Forget About Green Building. Let's Talk About a New Living Standard

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Screen capture. The Standard Issue

The USGBC is really on to something with their new initiative.

According to Architecture 2030, buildings are responsible for 44.6 percent of American CO2 emissions. Transportation, which is really mostly about getting stuff and people between buildings, is another 34.3 percent. So really, close to 79 percent of CO2 emissions are the result of how we design our buildings and our communities.

Many of us in the green building community have been banging away at this for a long time; the US Green Building Council has been at it for 25 years. We have been totally ineffective. As USGBC President Mahesh Ramanujam notes, "For too long, most of us in the green building community have simply been talking to ourselves. We are not reaching the broader population effectively enough to change their behavior or decisions on the scale necessary to combat climate related risks."

The USGBC has been focused on the LEED certification standard, but it certainly doesn't talk to a broader population. So they have started a new campaign, the Living Standard.

As the global green building market has evolved, we must evolve with it. We have to expand the way we talk about sustainability. The heart of the green building community’s efforts must go well beyond construction and efficiency, and the materials that make up our buildings. We must dig deeper and focus on what matters most within those buildings: human beings.

One of the first steps they took was to hire ClearPath Strategies to do really thorough surveys of human beings across the country, and this should be a wakeup call to everybody in the green building and sustainability community. Right in the introduction, they summarise the contradictions:

People say climate change is one of their most urgent concerns about the future, but only a passing concern right now. People say it is going to impact everyone, yet hold out hope that it will not affect people like them. People say it is going to have an impact everywhere, but not in their community. People say we are all responsible to solve these problems, but take no personal responsibility for addressing them.
issues that people care about

The Standard Issue/Screen capture

In fact, even though we know that we have to start dealing with climate change RIGHT NOW, it is way down the list below media-driven issues like immigration. In fact, ALL of the issues that are more important than climate change are driven by American politics. (And they don't call it climate change because that slides it right into political polarization. They have to bury it in "environment.")

While 40% of respondents say the environment is one of their biggest concerns for the future, less than a quarter of survey respondents say the environment is one of their biggest concerns today.

But 'environment' is such a vague and nebulous term. They don't say what the actual questions were, but I don't think "burning planet and the end of life as we know it" were on the list. But they do make that point that it is "a matter of time and space" – what's happening right now in your own backyard is a lot more important than what is down the road, possibly somewhere else.

actions that. people take graph

© The Standard Issue

And then there is the graph that makes me just want to give up and end it all, the top things that people do "to live a longer and healthier life." The Disposable Industrial Complex has been so successful in its brainwashing that recycling is far and away the top green action in the USA.

Green building? Barely rates.

words associated with sustainability

Living Standard/Screen capture

Really, one can only marvel at this, at how successful industry has been at making the world safe for single-use products. And how badly we have failed in promoting green space, green building, and of course, the urgency of the climate crisis.

This all begs the question, What can we do? Here, the pickings are thin, and they are the same conclusions I have come to in our posts on how to sell the idea of Passive House. Or why the Well Standard is eating everybody's lunch: it recognises that "it's all about ME", although they are a bit more polite.

When making our promise to people, we need to emphasize the most credible, tangible benefits, like cleaner air, less exposure to toxins, and cleaner water....We need to place less emphasis on creating green jobs, or representing the future, or cost savings, or even something abstract like “happiness.” In other words, we need to think of this as “What’s in it for us, the human beings?”

This report is just the beginning of the Living Standard project, but they are really on to something important here. Everyone in the green building community (or should I say "the healthy building community") should be paying attention to this.

A 51% majority says they would be willing to spend more money on food, products, and rent if that meant living in an environment that set them up for a longer, healthier life. (Only 31%, by contrast, wouldn’t make that trade-off.) 65% of respondents don’t believe their environment is very healthy — and almost a third say they have direct, personal experience with bad health associated with poor environments or living situations, like asthma (18%), dirty drinking water (12%), asbestos (9%), and sick buildings (5%).
Only 11% say green buildings.

A lot of credit has to go to the USGBC for starting this Living Standard initiative. It's clear that the public has not been buying what we have been selling. In some ways it is depressing that they play down climate change so much, that it is really just a supporting actor, but they are responding to what people apparently care about, and we can all learn from this, whether we are architects, planners, active transportation activists: health comes first.

Our water is often tainted and our air is often poisoned. The materials we use to build the places we spend our lives in are often filled with invisible toxins and hazards. And all of this is exacerbated by risks stemming from climate change. More severe weather events from heat waves to droughts to rising sea levels have already begun to affect us all.
In other words, the communities we love are killing us.
And it will only get worse if we fail to take action.

Read it all at The Living Standard.