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Thinking Green

Colorado wildflowers

By all accounts, my friend Neil Wolf would be described as soft-spoken. I had to listen very carefully to hear his often-profound thought. We played pick-up basketball together for a several years at the YMCA in Greenwich. While waiting on the sidelines for the next game, we would explore our shared progressive views on all sorts of topics.

One day while discussing a recycling mandate dictated by the town Neil quipped, “Recycling is part of the problem, not a solution to the problem.”

As is often the case, our knee-jerk progressive/liberal thought is only followed because it sounds right, not because it is. Looking at him somewhat aghast I asked, “Are you kidding?” In response Neil said, “Don’t package or make products that need recycling. That would solve all sorts of pollution-related issues.”

That conversation occurred in the early eighties … and I continue to process the thought.

Now we have a “Texas-sized” landfill of floating debris, mostly plastic, settled in the tropical convergence zone in the Pacific Ocean, south of Hawaii. All of those Gatorade and water bottles migrate down the Pacific Rim watercourses – and, like some vast gathering of flocks, land there – and it is growing by the minute.

Yes, we are making strides towards taking responsibility for our waste, but it is a stuttering effort. Look at the Prius. The carbon footprint of the making of a Toyota Prius is far greater than the value of the gas burning by-products saved during the use/life of the vehicle.

We stockpile immense quantities of goods. We do this so that when we go to the mall or supermarket we have “choice”. At any given time, hundreds of thousands of new cars sit unused at the ports. Ditto, the toys at the toy store, the clothes at the mall, the appliances and everything else at the big box. There is this great stockpiling of unused resources … the hoarding of choice … the latest sin of our consumer world.

In the green building world we justify building “energy-efficient” LEED-certified homes simply because we can.

A recent article in a local magazine touted a very large, custom home (eight or ten thousand square feet of living space) as “off the grid”. It used solar panels, geothermal heat, high-tech heating and energy management. Sounds great, but think of all the materials – rare metals, PVC piping, asphalt shingles, etc. – that went into building a home that no more than three or four humans will inhabit at any given time. That house is a big as a school.

Green is good, of course.

But going forward, our society needs to put a break on old polluting ways and engage zero impact living.

Certainly building with recycled, non-off-gassing materials makes for a safer (non-toxic) home. But know that most green products have their own carbon footprint; or, the manufacturing process has complex chemical by-products. And don’t ignore the proverbial 10% waste of the construction industry. Where does the waste go? Into landfills, into the ocean?

I would rather live in a non-toxic home, wouldn’t you? In our remodeling work we do everything possible to let our buildings breathe naturally, releasing the oxides and toxins that build up from the normal course of living in an enclosed space. We purchase these required materials with care.

In a culture that defines success as growth, we translate this on a personal level to mean: We can have anything we want, any time we want it, just because we can afford to have it. But we can’t. The Earth’s resources are precious and limited; that steel girder in that “green” house was forged with coal from a strip mine.

If we are careful in our lives and industries to make the necessary decisions to balance our impact on the environment, perhaps we can be truly green.

Ultimately more is not the answer, even if we can afford it. Build green in every way possible if you need to build. But build only what you truly need. Or better yet, retrofit that non-LEED-certified McMansion down the street.