Can we build a relationship

with Energy?

By William Semple

Visuals by Burak Arikan

December 8, 2016

The Complexity of Interconnectedness

The other day I was thinking about how we in the west use energy in buildings, how we measure that use and why our preoccupation with ‘measuring results’ often seems to make little difference in our overall patterns of use and consumption of energy.  The very form of this discussion revolves around the growing perception of the compelling need to address the issue of climate change and how measurably and significantly reducing our consumption of energy is part of this. Climate Change (and reducing energy consumption) is, of course, a complex issue – a web with many tentacles that reaches off in many directions. This complexity challenges our successes and reminds us, if we wish to acknowledge it, of the great in-connectedness of things.  Considering and emphasizing interconnectedness is a very Buddhist view of reality. It is also a perspective that is held by the Indigenous people of the world.  It is also a scientific reality. In different ways, each of these three perspectives (i.e. Buddhism, Indigenous philosophies and western science) highlight that, in order to understand ‘reality’ it is essential to understand the ‘relationships’ greatly influence the outcomes.

Network of Artists Who Exhibited Together (2010)

But I have wondered if, in trying to solve our issue with energy, have we not in fact looked at the complexity of ‘the energy reality’ and its relationship to economy and society and missed seeing the very perspectives that could assist in taking us to where we want to go?  My own experience has me wondering, ‘Can we build a relationship with energy?’ To begin pursuing this question I think it essential that I share where this question has come from. I am an architect and a building scientist – having entered into the building industry first as a carpenter. I have a strong environmentalist/ecologist bent that has long been a significant aspect of my interest in energy efficient buildings and solar designs. I have learned much about buildings by constructing them and testing how well they work (I am well versed in the use of blower doors, thermographic equipment, as well as the use of energy modelling tools in the design process and the monitoring of performance of houses after construction). In furthering my understanding of how to accurately measure energy use in houses in particular I have listened with great interest to the ongoing debates on measuring energy use that are carried out between what, using research methodology categories, would be called the ‘positivist’ and ‘post-positivist’ schools of thought on this. While the ‘positivist’ believes that you cannot get a true understanding of energy use in a house unless you can control the experiment (i.e. through simulated conditions with no occupants), the ‘post-positivist’ school of thought takes the position that understanding how people live in a building is part the equation and must be included in the analysis. Both I feel, miss an essential point.

It is important that I share that I have learned much about people’s views of the world and how this influences their actions, by spending time looking, listening and ‘being in’ other cultures. In addition to this pragmatic side of myself that I shared, I also have a strong bent towards what is sometimes called ‘cultural anthropology’. I have worked with Tibetan communities in India and Tibet and now work almost exclusively on housing projects for Indigenous communities in northern Canada. And while these experiences have provided enormous technical challenges, it would be fair to say that the cultural experiences and the learning from others has had a far greater influence on my work – now often guiding the process through which this work is carried out.

The idea that the human species needs a different approach to solving our challenging energy and environmental problems is not new, nor is it a notion that I have created. This idea, for example, was a significant part of an open discussion at the International Conference on Sustainable Development that was held at Columbia University in New York in September 2015. Moderated by the eminent economist and sustainability scholar Jeffery Sachs, with key note speakers such as Paul Kigame, the president of Rawanda, the venue provided a high profile discussion on climate change and sustainability, one that was to be followed by significant meetings at the UN in New York on this topic. One of the ‘calls’ of this conference was the need for the human species (read ‘the west’) to experience a ‘paradigm shift’ – that we  require a new way of looking at the world and our place in it. Yet as I listened to these words and the (at times) impassioned pleas that accompanied them, I found myself thinking about the perspectives of many Indigenous peoples – how through their words and the ways of life that they follow, they are living representations of the very sustainability values that we are trying to foster. And yet in this forum in New York, the voices and faces of Indigenous people were significant in their absence – their words, their values and perspectives had been left out of the discussion. Yet it is from Indigenous peoples that I believe we have much to learn on this very issue.

Understanding Indigenous Perspectives 

One of the most significant principles that Indigenous people place value on, is the importance of relationships. Within Indigenous communities, all work, all connections, all that is done is carried out within the context of ‘relationships’. When arriving in a community to work on a project, the first thing that is done is the building of relationships. This marks both the beginning of one’s connection in the community, and places you within the community based on the relationships that you have made. For Indigenous people, reflecting the nature of Indigenous languages, the word ‘relationships’ is more accurately seen as a verb, not a noun – this ‘active’ aspect effectively describing the interactive nature of relationships within an Indigenous context, and with this how relationships cannot be separated from ‘process’ and process cannot be separated from outcome.

