Robert Engelman is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organisation based in Washington, D.C. He originally joined Worldwatch as vice president for programmes and was named president in 2011. A former newspaper reporter specialising in science and the environment, Engelman has served on the faculty of Yale University as a visiting lecturer and was founding secretary of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is the author of the 2008 book More:Population, Nature, and What Women Want, and his writing has appeared in scholarly and news media including Nature, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. FuturArc editor-in-chief, Dr Nirmal Kishnani, caught up with Engelman at the World Sustainable Building Conference in Barcelona where he had made a keynote presentation.
NK: You said in your keynote that we can’t have sustainable buildings in an unsustainable world, that the question of sustainability is driven by bigger things like population growth.
RE: Sustainable is now an adjective in front of so many words that I often joke that I’m wearing my sustainable socks. Everything now, because of the corporate misuse of the word, is sustainable. I think we have to accept and acknowledge that the world is not sustainable. We certainly don’t have sustainable population growth. The physical world is a finite world. It’s one sphere. There’s (only) so much that innovation can do; technology can extend the boundaries of the economy but it doesn’t change the fundamental, physical nature of the world. There is so much mass, so much water, so much sunlight, so much carbon. We cannot live the way we’re currently living, to grow our economies and our population indefinitely. Something has to give. And so when we talk about sustainable building, it’s almost a non sequitur; it’s almost an impossibility. I don’t like to say that too strongly because it sounds so discouraging. Sustainable is possible (only if) we start working now in multiple sectors, one of which is building—all effectively at the same time, starting as soon as possible. Because, as I noted in my presentation, we’ve all but run out of time.
NK: So much of what’s said at conferences is really about incremental change, which seems to suggest that if we just make that 30 percent reduction in energy use, we’ll be OK. But you spoke about the exponential trajectory of increasing population on the planet who all want a better quality of life. If we keep this up, there’s simply no answer.
RE: We have to stop growing. And that applies more to the developed world than the developing world. The developed world (needs) to stabilise its population. It’s ridiculous that Singapore for example is promoting continued high fertility. It’s one of the best things about Singapore that women aren’t having many children. With all due respect—I don’t know how you feel about that—but Singapore like Japan could become a leader in a direction that population really needs to go. For every less person in the population there is more room for the rest of the world to consume, without hitting boundaries of sustainability. The other side is consumption. Consumption cannot grow in total in the developed countries, at least in the sense of natural resource use and disposal, because we’re using up all the space that the poor will need for their own reasonable aspirations of development. There’s actually a ‘de-growth’ movement that suggests that perpetual economic growth has to stop, particularly in developed countries. We are obsessed with economic growth. But at least in the developed world, most of us already have enough. Even in developing countries there are many people who have enough. We just really need to distribute it better. We have to find ways to consume dramatically less in the developed world. It’s a very tall order yet this is what we should be talking about. When you think about the implications of this, you almost laugh at the politicians who say we’re not growing fast enough. My god, if Germany and the United States have to keep growing, there’s no hope for equity in the developed and developing worlds while moving to environmentally sustainable and climate-compatible societies.