Restlessness, Leaping Paradigms, and Finding the Leading Edge in LEED

Part 2: Sustainability lite

Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (home of the Living Building Challenge, a standard launched by the Cascadia chapter of the Green Building Council in 2006 and intended to push beyond LEED at the time). He just published a memoir about his own effort to live green, Zugunruhe: The Inner Migration to Profound Environmental Change (published by the ILFI’s Ecotone Publishing, 2010)

I spoke with Jason about green washing, what the cities of Vancouver, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, and others are attempting to do with architecture and urban design. We discussed how difficult it is to launch into a larger discussion about quicker, more all-encompassing ways to mitigate, plan for and design livability for a world that some like James Hansen calls, a world without ice.

He just spoke at a BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies), business conference that brought “together independent business owners and innovators, local living economy entrepreneurs, community investors, government economic development professionals and sustainability leaders.” McLennon understands that restlessness folk in various forms of the sustainability movement are displaying. His book’s main title describes the grumbling and undertow some of the deep sustainability folk have just prior to a period of great migration, or change. Certain species display agitation and restlessness — a phenomenon referred to by scientists as “zugunruhe,” which McLennan identifies with, shaped by this current zugunruhe pattern emerging among people yearning for a sustainable future.

“Zugunruhe is a work of creative genius that draws us into an engaging journey of self-discovery, brings the biggest and most frightening issues of our time up close, and invites our engagement,” notes David Korten, “It will leave you envisioning human possibilities you never previously imagined.”

Paul K. Haeder: Why aren’t communities taking charge of sustainability when it comes to cities’ decision?

Jason F. McLennan: “We’ve moved backward as a population on these issues of climate change and sustainability. A large percentage of Americans do not believe it’s real. Cities will have to make more substantial progress. We still have our eyes closed using these old sets of laws, regulations. In every community there are people working on making better, sustainable cities. The problem is the cities – planners, architects, engineers, politicians – can only push sustainability … as far as where society can accept it.”

PKH: Why are we stuck in this incremental change mindset, in planning, in development, in sustainability programs?

JFM: Changes will happen for reasons not in our control. But it’s best to put into place models of what we think success is. We need to continue speaking to the choir. We need as many people in our musical group able to play the sustainability part. Look at us as little conductors with little orchestras. We have to spend time focusing on those that do sustainability and teach them to play, and then pull them into deeper commitments to sustainability. We can’t leave people in a place of shame, hopelessness. We have to envision success and a positive end game. People aren’t wanting to hear about the impending catastrophe … about Kunstler’s ‘long emergency.’”

PKH: What’s your take on LEED-washing?

JFM: LEED can be a powerful tool for powerful change … most of the time. However, it doesn’t get used that way. People are trying to game the system. The larger question is why did that group use LEED? Do I think that LEED is perfect? Absolutely not. No system is perfect. And yes, some criticism is deserved – and needed – to keep improving what has become the most dominant green building program in the world. But there is a big difference in criticism that is intended to make the program stronger – so that it can continue to contribute to lowering environmental impact and changing the building culture – and criticism that is intended to tear down and destroy something that I believe has done a lot of good in the world.1

PKH: Can planners do more to both encourage sustainability in their work and help designing cities under political constraints to take it on more vigorously?

JFM: It will take investment, large sums of money shifting into deep sustainability. The whole paradigm needs to change. It is going to take a lot of people who made money under the old paradigm — who have profited the most – to create the economic conditions for this new paradigm.

PKH: Sustainability lite or green washing. What do you have to say about those issues?

JFM: “We wish Vancouver was doing more. We feel hamstrung at times when we go in as consultants. How far can that mayor push? Not very far. Until there’s a groundswell from the communities. I will say that if we are serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, then we need a World War Two effort to retrofit America’s housing. We’d be cutting greenhouse emissions thirty to fifty percent in two years with the right investment – money – very little time, and significant behavioral change.”

Where Is the Planning Profession on Sustainability and Green Washing?

I spoke with John Robinson, Executive Director, UBC Sustainability Initiative; Professor, Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability and in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia. My biggest concern at the sustainability leadership school was the skirting of social justice and social sustainability throughout the week.

