• Ethan Olson

Bjarke Ingels, I’m Tired of Your Eco-Porn

We Can’t Innovate Our Way Out of This.


BY ETHAN OLSON

Art by Momei Fang


This is an article born out of rage, frustration, and palm-to-forehead-smacking disappointment. So let’s cut to the chase: WE CANNOT INNOVATE OUR WAY OUT OF THE CLIMATE CRISIS.


Now, what important and mind-boggling message am I trying to send with those intense capital letters? Is it something profound, something cutting-edge, something avant garde? No, it’s none of those things. And that’s the point.


Many people, particularly those that occupy modern society’s affluent class of tech-entrepreneurs, corporate billionaires, and design executives, seem to believe that we can stop climate change through sheer technological ingenuity alone. For this group of wildly wealthy and ambitious moguls, the answers to our climate woes lie in advancements that are new and advanced. Billionaires such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, for example, tout the potential of electric vehicles and carbon capture technologies to steer humanity out of its fossil fuel-induced mess. The problem with relying on these types of advancements, of course, is the obliviousness of these proposals to the root of the problem itself. These innovations may help in lowering the quantity of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, but they do nothing to counter the mechanisms that uphold the exploitative socio-economic system responsible for anthropogenic warming. Furthermore, certain technologies can have the unintended consequence of enabling people to continue using fossil fuels without changing their lifestyles, betting the future of the planet on some carbon sequestration technology that will “make up” for years of emission-intensive behavior.


The climate change initiatives led by Musk, Gates, and just about every other high-profile billionaire on this planet today - which will, undoubtedly do good things, even if misleading about their role in creating a truly sustainable society - pale in comparison, however, to the latest proposal by former Walmart e-commerce CEO Marc Lore and Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels. Together, the two plan on creating “Telosa” — a brand new city in the American west that will be home to 5 million people and stand on 150,000 acres of land. Renderings of the city feature luxurious promenades, high-tech transportation modules, flying drones, buildings ripe and ready for hip startups to brainstorm in, and lush greenery amidst a desert ecosystem.


Image Courtesy of Big-Bjarke Ingels Group and Bucharest Studio


Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG are arguably the most famous within the field of architecture currently, garnering worldwide acclaim through their bold, creative designs. Despite good intention, they are also prone to serious cases of greenwashing.


It is no surprise then that Telosa is a proposal that combines both of these tendencies - it is, quite literally, a colossal city that is painted green. From a sustainability standpoint, little of this vast oasis makes any sense. Upon completion, the team behind the project promises a city largely powered off of renewable energy. However, the amount of fossil fuels required to power construction equipment, transport building materials to what will likely be an isolated location, and power the factories that create these materials is practically immeasurable with a scale so gargantuan. Those are just the concerns with construction. There is also the question of environmental impact and resilience. As the Western United States grapples with a drought of historic proportions, the rationale behind placing a city in one of this region’s driest localities is difficult to understand.


But the biggest question is this: if Marc Lore and Bjarke Ingels really care about protecting the future of our planet, then why don’t they focus their attention on cities that already exist? Buildings and transportation account for 61% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Retrofitting these systems to make them more energy efficient, rather than installing thousands of fancy prototypes in some empty patch of desert, is what will accelerate the world’s transition to decarbonization. Adding better insulation, upgrading HVAC systems, and installing high-performance windows to structures that already exist; creating higher-density housing near transit centers; and expanding public transportation within urban agglomerations are the solutions that will mitigate climate change, even though these solutions are less glamorous than masterplanning a shimmering ecotopia. Investing in our current urban spaces — adding on to them, replacing particular components, reusing their materials, repurposing certain areas — is almost always a more sustainable option than building something from the ground up. It is why Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, said: “The greenest building is the one that already exists.”


Conceptually, Telosa is delusional. Equally as troubling, however, is the language used by Lore and Ingels to describe their vision for the new city. Symbolic of tech billionaires’ ardent belief that private companies can steer the planet into a sustainable future through the magic of technological innovation, Lore coined the term “equitism” — a combination of “equity” and “capitalism” (and thus, also an oxymoron) — to describe the ideology of the new city. The project website asks readers to imagine a “community endowment focused on improving the quality of life for all citizens,” funded through the appreciation in property values over time as the city becomes a more desirable place to live.


“Equitism is a new economic model based on the premise that citizens should have a stake in the land and as the city does better, the residents do better. It retains the same system of Capitalism but with an additional funding mechanism for enhanced services — through the land. With Equitism, we will create a much higher-level of social services offered to residents, without additional burdens on taxpayers.”


