Most of the opportunities that garden variety Americans have to make a sustainable change in their life are small in the grand scheme of the country as a whole, let alone the world and its biosphere. As an architect, designing a LEED Platinum building, or fifty of them for that matter, is still a drop in the bucket for level of change that we need to the built environment of this country. Each individual person or building is a long way from getting everyone on board, but the goal doesn’t have to be 100% participation. The few that extend themselves to push the envelope now build the image of interest that allows for larger standards to change with sweeping effects over broader areas.
“Is me doing _______ really worth it? Is it making a difference, or enough of a difference?” I hear a lot of that. It is easy for even the most dedicated and knowledgeable of souls to bump their head against the immensity of the problem every now and then.
If the desire for most of us is to contribute to a change that brings material results then the goal does not have to be a CFL in every home, a Prius in every garage or a LEED plaque on every building. Shaping the direction of the country does not take require every American’s contribution (thank goodness, because if it did we’d never get anything done). Change in the policy standards comes as the result of progressive research and support from a fraction of the population, not its entirety. Pushing for migration to new cultural norms needs only attract and convince a portion of the whole in order to induce change that can circumvent the need for sales pitches and deeper education.
Ultimately, the reason that we elicit change on the personal level is to promote a change in standards that take influence to the next level. All of the people that have switched to CFL or LED bulbs up to now played an important role in promoting a new technology, but nevertheless they will pale in comparison to the energy savings that begins when federal regulation begins to phase out the incandescent bulb in 2012. Buyers of Low-VOC paint helped spur the advancement of a major product evolution inside an old industry, but the EPA ban of interior oil based paint in the Mid-Atlantic states is a far greater boon to indoor air quality, human health and hazardous waste. Owners of hybrids and EVs contribute their own small bit to energy reduction, but the raising of CAFÉ standards has sizable effects on oil use and carbon emissions.
Proponents of sustainable principals should not be deterred by the far flung prospect of changing the minds of everyone. Rather, we should be focusing on educating enough people to breed support for an evolution of governing standards, which in many cases is not that far away.
Change in Progress
The Law of Diffusion of Innovations points to how the integration of new technology (and its eventual cultural acceptance) sees a tipping point of around 15-18% of users. This brings demand past the “early adopters” into the first half of the market majority (also known as Jumping the Chasm). Step one is to foster enough demand to justify the presence of a market, but in many cases sustainability has done that already. The next step is to reach the critical mass to switch the sustainable solution into the standard that takes the old product off the shelf. Not only does this offer more people the option of a greener solution, but perhaps more importantly, it triggers contributions from all of the consumers that don’t really care either way.
Designing one more LEED building may seem in consequential, but the market results of the larger picture already speak for themselves. According to McGraw Hill’s research arm, the green building sector grew 50% throughout the recession to $55 billion – $71 billion, representing 25% of the entire construction market (granted, this is 25% of a much smaller number than it would have been before 2008). Growth is projected to continue to reach $135 billion by 2015. Keep in mind this is market that did not exist a decade ago. In a culture as adverse to change as America, how much better results can we ask for?
Products like recycled paper are showing even better results. When it comes to food packaging, paperboard with recycled content is becoming the standard choice for American companies saving anywhere from 30-100% of virgin paper stock. Again, the results speak for themselves in the drastic reduction in paper waste we have seen over the past few years.
Image Credit: inhabitat.com