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The case for pursuing clean energy through systems thinking

Everything is connected. That is to say, nothing happens in a vacuum. More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle postulated that nature abhors a vacuum. Nature, like all things, work in systems, where everything is connected.

At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, we have celebrated the beauty and importance of the natural world for 125 years and look to it now as inspiration for using systems thinking as a way to help solve the critical challenges that affect us all and provide us with solutions, such as adopting clean energy.

When facing a challenge, we have a tendency to address the symptoms,such as climate change and cancer, rather than the root causes which are often related to our disconnect from nature, our lifestyles and our unsustainable use of natural resources. Addressing symptoms is fragmental and only works in the short-term, as it never corrects the underlying cause. When we strive to understand the interconnectivity of whole living systems, we can appreciate our part within the larger natural and social systems in which we are nested. Only then we can catalyze real and meaningful long-term change.

In her work, regenerative business advocate Carol Sanford describes four paradigms for interacting with the world.

In the extractive model, it is all about "me"; the individual doesn’t care who or what they hurt to get what they want. The world is seen in fragments … there for the taking. This is colonialism.

In the less-bad model, we see a shift in thinking from "me" to "us"; an individual in this paradigm sees the world as fragmented but recognizes the fragments as interconnected and tries to stabilize them. This is where the environmental movement began, as exemplified by the "reduce, reuse, recycle" hierarchy and the first green building certification systems.

The do-good model is also about "us" but recognizes reciprocity; an individual in this model sees the world as fragmented but interconnected and tries to improve it. Some later iterations of green building programs fit this model.

The final paradigm is regenerative. It is about "us," and seeing the world as a whole interconnected system rather than separate fragments. In a regenerative world, individuals move beyond thinking about themselves in isolation to see the larger social and natural systems that we collectively need to survive. This is the paradigm we need to adopt for the long-term health of ourselves and the planet.

When Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens opened in 1893, most people thought there was no limit to the amount of natural resources we could use or the amount of pollution we could produce. In fact, people thought that humans would conquer nature. Our original conservatory is a great example of that type of mindset; a single-paned glass building designed to grow tropical plants in a temperate climate — from an energy perspective, this is one of the least efficient buildings imaginable.

In the 1990s, Phipps endeavored on a multi-phase master plan to renovate and expand the campus. Through each project, starting with building a Welcome Center, we identified the systemic implications of our actions and evolved our approach. We learned about LEED and discovered how much buildings contribute to the amount of energy and water we use and the pollution we produce.

For over a century, we had been talking about the importance of the environment, so why shouldn’t our buildings reflect that ethos?

This thinking informed the next projects in Phipps’ transformation: the Tropical Forest Conservatory, a giant glasshouse that has no greenhouse effect and is 100 percent passively cooled, and LEED Platinum production greenhouses. Next, we built the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) a net-positive energy and net-zero water building. The defining standard for the CSL is the Living Building Challenge, which is systems-based and embraces the idea of regenerative thinking. The CSL is remarkable, and five years later, it is still the only building in the world to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum, WELL Platinum and 4 Stars Sustainable SITES.

Too often, we focus on first costs and fail to align our actions with our values. Take the CSL for example: It cost about 20 percent more than a cheap big-box type of building and not much more than a typical office building; however, it is a much healthier place to work and, in the long run, it will last longer. It uses only a quarter of the energy of a building of comparable size and it generates all the energy it needs onsite without any combustion. It also frees us from the uncertainty of the market, easily outperforming a conventional building in the long run.

We recognize that we operate within living, dynamic, nested systems and that we make reciprocal, mutually beneficial interactions with the larger and lesser systems in which we are nested every day.

When we strive to understand the interconnectivity of whole living systems, we can appreciate our part within the larger natural and social systems in which we are nested.
This systems-based way of thinking is used to review and design all of our projects, programming and operations. From adopting 100 percent renewable energy campus-wide in 2005 to defining new, socially responsible investment guidelines last year, Phipps is committed to understanding our role in nature and in developing the capacity in everyone we reach to make sustainability a defining component of their lives.

We will not conquer nature. Even if we could, it would be self-defeating, considering human and ecological health are one and the same. We must rethink the status quo and change.

It is not a technology problem and it is not a cost problem; we have the ability and means to solve many of our human and ecological health problems today. We have the capacity, but it is a question of whether we have the will to move beyond short-term symptomatic thinking and do what we know is right. From 2005 to 2016, Phipps reduced carbon dioxide emissions from our buildings by 56 percent per square foot, twice as much and twice as fast as the Paris Climate agreement. 

When we have the focus and will to lead the way through regenerative systems thinking, our actions will provide a healthier planet for ourselves and all of the other species that share it.

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