Greenbuild Mexico keynote sneak peek: How humans fit into the ecosystem

Joe Crea

Greenbuild Mexico, taking place June 18–19 at the Hilton Mexico City Reforma, brings together sustainability leaders and green building professionals from around the Latin American region. Hosted in conjunction with SUMe, the event offers an education program and lineup of environmental visionaries that will give participants valuable insights into the future of the region—and our world.

Closing plenary keynote speaker Dayna Baumeister, Ph.D. and Biomimicry 3.8 co-founder, shared with USGBC her perspective on how humans can better relate to the environment. Attend Greenbuild Mexico to hear more from Baumeister on how we can shift our mindset on building green and preserving ecosystems.

Q&A with Dayna Baumeister, Ph.D.

Talk to us about ecological performance standards and their relationship to the built environment.

An ecological performance standard allows us to ask, “If our built environment could function like the forests and grasslands, could we, in turn, be welcome contributors to, and members of, ecosystems?” For years, sustainable work in buildings has been about substituting out undesirable components or Material A and replacing with a slightly better Chemical B and patting ourselves on the back.

It’s restrictive and not very inspiring. You’re just swapping one evil for something less evil. To create the framing to completely redefine the contributions the built environment makes, to be regenerative and positive and ultimately increase the health and well-being of everyone involved, is far more inspiring for those working on creating inspiring and sustainable projects for our future.

We often refer to the health and well-being of indoor occupants. Are you saying that it’s not just the indoor experience, but the ecosystem, too?

No organism lives in a vacuum. It’s pretty insane for us to think we are somehow a singular species that is not responsible to, and tightly connected with, the ecosystems in which we live. It’s really about us becoming welcome again...This is where the work needs to go. Not just for the future built environment, but we also have a big mess to clean up. Regeneration allows us to reimagine how we approach existing and future built environments. Yes, there’s a self-centered perspective here to some degree; we are saving ourselves, but we’re doing so by also saving other species, as well contributing to the health of the entire system.

How do you build an infrastructure and system for these organisms to go back and forth between these two worlds, in conjunction with humans being the dominant organism in these cities?

What does it look like to have a zone where there’s real opportunity and diversity in both adjacent habitats to interact? How can we design those in a way that are healthy, as opposed to urban, concrete, with no penetration of anything living and then right at the edge, it’s thriving on the outside? It seems fundamentally wrong.

Any time we draw arbitrary lines between nature versus human, it makes us think we aren’t nature. And if we believe we aren’t nature, why should we behave like nature? And if we are not nature, then perhaps we are not subject the laws of natural selection. We will be weeded out of the gene pool, if we don’t figure this out. The more we can integrate this narrative and recognize that we are one of 30 million species, the better. It will take an entirely different framing in terms of how we design our spaces—both on a large landscape and an individual building scale.

You have clear thoughts on what innovation means in the organism world. Can you expand on that?

I would equate evolution to innovation, but it requires an entire supportive system that allows for that. In the built environment, in some ways, there are a lot of perverse system dynamics that preclude innovation. One, of course, is that these projects are almost always—especially in the commercial world—multimillion-dollar projects and one-offs. They are not something we can experiment with over and over again.

Then, there’s this insane phenomena of a multimillion-dollar project that’s expected to last for a century or more, but then we only advocate four weeks of design: “Hurry up and get your design done now for this project that will last 200 years!” We really want to see innovation, but the system around it—whether it be it the financing or the timetable, or where we’re willing to invest in opportunities—really precludes this.

As a result, much of the built environment is just regurgitating the old, because it’s risk-averse. The irony is massive changes are taking place in the world around us. The old system of buildings is far riskier than if we were to embrace innovative approaches...A building that can’t handle big changes, whether its storm or water scarcity or system management or energy dynamics, because they didn’t build in that kind of resiliency into the system—to me, that’s a really high-risk endeavor.

Does the increase in storms and natural disasters serve as a potential catalyst for this type of intervention in buildings?

I hope so, and the one place it will come from is insurers and reinsurers: “Hey, I’m not actually going to insure your building for disasters unless you start designing and anticipating this.” When you can’t get insurance on your multimillion dollar building, you start thinking differently. Climate dialogue is starting to take place in the conservative insurance industry. But how much risk they are going to take, we don’t know. Now, for reinsurers, well, if they don’t take the risk, it’s all on us. Then the rates are going to go ridiculously high. Everyone is just sitting in different camps, but someone has to bear the risk.

What keeps you up at night, other than the environment?

The environment. That’s everything. It’s the context in which everything matters. I’m so acutely aware that nothing is more important than the context of the planet. It’s remarkable to me how our world has emerged to give us this false sense that we are independent of the environment. We call it the environment, labeling it as if it’s something else that is not part of the human story. I have a Ph.D. in ecology. I know how tightly woven all of this is. That is what keeps me up at night. It influences the future well-being of my children, our families, our communities, our species on the planet. There isn’t anything else I can see in any bit of news that I don’t immediately tie to that larger environmental connection.

"All in" for the environment

USGBC knows that our human relationship with the environment around us is a critical priority. From fighting climate change by reducing carbon emissions to preserving the plants and protecting the animals in our ecosystems, we use rating systems like LEED to encourage a more responsible footprint for humans and resources like our Center for Resilience to promote buildings that mitigate the extreme weather events we now experience.

How can we make even more of a difference? Join us at Greenbuild Mexico to be part of the discussion.

Register for Greenbuild Mexico

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