Green, Green, It’s Green They Say….*

Green, energy-efficient, sustainable or environmentally friendly — whatever term you choose — are not new phenomena. The current predilection of manufacturers to insist their products are greener than their competitors’ goods — and the coining of the term “greenwashing” — is, at the very least, evidence the concepts are becoming mainstream.

It’s a debate we need to be having, but as Michael Klement says (Green Remodeling, p. 10), it’s complicated.

The history of the green movement is convoluted. Most of those reading this may vaguely remember the first Earth Day in 1970. Roughly the same period saw the publication the Whole Earth Catalog (1968-72), reflecting the counterculture of the times and the nascent global community — in short, a world view that challenged established ideologies and policies.

On the heels of Earth Day came the energy crisis and the Arab oil embargo. Many will remember gas lines and President Jimmy Carter addressing the nation in a sweater and declaring the “moral equivalent of war.” Energy-saving LED holiday lights not yet having been invented, he then ordered the illumination on the White House Christmas tree doused and urged us all to sacrifice.

Fast forward to utility deregulation, the Enron debacle, California’s rolling blackouts and market manipulation. More recently, rising gas prices — and power prices in general — have the public uneasy about energy.

When green resurfaced as a trendy issue in recent years, it lacked the counterculture spirit of the 1970s. Still, maybe the Whole Earth Catalog sensibility and its challenge to the status quo haven’t disappeared entirely.

Among those who endorse building performance and the building envelope concept, there is a flicker of the old change-the-world commitment, and many in the field seem to have had a eureka moment when they understood building systems truly are interconnected.

Larry Zarker, CEO of the Malta, N.Y.-based Building Performance Institute, says he doesn’t buy Jimmy Carter’s sweater-and-sacrifice solution. Instead, Zarker insists the building-performance, whole-house, building-envelope approach can make homes more comfortable and use less energy (The [Building] Envelope, Please, p. 28).

It’s worth noting, too, many of the organizations and programs that grew out of the 1970s energy crisis still exist. The Department of Energy was a direct result of the 1973 oil embargo. Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency; the EPA was established in 1970. Today, there are hundreds of programs, many of them harking back to the days of the sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter and the darkened Christmas lights.

We’ve come a long way since then. We have LED lighting, amazingly efficient appliances compared to those available in the 1970s and a much more sophisticated understanding of how buildings work. There is also a growing realization that sacrifice and moral equivalents don’t sell nearly as well as comfort and saving money. Think of it as actually selling the warmth and not just a warm and fuzzy feeling.

That’s good news, of course, but if you look closely, we are a long way from solving those 1970s energy problems. They’re still with us, but, for now, there are still a handful of people with a vision working on a way forward.