Rising seas

The current exhibition at the Wooster art gallery focuses on work by LTL architects, some of which was designed to address a problem:  the rising sea levels projected to result from global climate change. Another exhibit is an installation of a video by Finnish performance Antti Laitinen, who repeatedly builds his own island by dragging sandbags into the sea (which the sea then destroys). Given this thematic overlap, a roundtable discussion was organized last Thursday to present multiple perspectives on changes in sea level. We heard about the distinctive chemistry of water, evidence for previous changes in sea level, and speculation about what the near-term future might bring, from Dr. Melissa Schultz in chemistry and from Dr. Greg Wiles and Sarah Appleton ’12 (taking time out from working on her Independent Study!) in geology. From my behavioral science perspective, two important issues came to the forefront.

First, what is the impact on people?  Rising seas are already having an impact, displacing some coastal communities (e.g. in Alaska), and threatening many more.  People in low-lying islands are being forced to relocate.  It’s easy to underestimate the grief that people can feel at the loss of their home, or anxiety at its vulnerability.  Broader effects are felt by societies as a whole scale when entire communities have to move, abandoning their regular habits and ways of life and threatening their cultural traditions.  It’s important to remember that climate change is not an equal-opportunity disaster. Some people and groups are affected more than others; usually, of course, those who were poorest and most vulnerable to begin with.

The second issue is one that we all need to consider:  given the changing climate, how can we best adapt?  This was the goal of LTL architects’ design for an oceanfront setting in New York City. Architecture has an important role to play in confronting climate change, not only through designs that minimize the use of natural resources (as reflected in LEED certification, like our new Scot Center), but also through designs that anticipate the changing landscapes we might see in the future : High tides, more rain, less rain, different temperatures. Really innovative designs can encourage people to think about the landscape they inhabit and how to live more harmoniously within that landscape.

Buildings have always adapted to their settings, through things like thick walls, south-facing windows, slanted roofs, and deep porches. The spread of central heating and airconditioning has led to a lot of buildings that don’t fit where they are. But consciousness of place is important for buildings as well as for people. We can’t live sustainably  — especially in a changing climate — without thinking about where we are living.

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