When Andrew and I were at college, we both won awards in architecture competitions to help solve the world’s reliance on fossil fuel. The interest was sparked by the 1970’s fuel crisis when it became clear that oil, gas and coal would become increasingly expensive and depleted. As students we became passionate about sustainability, reusing and recycling, and also anti large corporations. Andrew built his own hi-fi, turntable and speakers from components ordered from Wilmslow Audio. He built his own furniture and drawing board. He even made his own clothes. I became vegetarian and haven’t eaten meat for over 30 years. But when we qualified and went to work with Michael Hopkins and Richard Rogers and then launched Weston Williamson in 1985, the world had changed back, the oil crisis a distant memory. Thatcherism determined that no concerns other than commercial competitiveness would be successful.
Even when we won the competition to design the headquarters of the National Energy Foundation in 1995 the client could not afford to
indulge in techniques or materials which had a 20+ year payback period. Few companies or individuals can afford to think that far ahead.
Luckily we did: we built the core of our business designing good, safe, beautiful public transport to encourage people out of their cars and travelling together. As well as combating climate change, it encourages social cohesion. There is no hierarchy on the metro. People of all ages, incomes, races, beliefs travel together. All going about their daily lives a bit more aware of each other. Weston Williamson has gone on to design over 50 transport infrastructure projects in over 10 countries. We have conducted the first annual customer experience survey of 2000 users in 10 cities to inform and hone our designs. London has led the world in public transport improvements funded partly by the congestion charge on private vehicles. There is much more to do of course and each city in turn can learn from others to become better for the cyclist and pedestrian. To become more civilised.
These changes have been politically driven, often against public opinion, by brave leaders. It’s fantastic to see the issue being raised by Greta Thunberg as it was by the 13 year old Severn Suzuki in Rio in 1992; we need constant reminding. I believe that we will act to solve the problems that we have created. But it is complex. It needs global action and consensus. We also have to face facts. The technologies are being developed to halt climate change but the implementation involves altering our lifestyle choices. It will not depend on a few political leaders. It will involve us all. Some will choose to act others will not. We need to make it a popular choice, make it fashionable to moderate our behaviour. We have and will continue to invent new technologies and show more interest in combating climate change.
Andrew and I were doing that 40 years ago but we were unable to convince clients to accept the principles. Maybe now is the time.
We largely know what the solutions are and it is our choice whether to implement them or not. If we don’t there is no Planet B but Planet A will be around a long time after Homo sapiens have had their turn in using it and its precious resources. Will we be influenced by the common good versus personal choice? We all need to look to ourselves not expect others to act. We have done amazing things with this small planet and can achieve so much more. We may choose not to, and accept that the planet was here millions of years before we were and that it will be here long after if we choose to mess up our few thousand years’ curatorship.
When JFK made his speech in 1961 about landing a man on the moon before the decade was out, it was an inspirational goal. We need something similar from the G20 now. It can be done. I’m just not sure that the climate change strikes and demonstrations are the way it will be done. Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg are powerfully highlighting important issues but are less successful at suggesting viable solutions. Most of their suggestions are the same in 2019 as they were in 1969 and their beliefs just as earnest. What seems to be lacking now, as it was then, is willingness to work with rather than against government and large corporations. This, I think, is the way forward - to blend the research, innovation and creativity of private enterprise, with the passion of environmental activists. Activism has been successful in the past. Civil rights, suffragettes, Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. These were similar political causes with similar commercial consequences.
Climate change will need a similar approach and the capacity to hurt corporations or investors who don’t play their part in the solution.
One of the positive suggestions put forward by Extinction Rebellion is the creation of a citizen’s assembly on climate and ecological justice. If this were modelled on the Irish referendum system, which was instrumental in changing the constitution on abortion, this could be an excellent outcome with stakeholders and corporations and politicians working together. Surely much better than protestors supergluing themselves to trains at rush hour. The problem with climate change is it affects the whole of the planet and necessitates a concerted effort. As can be seen from the graph the USA, Europe and China need to act the most, but everyone has a part to play. The problems have been highlighted, disputed, ridiculed, but are undeniable. We now need to act. We have built an amazing world for ourselves on this small planet and we will surely rise to the challenge of preserving and enhancing it.