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hillside green houseWhen it comes to building more sustainably, the time is now. A feasible rebuttal could be, “The time to build greener buildings has been every day for the past decade.” This would be true. However, the current conditions present a ripe opportunity for buildings with more ecological stewardship not only because building greener makes sense, but because we may be at a point where an advance in green building practices can make the most difference for the industry’s future growth.

But the construction market is strapped now? Precisely. Continue Reading…

birdseye nuclear facilityIn efforts to try and parley with conservatives, President Obama recently announced $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for Southern Company to build two new nuclear power reactors. As the Democrats’ control of the Senate begins to unravel and the President’s term-long agenda follows a similar fall into uncertainty, the political footwork is not surprising. However, it may also not be not wise. Not only will it fail to produce any new Republican support on a trying to produce comprehensive climate legislation, but the President’s olive branch to nukes will do no more than set the taxpayers up for yet one more “loan” to corporate America–laced with risk.

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four credit cardsSustainability is still young enough in the minds of Americans for most of us to think of it as only being associated with buying hybrids, using CFLs and recycling our bottles and cans. In reality, sustainability is an encompassing topic that affects every aspect of how we live in a perpetual search for balance. When it comes to sustainability, our economy has a long way to go, but having Americans revert from their incessant spending of money (that we often don’t have) and actually saving so that we can afford things that we want is a step in the right direction.

An article in the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the fact that credit card borrowing in the U.S. decreased for an 11th month in a row—an unprecedented occurrence since the Federal Reserve Bank began keeping track of the figures in 1943. According to the Fed, borrowing in the fourth quarter decreased at an annual 4.75%. Not only were Americans borrowing less, but saving more to boot. The article reported that savings as a percentage of personal income had risen to 4.6% in 2009 from 2.7% in 2008.

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Yesterday the Commerce Department released that housing starts in the U.S. had dropped 10.6% in the month of October from the previous month. Cast in a predictably negative light, the markets responded with downward movement due to rising fears of a slow pace for our economic recovery. I find myself in the minority that sees this as long term good news, a market condition we should be embracing as we take a rare economic opportunity to try and move our jobs base from our historical model of unlimited growth to one of sustainable capitalism.

Traditionally, housing starts are seen as a leading indicator of economic health as they represent fuel for the construction industry which contributes 4-5% of our national GDP according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Building and purchasing new homes is one of the quickest ways for Americans to spend money—which is one of the things we do best. But not only is there no reason for us to be building more homes right now, but we should not emerge into a new economy built on the foundations of an outmoded concept of creating square footage ad infinitum.

If one were to forget the economic assumption that more housing starts is always positive, it is easy to see the number of reasons why we have no need for more housing right now. The recession has left us with an excess of homes. An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that “the number of homes listed for sale was 3.63 million in September according to the National Association of Realtors. That is enough to last about eight months at the current rate of sales.” The article also points out that foreclosures are still on the rise, leaving more property in the hands of banks (and even the FDIC) that want, and need, to unload them at bargain values, only further pressuring prices. We do not need more of a product that is in declining demand from a consumer that cannot afford to purchase it.

Furthermore, the NRDC’s Kaid Benfield pointed out last month that aging baby boomers are estimated to begin unloading their suburban homes at a rate of 5% per year between 2010 and 2030, only adding to the glut of available space.

Suburban homes are also not where we should be focusing our money and efforts when it comes to new living space. The financial crisis offered an opportunity to finally rein an expansion of suburban sprawl that has gone on for decades. New homes farther away from town and city centers bring with them more utilities, more emergency services and more energy wasted in commuting. We should be bolstering our urban centers and drawing people back to their inherent efficiencies of living. To have our government working on a carbon bill while we are using more farmland and natural landscape to prop up developer homes is ridiculous. It is the difference between the image of sustainability and the nature of sustainability—the latter is an encompassing system that affects a lifestyle in its entirety.

If Americans are serious about creating a more sustainable economy, then eventually we need to move away from a system where our barometer of success is continuous growth. It is possible for our country to be healthy without building an increasing number of new homes each month. Of course, it means asking those annoying questions like “What happens when there is no more acreage left to develop?” or “How many people can our country feasibly support indefinitely?” The easiest way to avoid the answers is to begin changing our trajectory now. Instead of new home construction we can be focusing on building retrofits, restoration and deconstruction. These practices use less energy, produce less waste and improve upon the building stock that we already have to make it better instead of tearing it down. One can imagine a combination of virgin building, recycling and upcycling that could bring us much closer to a level of construction stasis.

Construction is only one of the areas where we need to re-align our practices to change our economic growth expectations. Transit, energy production and distribution and water infrastructure all are viewed as continuously growing commodities and can all be curbed into regenerative social practices.

Photo Credit: Flickr movers_4u

Given the current economic landscape, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is likely getting a different reception than it would have three years ago. With unemployment still at a twenty-year high, preserving economic stability and preventing job losses is one of the more popular methods of targeting the bill for flaws. While opponents to the bill have claimed that the resulting rising costs of the legislation could add financial burden to families and sacrifice American jobs, the truth is that sustainability is the best source of economic rejuvenation that the country has and according to recent polling, the number of naysayers are dwindling.

