Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Institutionalizing Ignorance

Ignorance: state of being ignorant, lack of knowledge , education, or awareness.
I felt that I needed to get that definition in place right our front, before I start throwing bombs. My first few posts have been on items that have been rather mundane such as, groundskeeping and maintenance plans.  However, over the last couple of weeks several things have come to my attention that both angered me and made my wonder about the long term viability of the sustainability movement.

The children are the future

The first thing that got may attention was a concerted effort to pollute the minds of school children by requiring, under force of law, the teaching of climate denial in schools. Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona are all debating bills that refer to global warming as a "theory" that is "controversial" and riddled with scientific weaknesses. This, despite the fact the National Academy of Sciences, as well as major national academies of science around the world and every other authoritative body of scientists active in climate research have stated that the science is unequivocal: the world is warming and its primary cause is human activity.  The veracity of climate change is unshaken despite the fact that this spring has been ice bound and last winter was virtually snow less. These variations are explainable.  The trend line of the data has been verified, despite the claims of climate change deniers.

These bills are being advanced under the canard that students need a "balanced" perspective " to develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive and scientifically informed citizens." (These efforts have been crafted and honed over decades, if you want to learn more, an excellent PBS documentary is here.) This is the latest approach to arguing for an idea you can't possibly support with evidence - the false equivalency.  The powerful interests behind climate denial are well aware that the vast weight of evidence is against them so they propose that , for the sake of balance and fairness, both sides need to be considered equally.  This is bunk.  This is the same argument that was made between creationism and evolution.  One side has the vast weight of the generations greatest subject matter experts all reaching some form of accord, the other has....nothing. The best support that they muster is a selective interpretation of the data.  Sure they can point to a scientist or two - often not even a climate scientist - to support their position.  The tobacco industry would occasionally find a scientist who did not believe that smoking damaged your health, it did not mean that those scientists opinions should receive the same weight as the avalanche of opposing colleagues. 

While these laws seem laughable on their face, this is not something to be trivialized. While the above referenced law is up for debate in 3 states, it has been raised in 10.  The forces that propose these laws are very very well organized and heavily subsidized.  They are also expert at influencing the political process to gain a built in, legislatively mandated, advantage.  Kudo's for them.  If you care about something, you need to fight for it.  I fear that the pro-sustainability constituents may not be up for the fight.  Examples of their efforts include efforts to prevent the disclosure of fracking fluids, efforts to blockade renewable energy, and even developing a "Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Classrooms." 

Now, we get to the part that worries me.  

Journalists, the ones we trust to nurture an informed populace, seem to be completely abdicating any responsibility to cover environmental matters.  Last year we had the ridiculous op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where 16 scientists, most with no expertise in climate science, advocated that global warming has stopped.  That was countered by a letter sating that "97% of the scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused". Despite the fact that that letter was written by 39 of the preeminent climate and atmospheric scientists in the world, the Wall Street Journal determined that it did not warrant a retraction or an explanation. It did not even deserve to be published in the more prominent op-ed section, it was relegated to "letters to the editor". 

Just a year later we hear that the New York Times is disbanding its special environmental team of 7 reports and 2 editors. The six weeks later they disband its Green Blog.  A few days later the Washington Post reassigned its star climate reporter to White House coverage.  The    NYT still maintains dozens of blogs including six that cover style and fashion. They claim that they are not de-empahsisizing environmental coverage, just that the stories will be available in other sections such as technology or politics.  No matter how you slice it this is a dilution of emphasis. If covering the environment is not part of a reporters job, if they are not passionate about it, if they are not required to produce green stories for an editor, there can be little doubt that the issue will receive much attention. If we can not count on the media to keep environmental concerns in the forefront of peoples consciousness, they will wither on the vine.   You can not effect change without a motivated and informed populace.  When faced with the prospect of having to hunt for relevant information, the soporific effect of reality TV and the latest sensationalized news of the day will dull the minds and hearts of all but the most ardent supporters. 

Attacking LEED

Some elements of the press have been openly hostile. Late last year an article in USA today attacked the LEED for schools program. It called into question the benefits of LEED and insinuated that LEED was ineffective at saving energy, promoting better student performance, and in effect creating a better environment.  This was the second article critical of LEED in that publication by the same author.  Granted, we as a community can do better. We need to get our message out with case reports and studies. We need to focus on the economic as well as human well being aspects of green building. We can't forget two of the three P's, people and profit. However, without a press, actively involved in accurately reporting environmental issues - who will counter such ill informed articles?  Not only will we have a populace that doesn't receive environmental news, the news they receive will be inaccurate at best and twisted at the worst. 