It is also important to understand the different relationships that exist within many Indigenous communities and societies – those of the family; of the extended family and the clan; clan to clan relationships; and the relationship that exists with ‘the land’. It is this latter relationship, the relationship with the land, where we of Euro-American culture have the most to learn from. There is a saying amongst the Dene peoples of the Northwest Territories in Canada that ‘The land is our Home. Our home is the land’. This saying reflects the deep relationship that the Dene have with the land.  It is the place of their ancestors, it is where they have hunted and trapped for thousands of years, it the land from where their stories come. It is also the relationship that has sustained and aided the Dene through centuries of colonialism – it is to the land that they could always return to for food and comfort, for spirituality and identity. That the stories of the elders reflect a deep seated relationship with place is not an accident. When Indigenous people speak of the land as home, they speak eloquently about what is a deep seated ‘relationship’.

Tense Series No I (2007)

This connection to the land has helped provide Indigenous people in seeing their actions within a longer term perspective, a standpoint that has not been lost in spite of all that colonialism has imposed upon them. When making decisions, many Indigenous peoples of Canada speak of the need to consider courses of action within the perspective of seven generations – where from the perspective of the present generation, one is compelled to look both back three generations for the lessons and wisdom of the past and ahead three generations to better consider the long term implications of today’s decisions.

The Significance of Listening

I was recently reading some excerpts from the 1970’s Inquiry into the development of the proposed MacKenzie Valley Pipeline in northern Canada – a project to build a natural gas pipeline from the Arctic Circle to northern Alberta. The inquiry, which was considering the impact of the pipeline on Dene lands, was chaired and facilitated by Justice Thomas Berger. In a masterful stroke of sensitivity, Berger visited anyone who wished to speak – listening to them in their homes, community halls and schools. The inquiry sits as perhaps one of the finest examples of ‘listening’ and acting upon the input of Indigenous people that Canada has seen – a very sad commentary on the relationship that Canada has had with its Indigenous people. As stated by Justice Berger:

We Canadians think of ourselves as a northern people, so the future of the North is a matter of concern to all of us. In fact, it is our own appetite for oil and gas and our own patterns of energy consumption that have given rise to proposals to bring oil and gas from the Arctic. It may well be that what happens in the North and to northern peoples will tell what kind of a people we are (Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry Transcript, Volume 49 Page 4767).

There were many moving pieces of testimony by Dene from across the Northwest Territories, but few were forthright as the testimony that Chief Frank T’Seleie of community of Fort Good Hope. Directed towards Bob Blair, president of Foothills Pipeline, the developer of the proposed project, Chief T’Seleie pointedly stated:

I do not envy you, Mr. Blair, I feel sorry for you. Mr. Blair, there is a life and death struggle going on between us, between you and I. Somehow in your carpeted boardrooms, in your panelled office, you are plotting to take away from me the very centre of my existence. You are stealing my soul. … By scheming to torture my land you are torturing me. By plotting to invade my land you are invading me. If you ever dig a trench through my land, you are cutting through me.

You are like the Pentagon, Mr. Blair, planning the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese. Don’t tell me you are not responsible for the destruction of my nation. You are directly responsible. You are the twentieth century General Custer. You have come to destroy the Dene Nation. You are coming with your troops to slaughter us and steal land that is rightfully ours. You are coming to destroy a people that have a history of thirty thousand years. Why? For twenty years of gas? Are you really that insane?

It would appear that we are that insane. While the MacKenzie Valley pipeline did not go ahead, countless other projects across the globe have been implemented through an economic system driven by 6 month timelines and a cost benefit system that has little appreciation of anything other than short term economics.

Antakya Biennial Artist Network (2010)

Perspectives of the Land

In Canada and in other parts of the world, during the colonial period and up to today our exploitation of the land was also justified through the concept of ‘terra nullius’, a term that effectively which means ‘empty land’. (Smith, p 115) It is an important term as it is one that was used by colonial powers across the world to take possession of land that was viewed through ‘western eyes’ as being unproductive – and having no ‘productive’ use meant it was open for the taking – that making it ‘productive’ in the western sense gave it a purpose where before it had none. All wilderness fell within this categorization, and in many parts of the world it still does. For the Dene and other Indigenous people the land is not a wilderness, it is their livelihood and their independence.  It is their source for food and energy.  It is their home. It is not a commodity, but rather it is a gift given to them by the creator to cherish and care for. As shared by Patrick Scott in his book ‘Talking Tools’, “The concept of land ownership, when the white man first arrived, was foreign to Aboriginal culture as they could not comprehend owning these lands and firmly believed they were one with the lands which were provided for the collective use and benefit of all living creatures.” (Scott, p 47)

In a presentation given in January 2016 at the inauguration of Allan Teramura, the new president of the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (who is a strong advocate for Indigenous peoples), Cree Author Joseph Boyden shared with the architectural audience how the carving of a totem pole for Indigenous peoples and for the ‘white man’ would differ, and how this differentiation reflects the perception that each people have of ‘the land’. Boyden noted that where a white man’s totem would be distinguished by the human image at the top of the pole (symbolizing our dominance over all other things), the Indigenous totem would be distinguished by having the human would be at the bottom of the pole (symbolising our dependence on all other things for our survival).  It was an apt description of the perceptual divide that exists between us as peoples.

