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Radical Confidence: Getting to Green by Building Better Goals

It’s been my professional experience that what people talk about is energy efficiency, but what they DO is green. For the first 15 years of my career I was chasing people to do energy efficiency. For the last 15 years -- there was some overlap -- people were chasing me to do green. 

I think some of this disparity has to do with what the goals of the built environment are.

Last week, I wrote about how the goals of a system are reflected in its structure and that a very effective way of achieving different results is to change the system's structure. But an even more effective way to make a difference is to change the system’s goals, which is why it is No. 3 on Donella Meadows’ list of the top 12 places to intervene within a system. 

Goals exist at every level of the system and indeed influence one another. True system-level goals tend to be so large that it is easy to overlook them -- it is what the system does rather than something someone says. The Earth, as a system, is governed by the negative and positive feedback loops of chemistry, biology and physics. What then, are the goals of the system? If one looks at what the planet DOES, it creates and sustains life. That doesn’t mean that the life created lasts forever. Indeed, the Earth is pretty ruthless about snuffing out things it has created. To wit, only about 2/10 of 1 percent of all species ever created on this planet exist today.

Indeed, it is a miracle to be alive.

And what of the goals of humans? Looking at what humans DO, I would say that the goal of the species is to grow. Population. Consumption. Wealth. Floor area. All these very powerful drivers of the human condition (including the nod to my esteemed readers) are all centered on the goal of growth.

High school biology students understand that unfettered growth in the natural world is not natural. Simple models of predator and prey show that when one population gets too big, the other begins to take over. Too many wolves, not enough deer; wolves die. Wolves die, deer grow.  Too many deer, food is scarce and sick deer are easy pickings, so wolves grow, etc.

What does this have to do with buildings?  Although an imperfect analogy, buildings could be seen as predators and the prey are the resources on which the buildings depend: land, water, energy, materials, etc. As buildings grow, these other resources become scarcer, either physically or economically, which force changes upon buildings. Humans being complex creatures, buildings also are complex things and cannot simply be seen in the inferred negative light of “a predator.”

Buildings are essential to the human condition: They provide us warmth and shelter; we live and love in them; they help many of us earn our daily bread.  And yet, buildings and their impacts cannot continue to grow forever.

Cancer grows mindlessly until it kills its host. I’m not saying that humans are cancer, but we do seem to be growing mindlessly and I promise you it is not the host that will be killed in the end.

So, if we are changing the goal of built environment or would it be?  It’s clear that “growth” can’t continue to be the goal of the system. Resource constraints, environmental constraints, economic constraints all indicate that some form of self-regulation of the built environment will be necessary if we are to fit in with the laws the planet.

In the West, we are beginning to see some of this happen: Standards for energy, water, materials, are all trending towards reduced consumption, albeit most of these reductions are from an embarrassingly high base. Leslie Guevarra’s report on the success of Canon U.S.A. is a case in point about these successes, though, as NRDC’s David Doniger writes, a bunch of dim bulbs in Congress would seek to slow it down. However, in many parts of the world, floor area and consumption per capita are growing significantly, albeit from a much lower base.  Clearly, population growth has some impact on whether it makes sense for the built environment as a whole to continue growing. However the growth in floor space worldwide far outstrips the growth in population, which means that restraint on all sides, is warranted.

In a mature society -- if we get that far -- we will likely emphasize development over growth and quality over quantity. Any population that begins to outstrip the ability of its ecosystem to support it finds that, without self-regulation, both quality and quantity go down precipitously. If mitigation and adaptation are not sufficient, then all that is left is suffering.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user ARBRE ÉVOLUTION.

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