A second example of information being twisted relates to recent governmental action looking to, perhaps, replace LEED with a sham standard. The U.S General Services Administration (GSA) has recently conducted a review of third party standards and it concluded that, while close, Green Globes was better aligned with the federal requirements for new construction.  Also,  Congress has been pressuring the DoD to limit, if not eliminate the use of LEED for their construction projects. The DoD, to their credit, has pushed back

Why is this important? The DoD and GSA are two of the biggest property managers in the world. Both entities have a huge impact on shaping and driving markets. This pressure on Congress is coming from, no surprise, an industry group with the high minded name of The American High Performance Buildings Coalition.   These 27 trade groups represent such interests as chemicals, plastics, sealants, and wood products.  This group is pushing hard to make Green Globes a "business friendly and affordable alternative to LEED". The vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council states, that this coalition "will bring needed perspectives to this important work." Another member of the group states that they see a danger (and seek to end) the "USGBC's further monopolization of these types of programs." Once again we see the hydra of a false equivalency argument and a perceived "need" to bring an "equally valid" alternative to the table. 

The true nature of the group is revealed in its adoption of Green Globes as its alternative since Green Globes was essentially created by the Sustainable Forestry initiative. (SFI) This industry group was in opposition to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and its stringent criteria for sustainable forestry. Rather than manage their forests sustainably, the SFI, with funding from the lumber industry, hired a PR executive and started their own green certification program, Green Globes.  Now this group has spawned a second group, The American High Performance Buildings Coalition, to recommend Green Globes.  Its like a snake eating its tail. Can't get your products accepted by LEED; create your own product certification; then create a "third party" rating system that uses that "certified" product; then create another group with even more undesirable products; have that group push government to adopt your "third party certification" across their properties; use the governments wide ranging influence to distort the market.  It's beautiful in a machiavellian sort of way.

"The sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without but from within."


The forces that seek to undermine the sustainability movement are not only battling in the war of public opinion, they are quietly eroding the efforts from the inside.  "Good-bye Sustainability, Hello Resilience" is a very interesting, if misguided, article in the respected journal Conservation.  The central tenant of this article is that Sustainability has not worked and is not likely to work and that a more pragmatic and more politically inclusive (my emphasis) approach, resilience, that focuses on adapting to the coming change rather than fighting against it. That sounds like capitulation to me. Now in the authors defense, he mentions, but doesn't support,  that it's a "complementary dialog", but that does bring to mind the false equivalency argument.   He points out that Lower Manhattan, with the largest collection of LEED certified buildings in the world was built to be sustainable, but not resilient.  I would argue that the principles of sustainability and LEED in particular are -de facto- resilient. If you have on site renewable energy are you not resilient to power outages? If you have rain water harvesting, is that not resilient? Proper air sealing, locally sourced materials, building orientation, durability and life cycle  analysis - these all speak to resilience.  The reason that so much destruction occurred when Manhattan flooded was that much of the infrastructure was from a different, unconcerned, time and that decisions were made to avoid flood proofing the newer buildings.   The author contends that those advocating sustainability are seeking a "perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium". I don't think so, I believe that the purpose of sustainability is to preserve what we can and conserve what we need. We are trying to bend the curve. If we can't immediately halt climate change, perhaps we can buy time. Perhaps technological advances will allow the developing world to bypass carbon intensive practices and move directly to renewables.  While it is important to follow the boy scout motto and "be prepared,  we should not simply resign ourselves to building higher sea walls.

If we wish to keep building a sustainable future, we need to be aware of the forces that are working against us. We need to shine the light of publicity on their activities. We need correct information not a "balanced perspective". We need to call out intellectual corruption. We need to counter misinformation with credible data presented understandably. We need  to work with manufacturers and business leaders and convince them that sustainability is not only the right thing to do but that it is the profitable thing to do.  We need to keep our promises, admit our errors,  tell the truth, and expose those that do not. We can not,we must not, capitulate.

Kevin Dufour is an Environmental Scientist with Viridis Advisors. He collaborates with Tom Irwin on creating greener greenscapes. The opinions expressed by member bloggers are their own and not necessarily those of the USGBC Massachusetts Chapter.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comments, they will be posted shortly.
Please note that we will not post any that contain solicitations.