When I was much younger, my grandpa posed a riddle, and its answer made little sense. When I was old enough to understand it, the riddle elicited only a groan. Older still, the riddle — now more like a koan — works to illuminate a valuable insight. It goes like this: When is a door not a door?

When it’s ajar.

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For years, professor Bob Costanza walked the same route to his office at University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. The path overlooked downtown Burlington, Vt., the shore and yawning breadth of Lake Champlain and the serried Adirondacks of New York state. A tall water tower foregrounded this view, like a giant-headed robot. The struts and tank were a sun-faded green. Not exactly an eyesore, nor was the water tower especially attractive. And after years of coming and going, the same sight rising and sinking over the hilltop, a simple but oblique question struck Costanza: When is a water tower not a water tower?

When it’s an office building.

Costanza wondered: What would it look like if the unfilled space below the tank, woven with intersecting pipes, was no longer empty? What if the space below the tank served some purpose? He imagined eight wrap-around floors transparent to the outside; floor-to-ceiling windows lined with a photovoltaic film for solar electrification. The University could use or rent out the office space in the tower. Water piped from the overhead tank would serve to warm the structure in winter and cool it in summer. All of the standard features of green design could be incorporated into the structure. He imagined.

Costanza collaborated with a local artist to illustrate the vision. He took the idea to University administrators, who dismissed it. But his work was not in vain. In fact, it represents something fundamentally necessary but largely lacking within the environmental movement.

The work of environmentalists is often externally characterized and internally accepted as triage: Define the problems; sort by urgency; take up law, policy and community organization in attempt to fix them. Such triage is necessary, but has afforded depressingly slow progress over the past 40 years. The next step, and a required step, is the work of re-imagining, refiguring, repurposing the old, of envisioning with unchecked creativity the most outrageous and marginal possibilities. We must approach the problems of environmentalism without stultifying assumptions of how to best solve them. It is we, after all, who have ingeniously constructed the systems in which we function; we have cultivated the mores that inform our values. These systems and mores can as readily be reconditioned. Assumptions upon which we work must never stand as fact, or we degrade and tyrannize ourselves.

Environmentalism is about what could be, not what is. Think broadly enough, and a door becomes a jar.

The environmental community has recently appropriated Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to illustrate the importance of thinking positively when approaching problems and offering solutions. “He never said, ‘I have a nightmare,’” say the environmentalists. Continuing, “People don’t respond to doom and gloom. They need something positive.” But this interpretation does not go far enough in recognizing the essential power of King’s speech. The power lies not only in the fact that he sees the future and it is positive, but that the future is positive because it is fundamentally different. King had the creativity to recast our lot — the audacity of hope.

Costanza shares this power of creativity with King, and the environmental community would do well to take his cue. Converting water towers to LEED-certified office buildings will not save us from the monumental environmental challenges we now face. But it is precisely this kind of thinking that very well could. In the words of poet Czeslaw Milosz, “what is unpronounced tends to nonexistence.”


Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.