The Road to Ecologically Sustainable Design and the Sacred Space Paradox
Posted by Plish on July 8, 2010
We set things apart for special use all the time. We keep a special set of plates and silverware for special occasions. We give those utensils and plates extra special treatment, washing them in special ways, storing them in extra safe locations, being extra careful not to break or chip them.
On the other hand, the every day stuff we’re more careless with. We clean the stuff using everyday cleaning methods, and if we break something, it’s okay because we can always replace it.
There are two different mindsets at work. In the former case we’re elevating objects to the level of being sacred. We’re acknowledging that these objects are special, perhaps even holy. In the latter, there is a sense of mundaneness – we could say that the objects are profane. (Anthropologically speaking, sacred/profane is not equal to good/evil. Sacred/profane can be good/bad, bad/good, etc.)
Just like we reserve a set of dinnerware for special purposes, it’s been a common practice over the course of the last century or so, for governments to set aside chunks of land and designate them as preserves, as land set aside for a special purpose, as ‘sacred’ land. While this is usually viewed in a positive light, and it has undoubtedly saved land from misuse and abuse, it has an interesting side effect.
Just as having the dichotomy between special and everyday dinnerware creates two sets of rules in how the dinnerware gets treated, so too, creating nature preserves as separate sacred entities fosters two sets of rules in dealing with the environment.
The two rules are, “Do what you want outside the preserves as long as you try and minimize your impact on others and the world, but inside the preserves nothing is allowed except appreciation and minimal interference.”
The preserves are disconnected from the greater whole and are treated as closed, ‘sacred’ systems. The rest of the world is viewed by default, not as “sacred” per se, but as profane. Oh sure, people try to be eco-friendly, but we’re willing to stretch the rules a little bit because after all, we’re not in the middle of a preserve like the Grand Canyon. Admit it, when you see a cup lying in the gutter of a city it usually doesn’t create the same visceral reaction as seeing the same cup floating down a river, does it?
And that’s the problem.
While the idea of setting aside preserves is indeed noble and well intentioned, is this really what we want? Wouldn’t it be better if every part of the world was treated as sacred space? How might a city be different if it treated its ecosystem as sacred as opposed to excusing it by saying, “It’s a city. It’s okay if it alters the landscape and water absorption and wind patterns.” Instead, if everything was seen as sacred, manufacturing and water purification processes would be designed with the goal of putting water back into the environment at equal or better quality than what they started with!
This phenomenon isn’t only present on the macro level. It’s present on the micro-level as well, as hospitals operate according to this dichotomy of sacred and profane.
Microbes have been given a preserve outside the walls of the hospital, they are set apart for special treatment. But, like a coyote that wanders into a downtown store and is subdued and relocated, if microbes come into the hospitals they are subdued and preferably eradicated.
…what if this dichotomy didn’t exist?
If hospitals viewed the world inside and outside their walls as equally sacred, they wouldn’t focus on creating the ultimate “sterile” environment indoors. Instead, they would focus on creating a healthy indoor environment – a symbiotic environment in which good microbes kept the bad in check!
The good news is that it looks like times are slowly changing. While governments continue their crusades to legislate greener, there is a groundswell of people recognizing the ramifications of the environmental sacred/profane paradox. They might not have a name for it, but there is an innate feeling that two sets of rules for one giant ecosystem isn’t going to cut it.
I look forward to the day when people truly act as noble stewards of this planet and governments can thus remove the protected, sacred status for various lands and waters.
But people are already beginning to realize that real change doesn’t start because of government action, it starts at the grassroots level.
It’s simple really.
Ecologically sustainable design won’t blossom until we do.