Let's Return to the Original Green: Moving From a Consuming Economy to a Conserving Economy

The following is a guest post by Steve Mouzon, green architect and owner of Mouzon Design in Miami Beach, Florida.

I'm an architect by trade, although I now spend more time writing and speaking. Looking back over my profession's bumps and starts these past forty years, it's easy to be depressed. I was ten years old at the first Earth Day. My mother opened her health food store shortly thereafter, and in the years that followed, she brought in a long series of lecturers discussing the more natural ways of doing things. My recollections of that first Earth Day decade were of a time of great optimism that we were going to actually get it right.. I graduated from architecture school in 1983 determined to do my part, but it wasn't long until things turned dark. I had returned to the town where I grew up after graduation. Huntsville, Alabama was highly anomalous for a small southern town because of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army Missile Command being headquartered there. The running joke was that "you can't tell rocket scientist jokes here because everybody is one."

Green Tech Has To Be More Than Tolerable, It Must Be Lovable
Because of the technological advancement of the place, hot water solar collectors (and even a few PVs) sprouted on roofs all over town, including several on my parents' block. I clearly recall after returning to town just a few years later hearing numerous people say "I don't care if they are saving me money! Get those hideous things off my roof; I won't tolerate them any longer!"

The problem, in my opinion, was the fact that the collectors had been designed purely as an act of engineering, supported on crude steel struts to get the perfect solar angle. Not a shred of thought had gone into designing them to be visually tolerable... much less lovable.

Once the rooftop collector tide turned, the entire climate got nasty. I was an intern at the time in a local architect's office. My employer liked me and tried to set me up as project manager for  several plum clients, but after working with them for just a bit, I remember being told by several of them that "you're a tree-hugger, aren't you?" And then they each went to my employer and demanded another project manager.

I was building my own home at that time. For the first two years, it had no conventional heating and cooling equipment at all, but operated entirely passively. After an especially cold winter, we finally added a geothermal heat pump. But my ability to communicate any green principles to clients went to zero because everyone by that time was convinced that "solar" = "repulsive."

We Mustn't Repeat the Mistakes of the 70s Green Revolution
Today, we're in the middle of another green revolution. Optimism abounds, as we believe we're going to finally get it right. It's eerily like it was then. And here's the warning: What happened to us then could happen to us now. It doesn't have to happen to us. But it could happen to us. It's all up to us: Will the artifacts of this green revolution be things that only an architect or an engineer could love, or will they be things that everyone can love? People will only suffer for so long... we really need to carefully consider this fact.

On the other side of every warning should be an ideal vision, so here's mine:

How to Move Past the 'Thermostat Age'
Because my background predisposed me to look for the natural solution before the techno solution--even though I grew up in a town of rocket scientists--I've long looked for the underlying mechanisms that let people live in highly sustainable fashion for ages.

It's only been in our recent blip of human history I call the Thermostat Age that we've even had the choice of flipping a switch to take care of things... and that's precisely the era in which sustainability has become a crisis of global proportions. Before that, it was seldom a crisis much larger than that of local proportions, like on Easter Island, and even then, only occasionally.

But here's the problem: We're not 15th century people anymore, so it's not nearly so simple as going back and living a 15th century lifestyle in order to achieve the high sustainability of the 15th century. Most people wouldn't tolerate that for even a day, given the choice. So the challenge was to find the underlying mechanisms of the aggregation and distribution of the wisdom of sustainability and see if they might help us live truly sustainably in the 20th (now 21st) century.

In the early years, I didn't know what I was looking for, or where to find it, or if it even yet existed. In recent years, however, many elements of the mystery have emerged to the point that it's finally possible, 30 years after asking the initial questions, to tell the coherent story of what I call the Original Green. I've just written a book on the Original Green which will be released shortly (May 7). Bobby Kennedy, Jr. was kind enough to write the Foreword, which deals with his experience rebuilding his own house, in highly Original Green fashion. Here's the essence of the book:

The Original Green is Common Sense and Plain-Spoken
The Original Green is the sustainability our ancestors knew by heart.
Originally (before the Thermostat Age) they had no choice but to build green, otherwise people would not survive very long. The Original Green aggregates and distributes the wisdom of sustainability through the operating system of living traditions, producing sustainable places in which it is meaningful to build sustainable buildings.

Original Green sustainability is common-sense and plain-spoken, meaning keeping things going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.

Sustainable places should be nourishable because if you cannot eat there, you cannot live there. They should be accessible because we need many ways to get around, especially walking and biking because those methods do not require fuel. They should be serviceable because we need to be able to get the basic services of life within walking distance. We also should be able to make a living where we are living if we choose to. They should be securable against rough spots in the uncertain future because if there is too much fear, the people will leave.

Sustainable buildings should be lovable because if they cannot be loved, they will not last. They should be durable because if they cannot endure, they are not sustainable. The should be flexible because if they endure, they will need to be used for many uses over the centuries. They should be frugal because energy and resource hogs cannot be sustained in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.

How do we move to an Original Green future? Many things are arrayed against us.

Consumption to Conservation...
The lens of our current Consuming Economy is "standard of living," through which sustainability is indiscernible from poverty. But the lens of a Conserving Economy (such as those that existed almost everywhere prior to 1925) is "quality of life," through which sustainability can be highly appealing.

Architecture, which must participate if we are to have hope of living sustainably, is similarly hobbled with a "necessity of uniqueness" that largely prohibits the sharing of wisdom. We must share wisdom broadly, as noted earlier, to have a chance. But we must move fast, because 2.5 billion people in China and India alone are moving from low-impact agrarian lifestyles to industrial and post-industrial lifestyles largely due to the images of the American suburban lifestyle we've been exporting for years, so the impact of 300 million Americans are soon to be multiplied by more than nine.

Changing Our Technology Won't Work Without Behavior Changes
So what can we do? We must begin by involving everyone, because if our behavior doesn't change, our machines can't save us. Sustainability isn't something we achieve by going shopping for more efficient stuff.

Sustainability is something that happens when we live differently... much differently, because gains associated with changes in behavior can dwarf efficiency gains by two or three orders of magnitude. But living green won't happen if it's seen as something we should do, but rather something we want to do... so the entire positioning of sustainability must change to illustrate an enticing green future, rather than one that looks more like suffering.

Engaging everyone isn't so much an act of engineering or of other high technologies. Rather, it's primarily an act of story-telling. In other words, if we can tell a story of a green future that is rational, compelling, and inspiring, then we have a chance that the idea will take on a life of its own and spread broadly... so in a sense, the story becomes a living thing. In the end, it is clear: that which can reproduce and live sustainably is green; that which is incapable of doing so is not green. This is the standard of life. Life is that process which creates all things green.

More Mouzon in TreeHugger:

Steve Mouzon on Learning from Old Buildings
The Greenest Brick is the One That's Already in the Wall
Does A Recession Make You Buy Better or Cheaper?
The Green house of the Future in the Wall Street Journal

Tags: Conservation | Earth Day | Economics | Green Building