In one sentence, Telosa claims to create a new economic model for society. In the next, it rebukes this claim, essentially applauding capitalism by implying that it has the ability to be the perfect system for a utopian city, if only one thing — a “funding mechanism” — is added. All of the bad things about capitalism, including overconsumption, exploitation, environmental externalities, vast wealth inequality, and unstable economic cycles, will supposedly fade away when you add one additional cog to the industrial machine. And of course, taxes are not a concern in a city designed by a member of the billionaire class (avoiding taxes tends to be their forte).


While advertising for the city paints it as an escape from the poor social safety nets of modern America and the real estate-oriented nature of urban development, people who take a second glance at the proposal will quickly realize that it is more or less an attempt to continue the same set of unsustainable systems under the guise of an eco-loving, people-powered paradise. In reality though, we should call it out for what it is: a city master planned by a tiny, select group of individuals (not the communities that will inhabit it), and one that will add vast quantities of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, accelerating our transition into a warmer future that Telosa’s founders claim to be fighting against.


Telosa will cost $400 billion. That’s money that could go into funding the retrofitting of our existing cities to make buildings more energy efficient, installing high speed rail across the country, and constructing high density housing in regions that actually need it. It is no surprise that a billionaire like Lore would not want to spend his ridiculous amounts of money on these sorts of investments. However, the fact that he and one of the world’s leading architects are constructing a new city that will inevitably put more stress on our environmental systems, and then have the audacity to label their enterprise as one emboldened by a desire to create “a more equitable and sustainable future” feels like spit in the face. The tower that sits in the center of the city — appropriately named Equitism itself — is the symbolic pinnacle of this self-absorbed, ludicrous proposition. It seems to say: “This is how far we will go to not change. We will abandon our cities and construct new ones. We will spend billions of dollars on beautiful buildings, parks, and boulevards. But we will never let go of the system that gives us this power.”


Image Courtesy of Big-Bjarke Ingels Group and Bucharest Studio


The purpose of this piece isn’t to say that technological innovation is bad, or that it doesn’t help mitigate climate change. Innovations in carbon sequestration, electric vehicles, building construction, etc. are all good steps in reaching a carbon neutral world. However, they alone are not nearly enough.


To truly address climate change, we need to address the problems at the source. We need to look beyond the emissions themselves and look at the systems that have cornered us into hyper-consumerist, resource-exploitive societies that have little to no awareness of the processes that provide us with goods, energy, and infrastructural services. We need to, in a sense, recenter ourselves, not only for the stability of climate, but for a whole host of other contemporary issues as well. For example, young Gen Zers such as myself could benefit from getting off our phones — which have been proven to lead to higher rates of anxiety and depression — and building a better connection with the environment by working in a community garden. There’s a social/mental benefit (adolescents spending less time on social media to protect their mental health), a climate benefit (growing food at home decreases demand for produce that is imported from agroindustrial farms that emit greenhouse gases), and a spiritual/cultural benefit (young people strengthening their bond with the land and processes of life itself). These issues are prongs that intersect, and it is because of this intersection that simply addressing one of the prongs with technology is an inadequate approach to long-lasting solutions. If you are ridding your garden of a nasty weed, you don’t merely lop off one of its branches and call it a day. You grab the stalk from its base and pull the thing out of the soil, roots and all.


By relying on showy visualizations of hypertech cities, equipped with flashy instruments of a utopian future and glass facades reminiscent of Apple stores in gentrified neighborhoods, Bjarke Ingels — and similar architects who present their unrealistic, grand proposals as solutions for the world’s impending environmental crises — are arguably the least radical designers in the world of architecture. They do not call for systemic change; they call for visual change. Instead of designing interventions in existing places to make them more sustainable, more equitable, and more resilient, they give up. The desert is an easy place to go. It is the closest thing to a blank canvas an urban planner can find. The problems of the old city — the sprawl, the pollution, racial discrimination — these can be avoided simply through design alone. If one genius firm could just masterplan an entire community, of course! Then, things will be okay. No need to end capitalism, no need to stop our exorbitant consumerism, no need to curb our lavish way of life. We can simply abandon the old city and start fresh.


We’ll keep the systems. But don’t worry, the buildings —


They’ll be way nicer.





*Disclaimer: In the interest of being fair, I do believe that Bjarke Ingels and Marc Lore are trying to create a more equitable and sustainable future for the planet with this project. It is my confusion with how they could possibly see this proposal as a way to achieve that future which prompted me to write this piece.


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