But, of course, we also have a great divide with the land.  We consider the land to be just another commodity and use it as such.  There is no reverence, no giving thanks for the things that the earth provides.   This ‘giving of thanks’ remains a part of the philosophy of Indigenous people today.  It is demonstrated through simple acts, such as the act of a hunter who performs a ceremony of thanks for the life of a caribou whose own life is given so that others can survive.  Do any of us feel a sense of thanks for the things that we are blessed with – have any of us given thanks for the ‘heat’ that is in our houses, and what was sacrificed so it could be so?

In considering whether we ‘Can we build a relationship with Energy?’, I am also left to reflect on what I have learned from Tibetans, a people who also see sacredness in the land upon which they live and who also consider the interconnectedness of all things in their actions. While I have learned about the significance of relationships and a ‘revering the land’ from First Nations peoples, I have learned a great deal about ritual and mindfulness from Tibetans. For Tibetans the practice of mindfulness, of the importance of awareness and of understanding the implications of ones actions, is key tenant in their daily practice. This comes in to the construction of buildings and includes the numerous rituals and ceremonies that are part of the building process – rituals such as ‘gaining permission to use the land’ from the earth deities that reside in the land. While these may seem archaic to the western scientific mind, when taken within the context of mindfulness, they cause everyone involved to stop and consider the responsibility for using the land well. Based on my personal experience of these rituals, I believe they represent a process we could all learn from.

Seven Generations Thinking

So, I am left considering what I have learned from Indigenous people and Tibetans – about relationships with the land, long term thinking, mindfulness and the use of rituals as cues in the process. To begin, I think it important that we consider the perspective of seven generations of thinking in all of our decision making. This may be one of the most significant changes that we could make to most things that we do. It would compel us to listen to the past, to ‘understand’ the present and to consider the future carefully. To do this effectively also implies the importance of ensuring that all voices are at the table. We need not only to repair the land and our ‘relationship’ with the land, but also to repair our relationships with each other. For Indigenous people this means learning to listen. It means being respectful of the views of others. It means learning to develop consensus.

A prerequisite to repairing our relationship with the land rests in our ability to better consider the land upon which we live as our home – and that our survival depends upon our caring for that home. This requires that we learn to see the land and all of this comes from it as much more than just a commodity. It is the paradigm shift that is necessary for our survival and the survival of the other species who we share this home with. The question, of course, are we willing to learn? As shared by Indigenous scholar Daniel Wildcat,

The most difficult changes required are not those of a physical, material, or technological character, but changes in worldviews and generally taken-for –granted values and beliefs that are embedded in modern, Western-influenced societies. In this respect, what humankind actually requires is a climate change – a cultural climate change, a change in our thinking and actions. (Wildcat, p 5)

There is a cautious optimism in Canada today that some of this change in thinking and actions is beginning to be applied to ‘the relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples’. The new Trudeau government ran on a pledge of mending this relationship, promising a new approach to addressing the needs of Indigenous peoples. The percentage of Indigenous people who voted in the election rose significantly, as did the voting of young people. Ten Indigenous peoples were elected to parliament in this election, with four of these new parliamentarians being made members of the cabinet. Conversations and issues that were being ignored are now openly being addressed, with the voices of Indigenous people at the forefront. Though there are decades of work to do, there is a sense of guarded optimism and a new willingness to work together to solve these challenges. It was the increased voting of Indigenous and young people that gave the liberals their majority – and it is to Indigenous and young people, in reacting to a positive message of inclusion and change, that we owe a great deal of thanks and gratitude.

So while I will continue to design and build energy efficient housing, and to monitor how well these houses perform (it is useful knowledge), I see that the solution to the challenge of climate change may come only when we see ourselves as small parts of something much greater than any of us are, when we all see our destinies as being intricately connected, and when we begin to develop a reverence for this beautiful blue green planet that is ‘our home’. Thankfully, there are peoples out there who can teach us much about this – if we are ready to listen.

William Semple is an architect and consultant with NORDEC Consulting & Design. Prior to setting up his own company he was Senior Researcher in charge of northern housing research in the Sustainable Housing Group at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. He has been involved in a number of innovative aboriginal housing projects aimed at improving the environmental and cultural sustainability of housing and communities in the Canadian far north. Currently he works with a number of initiatives relating to the study and development of sustainable northern housing and community infrastructure both in Canada and across the circumpolar region. This includes the Board of Directors of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, participation on the Indigenous Task Force of the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada and his work on a PhD at the University of Alberta that is focusing on adapting the architectural design process specifically for use in indigenous communities.

Burak Arikan is a New York and Istanbul based artist working with complex networks. He takes the obvious social, economical, and political issues as input and runs through an abstract machinery, which generates network maps and algorithmic interfaces and procreates predictions to render inherent power relationships visible and discussable. His software, prints, installations, and performances have been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally including MOMA, Venice Architecture Biennale and Berlin Biennial. Arikan is also founder of Graph Commons, a collaborative platform for network mapping, analysis, and publishing. Arikan completed his master’s degree at the MIT Media Laboratory.  

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