Hail the Green Revolution

  On Sept. 20-22 in downtown San Francisco, 10,000 people attended what prominent environmentalists believe is the next industrial revolution: the green movement. Geared towards architects and contractors, West Coast Green is an annual three days of lectures and presentations, showcasing the latest green technologies and ideas.

‘Green’ is a catch-all phrase including concepts like sustainability, permaculture and carbon-neutrality, along with many ‘no-brainer’ insights like not using formaldehyde in kitchen cabinets, or painting your children’s bedroom with toxic paints containing VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds).

The conference brimmed with optimism for the future. Though many of the speakers would not skimp on the foreboding and imminent doom anecdotes, they sensed that things were moving their way. With new technologies taking the ‘green premium’ down to earth, and a consumer frenzy for anything labeled organic or earth-friendly – a 230 billion dollar business- they may be on to something.

But the ultimate goal, the cause supreme, is to make the green movement irrelevant, by folding it into the mainstream and making it status quo. “we want it to become as much a part of everyday building culture as other past improvements,” said Jake Wegmann, of the citizens Housing Corporation, “like accessibility for wheelchairs, that went from being an exceptional feature to something that’s just required in the code . . . we are hoping that will extend to green building.” In what seams a first step in that direction, great American cities like Chicago and San Francisco are now changing building code so that all new municipal and governmental buildings have to be certified green.

The coveted benchmark for green certification, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), bases a buildings performance on five areas that are important to the health of humans and their environment: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. Considering that operations of buildings make up about 50 percent of  the US energy usage and produce 40 percent of the US’s waste, subjecting new, retrofit and remodeled buildings to these standards would do more to protect the environment than any other single factor.

There are two parties here at WCG that focus on ways to apply green theory to the construction industry: the permaculturists and the green capitalists. Both share the ‘spear in the chest,’ lightbulb realizations that the environmental challenges we face can be solved through better design – these are architects, after all – but they differ significantly in their approach. Pemacultureists work local, and tend to have longer term commitments to their community.  In their focus on sustainability, they work towards making communities capable of producing everything they need within their borders while increasing quality of life.

Green capitalists, in contrast, emphasize on a larger distribution network and seek to change industry as a whole. Rather than being the vanguards of the green movement, they tend to be converted industrialists that have realized the potential of making money by being green. Banking on ecological and financial consciousness of their clients, architects now have a whole-systems approach to the way they run their business, by factoring environmental effects and savings into their design.

Three days of statistics, numbers and diagrams presented at West Coast Green have crystallized the idea that consuming less, by itself, will only delay the inevitable. That means recycling, composting, buying new lightbulbs and driving less is not enough. Without systemic change on a national and global level, they are all but sticks in a fast moving river, noble but not enough to stem the flow.

While fuel for production of energy is an easy target, oil is not the big problem. Ed Mazria, co-author of “The 2030 Challenge,” says dirty coal is the only energy source that has the potential to bring us to the brink. All known oil and natural gas reserves in the world can not exude enough greenhouse gas emissions to reach the tipping point at 445 parts per million – we are at 335 now. The problem, according to Mazria, is that we have enough coal to last us hundreds of years. There are carbon sequestering technologies available, called ‘clean coal,’ but it’s still too expensive and may be ten to twenty years from being widely available. By that time more effort will have to be made than if we work for prevention. Without a doubt there will be a wide variety of methods to reduce waste and halt global warming but the faster you get to carbon neutrality the better off you will be, be it human or business.

Climate Change is measurable and human factors are the root cause. We will see the effects of our negligence within our lifetimes with an irreversible tipping point in less than 20 years. This is no longer a problem you can throw onto the next generation, but “guilt is no way to sell environmentalism,”  says Eric Corry Freed.

We can look at this challenge in many ways,  and while we solve it, we have an fresh opportunity to build community, educate and make people healthier, while healing the environment and ensuring our species survival into the next century.

West Coast Green is one of many green-themed conferences taking place in the US and the world. Conferences like this one are growing in popularity as more people are looking for advice on how to be green, and there are people who are looking to make sure that the transition is as easy as can be.