Green architect Raphael Sperry answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m the president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, which is a small nonprofit with a national membership and active local chapters in Northern California, Seattle, and New York City.
What does your organization do?
ADPSR has a broad mission of advancing peace, environmental sustainability, and social justice. We organize design professionals to advocate for these values, through government and more often through our daily work. We were founded as an anti-nuclear organization in the ’80s, and we became strong proponents of healthy building, natural building, solar power, and other aspects of what has become known as “green building” in the ’90s. Now we’re trying to tie that to other social changes we want to see, most notably by running a Prison Design Boycott Campaign asking architects and design professionals to pledge not to work on prisons.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Four days a week I work as an architect for a small design firm in San Francisco. At present, ADPSR is an all-volunteer organization, so I spend one day a week and the inevitable evenings on ADPSR projects such as writing articles for magazines or letters to the editor, coordinating volunteers, and scheduling presentations and other events. Other active volunteers help schedule our lecture series, deal with membership processing, and manage our popular email listserv. As the organization president, I also spend time thinking about how to get some real funding so we can do more of the outreach work and can support our basic administrative and member functions. If you’ve got any ideas …
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I guess I grew up getting environmental values from my parents, who love hiking and had good left-liberal politics. I took some great natural sciences classes as a geology major in college, but decided that I’d rather do architecture than research science. In architecture school, I discovered I was the “green guy” in my class, but studying science really paid off in understanding energy efficiency and indoor-outdoor climate interactions.
When I started my architecture career, I was focusing on green buildings, and I worked at the Green Resource Center, which was founded by ADPSR to provide public information on green buildings (it has since spun off and is now Build It Green.)
I got more involved in peace activism in 2002-2003 because of the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. As I was active, I got invited to be on the board of ADPSR, which represented a group of architects speaking out for peace. ADPSR, and especially our Northern California chapter, is also very focused on natural building — our straw-bale construction lecture last year was the most popular with our members. So I was able to combine my interests; now we have an active green-building mission and a renewed social-justice and peace focus, too.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Just under 100.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Manhattan, and now I live in San Francisco, so I moved from the densest city east of the Mississippi to the densest city on the West Coast.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
In the green-building sphere, there’s a lot of greenwashing going on right now. For instance, the forest industry, through its trade associations, has created a system for labeling wood as sustainably harvested that is basically a sham: the Sustainable Forest Initiative. This is in response to a genuine system created by a consensus collaboration of some forest producers and some environmental groups: the Forest Stewardship Council (even though FSC doesn’t go far enough for some enviros I know).
Who is your environmental hero?
This may seem off-topic, but I draw a lot of inspiration from the theory of “Participatory Economics” advanced by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. I think that the market economy we have is inherently problematic, not only for how it devalues environmental resources and externalizes all sorts of environmental impacts, but because of its incentive and decision-making structures as well. While some of the “ParEcon” ideas may seem far-fetched, these folks do a great job of showing how our current system, if you were to make it up from scratch, would also seem pretty unlikely and is definitely very wasteful and stupid. They suggest how we can solve multiple problems simultaneously, and are brave enough to reject the idea that “there is no alternative” to markets for economic planning. I find their combination of criticism and offering an alternative that is thought-through from first principles (of fairness, justice, diversity, solidarity) to be very strong.
What’s your environmental vice?
Not getting outdoors much. I spend way more time typing than walking in the sunshine.
What are you reading these days?
Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life. I find her inspiring because she was both incredibly dedicated to her principles (as an anarchist political organizer) and open-minded and willing to learn and change.
What’s your favorite meal?
Indian food. I was very sad when the restaurant near my office with the all-inclusive $4.50 vegetarian lunch special closed.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
One of my favorite outdoor places is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in eastern California. The little, gnarled trees there are the oldest living things in the known world. It’s a kind of minimalist landscape where each tree has its own space and its own life, very tranquil.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
The majority of people seem to support environmental preservation more and more, and I think these days we are taking advantage of that by partnering with groups that share part of our agenda, like working with ranchers and outdoor outfitters to challenge oil and gas drilling permits (even if we’re not winning). In my sphere, green building is growing really fast as we are showing construction companies, developers, and bankers how energy efficiency, compact development, and healthy building are better choices.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
I’ve found the debate over strategy — raised by the “Death of Environmentalism” paper — very inspiring, but I’m not sure we’re benefiting from it yet. My understanding is that a lot of the big environmental groups that have been urged to be more strategic are still focused on the narrow tactics they have established — like negotiating for marginally higher CAFE standards instead of putting resources into the New Apollo Project or coordinating with other groups that share progressive principles. I think that connecting with the environmental-justice movement, poor people’s struggles, and other progressive movements generally is really necessary to be able to challenge the individualistic, intolerant, and destructive values that are so much a part of national debate these days.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
More green building, less sprawl development — because ADPSR members need the work! But seriously, around 40 percent of national energy use occurs in buildings, and the largest shares of that are heating/cooling and lighting. Also, average Americans spend 80-90 percent of their time indoors, so the health and well-being impacts of indoor environments are hugely important. As for sprawl, there are many more sustainable patterns of occupancy, where people have the option to walk, bicycle, or take transit instead of drive.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18 it was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans; now it’s probably Ali Farka Toure (thanks to the album Talking Timbuktu, which I, and the rest of the residents of Northern California, have drastically overplayed).
What’s your favorite TV show?
The Daily Show is the only thing I watch on TV, but I enjoy it deeply.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Do a home energy-efficiency project like insulating an old house, upgrading windows to double-panes, planting shade trees, replacing an old refrigerator, or installing compact fluorescent lights.