Green Myth No. 4: I can't make a difference; I am only one person

This is the fourth in a five-part series of columns debunking green building myths. In the March issue, page 16, I discussed the fallacy that green costs more. In May’s issue, page 20, I discredited the belief green doesn’t improve comfort or really perform. In the August issue, page 13, the myth that you can’t sell green was debunked. This month, I address the position that as only one person you cannot possibly make a difference.

For those deep into green design and building, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ecological and environmental issues. Our industry’s contribution is significant. Per the U.S. Department of Energy, housing is responsible for as much as 22 percent of the total energy consumption, 21 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions and 74 percent of the water consumption in our nation.

Green Fatigue

With all of the information, disinformation, hype and outright falsehoods about what is and is not green, green fatigue or eco-anxiety has taken hold. Example: Which is better, paper or plastic? Some claim that plastic bags are bad because they are made from fossil fuel resources and cause damage to wildlife. Indeed, paper is a renewable resource; however it is heavier and requires more fossil fuels to ship than plastic. Also, it is thicker than plastic bags, thus occupying more space in ever-expanding landfills.

You know we have an issue when Paul Hawken, arguably one of today’s most influential environmental thought leaders, says in an article in the New York Times, that “even people inside the movement have the same feeling — burnout.”

Accepting Responsibility

The issue is not knowing what to do (I’ll cover that in the next article); the issue is in personally accepting the responsibility of doing something, anything, to move your company, your clients and, ultimately, their projects in a better direction. I can tell you that not one of our numerous LEED Platinum projects ever commenced with a client hell-bent for leather demanding it. They happened because we slowly introduced the concepts to our clients, educating them about the issues, illustrating the benefits and weighing the costs, both short and long term. Even when green certification was not remotely a goal for a client — in fact, green was almost a dirty word — we were excited to deliver for them a Five Star-plus Energy Star-certified, and yet very elegantly designed, home. They were completely thrilled, and it wasn’t even on their radar screen when the project began.

We did not charge them a dime for our time to certify the project. In fact, as a matter of course, we do not charge our clients for any of our time in registering and certifying their projects in any of the green certification programs. What better house warming gift to give our clients? And this is one that will continue to give them a warm feeling as they open the monthly energy bill and note that their home is listed as the “most efficient neighbor.”

The sobering truth is that there is no guarantee any of our efforts will make a difference or be in time. Unfortunately, this is not a dress rehearsal. If you need any indication as to the severity or the urgency of the issues we face, look no further than a recent article by Bill McKibben titled “The Arctic Ice Crisis.” Writing in Rolling Stone, he describes how glaciers are melting far faster than scientists, even those making aggressive predictions, had expected.

Take the First Step

The key is to take that first step. You don’t need to see the entire journey; just take that first step. Others will do the same and establish a momentum that can make a difference. I am reminded of a quote by the anthropologist Margaret Mead that is relevant: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” You can begin tomorrow. And, if you are convinced and ready to make a change but are not sure exactly how, you are in luck. In my next and final article I will tell you.

Michael Klement is principal of Architectural Resource LLC, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Loading