Birdbrain Scheme Is Now Big Idea of the Century?

Part 1: Are "green" goals permanent or a passing fancy?

What does a group of 30 “sustainability” professionals do when they run into a pair of two-story-tall common house sparrows? Most of them admire the anatomically correct metal sculptures; a few wonder what’s happening to the actual birds in this neighborhood.

It’s July and we’re in a planned community in the heart of Vancouver: green roofs, solar powered trash compactors, LEED gold and platinum architecture. It’s also a Thursday afternoon and hardly anyone is outside. Even with a building occupancy rate of over 70 percent, there is no public activity. No one is around but us and the two 19-foot tall birds, perfectly scaled sentinels of a morphing city.

The visit is part of the University of British Columbia’s Summer Institute in Sustainability Leadership, a week-long course for professional planners in July. We are hoofing it around the grounds of the Vancouver Olympic Village, the largest LEED-certified platinum neighborhood in North America—also called the world’s greenest athletic facility. The group includes planners, environmental and sustainability directors, landscape architects, social planners, energy experts, a coffee services manager, a yoga clothing manager, a Unilever middle manager—most of them from Canada, several from Korea, one from Brazil, and, me, the lone Yankee.

The developers and the City of Vancouver are trying to sell Southeast False Creek, the site of the Olympic Village, to a build-out of 16,000 people, with 250 affordable housing units—and ecology is part of the marketing campaign.

But the sparrows so lovingly depicted by Vancouver artist Myfanwy MacLeod are also a testament to humanity’s constant threat to biodiversity. Eight pairs of sparrows were first released on this continent in the spring of 1851, in Brooklyn, New York. They are now one of the most common birds in North America, the world for that matter. MacLeod’s artwork—commissioned for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics—speaks volumes about the state of the planet and the current marketing around sustainability.

One of my conclusions from the sustainability institute is that green is in, but greenwashing reigns. James Howard Kunstler, a friend and colleague—and the author of Geography of Nowhere—is working on a new book about the limits of technology. In no uncertain terms, he tells us that inventing and selling us new stuff won’t fix our environmental problems. “The ‘green’ campaign has largely become a money-grubbing project based on extremely unrealistic wishful thinking about technology, along with a sort of therapy campaign to make us feel better,” he says.

Taking the pulse

My role at the Institute’s summer course was to take the pulse of a province, city, and university known as the most advanced green places on earth. I went in looking for a chance to frame the concept called greenwashing—or sustainability lite, as Judy Layzer calls it. Layzer is an associate professor of environmental policy and the director of MIT’s urban sustainability project.

I quickly found that many of the leaders in sustainable city movements across Canada and the U.S. tend to duck the really tough questions any planner might ask: Don’t we have to “do” deep sustainability at the municipal and regional levels to truly affect change? How does the planning profession promote greenwashing? If the poor have no safety nets and the middle class is struggling, what is the point of LEED platinum certified communities?

Many sustainability action plans call for superficial fixes. “Local policies such as plastic bag bans, restricting lawn watering, and tree-planting must be evaluated to judge their actual outcomes in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the quality of city life,” says Anthony Flint, director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Flint was more than open in explaining in email exchanges what we have to do to get sustainability implemented and greenwashing quashed:

“In my chapter in This Land (2006), I looked at the then-nascent green building movement, where municipal officials and others were contemplating requiring green standards as part of urban development agreements, essentially as part of codes,” Flint told me.

“The early examples got some of the basic stuff out of the way — encouraging the use of stairs, using natural light and ventilation, efficient lighting, bike lockers, stormwater treatment and water management, landscaping beyond lawns that need to be watered, composting/recycling ( both operational and in the construction process), the now ubiquitous green roof. Now just about every developer and architect is green, as a standard. It’s no longer news to have a LEED certified building, but rather an expectation.”

Flint, like others, sees the “greenest part” of any building as its location – “a redevelopment of an urban site, access to transit, walkability context.” So, a great LEED-gold building in a suburban office park that has to be accessed by car is not green by any stretch of the imagination.

Many cities are on that bandwagon: Tearing down old buildings and putting up new- fangled green dreams—the silver, gold, platinum, and beyond platinum goals of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design architecture administrated through the U.S. Green Building Council.

