Adopting a Green Lifestyle

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Adopting a Green Lifestyle

What values are implied by the word ‘green’?

Posted on Sep 23 2016 by Martin Holladay

I’ve always struggled with the word “green.” I’m not quite sure what “green building” means, but most definitions include the idea of environmental responsibility.

To get a better handle on environmental responsibility, it might be useful to create a list of green values or aims. Here’s my stab at creating such a list.

Green values include:

  • Avoiding actions that injure biodiversity.
  • Avoiding actions that destroy important habitat, especially habitat for threatened species.
  • Avoiding actions that increase the likelihood of species extinction.
  • Avoiding actions that contribute to water pollution.
  • Avoiding actions that contribute to air pollution.
  • Avoiding the consumption of wild fish that are harvested in an unsustainable manner.
  • Avoiding food that is raised using agricultural practices that are unsustainable.
  • Avoiding the purchase of materials that can’t be manufactured without environmental destruction.
  • Avoiding actions that hasten global climate change.

This list can certainly be criticized; I invite readers to improve it or add to it. But this list is an attempt to describe “green” ideals.

After I created this list, I thought about its implications. Here’s what I noticed:

  • It’s hard to abide by these principles.
  • Directly or indirectly, most of us have lifestyles that injure important plant and animal habitats, injure biodiversity, and contribute to air and water pollution.
  • Most of us are contributing to global climate change — for example, by driving gasoline-powered cars, flying in airplanes, operating heating equipment, and operating air conditioners.
  • Some laudable aims — for example, avoiding food that is raised using agricultural practices that are unsustainable — are difficult to implement because it's hard for consumers to assess whether any particular practices are, in fact, sustainable. Does this cookie contain palm oil? If it does, what country did the palm oil come from? Does anyone know what type of forest was cut down to create the palm oil plantation that produced the oil in the cookie?

What about buildings?

Anyone interested in “green building” should aim to live and work in buildings that are aligned with the values I listed above. What are the implications of this statement?

  • New construction should be avoided whenever possible, unless the construction is on an infill lot or a previously developed parcel.
  • In areas of the world where clean drinking water is scarce, green buildings should be designed to require as little clean water as possible. Septic systems should be designed to prevent the spread of disease and to limit water pollution or land contamination.
  • Transportation is energy-intensive, so people who espouse green values should try to live near jobs, schools, and stores. Ideally, a green household will use public transportation or bicycles more than private cars.
  • Living in a building with low energy needs makes sense. Note, however, that a small apartment in New York City may have lower energy needs than a new house in the suburbs, even if the new house is highly insulated.
  • Although buildings with low energy requirements are better for the planet than buildings with high energy requirements, people who build low-energy buildings (or who arrange to have them built) aren’t necessarily living a green lifestyle.

Misguided “green” obsessions

Advocates of green building often get sidetracked by issues that have little to do with the values I listed.

  • Green building has nothing to do with choosing “natural” materials instead of “manufactured” materials. For example, steel roofing is greener than clear red cedar shingles — because steel roofing can be made of recycled steel scrap, while red cedar shingles require the felling of Western red cedar trees.
  • Green building doesn’t have much to do with durability.
  • Green building doesn’t have anything to do with avoiding electromagnetic radiation.
  • Green building doesn't have anything to do with the ventilation rate that you select for your ventilation equipment.
  • Green building doesn’t have much to do with indoor air quality or occupant health; in general, the planet doesn’t care too much about human health. In any case, citizens in developed countries expect government regulations to protect human health by forbidding the construction of homes that include poisons like lead paint or asbestosMineral fiber once commonly used in many building materials, including insulation, fireproof siding, and resilient flooring. Inhalation of invisible asbestos fibers can lead to chest and abdominal cancers as well as scarring of the lungs. The use of asbestos in some products has been banned by the EPA and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission; manufacturers also have adopted voluntary limitations on its use. When found in older buildings (most commonly in floor tiles, pipe and furnace insulation, or asbestos shingles), the product's friability is a major determinant in how it must be handled during renovations. More information: Green builders want something different — something more: they want to protect the health of the planet and all of its species.

Class issues

Upper-income Americans may assume that a green lifestyle requires the construction of a new home that sports an Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. label, a LEED for HomesLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED for Homes is the residential green building program from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). While this program is primarily designed for and applicable to new home projects, major gut rehabs can qualify. label, or a PassivhausA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. label. But this expensive endeavor is unlikely by itself to bring the homeowners in close alignment with the green values I listed.

Moreover, low-income Americans are in a bind when it comes to finding green housing or choosing a job that promotes green values. In most cases, poor people don’t have many options about where they might live or what type of job to accept. Housing specifications are usually beyond their control.

