Opposing Forces

Lessons in sustainability one day, conspicuous consumption the next: Where do our kids find themselves in this confusing world?

It’s surprisingly warm on the last weekend of February. We gather early Saturday—a group of architects, an interior designer, a builder, public school teachers, community activists, and college students—in a windowless classroom that has no connection with the warm sunshine we’ve yearned for during the hard cold days of winter. What we have is the drone of the air-circulation mechanism, a constant reminder that we’re in a modern building; this one is a tower added to the old B. Altman department store nearly a century after it was built with generous windows onto Fifth Avenue.

Now the former emporium is home to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which also hosts public education programs. The one we’re attending is the first of a series organized by the Sustainability Education Center, led by its energetic founder, Jaimie Cloud, an educator who helps develop curricula for public schools as well as programs for professionals. I am here to learn and to present a case study on sustainable architecture. The room we’re in is a glaring example of unsustainable architecture; it’s the kind of ubiquitous twentieth-century place (or product) that distances our species from the life forces of our planet.

In this disconnected room, as in many others like it everywhere, teachers talk about how isolated the kids are from their world and how depressed many of them feel. But only a few of these instructors notice the alienating features of the buildings and rooms they occupy. During the day we look at charts of how the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and our quality of life, as measured by the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator), diverge from one another. Since the late 1970s the GPI has been in decline, while the GDP is steadily rising. No one comments on this disparity.

On Sunday I experience the GDP in action while visiting the new Time Warner Center, on Columbus Circle, a sleek mall at the southwestern tip of Central Park. As we walk toward the glistening glass towers, my young friend asks if people will live there. “Yes,” I say. “I read somewhere that a duplex penthouse sold for some forty-three million dollars.” She wonders, “And for that kind of money, they don’t mind if they can’t open the windows and let in the fresh air of a lovely day like today?”

As we join the hundreds who amble though the shiny marble-clad atrium with its many upscale shops, I remember those disaffected American children, unhappy among their many worldly goods. And I desperately hope that Jaimie Cloud, supported by architects and designers who make places that connect our species to earth and sky, will help the children find new meaning in life by learning how necessary they are to figuring out how to live lightly on our fragile blue-green planet.

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