But are green points the answer to global warming?

“All rating systems are flawed and completely depend on the assumptions and inputs used to get the output. And once you have them, what do they really tell us?” asks Mike Lydon, a principal for the Street Plans Collaborative, a consulting firm that helps clients improve the viability of active transportation and smart growth. Lydon is also co-author of The Smart Growth Manual (2009), with Andres Duany and Jeff Speck.

“Take LEED, for example,” Lydon continues. “The new urbanists and other likeminded people helped awaken the world to the fact that a LEED platinum building is really not as great an accomplishment as a fully walkable, transit-served neighborhood. So, while we can rate buildings, it’s critically important to look holistically at their context and how people access them.”

How do these buildings perform? Joseph Lstiburek in the Journal of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers calls to task the architects and engineers who go after the brass ring embedded in those LEED points. He calls these “green motives” that have little to do with long-term energy savings. Some of these designs use more energy than they save.

A much larger question grows out of this sustainability and greenwashing discourse.

What is a sustainable city exactly?

“Cities are at their core consumptive networks,” says Todd Reisz, an Amsterdam-based architect and co-editor of the recently published Al manakh 2: Gulf Continued, which looks at the Persian Gulf region, from both historical and contemporary perspectives.

“They consume the most energy, not only in terms of fuels but also in terms of food and natural and manufactured materials.”

Suddenly cities seem cleaner, Reisz tells me, but that’s not exactly true. Both the U.S. and Canada have sent (or lost) their carbon-heavy industries to other nations. “Manufacturing and other unappealing uses have been moved elsewhere, either to an industrial park beyond the public’s eye or to another continent altogether.” But does the ranking of the “greenest” communities, he asks, “include the CO2 emissions required to manufacture that city’s computers in China, the energy required to grow its bananas in Costa Rica?”

Many planners and analysts look for guidance from architect and designer Steve Mouzon, who has defined what real sustainability means in the built and natural environments. Among his major points for the average citizen to live by, separate from what a city planner or architect has to do for sustainability, are laid out by Lloyd Alter, architect, developer, inventor, and builder of prefab housing. He writes for TreeHugger and is an Associate Professor at Ryerson University teaching sustainable design.

• Choose it for longer than you’ll use it
• Live where you can walk to the grocery
• Live where you can make a living
• Choose smaller stuff with double duty

But in his book The Original Green—a must read—Mouzon also coins the term “gizmo green.” We can’t rely on technological solutions to our global warming crisis. Instead, Mouzon says, we should stop relying on a few experts like architects, planners and engineers and designers.

“Think about this for a moment: if millions of the best minds around the world work for years to figure out the mysteries of true sustainability, how ridiculous would it be to expect each significant architect to reformulate sustainability in the image of their own personal style? Asking a single person to reformulate years of work by millions of the best minds goes beyond the absurd… to the globally treasonous! We must be allowed to share wisdom.”

For people like Anthony Flint, he weighs the practical with the philosophical when it comes to sustainability. Flint’s a journalist and author: Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City (2009) and This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America (2006).

“So one divide is between what Steve Mouzon and others refer to as ‘gizmo green’ and urban development — with the emphasis on urban — that is almost by definition green. Skanska’s [USA division of Swedish giant, Skanska AB] retrofit of the Empire State Building is a good example of combining the two — the location green by definition, and cutting-edge construction processes and green technologies that result in the long-term energy savings that building owners covet.”

In the end, as the Vancouver Olympic Village architects and Mouzon and others tell us, the places that are sustainable have to build community involvement and love for place.

Lydon agrees. “We need to make places worth caring deeply about, and that requires far more than aggregating net zero building, bullet trains, or bike lanes,” he says. “Indeed, a million net zero homes that require their inhabitants to drive 30 miles a day probably aren’t as ecological as a million homes that aren’t net zero, but which are in places that don’t require driving.”

So, how can we in the sustainability movement start looking at sustainability in a much more holistic way?