Like it or not, low-income families rarely purchase airline tickets or spend thousands of dollars a year on consumer goods; this lifestyle may be depressing for the family, but it’s less injurious to the planet that the lifestyle of upper-income Americans.

Upper-income Americans consume more natural resources than low-income Americans. (Needless to say, readers are free to broaden this comparison to include low-income Somalis or low-income Namibians if they feel so inclined.) If we care about the green values listed on this page, we need to think about social equity issues, so that the planet’s limited resources are shared more fairly than they are now.

Moreover, espousing green values requires us to consider policy issues and economic issues beyond our individual lifestyle choices — so that all of our neighbors, including our low-income neighbors, can share the benefits associated with a greener future.

Environmental activism and efforts to achieve social justice

As we wrestle with questions surrounding green values, it’s worth noting that while individual choices — for example, deciding to ride a bicycle to work instead of driving a car to work — matter, so do collective choices — for example, advocating for political policies that are aligned with green values.

To achieve these ends, those who care about green values need to consider whether there is a moral imperative to engage in political action favoring social justice and environmental justice.

Here's a related point: as long as the price of gasoline (or the price of an airline ticket) does not include the cost of externalities (for example, the costs associated with global climate change), it's hard for individuals to reduce their purchases of gasoline or airline tickets to the levels necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. Making sure that gasoline and airline ticket prices reflect these externalities is a task that can only be accomplished through governmental regulation.

Green builders in the U.S. who delve deeply into the minutiae of building specifications need to look up from their blueprints occasionally and consider the threats our planet now faces, lest their professional concerns blind them to the urgent need for collective political action.

Following a green lifestyle is tricky

Everybody who reads GBA and writes articles for GBA believes in green values. We all want our threatened blue planet, and the creatures that live on it, to survive and thrive. We all want to adopt a lifestyle that doesn’t degrade biodiversity, pollute the oceans, or spew unconscionable amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But what should we do?

Should we build a new Passivhaus? Should we worry whether our indoor latex paint has a green logo? Should we make sure that our framing lumber is FSCNonprofit organization that promotes forestry practices that are sustainable from environmental and social standpoints; FSC certification on a wood product is an indicator that the wood came from a well-managed forest.-certified?

Or should we volunteer for the campaigns of political candidates with good environmental records?

Or should we, perhaps, join Bill McKibben, the climate change activist, in his next act of civil disobedience?

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Indoor Microbes and Human Health.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

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Image Credits:

  1. NASA

Sep 23, 2016 11:23 AM ET

Thanks for this post Martin.
by Ben Southworth

Thanks for this post Martin.

Sep 23, 2016 3:37 PM ET

The elephant in the room
by Eric Habegger

There's only one major presidential candidate that believes climate change is a hoax. And whoever is elected president may have up to three Supreme Court justices to nominate in their term. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Sep 23, 2016 4:27 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

A great manifesto.

Sep 23, 2016 10:42 PM ET

Edited Sep 23, 2016 10:43 PM ET.

green building = healthy building
by Bennett Sandler

Yes, interesting post. But the idea that the health of building occupants qualifies as a "Misguided Green Obsession"? Cancer, schmanzer, as long as you are saving the planet.

Separating personal sustainability from planetary sustainability seems bizarre and contradictory and well outside green building norms. As a green builder, I seek to sell a better building--one that is healthier, more comfortable, and more efficient. Why would I ever sell something that I know to be toxic to the client, whether or not it's good for the planet? I'd expect that kind of argument from a chemical company pushing spray foam or something but not here.

And if green builders are off the hook because current government regulations are doing an adequate job of protecting human health, then code minimum insulation is also just fine, and we don't need green builders at all.

The cradle-to-cradle approach, or regenerative design, is a good model for a green building framework I think. It says industry needs to protect and enrich natural ecosystems while maintaining a safe and productive economy for consumers and workers. It's a closed loop--we are the planet and the planet is us.

It's common to hear leading figures in green building talk in exactly these terms by explicitly connecting personal health and planetary health--David Orr, Marc Rosenbaum for example. Likewise USGBC argues that occupant health benefits are part of the case for green building since people work more productively in healthy buildings: "People in the U.S. spend about 90% of their time indoors. EPA studies indicate indoor levels of pollutants may be up to ten times higher than outdoor level. LEED-certified buildings are designed to have healthier, cleaner indoor environmental quality, which means health benefits for occupants."

I would say that whatever else we mean by "green building" concern with the health of occupants and the health of builders themselves has to be a core value.

