligence and resources we have to make the construction industry more efficient and to give back to the earth the very substances we take from our planet. We would not need to sacrifice our modern comforts. Instead, we would pivot our industry towards a path of sustainability and cohesion with our natural surroundings to establish a symbiotic relationship with the planet rather than the current, parasitic one. Fortunately, there are programs that we can support that would drive this change in philosophy.
One such program is called the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Established in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge seeks to drive a change in the philosophy of industry and create standards of sustainability that would effectively combat climate change and environmental destruction. The LBC sets the bar high for the certification of buildings which, both new and renovated, can be titled “living buildings.” The Living Building Challenge recognizes that it is not enough for us to just be less destructive; we have to aim higher. We have to create buildings that both merge humans and society with nature and also regenerate in that space.
In 2016, a living building was constructed at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA near the Mount Holyoke mountain range. Only the fourth in Massachusetts and the twenty-third in the world, the Hitchcock Center was built as a non-profit educational facility. The operators of the center seek to educate the next generation of environmental decision-makers. Most importantly though, they have shown that the construction industry can design a building in a way that harvests and recycles its own water, uses composting toilets, and operates on responsibly sourced, non-toxic construction materials. The Hitchcock Center is also standing proof that such a building can exist and operate without the sacrifice of beauty or utility.
The most interesting thing about living buildings like the Hitchcock Center is the philosophy behind it. The Living Building Challenge lays out a construction philosophy following seven “petals,” which correspond to Energy, Water, Material, Beauty, Health & Happiness, Place, and Equity. The idea behind the seven petals is to spur industry leaders to design and structure buildings that function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower, with each petal representing a core responsibility for designers and manufacturers. Each petal is a high standard that, when adhered to, will bring us closer to that symbiotic natural relationship that benefits all involved.
Take the Hitchcock Center for example. The creators have embodied the philosophy of cooperation with nature and understand that knowledge of our natural surroundings is imperative when building in nature. In the actual construction of the building, non-toxic materials were used, and all construction waste was either reused on-site or recycled. Every area disturbed during the construction of the Hitchcock Center was planted with a native meadow seed mix and native plants that support native birds and wildlife. Solar panels cover the entire rooftop to collect energy from the sun, which is stored and used throughout the building much like the photosynthetic process of a flower. All the water used in the building comes from rainfall collected by the watershed-like design of the rooftop and is stored in a 6,000-gallon tank. The water is treated with UV sterilization for drinking, and all greywater leaving the building is filtered through a constructed wetland, after which it returns to the surrounding environment through the land or the process of evaporation. The near-waterless toilets flush into a compost chamber, which, like nature’s soil, use microbes to break down waste and release nutrients to be used as fertilizer. With south-facing windows, the sun is allowed to penetrate the building and warm and inspire the inhabitants inside. The HVAC system automatically turns off when the conditions are good enough for natural ventilation; a green light will appear and signal that it’s time to open windows.
The Hitchcock Center is full of independence. It needs nothing other than what nature provides. The living building is both a philosophy of construction and a philosophy for living. My goal in giving the Hitchcock Center this description and praise is not to shill for the Center itself, and I understand that I may have projected some of my own idealism onto it, but I genuinely do believe that the Living Building Challenge and buildings that aspire to its certification are steps in the right direction for a healthier, more cooperative relationship with nature. As of right now, these buildings are more like a “proof-of-concept” rather than a feasible goal for the vast majority of construction projects. It will take widespread support for this sort of industry change to take place, which is why I write these words, in the hope that they inspire you to support your local living building. If there are none in your location, then take action and petition your local government to include a living building in its next budget. Change never comes easy, nor cheaply, but it’s always worth the effort.
Blazeski, Goran. “The American Answer to the Eiffel Tower Was the Ferris Wheel Built in 1893.” The Vintage News, 11 Dec. 2016, www.thevintagenews.com/2016/12/11/the- american-answer-to-the-eiffel-tower-was-the-ferris-wheel-built-in-1893/.
“Living Building Challenge 4.0 Basics.” International Living Future Institute, 20 Feb. 2020, living-future.org/lbc/basics4-0/.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
“Welcome To Our Living Building.” Living Building | by MODX Revolution, hitchcock.hellobeacon.com/living-building/mode/kiosk/.