January 31, 2023
With each day we climb further into the 21st Century, it becomes a less and less controversial proposition: the Earth is sick. Of course, depending on which region of the U.S. you live in, members of your community, artists, educators, politicians, and industry leaders have been sounding the environmental alarm for years, eliciting widespread agreement that there is a problem, and something needs to be done.
Texas is not one of those regions. But where mentioning climate change used to make my friends and family in North Texas scoff, it now elicits helpless shrugs, resigned sighs, and reluctant but grave nods. And it’s no wonder. With wildfires devastating the forests of California and Colorado at an unprecedented pace, when the hint of an oncoming freeze makes Texans across the state shiver at the memory of how close we were to the complete meltdown of our power grid during the snowpocalypse of 2021, it’s hard for even the staunchest environmental skeptics to say that nothing is happening, or that humans have no hand in the destructive changes we are daily witnessing across the globe.
There are other, less anecdotal signs of change in Austin. Elon Musk’s public personality may be less than inspiring, but Tesla’s growing influence in the city, both in terms of business presence and the number of electric cars on the road, is evidence of a paradigm shift. That there is now a competitive market for electric vehicles, that Austin is home to over 600 charging stations (1), is concrete evidence that private citizens are not waiting on the ineffective gears of government to subsidize sustainable industry or alternative energy––they’re taking matters into their own hands. But it’s not enough. Those wildfires are still burning. Glaciers are still melting. Sea levels are still rising. Carbon emissions reductions present a path to alleviating these problems, but the Supreme Court won’t get out of the EPA’s way (2). The potential devastation on the horizon of the coming decades is almost unimaginable.
So what do we do?
According to the late Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, one solution might be to do…nothing. Not “do nothing” as in “stay the course” or “let your habits progress and attitudes fester unchecked, as if there’s not a problem to be solved” but literally, do nothing.
Most of the things we do and produce in modern culture emit carbon. When you drive to the coffee shop, your car emits carbon into the atmosphere. When the disposable cup your coffee comes in was manufactured, that process emitted carbon into the atmosphere. The process that prepped and roasted the beans your coffee was brewed from, even the brewing process itself––all of these activities require energy, and chances are the majority of that energy was not sustainably sourced. Sure, you could bring your own tumbler. Drive to the coffee shop in an electric car. Drink coffee only from shops that are committed to sustainable practices. And all of this might reduce your carbon footprint.
Even more effective, though, would be to do nothing. As Hanh says, “...our addiction to consumerism, to buying and consuming things we don’t need, is causing so much stress, so much suffering, both to ourselves and to the Earth” (3). If you consume less, if you do less, if you get comfortable with doing, buying, and owning less, your life becomes inherently more sustainable.
In the U.S., where our culture and economic stability are so rooted in consumerism, ideas like these are viewed as radical, even dangerous. In a recent interview with longtime environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben, New York Times podcast host Ezra Klein notes that calls for the responsible, conscientious growth of the human species––rather than perpetuating the myth that, on a planet with finite space and resources, we can grow infinitely––are often seen as a kind of climate austerity (4).
Certainly the concept of doing nothing, or even simply doing less, can be taken to such extremes. In that same interview, Klein reminds McKibben that he once advocated for having fewer children in the name of environmentalism––a mandate likely to feel unreasonable, unjust, or even oppressive, across cultures. But McKibben also explains that he’s since backed off that position, understanding that significant reductions in consumption will need to happen over the course of decades, and that instead of placing limits on our innate desires to thrive and have families, they will take the form of changes in the ways we produce energy (4).
It's worth noting, too, that Buddhism––where mindfulness, meditation, and Hanh's suggestion of doing nothing flows from––is at its core a tradition that seeks out middle ways, midpoints between extremes. Buddhist monks may strive to embody the strictest standard of self-control, but like most major systems of philosophy, ethics, and religion, Buddhism encourages moderation in its practitioners, and views it as a virtue.
So did Hanh. Engaged Buddhism, the movement he founded, doesn’t advocate for seeking enlightenment in seclusion; rather, it’s rooted in a belief that we ought to practice mindfulness in our every action and interaction, out in the world. As he once famously wrote in a letter to his friend during the Vietnam War, “When you’re washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. When you’re using the toilet, let that be the most important thing in your life” (5).
It follows that Hanh’s call to do nothing is not rooted in self-denial, or any severe brand of asceticism, but something gentler: meditation. “We tend to think that we have to do something to heal the Earth,” he writes. “But sitting with mindfulness and concentration is doing something. We don’t have to fight in order to feel the benefits of sitting. Just allow yourself to sit quietly. Allow yourself to be yourself. Don’t do anything” (3).
Meditation can mean different things to different people––and it follows that so can doing nothing. Reading, writing, painting, or walking might be your form of doing nothing, your way of relaxing that consumes next to no resources. Or maybe, as our Director of Architecture Josh Carel suggested, you prefer gathering with family and friends, enjoying their conversation, or simply being in their presence. There are so many ways, in our chronically disconnected world, to turn away from the screens and advertisements that are insisting we should be somewhere else, doing something else, buying something else, and instead turn toward ourselves and the people we love.
“Just allow the sitting and the breathing to take place,” Hanh continues. “Don’t strive; relaxation will come. When you are completely relaxed, healing will take place on its own. There’s no healing without relaxation. And relaxation means doing nothing. There is only breathing and sitting. Don’t try to force your breathing. Just allow it to follow its natural rhythm. We just enjoy our in- and out-breath. Healing begins when you aren’t trying to do anything. This is the practice of non-practice” (3).
Of course, Plural’s practice is one of doing, and making. Our designs specify how the Earth’s resources will be reorganized and repurposed into new structures that exist within the built environment. How environmentalists like ourselves balance the mandate to do less, to generate less waste, to emit less carbon, while also performing our function within the Austin, Texas, and national communities is a question fraught with tension.
Still, we are committed to finding creative ways to answer it. We design with Passive House Principles (6) in mind, for one, and as our Director of Design Adelle York put it, "Good design in general can promote doing nothing. Having a relaxing reading nook with a well-placed window or a gathering space that is just intimate enough for larger gatherings are ways that thoughtful design might encourage these moments, might prompt us to breathe a little deeper, gaze a little longer, or stay a little later." In our personal lives, too, we seek fulfilling ways of doing nothing, taking advantage of the abundance of outdoor activities Austin has to offer, like hiking, paddle boarding on Town Lake, playing soccer and basketball, and cycling the city’s network of trails. We also all are artists and creators in one form or another, and though the things we create from nothing, be they words, melodies, or images, may require materials to generate, they also require a great deal of concentration and, viewed through a certain lens, meditation.
Hanh’s legacy is vast. He was exiled from his home country of Vietnam for voicing opposition to the war happening there in the ’60s. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize. He published over 130 books that have sold millions of copies worldwide. He died at the beginning of 2021, but his message still resonates, and it has something to say to the building industry. Building new residences and businesses, no matter how green, is very much doing something. But in the process of doing, we can keep our eyes open for opportunities to leave existing structures (7) and abandoned land (8) alone. We can think, we can be creative, and we can write. Long-form articles may technically be a type of marketing material, but this journal, Perspectives, is a platform for reflection and exploration, a place where we can encourage the investigation and discussion of ideas that don’t have obvious revenue generating potential.
A space for doing nothing.
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