“This is a good question and a challenge,” says Moura Quayle, former chair of Vancouver’s Urban Landscape Task Force, which gave birth to the city’s Neighborhood Greenways program, a true community-based sustainability tool utilizing small-scale, local connections for pedestrians and cyclists, linking parks, natural areas, historic sites, amenities and commercial streets. As the City of Vancouver’s web site explains:

“Neighbourhood Greenways provide opportunities to express the unique character of the neighbourhood and often include public art which adds further interest and distinctiveness to the project.”

Again, these projects in the Greenways Program are initiated by residents and are partnered with the City. The community is expected to take the lead and maintain the space, while the City of Vancouver assists with the design, development and construction of the project.

“We are facing it in Vancouver as we talk [about being the] ‘greenest city’ and mean much more than environmental sustainability.” For Vancouver, Quayle insists, place identity also fits into the concept of “green.”

“Place identity as a third component of community sentiment opens the discussion to a host of related disciplines, such as humanist geography and environmental psychology. These disciplines seek to investigate the meaning of place to human experience. Place identity consists of cognitions about the physical world, including memories, ideas, feelings, attitudes, values, preferences, meanings, and conceptions of behavior and experience which relate to the variety and complexity of physical settings that define the day-to-day existence of every human being.”

There are planners who see sustainability as a market-driven solution to community challenges tied to climate change, peak oil and heavy urbanization of our globe’s cities.

Mark Holland, a Vancouver city planner who now manages the Sustainability Office, has little tolerance for environmentalism and social justice driving sustainability.

“Sustainability was co-opted by the environmentalist and social justice movements and was quickly branded in the minds of those not personally identified with those movements as just another leftist radical stance.,” he says. “Sustainability is simply the only context which our economy can function in this century, and it needs to be loudly rebranded as that.”

What’s next?

How will we cope when the world has nine billion people (about 30 years from now)? Different visions for how we might operate were set forth in the report, “Our Common Future,” known more commonly as the Brundtland Report, published in 1987. The report—a gargantuan multi-government and multi-disciplinary effort—recognized holism and systems thinking as forces to solve a universal problem.

All sectors of society, according to the report, must be active participants and decision makers in a world moving into crisis mode. But it is only now that cities, counties, and states might be attempting collectively and strategically to come together after more than 24 years since that much quoted definition of sustainable development was penned by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland: “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A bioregional framework that represents a “whole scale nature-human linked system as a place-based approach to promote scientific understanding, planning, and action to regenerate our communities and other living systems” still is way beyond the average politician and citizen operational model.

However, it’s becoming clearer to planners and politicians alike that places like the Cascade Bioregion or the Napa Valley Bioregion, for example, each call for unique investigative practices that will bring forth planning, design, and management skills that will make the bioregion resilient through these unique sets of landscape-human patterns.

Despite a general acceptance that sustainable development calls for a convergence between the three rails of economic development, social equity, and environmental protection, the concept remains elusive. For many like Kunstler and Mouzon, the grip of technological, political, and other constraints creates a fertile ground for the greenwasher to thrive.
When I am with fellow educators, sustainability planners, and professionals looking for ways to be change agents in sustainability, I understand the learning curve is steep for those who have not immersed themselves in climate change, sustainability, and social justice and grassroots movements.

At the Sustainability Leadership class, it is clear that many of the facilitators did not want to tackle the big E in the triple bottom line: equity. In fact, there is dissonance with these leaders when I challenge their assertions that Wal-Mart is the model for sustainability.

Many in sustainability circles want solar, LEED, wind turbines, some metering for energy use and carbon emissions, but they do not question the “corportacracy” that many in the deep sustainability movement in U.S. and other countries are challenging.

We’ll use Wal-Mart as an example of a company trying to use sustainability as a tool for the corporation’s profit drive. Many times I’ve heard folk cite this new book, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution (2011) by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes.

The problem with Wal-Mart is endemic of a large predatory corporation that is attempting to corner the world’s retail market, whose CEO (Lee Scott) made $24 million last year in pay and another $8 million in stock options, and whose corporate policy is to give money to GOP and Blue Dog democrats as part of a lobbying effort.

