Sunday, March 27, 2011

Humanitarian Design

A recent architecture-school graduate, who has done a lot of humanitarian-related design during and after school, thought that he needed a real job. And yet almost all of the jobs available to someone with his education were with architectural firms that depend on commissions from the top 5% of the U.S. population, who now control 63.5% of the wealth in the country and whose widespread resistance to social programs prompted the very humanitarian work he had done. What should he do?

The United States has rarely had such economic inequality as it has now, making it the most unequal country among the developed nations and even among many much-less wealthy developing nations. With that rising inequality has a come a widening political polarization in the U.S., with about half the country believing that the wealthy need to pay more taxes in order to support much-needed social programs and the other half, only a minority of whom are actually wealthy, seeing this as theft of their hard-earned money. The polarization has little logic behind it. Some of the strongest advocates for greater equality are themselves wealthy and beneficiaries of the inequality, while many of the loudest opponents to higher taxes come from the ranks of those who would benefit from the social programs they despise.

Architects have become caught in this political endgame. Because of the costliness of buildings, architects have long depended upon commissions from wealthy individuals and organizations as well as from governments and non-profit entities. And yet most architects enter the profession in hopes of improving the quality of life not just of their clients, but also of the myriad people who inhabit or experience their buildings. The political polarization in the country has placed those two realities at odds. Architects’ dependence upon the wealthy for work often means that they must work for those who actively oppose the government’s efforts to improve the quality of life of all of its citizens.

That conflict has become particularly troublesome to young people who, unfettered by the ethical compromises of their elders, see only unappealing options, as in the case of this architectural graduate. He can either act on his ideals and live a life as impoverished as those he seeks to help or make a larger wage and set aside his principles to work for clients who have benefited from the inequality that has contributed to the very problems he wants to address. Some architectural firms, of course, work primarily for governments or non-profits or work in areas like affordable housing and elderly housing, and so he has alternatives to firms that cater mainly to the wealthy. But what about his aspiration to make humanitarian work his career: how might he find a way to support himself doing the work that not only he wants to do, but that millions – and globally, billions – of people need him to do?

Ethics can help when we face situations like this by redefining the terms of what we consider to be a good life. Most ethical traditions recognize that wealth takes many forms and that the personal satisfaction and social recognition that comes with dedicating ourselves to a cause we believe in can more than compensate for the meager monetary returns and material rewards that may result. The architect graduate here, in other words, might be best served by continuing to do the humanitarian work he has done, accepting the lifestyle that comes with it, and counting himself fortunate to be among the relatively few people who allow themselves the freedom to do what they love to do.

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