This past month I saw a lot of New Year’s articles that addressed going green as a resolution for the upcoming year. Obviously their heart and mind were in the right place. But I wanted to be a bit cynical in this post.
Any home was once an empty piece of land. That piece of land was a special niche in the local ecology. A foot deep of priceless topsoil. Earthworms tilled the soil, butterflies hatching from cocoons on a nearby shrub. All sorts of life forming an interwoven, dynamic web. When you really think about it, that home wasn’t built on an empty piece of land, it was built to replace a grassland or a stand of old hardwood trees.
To build this house, people decided to “improve” the land. They built a shell from the carcasses of trees as a shelter, the inhabitants themselves part of the extinction of half of biodiversity and the spoiling of every watershed on the planet. Mankind’s capacity to upset nature is only matched by their capacity to delude themselves into thinking they benefit the planet by their presence.
It might sound like I am saying all human development is bad. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m saying. But the environment can tolerate a little bad. Just not bad on the scale we’ve been doing. Going green is all about less bad.
So let’s return to the issue of housing. Can going green at home really make a difference? It depends. Housing is a big piece of the puzzle, but the actual houses and what’s inside of them aren’t the problem. The problem is the way we organize our neighborhoods and cities. The built environment in the US forces a huge energy investment to accomplish anything.
The “go green at home” idea implies that we can save the world from climate change by buying products that are better for the environment. This makes the assumption that buying different things will give us different results. The truth is that we can’t buy our way out of this.
Here is a chart showing the best ways to help the environment versus perception:
I’m no environmental saint. My own efforts in this realm pale in comparison to some of my neighbors and family. In reality we all need to go green at home, but it is not the most productive place to start changing.
The problem is that as a democratic society we are all connected. The choices that people make affect all of us, sometimes in weird ways. When some people stop driving then others are likely to take their place. If people buy a car with a better gas mileage rating then they usually end up driving more miles. On average, its not easy to change social trends in the US through voluntary action.
So without major structural reforms of the built environment I fear that the sacrifices that people make net zero benefits. I applaud all of the efforts that people make, but I believe that going green doesn’t begin at home, it begins with good policies. Now, more than ever before, we need to let science guide our policy making decisions rather than whatever it is that people talk about in media. Get active politically if you want to get active in the environment. Do your research, find and support groups and politicians that build their platform on the issues that matter to the environment. It doesn’t even cost anything.