Daniel Akst on Conspicuous Green Consumption

We have always enjoyed Daniel Akst's writing; we still quote an article he wrote in Metropolis three years ago on the problems of trying to build modern houses. In today's Wall Street Journal he makes a point that we have made before: "Adding solar panels to a 15,000 square foot house won't help the environment". Being in the Journal, its message will give comfort to its readers and be interpreted as being anti-green, when it is really anti-conspicuous excess. One look at the real estate section in the same paper, with houses costing 65 million dollars, indicates that conspicuous excess is a foreign concept to Journal readers.

::Wall Street Journal The question, of course, is what on earth are all these people thinking? How "green" can huge and, in many cases, isolated houses be? Wouldn't it be better to risk traumatizing the children by squeezing into a 3,000-square-foot home, especially one close to shopping, schools and work? How many less affluent, less guilt-ridden Americans can afford to build such environmental show houses?

These houses aren't just ridiculous; they're monuments to sanctimony. If architecture is frozen music, these places are congealed piety, demonstrating with embarrassing concreteness the glaring hypocrisy of upper-class environmentalism. The sad thing is that, by pouring so much money into ostentatious eco-design, the people who built homes like this have purchased status at the cost of doing some real environmental good.

Bear in mind that merely building a gigantic house consumes an enormous amount of energy and other resources, which is why it costs so much to do so. Situating a home all by itself on a large piece of land, far from the pre-existing community infrastructure, does not make it a model of environmentally conscious design. And having a second home -- which takes nearly a day of driving to reach -- is unlikely to make a dent in global warming.

Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting a large house, lots of privacy or a vacation home, but how can we pretend that these places exemplify some standard of eco-design that others should aspire to? In the first place, most people can't remotely afford it. Consider that Sim Van der Ryn, a California architect who pioneered environmentally conscious building, once designed an astonishing 15,000-square-foot "green" residence -- a home, in other words, the size of three NBA basketball courts.

::Wall Street Journal subscription only- we hope to print the entire article soon.