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Building Matters

What Does Green Living Even Mean?

A brief recap of how 1970s environmentalism set my course . . . and the questions I'm left asking

Housatonic River, Kent, CT

This week, I’m not writing about building techniques or science. Instead, I’m being self-indulgent. But I hope it spurs readers to think about what green living really means.

I came to green building by a route that’s probably not uncommon. I grew up with a burning Cuyahoga River, with crude oil lapping the beaches of Santa Barbara, and with a burgeoning awareness that the brown haze visible over New York City, 70 miles from where we lived, was a bad thing. Hard on the heels of these issues came the energy crisis of the 1970s, Love Canal, and Three Mile Island. While we’ve addressed those particular problems to some degree or another, environmental degradation persists. The Housatonic River flows near where I live, its northern reaches seemingly pristine. The trout fishing is fine, I’m told, although it’s catch-and-release, and people are advised to not eat the fish because of PCBs dumped in the river back when it was legal to do so.

Even as a kid, it was obvious to me that humanity had made a major wrong turn.

In 8th grade, I met Wayne South, a teacher who remains a friend to this day. He brought my class outside to stargaze on winter evenings. He took us hiking through land spared from Tocks Island Dam, and digging in a local fossil bed. In short, he made science both real and fun. A local icon of the early 1970s environmental movement, Wayne had two side gigs: he ran a bike shop and he erected windmills. He introduced me to The Foxfire Books and Organic Gardening magazine, as well as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Wendell Berry, John McPhee, and Edward Abbey.

Throughout my high-school years, I envisioned my adult self living a bearded hermit’s life…

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  1. fwsolar | | #1

    Thanks for this article. I think you have touched on a really important topic that is often ignored in the debate over how to make the world (especially the West) more "green" or "sustainable." That is the topic of consumption. In my view, the only path to salvation, if indeed a path exists at all, is for a lot of people to consume a lot less energy. For the typical rich Westerner, this means scaling our lifestyles way down.

    Consider that for all the strides made in clean energy, conservation and the like, carbon emissions have marched relentlessly higher, almost without pause, setting new records for annual output almost every year of our lifetimes. Some argue that renewables have merely enabled higher consumption, rather than displacing fossil fuels.

    At this point, I think it's abundantly clear that we can't buy our way out of environmental crisis. We can certainly make smarter choices when providing for our basic needs, such by choosing efficient homes and renewable power. But the smarter choices are marginal; the key is consuming less in the first place. Less driving, less flying. Expanding one's range of thermal comfort to minimize home heating and eliminate or drastically reduce air conditioning use. Less meat, more gardening. Less stuff. Less trash.

    It all sounds pretty boring and unsexy, and therein lies the rub: foregoing consumption is a tough sell in our marketing-driven culture, and there's not much money in it! But in my experience, aspiring to less is a very positive lifestyle change that inevitably results in a stronger body and mind. And despite my best efforts, I'm pretty sure our species would still be in deep trouble if everyone on Earth lived like I do. So I need to do better. We all do.

  2. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #2

    My observation.

  3. user-723121 | | #3

    We could consider verifiable carbon offsets. City dwellers working with rural landowners to add deep rooted native plantings that store carbon. I believe there are quite a number of landowners that would welcome the opportunity.

  4. ovolo | | #4

    thanks Andy.. nicely put

  5. BirchwoodBill | | #5

    Good article, people should live within their means. The true “core” of green is building smaller, more comfortable and more affordable housing. What I like about the pretty good house specification on gba is that is common sense that anyone can build. I see a lot of shoddily built million dollar homes and shake my head. Would rather have a small RESIST house that has homeowner built.

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