Eco-capitalism and architecture: environmentally friendly materials and technologies
There was a time when buildings wanted to be mountains, roofs forests and pillars trees. As the world began to go into a state of alert with the melting of glaciers and the consequent increase in the temperature of the Earth, architecture – from a general point of view – was concerned with mimicking the forms of the nature. Something akin to man-made ‘ecosystems’, seen by many as allegorical and decorative, in the service of marketable images of ‘sustainable development’.
These initiatives came when outright denial of climate science became untenable as a private sector strategy. Therefore, acknowledging climate change has created an opportunity for branding as a much brighter method than denying it or ignoring it altogether.
Since then, the environmental concern applied to architecture – whether or not it is carried by marketing – has evolved considerably, going far beyond replicas of the natural environment. It is along this fine line that eco-capitalism (or green capitalism) has influenced the way we construct our buildings. Generally speaking, eco-capitalism encourages the exploitation of natural resources, with the help of technology, in a way that preserves them. The concept, popularized in the 1990s by the United Nations Environment Programme, is based on a free market economy in which natural resources are considered capital. As profits depend in part on protecting the environment, nature is treated as a commodity that needs to be restored after being exploited for economic growth. The result is an accounting cycle of checks and balances.
Some argue that natural resources are limited, so the economy will inevitably face scarcity. In this regard, Heather Rogers explains that as resources become scarcer and therefore more expensive, all companies will have to figure out how to do more with less. According to green capitalism, the silver lining is that using fewer resources – energy, raw materials, water – is good for the planet but also for profits. The less a business spends on inputs and the more efficiently it operates, the higher its margins. Additionally, those who have switched to environmentally friendly methods will be ready to defeat their less environmentally friendly competitors when disaster strikes.
Architecture based on eco-capitalism materialized through environmentally conscious strategies such as the use of local raw materials, often combined with the return and enhancement of vernacular techniques. As mentioned in this article, the natural elements have reached a new level in which the awareness of the vulnerability of natural resources, as well as the imminence of an irreversible climate crisis, has become a privilege. Materials such as straw, rammed earth and bamboo are incorporated into projects at different scales. In addition to natural and locally sourced materials, another form of materialization of this term is present in the architecture of the cradle-to-cradle concept. In these constructions, a circular life cycle is promoted, with possibilities of modification and application that also value the use of recycled and recovered elements, aimed at reducing the carbon incorporated in the materials.
Another issue tackled by the architects is biomimicry – a technology-oriented design action that seeks solutions in nature, going beyond simply reproducing its forms. It is established by a thorough understanding of the rules that govern it. The Elytra Filament pavilion is an example. It was made of carbon fiber woven by a robotic arm and was inspired by construction principles found in nature, specifically “the fibrous structures of the wing shells of flying beetles, known as elytra“.
Of course, several strategies today combine technology and environmental concern, going beyond the simple imitation of nature, and offering technologically mediated access to fresh air, sunlight and gardens. In this sense, the models favored by the premises of environmental sustainability and energy efficiency certifications have become very popular. They are also highly criticized, because we know that, more than measuring indices and achieving certain rates, it is essential to consider the processes used in the construction of buildings and the socio-economic context in which they are located.
Eco-capitalism applied to architecture has gained traction as more and more people want to understand processes and know where materials come from and how they are made. Moreover, this model does not call into question the current political and economic system. Its nature is non-threatening, which makes it more palatable to political and business leaders. In other words, it shows us that we don’t need a slow growing or non-growing economy to save the planet.
However, there are still many challenges and controversies to be addressed for this model to be truly effective. In his recently published book The value of a whale: on the illusions of green capitalism, Adrienne Buller, research director at UK think tank Common Wealth, argues that eco-capitalism assumes that climate change is a “market failure” and should be treated as such, internalizing the cost of emissions or environmental damage in the market itself. For this, a “price” must be reached – the price of carbon, for example. The book begins with a discussion of how to assign a monetary value to a whale, given its conservation. Cost-benefit analyzes do not necessarily include things of intrinsic social or spiritual value, which hampers this type of analysis.
Many theorists argue that eco-capitalism is just a new guise of capitalism and that its practices are closer to greenwashing than true sustainability. They only serve as a disguise to continue exploiting natural resources. Despite its precepts, this approach still does not propose a limit to economic growth and, therefore, it is impossible to be sustainable.
Either way, no matter how effective, it’s important to pay attention to what is being sold as green architecture and what is really about the entire production chain and workforce. Much progress remains to be seen in the construction industry, but significant initiatives, whether through new technologies or a return to the vernacular, are slowly showing that there can be architectural models that push people and planet before profit.