Luxury to Waste: “Honey, I Want a Divorce”

Reflections after the Passivhaus Conference in Darmstadt April 22,23, 2016, on JFK and 25 Boys in Science Class.

Taking off from that cathedral of clean and efficient travel that is the Frankfurt Airport, I pulled out my pen and notebook and began to summarize what I had learned at the International Passive House Conference in nearby Darmstadt.  I had not slept all night, and was drowsy.  My mind drifted across the sea far ahead of the airliner to my home, America, to John Kennedy and a 5th grade science class in New York on St. Patrick’s Day.

This is what I learned in Germany.

Luxury needs a new concubine.  The license to waste has its thrills, but new and healthier thrills can be found.  A little excess is a great thing, but not if the excess creates scarcity and want, and not if it becomes an insatiable addiction.  There was a time when nature, of which we are a part, appeared to be able to give of herself endlessly.  Like Juliet, she seemed to be saying, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.”  No more.  Our industrial adolescence has ended, and our executive function needs to kick in.  Those who can afford luxury must indulge in the luxury of preservation, and the hormonal rewards of conspicuous consumption need to be transferred to conspicuous replenishment.

It would be a mistake to think that an attack on luxury is anti-elitist.  We need an elite that can inspire everyone else.  But elite and privileged are not the same thing.  Although one can be born privileged, one cannot be born elite.  To suggest that someone’s luxuries should be reined in would seem to begrudge them happiness.  But Aristotle’s great definition of happiness is: “The full use of one’s talents along the lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”  This definition of happiness also serves as a guidepost for the nurturing of elite individuals.  Our political leaders, for example, should rise from among the best of us in every corner.  When President John Kennedy said that politics could and should be a noble profession, this is what he was driving at.  And a truly elite leader sees this planetary crossroads we find ourselves in now as a call to new and vigorous action.  A month before he died, President Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.”[1]  He also said, “Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility.”[2]

In this regard, I was mightily encouraged this past St. Patrick’s day by what I witnessed at Allen-Stevenson School, a K-9th grade independent school for boys on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, many of whose students come from well-to-do families.  The school aspires, in its words, to create gentlemen-scholars, and strives to “inspire in each boy an appreciation of responsible citizenship and a lifelong love of learning.”[3]  The school’s STEAM team (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) had arranged a guest lecture on energy efficient design for the 5th grade science classes, and I had been invited to attend as a member of the profession and father of an alumnus.  John Nastasi, a practicing architect as well as professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, was coming to present his super exciting Su+Re House project to the kids.

Mr. Nastassi began by telling us that Su+Re House stands for SUstainable + REsilient House, and put this slide up:

“The winning U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 entry, the SURE HOUSE, represents the Stevens Institute of Technology team’s vision of a sustainable and resilient home for the areas at greatest risk due to rising sea-levels and more damaging storms.”

The house was designed, modeled, tested and built by Stevens Institute students and faculty under Professor Nastasi’s executive direction, then disassembled and transported on trucks to Irvine, CA for the contest.  The Solar Decathlon, conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy, is a highly competitive, international competition, so winning it is quite a feather in Stevens’ cap.  The contestants are given rigorous energy use requirements, and on top of that the house must be attractive and affordable, and provide extra energy to give back to the grid or perhaps charge an electric car.  The “Resiliency” part of Su+Re House has to do with its ability to withstand severe weather events and also to operate independently of the grid should the power go out.  (Interesting side note: at a recent multi-family housing seminar in NYC, a panelist stated, “Electricity is the key to resiliency.”)

The boys were fantastic.  They were totally energized (ok, they were already totally energized but even more so) by Professor Nastasi’s presentation, and asked very intelligent questions…non-stop.  It was hilarious.  A teacher interrupted at one point to say, “kids, you need to save your questions for the end because we only have 15 minutes left and we want to be sure Mr. Nastasi gets through his whole presentation.”  The kids responded in chorus, “OK,” and kind of slumped back in their chairs, and then the moment John began to speak again, 5 hands popped up.  “Oooh, ooh, ooh!” “um, excuse me sir” “bu-, bu-, but..”  “how did you…”  They could not be stopped, and they grasped everything.  It was delightful, seeing the future generation of citizens take such an earnest interest.

Many of these boys are the children of privilege.  The STEAM team’s message to them is that they are responsible for solving the man-made problems their parents and grandparents have bequeathed to them.  These boys have a nascent understanding that conspicuous consumption is conspicuously tied at its other end to dearth, not luxury.  Thanks to this kind of presentation and the rest of the Allen-Stevenson mission, they will be much more likely to grasp that humanity is part of nature, and not nature’s despot.  And some of them will see privilege as providing the luxury to restore, and live as such.

I woke up for a pretty good lunch and a glass of wine.  Sitting there reflecting on Germany and Europe in general, which is committed to a “nearly zero-energy building” standard by 2021, I realized that the main takeaway from Darmstadt was not so much what anyone said, but rather the absence of the hysteria that we in America are accustomed to around the topic of climate change.  A calm demeanor and upright, determined attitude typified the conference.  People made the problem and now people are going to solve it.  And those people are us, here, today, in this room.

A couple of hours later the jet touched down in that ode to chaos that is JFK Airport, in the city I love, in the country I love and went all the way to Germany to get to know.

[1] Speech at Amherst College, October 26, 1963

[2] Ibid

[3] Allen-Stevenson School Mission Statement.