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Being Green - Questions?

Hi Folks:  Friday once again, and time for this week’s ‘Being Green‘ post.  I was originally going to call this post ‘Being Green – Tradeoffs’, but decided to change it.  Let me explain.

A couple of decades ago I was hired to do environmental work for a gas pipeline construction contract taking place across several Canadian provinces.  The pipeline company was ‘looping’ – adding extra lengths of pipe that would eventually be joined to make another line.  Basically this involved widening the existing right of way and digging a trench some 15′ deep and wide enough for a 4′ diameter pipe.  As the environmental inspector on the job my function varied depending on where I was working.  On the prairies the largest consideration was topsoil preservation, whereas in northern Ontario it was timber removal and water crossings.  There was a manual that outlined the job in some detail, and there were of course existing provincial and federal laws; part of my work was acting as liaison with local agencies with regard to environmental concerns.  The bottom line was that the pipe was going in the ground, and my challenge was to work with the gas company and the contractor to do it in a way that caused the least environmental impact without overly inflating the construction costs.  In practical terms, every day was about trade-offs.  I’m sure just about everyone reading this has experienced this in their own way.

Earlier this week I listened to a webinar with  “Interior Designer and Green Building Insider” Patricia Gaylor, called “Living Eco-logically: Sustainability with Style”.  In her talk Ms. Gaylor mentioned doing a kitchen remodel where the clients insisted on having granite countertops.  As granite is a mined resource and not renewable, it’s not exactly a ‘green’ option.  Ms. Gaylor’s suggestion to her clients was that to offset using granite for the countertops they might agree to using “Energy Star“-rated appliances… a trade-off.

Those of us with a green conscience and/or an attitude for healthy living must consider not only design, building codes and budget, but also every material and unit that goes into the construction, operation and maintenance of a building.  More and more these considerations are being brought under regulation, but I must admit I am baffled by the plethora of certifications already in existence, not to mention their crossovers and controversies.  It brings up a lot of questions for me, and some of them go beyond what most people think of with regard to ‘green building’.  Should one be allowed to install solar panels on the roof of a heritage house?  At what point do we cross over from aesthetics to efficiency?  Many people today would agree that homes should be built smaller, more efficiently.  Even if we take that as a given, there are already houses in existence that are 6, 10, or 25,000 sq. ft.  What do we do with them?  Tear them down?  Leave them up?  Renovate them to make them more efficient?  The old question regarding food is, “Is it better to eat organic food that has been shipped half way around the world, or local food that’s not produced organically?”  The same sorts of questions apply to everything from furniture to windows.  Where do we draw the lines?  What trade-offs are we prepared to make?

There are, however,  some trade-offs we shouldn’t have to make, and the choice between being ‘green’ and being healthy is one of them.  I recently read a report from Environment and Human Health, Inc. titled, “LEED Certification – Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health“. The article in the list below, “Is LEED Missing Something?” also mentions this report.   In some detail the report outlines the current state of affairs with regard to green building certifications and the conflicts that can occur between products that increase energy efficiency and those that endanger human health. Why can’t we have both efficiency and health?  Or can we?  This week I also listened to an interview with Janine Benyus, who, among other things is the co-founder of the Biomimcry Guild.  The interview is a little over an hour long, but well worth the time.  The basis for ‘Ask Nature’ – the Biomimicry Design Portal is to look at the ways Nature deals with specific challenges and then adapt them to our needs.  One example Ms. Benyus used in the interview was that she had taken a group of waste engineers to a salt marsh.  Every living thing on earth needs fresh water to survive; everything in the ocean is surrounded by salt water and uses a variety of systems to separate the salt from the water.  She found one engineer in tears beside a mangrove tree, asking, “How could I not know this?  We use 900 lb. of pressure to force water through a plate.”  The mangrove filters water at one atmosphere, and their roots provide an environment for an incredible number of species to thrive.

A lot of what Janine and her group are involved with are questions, but it’s more than that.  It’s learning how to ask the right questions.  Another example she used came from a visit to a 3rd world country where they were setting up solar refrigerators.  The explanation she received was that vaccines shipped around the world require refrigeration; without it the vaccines lose their efficacy (they spoil and become useless), and this is a huge global problem.  Since it takes a lot of energy to run a refrigerator, the answer was to create solar-powered refrigerators.  To Janine, this was the result of asking the wrong question as manufacturing and shipping solar refrigerators still requires a lot of energy and resources.  Her suggestion was that they should be asking, “How can we make vaccines that don’t require refrigeration?”  Every other species on the planet have a need to store things.  Plants store sugars and nutrients for example.  How do they do it?

How can we progress, as a people and as one of a collection of species sharing this little ball of earth, while ensuring respect for all life, past, present, and future?  It seems to me that these are the right questions to ask.

Okay, the links for this week include:

Okay, that’s it for now. Have a great week!
Mike.

P.S. This looks like an interesting use of biomimicry: Butterfly Biomimicry Can Curb Counterfeiting of Banknotes.  And if that’s not enough: Biomimicry Breakthrough: Butterfly Wings Could Lead to Better Solar Panels.

2 comments to Being Green – Questions?

  • Patricia Gaylor

    Hi there and thanks for listening in on my webinar. I really enjoyed reading your blog about it, and that it opens up so many more questions about what sustainability really means. You are one of the few (in my opinion) who is ahead of the curve in terms of the way we interact with the planet. There aren't many people like you who are willing to ask the questions about why we do the things we do, and how we can change our thoughts about our current use of precious resources. It's such a difficult road, and I can only try to change my little part of it, and try to explain why it's so important to THINK about what we are doing. As simplistic as it sounds to do small trade-offs in design, I feel at this juncture that it's better than doing nothing at all, we MUST start to change the way we do 'business as usual'….so thanks again for listening, I only wish there were more people like you out there.
    All the best,
    Pat

    • Pat: Thanks for dropping by our little corner of the 'net, and thanks so much for your wonderful comment!! It's true that every little bit helps; sometimes I think we can freeze ourselves into inactivity by wondering if we're doing enough, rather than simply doing what we can, individually and collectively, every day.

      Take care,
      Mike.

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