Job Poll Graph

According to a  poll released by Zogby International, when likely voters were asked how climate efforts will affect American jobs, 51% believe that new job creation will result while an addition 17% believe it will have no positive or negative affect. More impressively, those who believe that American jobs would be sacrificed were in the minority in all age and income groups, speaking to a sentiment brewing uniformly throughout the population. Numbers like these make me wonder if the range of benefits that sustainability can bring is becoming clearer to more people in the U.S.. Wishful thinking perhaps, but it is a good place to start.

My own goals for helping to spread that kind of knowledge were bolstered in 2007, when I sat in a conference hall with 8,000 others listening to Bill Clinton give the keynote speech at the Greenbuild Expo in Chicago, hosted by the USGBC. The former President spoke at length about the progress made by the Clinton Climate Initiative and their future goals, but in speaking about sustainability’s affect on the economy, Mr. Clinton had a quote that has stayed with me:

“For all the skeptics, I think this is the greatest opportunity our country has had to generate broad-based prosperity since we mobilized for World War II.”

It struck me because it was the first time I had heard a politician asserting the latent job value in sustainability and what it could produce for our country. The result could be a reversal of the exodus of industrial jobs that has plagued America for decades and its opportunities for implementation are widespread leaving few pockets of the economy without a chance for benefit. New job prospects can emerge from three lines of national intervention: restoration, innovation and conversion—all equally necessary and co-supportive.

Restortation – As a society, we we have only recently begun to fully realize how interconnected the workings of the planet truly are, and as a result, the full effect that our actions impose on our surroundings. Naturally, such a realization brings some grim findings. 11 million people live within a mile of over 1,300 Superfund Sites in the U.S., catagorized by the Environmental Protection Agency as some of the worst toxic hazards sites in the country. A proactive, rather than cursory, approach to remedying our own mistakes could sprout a formative industry of trained, specialized workers. Everyday brings new environmental violations released by the EPA, so having supply problems for work in this arena is likely a ways off. The rewards for such efforts are far reaching. Beyond a more healthy natural landscape, the reduction in pollution-damaged land would parallel a reduction in health problems rising from contamination, especially our drinking water–effectively curbing our medical spending while increasingly our livelihood.

Innovation – Our country still operates as a world-renowned center for technological excellence, though perhaps not as uncontested as we once were. Meeting the future’s needs for renewable energy, water purification, recycling, building technology, waste treatment and transportation will take nothing less than technological excellence. In the end, it will get done—the only question is whether we will do it, or pay someone else to do it. Amidst its seemingly endless string of needless opposition, the Cape Wind Project and its resulting turbine factory was slated to create between 600 and 1000 pre-operational jobs and 150 permanent jobs during operation for 420 megawatts of wind energy. We need closer to 200 gigawatts and just as much solar. Creating a new source of American jobs while weening ourselves off of oil and coal offers fewer violated ecosystems, cleaner air, cleaner water and  increased national security.

Global Warming GraphConversion – Numerous parts of our infrastructure are reaching the crest of their lifecycle curve, marking the transition from an asset to a liability for the economy. Power generation, roads and railways, power conveyance and water systems all comprise lingering costs that will eventually become outmoded. Creating a new life for these pieces of infrastructure can allow us to draw out new kinds of latent value from systems that we have already paid for. This is perhaps one of the largest sources of environmental resistance. What are we going to do with all the oil and coal jobs in the country? We will turn them into something else that will evolve into a new staple of the American economy. One 54-year-old plant on the Ohio River is being converted to burn grass and wood cubes to produce 312 megawatts of power, leaving it as one of the largest biomass plants in the country. The retooling of the plant will purportedly turn 105 local (coal) jobs, into green jobs.

Serious Materials became the most recent epitome of scanning the landscape for conversion opportunities before wasting time, money and energy building new facilities. The California-based company produces high efficiency building products like high performance windows and doors as well as insulating drywall. They represent the transition into the next generation of the building industry which new standards will be crafted around. Their search found a recently closed window factories in Chicago, Illinois and Vandergrift, Pennsylvania and purchased their facilities, hiring back workers that would have otherwise remained laid off. Retooled and retrofitted, the plants continue to function producing better products and sustaining employment.

To date, the climate bill is the fastest way to begin the transition to an economy supported by an Environmental Industry base. Environmental commentator Joe Romm recently said that although he gives the bill a “B-“ as an emissions bill, he gives it an “solid A” as a renewable energy bill. The Zogby poll claimed that 71% supported ACES Act passed by the House of Representatives. 22% believed that Congress is doing an adequate amount to address climate change, with 45% saying they are doing too little. Less than a third of respondants (28%) believe that Congress is doing too much.  We will see if growing public sentiment seeps its way into the Senate.

Who Says What is Green?

In a time of falling prices it is more important than ever to secure the value of sustainability into its next stage of the business cycle. With oil prices near two year lows and a frozen credit market it is easy for priorities to shift away from environmental goals replaced by trepidation over costs. As green business becomes more prominent it is essential to develop more elaborate benchmarks and systems of authenticity to assure that companies with green claims are delivering all that is currently so easy to advertise. Without this level of accountability, the value of green in the eyes of consumers could fall by the wayside just when green business needs it the most.

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