I asked him a question so many others ducked: How can we in this sustainability movement who want net zero waste and living buildings and other sustainability designs to be the way of the future start looking at sustainability on a much more holistic and socially just and deep ecological frame?

Robinson was clear: “This is a real issue, but again I am optimistic. I think the social leg of the sustainability stool is much less well developed, but I also think it is coming. In the academic realm, fields like political ecology put it front and centre; on the activist front, and it is getting increasing attention in NGOs like DSF and Pembina (look at the Transition Towns movement in the UK, for example). Business is a bit slower and government the slowest but I believe it is coming, especially at the local level.”

We also talked about green washing.

“As someone remarked in about 1995 ‘the growth industry of the 1990s is green bullshit.’ This is not a new problem,” Robinson says. “But what is sometimes overlooked is that this growth is accompanied by an equivalent or perhaps even faster growth in our ability to measure and monitor sustainability (metrics, indicators, monitoring systems, etc.) In the 1990s at the University of Waterloo, I asked an engineering class to tell me what was better from an environmental point of view: electric hand dryers or paper towels. They couldn’t answer the question because they couldn’t find lifecycle data on the materials involved. Today, you can easily find the relevant data on the web. So green washing is, over time, self-limiting, I think, as we get better and better at measuring and detecting it.”

We toured Robinson’s brainchild, the hallmark of sustainability on any campus, right smack on the UBC campus: The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS). It is being billed as a net positive building, or at least Robinson and others want to see it that way. It will open in Summer 2011. One compelling feature are two by fours turned into ceilings – wood from Alberta’s millions of acres of pine beetle damaged timberland. It is mostly discolored, harvested before it becomes a net positive carbon releaser.

Contrasting views of the planning profession with James Howard Kunstler, John Robinson, Mark Holland (a Vancouver city planner who now manages the Sustainability Office) and Bill Rees (his four-decade career at UBC has been marked by a prolific output of writings, a resume of over 80 pages and the development of the ecological footprint concept, while helping to found numerous organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics, and the International Society for Ecological Economics) is revealing.2

Kunstler:

I do not believe the planning profession as we know it will exist institutionally much longer. It rests on assumptions that to me are just not true – for instance, the idea that we can continue living within the current armatures of daily life, including the metroplex city and the suburbs. I believe our big cities will contract severely back to their old centers and waterfronts (if they are lucky enough to have them), and that the process will be very messy, with ethnic conflict, fights over ownership, massive capital losses, and infrastructure that we will be unable to maintain. Hence, I think the “action” will move to our smaller cities and towns, especially places with a meaningful relationship to agriculture. I see our economy becoming much more internally focused (within North America). Since trucking and commercial aviation are toast, the inland waterways will regain importance. It’s unclear whether we will have the capital or the will to reconstruct our regular rail system (forget about High Speed). These represent epochal shifts. Some parts of the USA (e.g. the Southwest, Florida) may become uninhabitable. This is a scenario that does not admit much of a role for conventional bureaucratic planners who sit in air-conditioned offices drawing charts based on reliable metrics.

Robinson:

I think we are the vanguard of the future and the route to real innovation and increased well being, for both the planet and ourselves. We’ll see who is right. The old sustainability agenda is about being less bad, about limits, and about sacrifice. The new sustainability agenda is about innovation, opportunity and improved well-being (the regenerative concept). I think that is an exciting and empowering concept that will catch on and become irresistible.

Holland:

We proceeded with planning according to a paradigm of modernism and no planetary limits during the massive build out of the 20th Century. The planning profession is getting its head around the new 21st Century reality of constraints and change quickly – but the cities we build and the regulations we have in place (mostly engineering regulations not connected to planners) change very slowly, especially in an atmosphere of recession, financial constraints and fear As we change and accept the global stewardship mandate of the 21st Century and change our rules development, our cities will slowly change. They’ll change a lot faster once the plateau of peak oil is over in a few years and the cost of the factors that have caused our 20th Century cities to become unsustainable become less tenable.

Ironically, the entire week of speakers, workshops, site visit and team building ended with one of the gurus of sustainability, as in the ecological footprint, William Rees. His words stirred the participants after a week of hard work, huge learning curves and spiritual bonding.