Using solar panels made in China and selling organic produce from Chile do not make a sustainable company when one figures the wage gap issue –

According to the April 2011 “Living Wage Policies and Big-Box Retail” report by Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley, the retailer could easily pay associates $12 per hour. Even if Wal- Mart passed the total cost to customers, 46 cents per WalMart visit would be added to one’s tab.

Then there’s the issue of Wal-Mart’s “Love, Earth” line of jewelry, that, according to Wal-Mart meets environmental criteria and meets social criteria. The idea that these criteria are meaningful is refuted by the Broward-Palm Beach New Times article that examined “Love, Earth” from the mine to the store.

Think $50 a month paid to Bolivian miners for this line of Wal-Mart stuff. Or the cyanide heap-leaching process of mining the silver and gold.

Maybe the local city planner won’t be hosting a film night using Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart: High Cost of Low Price or the film, Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town as a jumping off point, I’ve hosted a few in Spokane as a graduate planning student at Eastern Washington University. A few off the record voiced what Al Norman of Sprawl-Busters had to say about Store Wars:

Store Wars takes you inside the grassroots politics of Ashland, Virginia, and inside a campaign by Wal-Mart to overpower the town. It is not pretty, but it lays out why Wal-Mart has become the most reviled corporation in America today.

Planners seem to be caught somewhere in the middle of theory and practice, and pitted against politics and economics. So where does planning fit in?

“Planning’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness: It knows change does not come quickly,” says Reitz. “It also assumes there will be a continuously corrective process. And when a planner says it cannot be done quickly, he is let go. This is a broad generalization, but it happens.” Change can come neighborhood by neighborhood and still be effective, he adds. “I don’t see anything wrong in that.”

Michael Harcourt — former mayor of Vancouver and then, later, premier of British Columbia who is now a speaker and author of the book, A Measure of Defiance, and co-author of two books, Plan B: one Man’s Journey from Tragedy to Triumph and City Making in Paradise — sees sustainability as a spectrum. “I don’t use terms like greenwashing. I prefer to look on sustainability policies and practices as a continuum from easy to do, to very hard to accomplish without major structural, attitudinal, political changes.”

Also thinking along those lines is Moura Quayle, Deputy Minister of BC’s Ministry of Advanced Education as well as UBC Sauder School of Business professor. She helped save some valuable farmland on the UBC campus for what is now the ideal showcase for sustainability: the UBC Farm, where land, food, and community learning reign at the 24 hectare farm.

“My field has shifted from being focused on the built environment to a focus on leadership and transformation of the way people think. And I am quite pragmatic,” she says. “For example, I’ve tried to figure out (in the past) how to be practical about how communities can build their own environments—for social and environmental benefits.”

Another example of a seemingly fundamental shift: Will Chicago’s move to plant southern swamp oaks and sweet gum trees be considered deep sustainability or green panic? With permanent heat waves forecast in 50 to 100 years—and thermal imaging already showing the hottest spots—the city is ripping up pavement and putting in green roofs. Is putting in AC for all 750 public schools greenwashing, green scare, or impractical?

Chicago’s deputy commissioner of Department of Environment, Aaron Dumbaugh, has told the US Press many times that “cities adapt or they go away” to justify the Windy City’s green dream: to be the greenest city on the planet.

Steve Mouzon from Miami thinks about sustainability at the community level. It’s about “building sustainable places, so that it then makes sense to build sustainable buildings within them,” he says. “Sustainable places should be nourishable, accessible, serviceable, and securable. Sustainable buildings should be lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal.”

“Today, most discussions on sustainability focus on gizmo green, which is the proposition that we can achieve sustainability simply by using better equipment and better materials,” Mouzon says. “We do need better equipment and better materials, but this is only a small part of the whole equation. Focusing on gizmo green misses the big picture entirely.”

Designing with nature (think, Ian McHard, 1969, Design with Nature) might also be a salient point here, as ornithologists and amateurs alike know the common sparrow is in great decline in Europe. Maybe Canadian artist Myfanwy MacLeod gets greenwashing best through her artwork: “Locating this artwork in an urban plaza not only highlights what has become the ‘natural’ environment of the sparrow, it also reinforces the ‘small’ problem of introducing a foreign species and the subsequent havoc wreaked upon our ecosystems.”

Green Cities and Green Washing Sources

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.