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The Overton Window

The Overton Window

Quality, Consequences and the Construction Industrial Complex (part 104) – All IMHO:

What is acceptable and unacceptable within popular discourse for the environment plus building design & construction?


What is inside and outside the “Overton Window” for the environment plus building design & construction?

The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public and by extension, building designers clients and users will accept.

The term is derived from its originator, Joseph P. Overton (not Glenn Beck, who I am not a fan of) who claimed that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within the “window”, rather than on politicians individual preferences. The “window” includes a range of policies/ideas considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office. 

​Political outcomes as with most things at scale, are actually delivered based on aggregate demand and acceptability. Good or bad, it is a numbers game. Large or well funded groups normally get their way, hence lobbying and the “wisdom” of crowds. Look no further then the recent US election for an example of this phenomenon.
Attitudes can change and an issue can move into the acceptable “window” of public discourse. However for climate change or what it should really be called, pollution and natural resource depletion, attitude change may be behind the curve. Why? Because it is everybody and nobodies problem simultaneously so it is easy to ignore. For people to take action en mass, an affect has to be widespread, immediate and personal.  

Prime Minister Trudeau signed up Canada, actually, committed Canada, to reduce GHG’s by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Therefore, we have 13 years to achieve this target. IMHO there is zero chance of this happening because the necessary steps (increased energy costs, changes in building code, capital spending, increased debt levels, taxes) are within Mr Trudeau’s “window” of preference but outside the “window” of discourse. 

The Overton Window can be used to frame building plus environmental pollution issues.

I believe the energy and GHG issues within the built environment could be addressed more elegantly than the current Canadian carbon pricing (tax) policy. If I were Caesar for a day in Canada I would:

  1. Adopt UK or German building code unilaterally across all provinces 
  2. Make metering and sub-metering (to individual building floor levels) compulsory under building code
  3. Increase petrol and coal fired electricity taxes by 25% over five years – this would still be below European costs
  4. Make reporting of energy and water use by all buildings compulsaory  
  5. Following a five year grace period, offer significant tax rebates to existing building owners that are 20% below the reported average for their building type

However, as these policies would be be outside the Overton Window. I would be Caesar for only one day before Brutus and his gang murdered me. Politics is a tough gig!

Twitter: @BLDWhisperer

Related posts & links:

#56 – Carbon – Oh Canada! ( )

#72 – Water, the issue that dare not speak its name! ( )

#61 – Too Big to Succeed? ( )

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