Rees: “De-growth is going to be the major issue of the century. While the energy crisis will have severe economic impacts, it is not fundamentally about economics. It is about human ecology and the limits of growth.” Rees is the author of Our Ecological Footprint. Rees is also affiliated with UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. There is a movement, De-Growth Vancouver, working with Rees and others on what this kind of city might look like.

Rees also is on the advisory board of the Carrying Capacity Network with such notables as Herman Daly (theorist of the steady-state economy) and Thomas Lovejoy (who introduced the concept of biological diversity). This larger push to tie immigration to climate change is part of a population control ploy — greenwashing nativism — which has been written about extensively, recently in a Nation magazine piece by Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, and author of Nice Work if You Can Get It.

The threat of global warming will increasingly be used to shape immigration policies around a vision of affluent nations or regions as heavily fortified resource islands. Is this mentality already at work? Internationally, the ugly side of the debate about emissions has centered on who has the right to go on polluting and which portions of the world’s population will be sacrificed. Even as cities in affluent countries compete with one another in the sustainability rankings, the same kinds of triage calculations are being made locally, and as resources tighten, the most vulnerable citizens and migrants are cut loose.

Sustain the Sustainable – Where Sustainability Is Going

Here is an interesting contrast in perspective by the leader in sustainability, Gro Harlem Brundtland’s words in the preface of “Our Common Future,” published in 1987, 1999, and then officially 20 years after its publication, 2007:

1987

Many critical survival issues are related to uneven development, poverty, and population growth. They all place unprecedented pressures on the planet’s lands, waters, forests, and other natural resources, not least in the developing countries. The downward spiral of poverty and environmental degradation is a waste of opportunities and of resources. In particular, it is a waste of human resources. These links between poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation formed a major theme in our analysis and recommendations. What is needed now is a new era of economic growth – growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable.3

1999

Well, first of all, we should maybe be reminded of the key definition that we formulated: that sustainable development amounts to meeting the demands of the present generations while preserving the rights of future generations to meet their own needs. I think that concept is important to be reminded of, because that illustrates the environmental dimension of sustainable development. In fact, if we misuse nature, and the relationship between man and nature, we will not be in a situation one generation from now, or two generations from now, for them who live then, to have choices and opportunities in life to have a healthy and prosperous future. So, that intergenerational picture and very clear link came forward in that report Our Common Future, and I think that was really what made the strongest impression on people, the other one, the clear links between poverty and environment, which also means between poverty and development. If people are poor, they don’t have choices. They are not empowered, often neither by knowledge, or by health, or by choices in their daily lives, to take care of the future of their children, and the next generations, because the immediate need dominates their lives and their choices. That also made an impression on many people. And the fact that this is not only a national question inside each nation, but also a global challenge, because of the big gaps, both inside countries and between countries. So, the global perspective of being in this together came very strongly forward in 1987 when the report was delivered. And those dimensions are as relevant today as they were in 1987.4

2007

We were very clear in 1987 that the responsibility for dealing with these problems building up in the atmosphere, that responsibility belongs to the industrialized world. We have to clean up our problems, and at the same time we have to help the developing world have new technologies to make it possible for them to jump over the polluting stages that we have been through.

We have no time to lose. The data are now clearly presented and have very high confidence levels. There is no question anymore about scientific disagreement. So many things are easily done and lead to improved energy efficiency and a number of other benefits.

Unless we start immediately fulfilling the Kyoto Protocol and then continuing with a broader basis with all countries involved, this is going to get completely out of control and we will not be able to cap carbon dioxide levels. It’s a drama playing itself out in front of us, where we are still able to change a very dangerous scenario but we cannot wait for another 5 or 10 years. We must be active now.5

  • Read Part 1.
    1. Go to, “Defending LEED,” by McLennan. []
    2. For more on Bill Rees. []
    3. 1987 – Our Common Future, one small part of Chairwoman’s Foreword, Oslo, 20 March 1987. []
    4. Interview by Patricia Morales and Ann Ferrara, WHO Report Making a Difference,” 1999. []
    5. Andrew C. Revkin, “20 Years Later, Again Assigned to Fight Climate Change,” New York Times, May 8, 2007. []

    Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. Read other articles by Paul.