Unsustainable clash of civilisations ?

Having shared my life between old Europe and even older India I have often compared the two...


The recent trip to Paris & Brussels and the meeting with
several professionals and officials involved in the promotion of ‘sustainable builtenvironment’ SBE confirmed some of my preconceived views.

‘Industry’ is omnipresent and all powerful in Europe since the couple of centuries that they invented it. So much so that people do not or cannot question it fundamentally (and survive in the mainstream) anymore. Hardly anyone dares looking at alternative means of living & production, the only option is to do better and more efficiently what is already done or else try it some place else. In stark
contrast to the effervescence and plurality that any given situation provokes in India, is the EU driven process of ‘uniform regulation’ and forced consensus.

SBE is no different.

When in India quite a few engineers and architects are dirtying their hands to build differently with material that are perhaps less harmful to the environment, to
harvest rainwater for direct use or to improve waste management (even generate energy from it)...the EU awaits regulation to implement SBE.

Not surprisingly energy consumption is the major concern there. SBE is almost exclusively equated with energy efficiency without much debate over the extensive use of concrete, steel, composite metals, glass... Not a coincidence that energy efficiency is the most technical aspect of matter and it involves the Industry. It is obvious that buildings in EU will be more and more sophisticated, using materials and building-in technologies that achieve ‘high environmental
performance’ but they will rarely question a wasteful lifestyles and the means of production that are the very root cause of ‘un sustainability’.

It is in this context that I particularly appreciated what we saw in a ‘cité de banlieue’ in St. Denis ; a ‘soft’ landscaped response to manage rainwater drain-off in a flood prone terrain as against a ‘heavy’ engineering response that water companies tend to favour. The former was not only cheaper and environmentally responsive but also socially and spatially more meaningful. I was also impressed by the courageous initiatives of the Ville de Paris to promote the bicycle and public transport at the expense of the automobile.

I see there encouraging signs of a post-industrial renaissance- a kind of back to the basics approach that is not afraid of doing the obvious instead of engaging in a technology race.

In a more reasoned perspective the steady and tedious consensual and regulatory approach of the EU may in the long run be more effective in assuring implementation of a ‘minimal’ environmental standards in all construction
whereas in India we may at the most have isolated examples of buildings, termed experimental, that score high on environmental performance when the bulk of construction will continue to delve deeper in the same folly. It is equally true that replication or even fair evaluation of successful experiments may not be possible without involving industry and regulation.

Let us hope that the argumentative Indian recognises the merits of a consensus for a more productive and widespread result in the domain of SBE as in others.

On the other hand let us hope that in Europe over-regulation and an unquestioned technology drive does not smother or summarily discard nascent unconventional and ‘simple’ ideas.