Sep 24, 2016 4:44 AM ET

Edited Sep 24, 2016 6:39 AM ET.

Response to Bennett Sandler
by Martin Holladay

You misunderstand. Of course I share your belief that a building shouldn't poison its occupants. That goes without saying.

But a building should do a lot of things. The electrical wiring shouldn't present a fire hazard. The roof shouldn't leak. The foundation shouldn't sink into the soil. The doors should open and close smoothly during an emergency. I believe, in other words, that houses should function well, and not be hazardous.

Those are all important features that designers and builders should provide on a routine basis. Many of these features are required by law or otherwise regulated by the government. That's good.

In this article, I wasn't trying to answer the question, "What features should a house have?" Rather, I was trying to answer, "What are green values?"

So of course a house should be poison-free. Most governments try to create regulations that forbid poisonous homes. Where governments fail to protect the health of their citizens in this realm, history shows that regulations eventually catch up with science.

So yes, builders must (at a minimum) provide poison-free homes. But I'm interested in a different question: What makes a house green?

As I'm sure you know, the idea that a house should be poison-free isn't controversial. Everybody wants that kind of house -- from the Berkeley professor who rides a bike and recycles every scrap of paper to the right-wing climate-change-denying Trump supporter with three SUVs. I'm interested in green values, not obvious stuff.

When I was in high school, at the dawn of the "Earth Day" era, I was in a club called Environmental Action. (Marc Rosenbaum was in the club, too -- we went to the same high school.) On Saturday mornings, we visited local rivers and collected trash from the riverbanks. We also organized once-a-month recycling drives, since municipal governments had no recycling programs in those days.

As far as I can remember, there was no Public Health club in our high school. But if there had been, the interests of the students in the Public Heath club, while laudable, wouldn't have been the same interests as those of the students in the Environmental Action club.

Sep 24, 2016 10:27 AM ET

Green Advisor or Green Building Advisor?

This does kind of clarify why there seems to be more articles related to green policy then to actually green building. If GBA was about actual construction methods then there wouldn't be a need for comments like "the right-wing climate-change-denying Trump supporter with three SUVs." What in the world does that have to do with actual building "green" buildings? FYI Trump supporters are said to be more likely to not be college educated so they probably earn less money so they probably commute more by public transportation spend less time hopping on planes and have less money to spend on material goods so as a whole you might say they are more "green" then say the highly educated elites.
The sad thing is to get most of the articles that deal with actual construction techniques you have to be a paid subscriber while the other articles you can access for free. It would be nice to see a stronger focus on the building part of GBA.
Lets face reality, new homes are going to be built where they didn't exist in the past. Many people who subscribe to GBA are in the building industry and earn their living building things for people. We would actually like to learn and improve our abilities in the building trades not just subscribe to some "green" policy movement website.
Maybe it is time change the name to Green Advisor to reflect the change in direction the content has gone. There is a need for information on actual green building it just doesn't seem to be out there.

Sep 24, 2016 10:50 AM ET

by matthias paustian

Martin, thanks for this post.

Sep 24, 2016 10:57 AM ET

Edited Sep 24, 2016 11:15 AM ET.

Response to Dan Vandermolen
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for your feedback. We certainly do our best to include lots of construction-related content; if you haven't seen it yet, you may want to check out this page of links: How To Do Everything. It's good to know which articles you like to read, and which you aren't interested in. Tastes vary, but we are always interested in feedback from our readers.

Concerning my two tongue-in-cheek caricatures -- the bicycle-riding Berkeley professor and the SUV-driving Trump supporter -- suffice it to say that I am an equal-opportunity offender, tweaking both sides of the spectrum.

I agree completely with one of your points: working-class people who never finished college "probably earn less money so they probably commute more by public transportation spend less time hopping on planes and have less money to spend on material goods, so as a whole you might say they are more green than say the highly educated elites." That's true, and it's a point I tried to make in my article. As a former roofer and builder, I get it.

There are lots of construction-related magazines and web sites out there. Over my career, I've worked at the Journal of Light Construction and Fine Homebuilding magazine, for example, and I respect them both -- they both provide excellent articles on construction techniques. GBA tries to be different -- we look at construction issues from a green-friendly, environmental perspective.

I hope you keep reading our articles, and I also hope you keep providing feedback.

Sep 24, 2016 2:15 PM ET

Part of the problem?
by Dan Kolbert

Great piece, Martin - the consumerist mentality that got us into this won't get us out.

While I am part of the "green" (yech) building community, I try not to have any illusions about the impact of what we're doing. The idea that single family detached is going to save the planet is delusional. It's going to take collective action on a far larger scale.

