Is this the great decline of the green building movement?

Is this the great decline of the green building movement?

Collage of green building logos by GreenBiz

Green building often is described as a “movement”. Google the phrase, and you get hits from sources as diverse as the EPA, the National Association of Realtors, the National Bar Association, and Wikipedia. But what exactly is a movement?

A simple definition is “collective action toward common goals”. Social movements transcend single organizations or institutions, banding together many people seeking change. Sociologists outline four stages of development, and green building perfectly illustrates this trajectory. In fact, using this framework shows that this movement could be facing a critical threshold today.

Stage 1: Emergence

In the earliest period of a social movement, various people begin to voice similar desires and discontent, but with little organization. The principles of green building are ancient, but it didn’t become a formal movement until the past two decades. General concerns about the environmental impact of development grew in the 1960s and 70s, and, after the energy crisis of the 70s and “sick building” scares of the late 80s, more and more people began to ask whether architecture could have a more positive effect on people and planet.

Stage 2: Coalescence

When a movement begins to coalesce, it unites disconnected parties around a strategic set of actions. In the early 1990s, several formal entities came into being to tackle the green building challenge: the American Institute of Architects formed the Committee on the Environment in 1989, BREEAM launched in the United Kingdom in 1990, the EPA and the Department of Energy started the ENERGY STAR program in 1992, the U.S. Green Building Council came together in 1993 and launched the popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system in 1998. By the turn of the millennium, the movement was growing rapidly.

Stage 3: Formalization

In the third stage of development, a movement can no longer rely just on raising awareness; progress depends on trained experts working with organized mechanisms for spurring change. In the early 2000s, LEED grew by leaps and bounds and, for the first time in the United States, the building industry had a specific method to evaluate and certify buildings according to a clear definition of “green”. According to estimates, to date LEED has cut annual carbon emissions by nearly 10 million tons.

Stage 4: Decline

The final stage of evolution in a social movement is institutionalization, or “decline”. The term isn’t necessarily negative, since many movements taper off after having fulfilled their aims. Decline usually occurs with one or more of five traits:

Trait 1: Mainstreaming

When a movement’s goals are adopted by the mainstream, there is no longer any need for the movement itself. This is, in fact, how the American Institute of Architects now portrays green building. In 2012, it removed sustainability from members’ continuing education requirements because, it announced, “sustainable design practices have become a mainstream design intention.” Yet, according to the AIA's own documentation, only 12 percent of architecture firms are meeting industry targets for energy efficiency, and LEED’s total volume to date (3 billion square feet) represents only about one percent of the total building stock (275 billion square feet in 2010). Green is far from the norm.

Trait 2: Repression

Often authorities use their power to control or stop a movement by outlawing specific activities after declaring them dangerous, and this is exactly what’s happening with green building today in some regions. Over the past year or more, multiple states, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Ohio, have banned LEED in public buildings, due to the well-funded lobbying efforts of timber, chemical, and plastics industries, whose products do not measure up to the most rigorous green standards.

In 2012, a group of Congressmen, many of whom reportedly have received significantpolitical contributions from the industries above, declared, “We are deeply concerned that the LEED rating system is becoming a tool to punish chemical companies and plastics makers.”

Powerful forces have been trying to kill LEED, and could cripple the green building movement along with it. On August 27, the USGBC and American Chemistry Council, which reportedly has funded much of the anti-LEED lobbying, announced a joint initiative to “improve LEED”. Will this news create détente, or will it compromise LEED to accommodate the chemical industry?

Trait 3: Co-optation

Sometimes movement leaders begin to align themselves more with the original targets of social action and take on their values instead of those of the movement. In January, Jerry Yudelson, the “godfather of green” who helped to develop LEED, became the president of the Green Building Initiative, the organization that runs Green Globes. It’s an alternative rating system that independent evaluations, including BuildingGreen’s recent 90-page “definitive analysis,” maintain is inferior to LEED. More troubling, however, is that GBI was founded and remains funded by the very industries working to destroy LEED as a better option, as has been widely documented. The influence of these industries doesn’t appear to be changing under the organization’s new leadership, as I spelled out recently.

Trait 4: Failure

Many movements fail when they splinter into competing factions with conflicting goals. LEED and the more recent Living Building Challenge represent different visions of green building, but they are complementary, and this diversity can help the movement by testing alternative possibilities for progress. However, Green Globes signals a path that could harm the movement — not because its vision isn’t as robust as LEED or the LBC, although it isn’t, but because its supporters are actively working to hold back progress. Green Globes’ advocates could represent the movement’s biggest threat.

Trait 5: Success

Success occurs when a movement meets its goals, and this is more easily defined and achieved when those goals are very specific. The suffrage movement declined once women got the vote, for example.

Victory is much less likely when a movement’s goals continually expand, which is the case with sustainability. When can we realistically say that we have achieved harmony between humanity, other species, and the earth? As a subset of this effort, the green building movement must continually raise the bar.

Once all buildings have achieved net-zero energy and carbon neutrality, goals the industry has set for the year2030, the next step would be for all buildings to become carbon sinks and to produce enough energy to give some back to the community. This vision only considers a single set of issues — energy and emissions — and it may never be realized, but we can keep reaching for it.

“Movement” implies forward motion. To remain a movement, green building must show continual progress by adapting to new knowledge about the impacts of construction on environmental and human health.

Today, the movement is at a crossroads: Will it continue to adapt, improve, and extend its reach, or will it become compromised and co-opted by the very forces it set out to battle?