The curious case of the conscious carbon

Posted 4/17/24

Editor’s note: In the following excerpt, from “Build Beyond Zero: New Ideas for Carbon Smart Architecture” ©2022, co-authors Bruce King and Chris Magwood take a break from …

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The curious case of the conscious carbon


Editor’s note: In the following excerpt, from “Build Beyond Zero: New Ideas for Carbon Smart Architecture” ©2022, co-authors Bruce King and Chris Magwood take a break from discussing the science of buildings to examining the foundations of our belief systems. It’s an attempt to open up possibilities and a more thoughtful examination of the world around us. It is reprinted with permission.

It’s worth examining your myths, and it’s also worth examining the examiner.

As you face any task, it’s good to know your tools. Ask any chef or carpenter or surgeon. Yet most of us get up and start our day without checking the one tool that we all use. It goes by many names; let’s just call it awareness. You’ve always had it (if “had” is the right word), but have you ever examined it? Just in case you never have before, give it a shot: Take a moment and let awareness look at awareness. There’s nothing stopping you, and you don’t need any tools or training—although there are rich and lovely traditions for just this purpose all over the world going back to before recorded history. You’re already fully equipped for the task, because what you are looking at is what you are looking with.

To be clear, we’re not talking about studying the most complex of all known objects, the brain. There are plenty of exciting developments in neuroscience, but you and I and most people probably can’t fully appreciate them. We can appreciate advances in cognitive science that bring to light the many biases that all humans have, which deeply affect how we see and act in the world. Indeed, we live in an exhilarating time of scientific inquiry in which we’re discovering astonishing things every day about distant galaxies, deep history, and the micro communities of life in ocean, soil and our bodies. We’re getting new insight into such everyday things as space, time, thinking, and breathing—how the movement of air in and out of our bodies is so crucial not just to survival but to health. Your body, like the Earth, depends on a healthy flow of various gasses in ways much more complex than it might seem and on maintaining just the right level of our old friend carbon dioxide. Everything is very much connected.

But we’re not here inviting you to study science as much as we’re inviting you to look at looking. It’s not a question to be answered—there is no “answer”—it’s more like an invitation to an inquiry to take up anytime, anywhere, regardless of circumstances. You might be happy or sad, man or woman, rich or poor, Black or White, doesn’t matter at all. But you are aware, so let awareness look at awareness, see where it takes you. A host of questions can arise: How much awareness do I have? What are the boundaries? Are there any? Where does my awareness end and yours begin? And so on.

This has nothing to do with concrete or buildings or climate, yet it has everything to do with everything. We offer this invitation not as a minor aside but as another fundament to this book (and many other things), as we live in an age when awareness, or more specifically attention, is the currency of the realm. Tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Facebook make their fortunes mainly by capturing and holding your attention, then selling it along with the data that accompany it. The better I am at grabbing and holding your attention, the more money I can make. Most of the time you’re online, especially if you’re availing yourself of “free” stuff, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. If only for that reason—though there are plenty of others—it seems worth a bit of, well, attention.

Let awareness settle on awareness, see what happens. The great physicist Richard Feynman remarked, “I’d rather have a question that can’t be answered than an answer that can’t be questioned.” Or, as Einstein said, the mindset that got us into the troubles we’re in today is not the mindset that will get us out, so it behooves us to take a look—a look at looking.

conscious, carbon, sustainability, Build Beyond Zero, New Ideas for Carbon Smart Architecture


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