May 18, 2017

Good Products Aren’t Enough: It’s The System – So Let’s Change it.

What Are We Doing?

The Boston Tea Party: Choosing coffee wan't going to do it.

The Boston Tea Party:  Choosing coffee wasn’t going to fix the problem.

Are we kidding ourselves? Trying to be a conscientious consumer, we try to pick sustainable materials and products – making more sustainable decisions – with the desire to “vote with our wallets” and promote “green industry” that will have beneficial effects in our fight against climate change and other environmental and social degradation.

At the immediate level – there are tremendous benefits to making healthy, low-energy, robust buildings – for the construction workers, occupants and owners.  It’s important to make the best consumer choices possible.

But do such individual actions really make the larger change we want?  Or, beyond those immediate benefits, do they just make us feel better about ourselves?  Can we make the difference, and the systemic change our environment desperately needs?

The Problem

Recently reading Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world by Alden Wicker, one is struck by the idea that our myriad of personal choices: organic, local grown, fair trade, recycled – just doesn’t add up….at all.   The very structure of our consumer centric economic system seems to guarantee it.

She writes:  “Case in point: A 2012 study compared footprints of “green” consumers who try to make eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers. And they found no meaningful difference between the two.

Turns out that sustainable choices don’t add up to sustainability. Ouch.

And it’s worse still.

Ms Wicker says: “On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens[our emphasis] It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.

It seems to ring true.  Too many see their moral personal choices as absolving themselves of the need to actively engage the root of the problem: the political and economic levers that set the context and load the dice.  We might think of a consumer who is choosing to dramatically reduce their use of plastic shopping bags, maybe even refusing them all together.   Is that enough?   Won’t our neighborhoods, and then oceans, be littered with plastic bags no matter how many bags we personally refuse?

And we appreciate that a consumers choose more sustainable materials and choose to build a high performance, low energy and Passive House  because they understand it can serve as the foundation of society’s carbon negative future, driving down power demand and supporting a 100% renewable power supply.  But simply building them; building 10, or building 10,000 is not enough.  Only building Passive Houses will never be enough.

The Solution:  Action in Two-Parts

So what’s to be done?  Can’t we do both?  We want to buy as little crap as possible – crap that is polluting our oceans and driving climate change.  And we need to change the system too.  To avoid the trap we need to set out on two tracks – strategic and tactical.

First, the Strategic Political Track

deBlasioCornellFrom civil rights to consumer rights, to the climate fight today – only laws effect the scale of change needed. So get political.  If you think plastic bags are an environmental disaster, get a law passed to ban them.

Get your elected officials to care about climate change and their community’s carbon budget.  We need to go carbon negative – how are they going to do it?

Sign the petition, attend the rally, volunteer for local activist organizations, contribute money for political action, get involved.

Once leaders finally get it and then ask “how?”, the landscape shifts.

Second, the Tactical Actions Track

Making the right choices will be decisive, both in tactical support of political action and in implementing solutions once the laws are in place.

So our elected leaders are looking at their carbon budgets, they will note that buildings are a disproportionate part of the climate crisis problem –  accounting for 40% of carbon emissions generally, and 75% of overall emissions in major cities like New York.   Therefore, buildings will be a big part of the answer too.

And because we’re choosing  to build Passive House buildings we can point to real world examples and show how they deliver the reductions commensurate with the carbon accounting deficit policymakers are facing.

In places like New York City and Vancouver we see this dynamic starting.  Local Passive House activists like New York Passive House and Passive House Canada, working with allied organizations and individual advocates, are helping political leaders and bureaucrats find policy levers to advance Passive House building capacity, knowledge and yes, actual buildings.

Build.  As consumers we should choose very low energy buildings, we should choose Passive House, and build them.  That choice can be leveraged to achieve much more than simple conscientious consumerism. If local policy makers can point to local examples – the political landscape can improve dramatically.  Build it and share it.

Connect the Dots

For us to adequately address the climate crisis – it can’t be this or that.

Let’s not be discouraged by the apparent inadequacy of any individual act.  We can’t be constrained by a zero-sum game “dead end”.  Instead let’s see how all our actions can be leveraged to leapfrog limitations and unleash exponential improvement.   Yes, eat real food, consume less plastic & fossil fuels, build energy efficient buildings, AND engage the political process.

Make it “Yes, and…”    Passive House + Renewables.   Let’s change the system.

 


 

Related Blog Posts:

What’s 475 About – Reflections for a New Year

Make Better Choices: Toward A Less Toxic World

Why Passive House?

A Smart Enclosure Starts with Smart Walls: Green High-Performance Done Right For Our Sustainable Future

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2 Responses to Good Products Aren’t Enough: It’s The System – So Let’s Change it.

  1. Severn Clay-Youman, AIA, NCARB June 12, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    I was hoping “Three” would be to re-use existing buildings (I say this because I deeply appreciate your work on masonry retrofits). The amount of embodied energy saved in building the greenest, leanest new building pales in comparison to doing a smart retrofit of the building that already stood in its place.

    Great post.

    • Ken June 12, 2017 at 3:32 pm #

      Thank you, Severn. And you make a great point!

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