On November 3rd I had the opportunity to speak at the United Nations in New York to incoming students at Parsons School of Design as part of a field trip organized for a class called Sustainable Systems. Conscious that I hold little expertise on the subject of sustainable design, I decided to share the story of my experience as a student and how it has fundamentally changed my perspective on the future. Here’s an edited excerpt of that talk – Project 1324 Ambassador Finn Harries
When I moved to New York from London two years ago to begin studying architecture, I came with a set of pre-conceived ideas of the kind of design projects that I would be working on. What I didn’t anticipate was the experience I had during one of my first classes called Sustainable Systems. Although I had grown up learning about climate change, I had successfully pushed it to the back of my mind. It is such an overwhelming problem that I had taken the fail-safe approach of putting my head firmly in the sand. Yet there I was at the beginning of my design education and the first assignment I was given was to propose a system that would help protect a city from rising sea levels. It was a really sobering moment.
This, coupled with the articles we were given to read by prominent environmentalist and theorists, became a catalyst that kicked me into action. I became hungry to gain a better understanding of what was causing our climate to change and more importantly what I as an individual could do to make a positive difference. I started by downloading documentaries, I signed up to follow environmental organizations and I did my best to digest books on the science and politics behind climate change.
What I learnt terrified me. Firstly, it is not just ‘the environment’ that is at stake here. It is every human being and living species we share this planet with. No matter what happens to our climate, it is safe to assume the planet will be here – it is humans who may not.
Secondly, this is no longer a problem that may occur in the future. It is here right now. Our generation will be dealing with the consequences of a warmer climate for the rest of our lives. The truth is we have become complacent. Burning through incomprehensible amounts of non-finite energy, blinded by an almost obsessive drive for greater production and consumption.
However the good news is the scale and the immediacy of the problems we face today present a really unique opportunity for change. As humans we are innovative and we are adaptive. We are able to recognize and rectify our mistakes.
This is not the first time we have grossly exploited natural resources in the name of the economy. In fact throughout history there are many great examples where generations before us have worked together to either dismantle or improve archaic and antiquated systems of living.
Not long after that first Sustainable Systems class, I found a link online for one of Al Gore’s climate leadership camps. It was a weekend long program held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The goal was to give participants an in-depth understanding of the problem and equip them with the tools they needed to be a leader within their community. Without a second thought I signed up.
What I saw and learnt during that weekend blew me away. I met attendees as young as 12 who had persuaded their parents and teachers to take them.
I learnt about Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the 16-year old campaigner from Colorado who is suing his government for environmental damages. He spoke at the U.N last year and he works as the truth director of his organization: Earth Guardians.
I learnt about Boyan Slat, the 21-year-old environmentalist and inventor whose design for a system of cleaning plastic waste from the oceans has raised more than $2m in support for his organization, the Ocean Clean Up.
I learnt about Morgan Curtis, a 23-year old environmentalist who was preparing to cycle from Maine to Paris as part of a youth delegation that would join the climate negotiations at the U.N summit.
I left that weekend with newfound optimism. I saw an ambitious generation who was not afraid to tackle the environmental challenges we face. A generation who was eager to educate others and inspire action on a bigger scale than we’ve seen before.
Today we have unprecedented access to information, technology and people. As a result we have a unique opportunity to lay the foundations for a future that embraces renewable technology; a future that democratizes the way we produce and consume energy; a future that encourages sharing and responsible consumerism. The question is: Will we seize the opportunity before it’s too late?
Finn Harries is a Project 1324 Ambassador and an Architecture student at Parsons School of Design. Follow him on Instagram at @FinnHarries.