I liked how this video makes the point (full disclosure - my sis makes a cameo)

Sep 24, 2016 4:59 PM ET

Saving the Planet
by Malcolm Taylor

To be clear-eyed about it, what our efforts are really about is saving humanity and the things around us that we like. Nature is dispassionate. It favours abundant life, but isn't particular about what form it takes. Changes in climate mean changes in the type of life-forms that will flourish or become extinct. There is no indication that the planet won't survive with an abundance of life for billions of years. We are trying to save our species and those we currently share the earth with.

Sep 25, 2016 4:44 PM ET

Thanks, Dan
by Martin Holladay

That's an inspiring (and very relevant) video. Any video that includes cameos of Elizabeth Kolbert and Bread & Puppet Theater is worth watching, in my opinion.

Sep 25, 2016 4:49 PM ET

I think the bottom line is
by Eric Habegger

I think the bottom line is whether one has a narrow tribal perspective or a more global perspective. I liked the video Dan Kolbert referenced for that reason. There is too much tribalism where one wants to get everything one can get for your people and then look down on someone who may look different than you or grew up in dissimilar circumstances from you. Sure, some narrow self interests are a subset of traditional "green" ideas. Let's not break out arms patting ourselves on the back.

And I will say something about criticism in general. I think a global inclusive perspective is what is really important. But how do you defend the "other" when people around you, your friends, revert to their safe shell of narrow parochial interests and let the rest of the world be damned? Do you hold your tongue because it would be rude to do otherwise? This is especially important right now and I see a lot of things going wrong in the world because people are afraid to come off as offensive even though they are only trying to defend the rights of strangers who they have empathy for. Martin, I'm afraid that defending the value of inclusiveness against those who oppose it is something you sometimes shirk from in the guise of a fashionable "orneriness". I would call it something else.

Sep 25, 2016 5:03 PM ET

Response to Eric Habegger
by Martin Holladay

My values are entirely inclusive, and I hope that my default values -- "let's work together and include all of the planet's residents in our concept of family" -- came through in this blog. If there is any doubt, I'm happy to declare it now. Thanks for your comments.

Sep 26, 2016 10:08 AM ET

How many?
by Dan Kolbert

I try to think about what will happen when the billion-plus members of the rising Chinese and Indian middle classes start consuming like even the "greenest" of Americans.

Sep 26, 2016 11:02 AM ET

Non-defensive communication
by Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia

I read an article recently on Sharon Ellison's techniques for non-defensive communication ( I'm looking forward to using some of them to have more constructive conversations.

Sep 26, 2016 11:29 AM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

From my perspective that's funny thing for you to worry about. Your posts always seem both genial and eager to be helpful.

Sep 26, 2016 1:02 PM ET

Edited Sep 26, 2016 3:55 PM ET.

Response to Malcolm Taylor (Comment #10)
by Martin Holladay

You wrote, "To be clear-eyed about it, what our efforts are really about is saving humanity and the things around us that we like."

I understand your point -- human extinction wouldn't mean that our planet is dead; nor would it mean that life would cease. But most environmentalists aim for more than just "saving the things around us that we like." We also need to save the small ugly creatures -- the ones we don't see or particularly like.

Mass extinctions (like the mass extinctions now occurring on the planet -- one of the most intense waves of extinctions in the geologic record) are worrisome. Environmentalists don't like it when obscure ugly species go extinct. It's a bad sign. Our efforts shouldn't be limited to just saving fuzzy mammals like pandas. We need to study our current ecological balance and do our best not to throw it our of whack.

Sep 26, 2016 1:13 PM ET

by Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia

Thanks, Malcolm. I should have been clearer. I was referring to how I'd like to handle some conversations IRL.

Sep 26, 2016 9:35 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

I phrased that poorly. To come closer to what I was trying to convey it should have been something like "saving humanity and the place around us we hold dear".

While I admire your inclusive global environmentalism, the strain that I find promising comes from an intense attachment to the land. Perhaps this perspective in some way typifies the difference between our two countries. It's probably too broad a generalization, but one of the ways I think patriotism differs between America and Canada is that in the US it is often defined by national values, whereas here it is more frequently spoken about with reference to the physical attributes of the landscape itself.

When you hold someone or something dear, you care about its future in a very concrete way. Even the "small ugly creatures... we don't see or particularly like". And if you care for a place you assume other people in other places must too, so you try and stop the people around you exporting damaging practices to your neighbours.

I think history shows that when we frame problems in an abstract way the cure is often as bad as the disease. We need to care intensely about losing what we love.

Sep 26, 2016 10:53 PM ET

Response to Malcolm Taylor
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for your explanation. I think we are in agreement.

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