Commentary: To be Green or Not to be Green

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 04.01.2007


In this month's issue of our newsletter we have an article about the environmental choice between wood and steel, with the example of a residential building project. The gift of this article is that when you know the truth, it makes simple basic sense. Yet the challenge to the article is that the information it contains has been true for decades, and the public appears to be no closer to this truth than they were twenty years ago. This is frustrating, especially to those of us that have tried to educate people throughout this period. Our shared ignorance about the things we buy and their impacts on the environment and ourselves is sometimes shocking.


The complaint is sometimes heard that “being green is too difficult”, and that comparing materials to decide which are the greenest choices is too complicated. This may be true, but there are also plenty of examples of how green can be extremely simple and how these straightforward choices can have tremendous positive impacts. For example, when it comes to trying to reduce impacts from building a house, the green goals could include:


Build a house that uses 50% less materials:


This is the easy one….just build it half as big!


Build a house that consumes 80% less electricity for basic systems:


We are mired in a 110-volt mentality when all those hot new gadgets (cell phones, IPODs, and computers) are compatible with 12-volt electrical systems that are easily powered by either solar, wind or both in most regions of the US. Systems now in use on sailboats and yachts could easily be adapted to houses.


Build a house that uses 80% less water:


We have waterless urinals – how about reducing and recycling water within a house? In more and more houses thousands are spent on water softeners and filters – why not take the next step and make each home much more self-sufficient?


Build a house that uses 80% less heat in winter (in the north) and 80% less cooling in summer (in the south):


Simple approaches like creating appropriate roof overhangs, using correct orientation of windows, and natural airflow combined with best technology in framing and insulation techniques make this easily possible. (Did you know that if you insulate and size your bedroom correctly, the exothermic activities of your body would warm the room?)


Buy local, with 50% of your materials from within 250 miles, and 90% from within 500 miles:


The costs of transporting goods long distance are heavily subsidized by low environmental expectations and regulations. Recently, the city of Los Angeles looked into air pollution in their region and estimated that cargo ships coming into their port caused greater air pollution than the six million vehicles jammed on LA freeways. The main culprit is bunker fuel, a very low grade and cheap fuel that is used by cargo ships to keep international shipping costs low. Simply switching to Number 2 diesel fuel would be anticipated to reduce pollution by 80-90%, but would add 50% to the fuel cost (the dominant cost) of shipping. Local materials would be much more competitive, if not cheaper, if cargo ships were simply held to the same environmental standards that North American trucks and rail are held to.


There are also a couple of rules of thumb for evaluating which materials have the least environmental impact:


Buy local wood products:

In general, there are few materials that bring the environmental benefits that wood does. It is not only our most commonly used material but also, in almost every case, the best environmental choice. We must get past the misperception that just because a tree is cut down in the process of producing wood products that using wood is bad. Cutting down trees can seem unsightly, but it is important to keep in mind that all other alternatives (such as mining and subsequent processing of ore to useful products) also trigger impacts that in most cases are far worse than those associated with harvesting and wood processing.


Stop thinking agriculturally based or rapidly renewable products represent an easy solution:


Though essential to mankind, agriculture is a major contributor to many environmental problems. It is the dominant cause of deforestation around the world, one of the heaviest introducers of chemicals into the environment, one of the largest causes of topsoil loss, and in some regions is the major cause of the loss of biological diversity. Before agriculture the Midwest was a vast area of prairies, wetlands, and other ecosystems called the Great Plains. Nearly all fast-growing species being discussed as solutions to a myriad of environmental problems involve increases in industrial crop production. To ensure that benefits outweigh costs, green programs need to require that these products either be organic or certified in some recognizable manner similar to wood.


It is true that environmental problems are complex, and for many of them there are NO simple solutions, no silver bullets, no quick and dirty answers. However, there are many opportunities to make environmentally beneficial choices and many of these choices are very straightforward. Other, more complex decisions are facilitated by tools such as environmental life cycle assessment that are increasingly available in user-friendly formats. In the world of green, we need to look beyond personal biases, making sure we don't discard sensible solutions in a quest for perfection. We need to make the choices we can make and continue to push for better alternatives in the future. When we consider our individual choices carefully and begin taking action to change our behaviors we can make significant progress while building toward the more complex discussions and choices that will come next, and very soon.


Dr. Jeff Howe

April 2007