On the Path to More Green Building

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On the Path to More Green Building

What lessons can we learn from government involvement in our behavior?

Posted on Jun 6 2012 by Carl Seville, GBA Advisor

We are in a very conservative, practically radical, political environment in where taxes, regulation, and almost anything that smells of “government” is beaten back as soon as it comes up. As energy codes become more rigorous, we see efforts to beat them back.

While there are plenty of laws on the books that aren’t useful or effective (except possibly to some narrow interest groups who helped enact them), I assume that most Green Building Advisor readers would agree that stricter energy codes are a good thing. I do wonder, however, how much actual improvement in efficiency we will see, and how quickly the improvement will come, due to more stringent codes.

Anti-smoking campaigns as a model

I am going to make an argument for more government involvement in energy efficiency, using anti-smoking efforts as a model. For many years, few people believed that smoking was harmful, and for a period of time it was even considered healthful.

Early anti-smoking efforts, mostly involving public service announcements, were not particularly effective at cutting down on the number of smokers. Tobacco company marketers managed to increase the sales of cigarettes, particularly to teenagers, until the government got involved.

Ultimately, restricted advertising, no smoking laws, package warnings, legal settlements, and higher taxes, together, reduced smoking. This has ledLight-emitting diode. Illumination technology that produces light by running electrical current through a semiconductor diode. LED lamps are much longer lasting and much more energy efficient than incandescent lamps; unlike fluorescent lamps, LED lamps do not contain mercury and can be readily dimmed. to improved health and longer lives for many Americans. People noticed, government got involved, and things improved.

Diet and exercise

The next big health frontier is obesity. Childhood obesity is increasing health care costs and shortening lives. The First Lady is promoting healthy living and physical activity in an effort to improve diets and the health of children and adults. She is getting some heat for this from the far right who, apparently, think that promoting a healthy lifestyle is somehow anti-American.

Discussions about taxing sweetened drinks and less healthy snack foods have also come under fire. There are significant government incentives and subsidies given to the agriculture industry that helps promote the production of corn sweeteners and oils used in frying. A combination of high profits and expanded production of sweeteners and oils required market expansion to absorb them. This led us to super-sized fast food, and, ultimately, huge cup holders in cars to store enormous drinks while we drive.

People are just beginning to take notice. It will probably be several years before we see any government action in this area, but based on our experience with smoking, it is probably the only way we will start to see improvements.

Can we get some action on green building and energy efficiency?

We know that green, healthy, and efficient buildings improve occupant health and help reduce our use of fossil fuels, leading, ultimately, to lower levels of carbon in the atmosphere and improved health for everyone. But this is a big stretch for many people to make.

It took a long time for us to realize that smoking was bad for our health, and ultimately it took government action to get people to smoke less. We are in the early stages of the diet/obesity discussion, and who knows how long it will take to see appropriate action on that front.

The effects of poor building construction are even farther out of the view of the average American than smoking, diet, and exercise. I feel like those of us on the inside of green building are sort of like the medical researchers who knew about smoking and now know about diet and obesity and are trying desperately to get the word out and change policy for the better. We have a very long way to go to get people’s attention, and ultimately enough government action to incentivize or require high performance buildings.

I am hopeful that we will get there, but not sure how long it will take. Given how long it took to change people’s smoking habits, and how far we have yet to go in changing diet and exercise behavior, it may take quite a while.


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  1. Lawrence Jackson