Is the future really “green”?

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    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I’ve got my paint ball warrior protective gear on for the reaction to this observation – eggs, tomatoes, but mostly name calling from people who won’t actually think about it will likely be coming my way.


    The most overlooked reality in the accelleration of the “green economy” is that the trend developed as the economy was rolling along. There was plenty of money in the bottom of the economy that enough consumers could afford to value all of  subtle environmental differences and greater aesthetic experiences that developers and retailers put into projects to gain their business. Entrepreneurs did this through gaining consumer’s respect or providing a more enjoyable experience. Enough consumers were willing to pay extra in enough numbers to make investment into “green” things and higher end experiences a marketing edge that added to the bottom line of these industries, retailers, and service providers.


    Aesthetics and subtle environmental measures got to be a huge marketing tool. We all see it on tv, radio, and the net. We have cartoon ie-surance agents telling us that they are “green” because they use the net instead of the mail (meanwhile we print a new copy 20 times instead of trying to find the old one, and the mail truck still drives by the house everyday). It just never ends how trivial some of the things are that are mentioned. Anyway, there has been a marketing incentive for such investment.


    Clearly, the notion is that people have been willing to pay more to support these things which has been the incentive to spend the money on them. There had been a very noteworthy growth in “valuing” “green” and a noticable return on “green” investment by developers, retailers, and service providers. The growth trend of the “green economy” has been climbing at a steep angle for ten to fifteen years or so – just like the economy.


    It is very clear to me, by what I read on this forum and elsewhere, that there is a strong belief by a large number of people that the trend of “green” growth will continue. Many believe it will be what lifts us out of the economic slump.


    Another “industry” that got a lot of notoriety for growing at a very high rate and projected to have even stronger growth through the same period was landscape architecture. I think the “green economy” will have the same fate for the same reason.


    I try very hard to understand why people have so much faith that the “green economy” is “sustainable” in a down economy. Nothing is more obvious in this economy than the fact that people cut out extra expense in their personal lives when they have less money. They are less interested in “shopping experience” and more interested in price. They don’t care as much about the image behind the companies they do business with  as they do about the cost of the product or service. They want quality of the actual product or service over the image of those providing it. Retailers will lose interest in funding projects or paying higher lease rates for things that no longer spike the bottom line. Developers won’t be able to fill units that require recovering higher expenses through higher lease rates and will not continue to develop with a “green” agenda as a marketing tool.


    It looks very obvious to me that the economy drove, enabled, and financed the “green economy” and not the other way around. It just does not seem that there is any economic mechanism that can make that work in reverse. Some will say that the government drove it through regulation and “creating opportunity”. My front row seat let me see that “green” enhancements to private projects don’t create the project, but only happen when the value of the total project is worth the added burden imposed by regulation. When the burden is too much, the project is pulled. Any way you look at it, the development (that is driven by the economy) is always enabling the “green project” and never the other way around.


    What is the expectation? Build a wetland and a campus design project will pop up? Make a green roof and a building will grow under it? Site a wind turbine and you get to redesign a town? What are we talking about here?


    If the notion is that regulation will complicate development and therefore give us jobs, think again. It may mean that there will be more design money to be made on a single project, but there will be fewer projects due to expense.


    Someone help me out with this. How is the “green economy” going to exist on its own in this economy, let alone drive the overall economy?

    Thomas J. Johnson

    Well said. I do believe that the government will mandate LEED on all projects in the near future. I also agree with you that there is huge expense associated with requiring LEED and that it will make projects unfeasible for a lot of people. I also think the government doesn’t really care and that it falls perfectly into the larger plan to concentrate wealth and power. Can’t afford to build? Too bad, we can.

    The whole idea of “green” being more expensive is a fallacy. Like you said, it’s a marketing tool. For a while, people were willing to pay more to relieve their subconscious guilt about their rampant consumerism. It gave people a sense of status and higher than thou environmental ethics.

    The reality is that “green” is not expensive. It’s also not glamorous. Green is buying clothes at the thrift store. Green is restoring an old honda civic instead of buying a hybrid. Green is thinking of creative ways to reuse materials. It’s making due with what you have, not buying more than what you need. “Green” is not a $45 organic cotton t-shirt. That’s called stupid.

    Being green does not require that you build a modern looking building out of space age materials. There are many building materials that are “green”. It is also very difficult to get a building permit to use them. Not because they are unsafe, because they are not profitable. They are “too green” they are not commercial enough, the lumber industry doesn’t want you to be able to build a home with your friends, in a month, with straw bail. They want you to buy their 2x4s, tyvek, and drywall…

    I have to laugh at the landscapes in Southern California. They live in a desert and irrigate every square inch of property with water imported from Northern California and Colorado. Then they are required to have drainage systems, so the whole yard has plastic plumbing under it. Good old fashioned grading isn’t enough, you need to have drains and catch basins all over the place. Pretty green… Nope, we’ve got a long way to go…

    “Green” and a growing economy are a contradiction of terms. We need a smaller population on earth with fewer material desires and a slower, more meaningful, paced life. Indefinite 5% economic growth is not “sustainable” when you live on a planet with finite resources… add to that, exponentially expanding populations in India and China, all demanding American standards of living and we are in deep caca indeed.

    Where do landscape architects fit into the picture? Hell if I know… I just learned it cheaper to import a shipping container of marble from China than it is to get the same amount from a quarry 30 miles away… something is very wrong with the world…


    Good questions, very good argument. I always arrive back at the big “E”; Energy. Green energy will drive the green economy, but not until the demand for oil drives the price per barrel back up to triple digits. Solar/renewables need to be able to compete with oil without the help of subsidies. The only way for this to happen is for the price of oil to be so high that the investment in solar (or other renewable energy) is unquestionably logical. I think the conversion to renewable energy will change the way the economy works in general. It will be an entirely new world in many ways. The change to renewables will necessitate changes in the power grid, manufacturing processes, transportation, even the way things are built and designed (which will be great for us designer folks)

    Andrew I think the Green Economy will really be driven by necessity and profit. As soon as renewable energy and “green” technologies become more efficient than conventional methods you will see a huge change in the world around us. Of course, as long as there is a plentiful supply of cheap oil I wouldn’t look for things to change too drastically. Why would they? The economy has operated under the same system for decades.

    So where does that leave us now? Your last question “How is the “green economy” going to exist on its own in this economy, let alone drive the overall economy?”, is amazingly valid. I’m not sure how to answer it. I study “green” stocks everyday. Not so much for financial gains but for clues as to where the economy is going. Some solar stocks still post gains even in this economy when oil is cheap (unfortunately most of these stocks are Chinese). I guess the answer to your question, in short, is that the green economy can’t exist on its own in this economy. The “green” economy will only thrive (in my opinion) once the conventional use of fossil fuels and natural resources is noticeably less cost effective than “going green”.

    As a profession I think that just means we need to keep fighting whatever battle we can. I’m not sure there is that much we can do from a design perspective right now, simply because there isn’t nearly as much new construction as there has been in the past 20 years. (Thats not to say you can’t design something amazing, I’m just saying less opporunities abound) People simply aren’t consuming like they have. I think some people are learning they can be happy without consuming so much. But I digress. Root for oil to hit 100 dollars per barrel and you’ll start to see some fireworks and some change for the better. Things change very quickly. For example, earlier this year I was gainfully employed 🙂 Cheers

    Thomas J. Johnson

    Well said!

    Trace One

    One of the guys in my office said Solar power is our generations Hoover Dam..

    You are not at the forefront of thought, Thomas, but unfortunately occupying the broad boring middle – everyone in America goes to church, doubts global warming, believes in the absolute free market and that govenment should keep their hands off their medicare..Get over the rush from thinking you are a radical – Sarah Palin was a vice presidential candidate, after all…It’s the broad, toothless, healthcareless, underpaid and overfed middle gut of america, putting us at the end of the western world pack academically, that holds these views..Common, and really boring..

    Oil needs to be costed at it’s full price – including environmental damage, social damage..Like bill McKibben says, whether it leaks out in the million barrels into the gulf , or is burned in cars, oil is the wrong way to go..

    Rob Halpern

    I cannot think of any progressive act that was the result simply of people deciding what was “right.” Whether it is clean drinking water for Paris in the 15th Century or the Clean Air Act, change comes when the status quo is no longer possible. As human population has soared in recent decades and the consumer economy spread to China and now to Africa, the present way of building and developing cannot last.
    The present economic conditions will surely slow down change, but it can’t be stopped because land and oil are limited, zinc deposits are limited, potable water is limited, while human population and desire seems nowhere near its limit. When a small part of the population felt rich, as was the case up until 2 years ago (the rest simply used credit to appear rich) being forward-thinking was cool. Now it isn’t “practical”. In the end, I supose the question is how much pain will we accept before we change.
    What will be really interesting is when societies are pressed to choose between cheap energy or more children.

    Noah Mabry

    Andrew, I think you have two separate arguments here. The first one I am in total agreement with. “Green” as a marketing tool is stupid, not to mention meaningless. As Thomas said, it is basically a way for customers to alleviate a guilty conscience. This is especially true in your “e-surance” example. If you recieve your Hummer car insurance bill through email to save paper, you’re still not doing the environment any favors everytime you drive the quarter mile to the grocery store.

    The second point I’m not so sure about. No LEED buildings and bio swales are not driving the economy, nor will they in the future. And mandating any certain “green atributes” to projects aren’t going to make a difference in that either. What might actually make a difference is oil and energy as a whole priced at what it actually costs. We would then be forced to develop, design, and build projects that are actually sustainable. I’m not talking about solar panels and wind turbines here (although they have an important role to play), but rather redesigning towns and cities to be walkable and built at a more sustainable scale.

    I agree with the original point that regulating a project to death might not be good, but smart regulation would definately help. For instance requiring certain densities and favoring people walking and biking would go a long way in encouraging new developement that really does become sustainable.

    Ben Yahr

    So if you believe that the quote green economy is going to crash and burn, where do you think the “E”conomy is going to go?

    This seems like a typical cynical analysis of any possible variation from the status quo. People hate change, and it is far easier to find fault in a new idea than to recognize problems with the old ways of doing business.

    Andrew, please share your view of the post green economy.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    First, there is being responsible and practical which is not separate from development with or without claims of being green. Lots and lots of green practices make sense whether or not you think think the planet is about to boil over and we are all going to die, or not. Believing that the green movement is not going to drive the economy is not the same thing as believing that anything green is too much of a burden to take place. It is not all or nothing.

    I’m simply trying to point out that environmental agendas on their own do not create work out of nothing. There has to be a return on investment in order for there to be an economy. You have to need energy to invest in a wind turbine for example. Right now they are going up, but only because 2/3 of the cost is subsidized for selected groups by the government. Because of that, some companies will be able to sell more wind turbines, but it is not because it is environmental, but because it is profitable. When oil costs more and it is directlly profitable to construct them it will happen. The thing is that this does not expand the overall economy. It displaces the source of energy and substitutes wind for oil. It will still cost the same as oil at that point. