Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Choose Organics for a Healthy Body and Planet

Despite many attempts to weaken it by industry lobbyists, the organic standard in the United States is one of the few strong standards we can still count on for ensuring that products were made free from toxic chemicals and genetic modification. As such, we can generally rely on the “organic” label to help guide us towards wiser purchases. Unlike the word “natural”, which has essentially zero meaning, when we buy things that have been grown organically, we are not only choosing something that is likely to be much better for our family's health, but we are casting votes for a better planet for all of us.

Pesticide and GMO Hazards
So why should we care about organic products? First of all, if it's not organic, there's a good chance it's been cultivated with copious amounts of extremely toxic chemicals–pesticides which were developed from WWII chemical warfare research–aimed at killing anything that may harm crops. Unfortunately, these extremely toxic chemicals (many of which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other diseases) have a huge negative impact on the natural environment and on our bodies’ health. Secondly, many popular non-organic crops are composed of genetically modified organisms, GMO's for short. These new genetic laboratory creations—which have been largely rejected by Europeans—can be strange conglomerations of dramatically different life forms into one “food” product. Examples include crossing flounder fish genes with strawberries to make them more resistant to frost, and crossing bacteria with potatoes to make them lethal to insects that eat them. I personally believe that the use of GMO's in consumer products is an unfortunate mass human experiment which has been foisted upon us. We are only now just beginning to understand some of the many negative impacts of GMO's on us and the environment. Look for more information in future posts on this topic.

Organic Guidelines
In order to be certified organic, farmers must follow strict guidelines to ensure that not only no chemicals are used in growing the current crop but that no chemicals have been used on that land for some period of prior years. This includes chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and other chemical treatments. And, so far, the organic label also ensures that the crops were grown without GMO's. The organic standard in the US also precludes the use of irradiation, antibiotics (for animals), and sewage sludge on crops.

Priorities for Buying Organic
Can I honestly say that 100% of what I buy is organic? Of course not. Organic options do not even exist for many things. However, I certainly aim to buy mainly organic products–especially when it comes to foods and personal care products–as these are the ones which not only have a large impact on the environment but have the largest impact on our health. Further, there are some things that given the choice are more important to be organic than not. For example, I refuse to buy soybean or corn products which, if not organic, at least are non-GMO since most of the other corn and soybean crops are grown with chemical pesticides and GMO's. I tend to make fruit and vegetables in which we eat the skin a higher priority to be organic than the ones in which we throw away the peel–given that much of the chemical contamination happens externally in the form of spraying. I also make a high priority of using organic personal care products (as well as those without other nasty chemical compound ingredients period). I would also make a high priority of buying organic products—especially food—for pregnant & nursing mothers, babies, and young children who are especially susceptible to the ill effects of chemicals.

Keep Increasing the Demand
Organic crops have traveled from the fringes to land squarely in the mainstream and are now purchased by a vast majority of people in the US. Production of organic crops has doubled since the 1990’s and demand has been even higher. This is a trend that should continue to be stoked by our consumer clout—for healthier families and a sustainable environment. So, when you have a choice, choose organic!

Resources for more info:
Organic Trade Association
Wikipedia on Organic Certification
Organic Consumers Association

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Super-Efficiency with Renewables to Forge a Stabilized Climate: Inspiration from the US Passive House Conference

I won't attempt to do justice to the whole 5th Annual US Passive House conference recently held here in Portland, but I do want to highlight a few points from the event which I found inspirational and insightful.

The welcome by Portland Mayor, Sam Adams, set the tone for the conference when he noted, "being recognized as the most sustainable city in the US is high praise on a low standard.” He spoke of the intention in Portland to orient neighborhoods around a 20-minute walk given that two thirds of transportation use is not commuting to work, but for shopping and other trips. And he spoke of the need for increased building efficiency by underscoring that, “the most valuable thing is the watt not used from the grid.”

Jens Lausten, senior energy efficiency policy analyst at the International Energy Agency, highlighted energy efficiency as the critical part of a sustainable energy future saying, “If we can't do buildings right, we might as well forget about climate change.” Lausten was responsible for the IEA recommendations on energy efficiency in buildings and other G-8 related policy work on buildings. He said that energy efficiency alone needs to deliver more than half of the needed abatement, energy efficiency and renewables need to make up more than 75%, while nuclear—in the best case—could only make up 10%. In other words, we have to focus on efficiency. Further he pointed out that when we increase building efficiency we become richer since we get the reduction for free versus carbon sequestration, which we'd have to pay for.

Lausten claims that most studies on energy efficiency are wrong because they're based on particular techniques like better roof insulation, better windows etc. He says instead, we need to focus on concepts and a holistic approach to efficiency which he summarized as:
1.    Passive House which is feasible in many cases,
2.    Zero energy buildings, zero carbon, and plus energy buildings (which generate a surplus of energy)
3.    Intelligent design
4.    Factor 10 efficiency renovations to Passive House standard or nearly Passive House. First, we need to get new buildings to Passive House standard, and then work to retrofit existing buildings.

He says that if we want large-scale reductions in energy and carbon, we need to address policies, and pointed out that if we don't put these requirements for efficiency in building codes, we don't get a lot of results.
Affordable townhomes being built to Passive House standard
by Habitat for Humanity in Washington, DC

Robert Hastings, professor emeritus of the Donau University Krems-Austria and an energy consultant and architect, compared the American and European paths to super-efficient buildings and Passive House from the solar air heated parlor developed in 1881 by Edward Morse, to the early solar air systems developed in 1900 that soon led to commercialized solar collectors, to the MIT solar house of 1939, and on through the present. Having been involved in so much of the recent history himself, in both the USA and Europe, he brought a rich personal experience to this exploration. Some points he made that hit home with me include the need to look at the whole energy picture covering three sectors–industry, transportation, and buildings, and the difficulty of industry and transportation to take on a large percentage of renewables. As he says it’s “difficult to run a steel plant” or “fly large aircraft on solar power”. Therefore buildings must be the “trendsetters” and take the “brunt” of the shift to efficiency and renewables. He points to an approach of combining passive solar with day-lighting, solar thermal and solar PV generation, coupled with an extremely efficient envelope, which gives the combined result of very high renewables coverage within a dramatically reduced demand. He stated that zero energy buildings, is the path in North America.

Dr. Wolfgang Feist—the physicist founder and director of the Passive House Institute in Darmstadt, Germany—discussed the implementation of the Passive House standard worldwide. Dr. Feist pointed out that almost all countries in Europe have Passive House buildings—mostly with no incentive or government financing—and the long-term studies of Passive House buildings in action show an incredibly consistent picture of low energy use. For example, Passive House buildings in Vienna demonstrate three times less energy use than the local low-energy code buildings, while they are nearly the same cost to build. On top of that, those low energy buildings often have humidity problems that require costly remediation. There are now two Passive House buildings completed in Japan and there is even a demonstration Passive House building in Antarctica.
North Carolina's first Passive House has recently been completed

In the keynote address, physicist Amory Lovins—chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute—pointed out that saving fuel now cost less than new energy sources, although Copenhagen somehow forgot this. He said that if we drop 3-4% we could stabilize the climate and given that we've already seen cuts in some areas by 6 to 16%, it shows that such reductions are feasible. He made the point that wind power could replace 40% of coal energy generation, and that photovoltaic now cost more than a new coal plant, but soon it won't. And the total of nonnuclear alternatives can replace coal power more than 23 times, but we only need to do it once. He too focused on efficiency as critical to the whole shift that needs to happen and cited examples of the super-efficient Rocky Mountain Institute building (which BTW was a key inspiration for Dr. Feist in developing the Passive House standard) which has no furnace and uses no fossil fuels and the renovation of the Empire State building that will cut energy use by 35% and will have a payback time of just three years.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Super-Efficiency is Available Now

In honor of the fifth annual US Passive House conference taking place in our fair city of Portland, Oregon this week, I want to introduce this exciting and relatively new standard for building efficiency known as Passive House.

I have been interested for many years in efficient building approaches. In the mid 80’s I had the opportunity to visit what Amory Lovins jokingly referred to as his “banana plantation in the Rocky Mountains”—his home and office of the Rocky Mountain Institute—and saw for myself the banana trees that grew well in the middle of the snowy Rocky mountain winters (they even had to keep windows open in the winter because it was too warm). I knew, and this proved to me, that there was a better way than the terribly inefficient standards of typical home and commercial construction being pursued here. Unfortunately, we haven’t advanced much in standards of efficient construction, but there are now some inspiring opportunities if given the proper focus and support.

In January 2009 I had the pleasure of hearing about a still relatively new approach to construction that was inspired by Amory Lovins and others experimenting in the US with super-insulated buildings that was later developed—in Germany with great attention to building science—into what has become the most rigorous standard in the world for energy efficiency, what’s called in German Passivhaus and translated into English, Passive House.

While the name in English is awkward and a bit confusing (people tend to confuse it with passive solar), Passive House could be the new gold standard in efficient building. The Passive House standard does not focus on a wide range of green building elements and therefore is not a replacement of LEED and the Living Building Challenge, it does however, zero in on the linchpin of green building: energy use. The Passive House standard also does not dictate a particular construction method, but sets an extremely high—but reachable—standard for energy efficiency which ensures that homes meeting this standard use 70 to 90% less energy than typical new homes built in the US (other building types find similar reductions in energy use).

In short, the Passive House standard requires the building to meet three stringent measures of performance:
•    Maximum annual heating and cooling demand that does not exceed 15 kWh/m2/year (4.75 kBtu/sf/yr),
•    Total energy consumption of not more than 120 kWh/sq m (38.1 kBtu/sf/yr) per year, and
•    Airtight building shell of no more than 0.6 ACH @ 50 pascal pressure, measured by a blower-door test.

So what does this all mean? In short, it means that the focus is on an extremely efficient building envelope with ample insulation, strategically placed high-performance windows, very minimal thermal bridging (where heat and cold can easily transfer from inside to outside and vice versa), and efficient lighting and appliances. Further, this means that instead of a typical furnace, a single family home can be heated with a small auxiliary heater of 1000-2000 watts—when needed at all. In other words, we can trade our furnaces for something the size of a hairdryer. Also, since it creates an airtight envelope, a device (HRV-Heat Recovery Ventilator or ERV-Energy Recovery Ventilator) is used to constantly bring in fresh outside air which is warmed by the heat of the outgoing stale air from in the building, so it also enjoys an extremely high level of fresh, healthy indoor air quality.

Given the fact that US buildings currently consume ¾ of the electricity in the US—more than any other single sector—and is one of the key contributors to greenhouse gases, the opportunity to shift our new and existing building stock to this level of efficiency should be a top priority. Although the Passive House standard is just getting started in the US, it is growing quickly—following Europe’s lead, which has already built over 15 thousand buildings to this standard.

Look for more details on this in coming posts. Meanwhile, check out these links for more information:
Passive House Institute of the US
Passivhaus Institut (Germany) English site
Green Without Gizmos, Fine Homebuilding, April/May 2010
Can We Build A Brighter Shade of Green? New York Times story Sept. 2010 
Snug and Tight House, New York Times graphic 

Monday, November 1, 2010

How’s Your Food Karma?, Part II: Eco Impacts

The famous writer, Michael Pollan—himself a meat eater—said, "a vegan driving a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat eater driving a Prius." While this comparison may be closer to a tie, the reality is our current and projected consumption of animals and all that entails—massive water consumption, nitrate pollution, methane emissions, and concentrated factory farming practices to name a few—is taking an enormous toll on our natural environment and contributing significantly to global warming.

My intent is not to make enemies out of those who—out of habit or conscious choice—consume animals for food. My intention is to point out some of the consequences and encourage people to at least practice and promote consuming less meat.

The United nations FAO undertook a comprehensive study—Livestock's Long Shadow - Environmental Issues and Options—regarding the environmental impacts of consuming animals for food in 2006. Based on that study, the FAO concluded that livestock are responsible for a larger share of greenhouse gas emissions than even transportation—18%. Further, the report estimates that livestock contributes to about 9% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, 7% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions. They further conclude that we must take urgent action to correct the massive negative impact that animal production is having and is his projected to have on the environment.
Intensive animal farming produces massive amounts of waste

I remember being shocked years ago by the fact from the book Cadillac Desert that the largest water user in the state of California was not the city of Los Angeles but growing grass to graze cattle. A few other facts about animal consumption and its negative impacts on the environment include the following (from John Robbins’ Diet for a New America):
•    Three times more fossil fuels are needed to produce food for a meat centered diet than a meat free diet,
•    85% of topsoil loss is directly related to raising livestock,
•    55 square feet of tropical rainforest is destroyed for every ¼ pound of rainforest beef produced,
•    300,000,000 pounds of meat are imported to the US annually from Central and South America,
•    More than half of all water used in the US for all purposes is used for livestock production,
•    It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, it takes 5000 gallons of water to produce a pound of California beef,
•    If every human follows a meat centered diet the world's known oil reserves will only last 13 years, if human beings no longer ate meat they would last 260 years,
•    33% of all raw materials consumed in the US are devoted to production of livestock, 2% of all raw materials consumed in the US are needed to produce a complete vegetarian diet,

It's your choice what you eat, but let's make it a conscious choice based on the facts. We all have to decide for ourselves, and everyone has a different approach. I chose to give up animals for food all at once; some choose to wean themselves off of meat slowly. I hope you will consider giving up meat consumption entirely, and if that doesn't work, I hope you will choose to consistently reduce your consumption of animals starting now by going meat free one or two days a week, increasing the number of days each month from there.

There are lots of great resources for how to eat healthy, tasty food free from animal products. One good source is Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which has a free vegetarian starter kit.

According to Captain Paul Watson, "The bottom line is that to be a conservationist and an environmentalist, you must practice and promote vegetarianism or better yet veganism."

Here are some related links:
vegan hummer vs meat eater in a prius:
NYT article: Rethinking the  Meat Gussler

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Towards a Living Building

I had a great opportunity yesterday to visit an interesting project in Portland that is seeking to meet the Living Building Challenge. It's known as the Commons, and it's being designed, built, and financed by the Moon Brothers. These guys are truly pioneers and heroes showing how we can build and live more in harmony with nature.

Exterior step detail
The Commons view from the street
The Commons view from the rear garden

Dustin Moon, the tireless builder and contractor of the home, showed us around. He and his brother,  Garrett, have designed and are financing and building the 2600 square foot home which will house them and their families including occasionally their parents. They've also established a good size shop on site which is covered by a food garden. At this point, they have the foundation, cistern, walls, roof, most windows, stairs, and some mechanical systems in place. They been at it for two years and they're hoping to finish by next summer.
The "expensive box" composting bin for "blackwater" waste

So what is a living building? According to Cascadia Green Building Council, the initiators of the Living Building Challenge, a living building must generate all needed energy on-site, draw all its needed water from the site, and processes all its water and waste on the site. This is an extremely tall order and something that's very exciting in the movement to have our built environment be more harmonious with the natural environment.

The Commons has come a long way since I saw last year on the Portland's Build It Green home tour. At that point they had the foundation, cistern, and shop in place, but had only the beginnings of walls started.

Although the Living Building Challenge has been underway for several years, last month was the first time that any had successfully been completed and certified in the Challenge.

The home incorporates a modern design with steel stud framing and several layers of polyiso foam on the exterior for insulation. They managed to deconstruct and reuse or giveaway most of the very old rundown building that was on the site previously. And they have been able to incorporate many recycled materials in the construction of the new house, including the reused sheet metal which gives the exterior a very distinctive look. They also are incorporating some ingenious and attractive metal features.

I look forward to watching their progress continue and wish them the best of luck in meeting the Living Building Challenge.

For more details and to track their progress, check out their blog and website here at The Commons. I also want to send a shout out to Amber Turner and Green PDX for arranging this and many other great tours locally.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How's Your Food Karma?

As much as we may try to deny it or ignore it, our actions have profound consequences. This is certainly true in the area of our food choices.

I have personally chosen a vegan path. Having said that, I'm not very judgmental. Some of my best friends and most of my relatives are meat eaters. We all need to make our own choices. I do, however, encourage people to look at the full impact of our choices and make decisions in light of that. BTW, “vegan” diet means a plant-based diet focusing on grains, fruits, legumes, and vegetables with no animal products. So in addition to no animal flesh, that means no eggs or dairy as well. And, no, fish are not plants). So my purpose here is to inform rather than judge peoples’ choices in life.

After growing up as a typical omnivore eating my share of meat (and even teasing my then vegetarian sister for her diet), I first came to a vegetarian diet after being captivated by the philosophy of nonviolence so eloquently articulated by Mahatma Gandhi. Inspired by that, I was seeking to live a more nonviolent life and promote that in the world, however, I realized that my food choices directly brought violence to other living beings. I saw the hypocrisy in that and I decided to change it. The close second motivation for me was realizing that it was not only better for other living beings, but it was healthier for me to exist on a diet free of meat. I was moving into a new household, and one of my roommates was a vegetarian, so I asked him all the typical questions like "what you eat?” and "what you do for protein?” That was more than 25 years ago and I haven't looked back since.

Some years later I realized (and finally admitted to myself) that the egg and dairy industry also brings its share of death and suffering to other living beings. And I decided to go vegan. Again a close second concern at that point was the negative health impacts of dairy and eggs (see Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine for some good info on plant-based diets here). I had often experienced a lot of sniffling and running nose, and although my intake of eggs was minimal, I had at times been consuming lots of dairy products, and those have more than their fair share of cholesterol. I did find that once I went vegan, my energy got a subtle boost and I found that my nose was much clearer. I continue to be in great health and rarely get even a cold or flu.

Around the time I was going vegan, I also started understanding more deeply the environmental impacts of our food choices, which are huge and which I'll cover more in a future post. Suffice it to say that the closer we are to maintaining a plant-based diet, the better it is not only for our health, but for that of the planet (not to mention the animals are happier too). One great source of info related to environmental and health impacts of our animal-centered diet is John Robbins’ book, Diet for a New America (

If I am to articulate a concise piece of my philosophy, I would say that we and the planet would be better off to let go of our anthropocentric view that whatever is outside of us exists for our pleasure, use, and abuse. The current environmental problems we face are directly related to acting according to this viewpoint. I believe other living beings have a right to exist of their own accord, or more eloquently in Alice Walker’s words, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men." Again, I put this out not as a judgment, but as a perspective that I hope is helpful for those who choose to see it that way.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lifestyle Choices: Is More Really Better?

This great global recession has given us a chance to reevaluate our priorities. Do we really need the more expensive, brand-new car? Do we really need the home with twice the square footage? Moreover, are these things actually enhancing our lives or detracting from them? Ultimately if we are going to create a sustainable world, we need to let go of blind consumerism and blind materialism. We need to reconnect with the humanness of our culture and ourselves. We need to reconnect with each other, and ourselves, and to do that we may be best off letting go of a little stuff.

Examples from the developing world
During the few years I spent living and working in Armenia, I had a chance to look back at our American materialism with fresh eyes. Like so many other "underdeveloped" countries, Armenia has been quite non-materialistic. It has an ancient history and rich culture. In years since their independence from the Soviet Union in 91, they’ve seen over-night economic collapse, vanishing of life-long pensions, war, economic blockade, and a slow re-emergence of a new economy. In the midst of this, Armenia has a very human centered culture which values human interaction as among the most important things in life. It's common for neighbors to show up with only a knock on the door that becomes a spontaneous gathering and meal that may go on for hours. People plan and schedule very little ahead of time. Armenians are very involved in each other's lives—okay, maybe a little too much sometimes. And, by the way, due to this and other factors, juvenile delinquency is pretty much unheard of, there's almost no drug abuse (with the obvious exception of nicotine), and relatively little alcohol abuse. It's an extremely safe place to be for kids as parents watch out for each other’s children. Outside the capital city poverty is rampant. Subsistence agriculture is the norm with people barely growing enough food to eat and trade for other food to eek out an existence. However, even with such dire poverty, chances are, if you find yourself in an Armenian village, you'll be invited in for coffee that often turns to an impromptu meal. The family may barely have enough to keep themselves alive but they're anxious to share whatever they have while connecting in conversation with a new friend.

In the few short years I was there, I watched the country take a much more materialistic turn. As the economy grew—albeit slowly—those with money started buying the things that demonstrated their status. The number of Mercedes and BMWs increased. The number of $400 cell phones increased. More expensive buildings were built in every corner of the city. Billboards started lining the streets and highways. Although the human-centered feeling of the culture didn't seem to diminish in a major way, this nouveau riche style materialism seemed to be threatening it.

Our lives are not enriched by possessions; in fact they are often depleted by them. I've seen the masses of people living in the streets of New Delhi, beyond poor. But most people I saw living in these conditions appeared genuinely much happier and more fulfilled than most of the people in the US, which by comparison are blessed with so much wealth.

I'm certainly not advocating we give up homes to live on the streets, and it's not that I'm completely anti-materialistic—I certainly enjoy some material pleasures myself—but it behooves us to really take a clear, good look at what aspects of our lives bring us pleasure, what aspects of our lives help enrich us, and what things in our lives might we be better off without—or with smaller or less elaborate or expensive versions of.

What stuff really serves us?
In practical terms, do we need a brand-new car, or are we better off, in fact, with one that's a few years old thus giving us lower insurance rates and lower monthly payments, or better yet giving us the ability to buy in cash thereby freeing ourselves from another monthly payment and interest payments? Are we better off with a 4000 square foot home, or might we be even happier in a home half the size? This is especially important when we consider that not only will our mortgage payment be dramatically less, but the cost of heating and cooling it and filling it with stuff also becomes dramatically less (not to mention keeping it all clean)? In terms of homes, Sarah Susanka has done a great job of articulating this in The Not So Big House books helping us focus on quality in smaller homes that create a more enjoyable experience.

Let us take as one of the silver linings of this global recession that we can recognize not only that we can get by with less stuff, but that we can even live richer lives with less stuff in the way. Let’s look instead to the quality of our lives, the quality of our interactions, the connections we have with others, and even the quality—rather than quantity—of the things we do choose to have in our lives.

Friday, October 1, 2010

We Need a Revolution in How We Build

"Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants."—Thomas Jefferson

Those who know me know the irony of including a quote that suggests violence as I am a steadfast advocate of nonviolence. Of course, I’m not talking about a political revolution and certainly not anything remotely violent—on the contrary, I’m speaking of more of a green velvet revolution.

However, we need something of historic proportions and we need it soon. The unfortunate condition of our planet and the swiftness of the dramatic climatic shift taking place leads us to the necessity of a radical change in how we integrate with the natural environment.

The built environment is responsible for about 40 percent of worldwide energy consumption, and accounts for 38.9% (2006 figure) in the US. As a result, the built environment currently contributes more to carbon emissions than even the transportation sector—in fact, according to Architecture 2030, buildings account for 46.9% of CO2 emissions in the US. Our built environment, is therefore a critical area in dire need of radical change. In short, we need a revolution in how we build and we need it now.

We need to rethink our relationship to buildings and transportation and how where we live relates to the places with which we connect—where we work, shop, recreate, and socialize. We need to re-think cities, and suburbs and transportation systems, and our homes and offices shopping centers. At the very least, we need to be employing the best available approaches for new construction and renovations that use dramatically less energy and therefore contribute dramatically less to the overall pollution and climate change cycle we are in.

According to the International Energy Agency, energy waste from buildings
can be curbed by 75% across the globe. A recent McKinsey Report (Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy, 2009) identifies energy efficiency—especially within the building sector—as having the ability to cost-effectively bring dramatic reductions in energy use (and CO2 emissions), but only if it is made a priority: “Energy efficiency offers a vast, low-cost energy resource for the U.S. economy—but only if the nation can craft a comprehensive and innovative approach to unlock it.”

“We already have the technology today to cut the horrendous waste of CO2 and expensive energy in buildings. Many of the investments to save energy in buildings are not only cost-effective; they are even more profitable than many pension schemes that you and I so willingly invest in,” according to IEA policy analyst, Jens Laustsen.

…And it needs to happen with good design, and in a financial context that supports it and with a consumer interest that demands it.

There are approaches currently being used in Europe and recently launched in the U.S. that create buildings that use 70-90% less energy than typical new buildings. There are over fifteen thousand such buildings in Europe and there have been discussions within European countries and the European Union as a whole to make that standard the minimum code standard for all new construction there.

While I am a big fan of LEED, Energy Star, and other efforts to green the current building industry and I see their evolution and widening acceptance as critical to the overall transformation of our building industry in the US, we also need to be dramatically increasing the efficiency of new and existing buildings—far beyond what those standards currently require. Although our U.S. building industry has been moving toward more green approaches, the casual stroll must change to a sprint and the bar must be raised dramatically higher, as the higher bar is within our reach if we just put our intention there rather than at our knees as is currently the case.

Look for more on this topic as I believe it is one that warrants significant focus.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I Can’t Do Everything, So Why Do Anything?

Seeking excellence, not perfection

Sometimes there seems to be so much to do to set our world right that it seems completely overwhelming. The skewed logic of our brain says, “I can’t do it all, so why even do anything?” And thus we give ourselves an excuse to just give up and do nothing.

We may feel that since we don’t always ride our bikes or use public transit to get around, we’re not going to try to reducing our driving. We may judge ourselves for wasting water or eating meat or driving an SUV. We may feel that if we don’t always buy every single thing organic, that we are failing.

Let’s get one thing straight: our actions are not perfect. If we fail to do something because we fear it’s not perfect, it’s a greater failure than doing something that’s not perfect, but is heading in the right direction. We need to not let the lack of perfection keep us (or let others keep us) from doing what is needed for ourselves and our planet. Let’s let go of the perfection or nothing myth. Rather than focusing on unobtainable perfection, let’s make it our focus to be excellent. And excellence comes from doing and growing and refining and making mistakes and learning and doing better.

Now that we know our actions don’t need to be perfect, let’s look at what positive step or steps we each can take today. Maybe it’s combining our errands to make a few less car trips this week. Maybe it’s swapping out our household incandescent bulbs for compact florescent ones or putting low flow heads on our showers and faucets. Maybe it’s signing up for renewable power. Whatever you are inspired to do, do it and let yourself feel good about it. You are contributing to a better world for us and our children.

The Urgency of Now

“We’ve got maybe ten years, some say less, in which to turn things around. That’s damn little time… I think we can change very, very, quickly. We’ve shown historically that we’re capable of it… if people really understand the imperative for change.” --Dennis Wilde, Principal, Gerding Edlen Development, from the film, Deep Green

With the growing focus on environmental issues in the news, we may find ourselves overwhelmed with the range of problems facing us and our planet: climate is changing at an alarming rate, the quality and quantity of water resources is decreasing, forests are being destroyed, problems with air pollution and toxic emissions march on, and the number of animal species facing extinction continues to mushroom.

With all these massive problems, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. The key is to recognize the problems without becoming overwhelmed—maybe easier said than done, but I’ve found the key is to do something—none of us can fix the whole thing in a day (or two or three), but we all have an opportunity to do something. It could be as little as changing a habit to use less water, or weather seal your home, or change to a less impactful way of eating or get your workplace to incentivize employees to not drive, or starting an organization or company that will help make systematic positive changes in your community.  

The point is, we all need to do something—ideally many things and encourage others to do what they can too.  

Then the question is, “when?”. We can’t do anything yesterday or last year, or last decade that we didn’t already do. And if we wait until next decade, next year or even next month, it may be too late.

The only choice (do you like my logic here?) is to seize the urgency of the moment and act NOW. Our children will be glad we did what we could.

Why this on-line community?

I just checked BlogPulse and there were currently over 146 million (146,321,069 to be exact) blogs on line. So, why do we need one more? What will this new community add to the mix that is not already out there? What can we offer, what can we share, what can we inspire, what can we do that others (or ourselves via other means) are not already doing? These are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself over these recent weeks and months as I’ve been considering starting this on-line community.

With Shared World Blog we seek to inspire, share, grow, learn, and help each other bring positive changes to ourselves, our communities, and our planet that will help protect and restore the balance that will allow us to pass along something of value to our children and grandchildren. We don’t pretend that we are or will ever be the be-all end-all of positive change—far from it—we seek to create a community in which we can share the best of our individual knowledge, understanding, ideas, and share what is working in both on-the-ground and internet-based communities.

We hope that what you find and share here will inspire you to share with others and bring wonderful changes to you, your family, your workplace, and your community. We hope that you will in turn inspire others to do what they can to bring changes that will help curb the many environmental challenges that face us. Through this community we hope to do our part to lead the way to a brighter today and healthy tomorrows for all of us who call this spinning, blue orb home.