Gazing Into the Crystal Ball: Are We Serious About Sustainability and ‘Going Green’…or Just Paying Lip Service?

There appears to be a growing fervent desire, even within ‘mainstream circles,’ to rid oneself of conspicuous consumption, and attempt to live a more austere lifestyle. Perhaps you have a friend who decided to forgo Christmas-time gift-giving, or even displaying a Christmas tree…or know someone who rides the bus or a bicycle to and from work (toting their lunch to boot!), lives in a downtown urban core, or nor matter where the locale, is espousing the virtues of voluntary simplicity — a life free from clutter and ‘things.’ Perhaps not since the days of Henry David Thoreau, or the 1970’s back-to-the-land movement, have some people expressed such deeply felt environmental convictions.

city streetsSome of these convictions, cynics (conservative-government soothsayers) point out have shallow foundations. Put aside the present ‘tough economy’ and environmental fervor will dissolve, er, melt as quickly as the polar icecaps…let technology lead us, and we will grow a new economy…for isn’t that what some of our 2008 Presidential candidates would lead us to believe? As the saying goes, isn’t the real issue “the economy stupid?” But even these candidates know our economy and the environment are interconnected. The overwhelming environmental issue of our times is the warming of the planet and what the potential ramifications are — for the country and the globe. The Democratic candidates in the 2008 campaign seemingly call for large (but unspecified) national sacrifices and for a transformation in the way the U.S. produces and uses energy. The Republicans barely concede that climate change could be a problem, and with the exception of John McCain, offer no comprehensive solutions. If the politicians can’t agree is it any wonder Americans seem unwilling to grapple with the implications of a lack of any serious strategy to reduce greenhouse gases? Think globally, act locally?

Are Americans willing to change their lifestyles to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and all things related? As reported in the New York Times on January 13, 2008, in an article entitled ‘The Afterlife of Cell Phones,’ “Americans threw out just shy of three million tons of household electronics in 2006. This so called e-waste is the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream and…contains substances that, though safely sequestered during each product’s use, can become hazardous if not handled properly when disposed.” The article states that “the E.P.A. says that modern landfills are designed to keep toxics stewing inside from leaking out, so they don’t contaminate surrounding soil or drinking water. But landfills do fail, says Oladele A Ogunseitan, an environmental-health scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of last year’s study. More important he notes, such landfills don’t exist in the developing world. In many places, garbage is tossed into informal dumps or bodies of water or burned in the open air — all dangerous ways of liberating and spreading toxics…” As with most environmental issues there are no simple solutions. Wherever humans go, it seems that something, somewhere, to some extent, always ends up being depleted or damaged.

How much are we willing to pay for energy to heat our homes, power our vehicles, fuel our landscapes? As global economic forces limit America’s power and wealth what will the future bring? Are we serious about sustainability and ‘going green’…or just paying lip service? If ‘we’ are serious then we better envision a way of living that’s ecological in nature. In his Boston Globe Magazine article ‘Tall Order,’ Tom Keane suggests one possible solution: “Building tall is building smart…when land is expensive, it is far cheaper to build upward. The taller you go (at least until you hit 80 stories), the less the cost per square foot…newer skyscrapers are being designed in ways that dramatically minimize their impact on the environment, allowing them to achieve the highest rank possible (‘platinum’) under the LEED Green Building rating system. Water and heat are recycled. Solar panels reduce the need for outside energy. The entire life cycle of the building is managed, from construction to obsolescence, with some of the original materials getting reused to build other structures. This is all possible because of the building’s size, which makes it economically feasible to do things that in a smaller structure would be far too costly. But even if a skyscraper isn’t LEED certified, it is the way the building is used that makes it so profoundly green. When people are packed together, the services needed to support those people are easier and cheaper to provide. Less travel is required. Everything can be provided in bulk. That’s why, as David Owen argued in a seminal New Yorker piece in 2004, Manhattan on a per capita basis may well be the most energy-efficient place in the country. The reason largely boils down to the fact that it is also the densest.”

A number of us who employ sustainable thinking and practices are convinced that with diminishing oil supplies, climate change, economic irregularities, the rise of ‘green buildings and green maintenance’ that it will not only be necessary but profitable for landscape professionals to embrace sustainable practices. What might the sustainable landscape of the near future look like…and how will it function? What trends will need to be considered beyond the current practices of utilizing green roofs, native plants, composting, grey water recycling, zeriscaping, etc? As with most environmental issues there are no simple solutions. Stay tuned to these pages for further in-depth discussions…and let us hear from you!

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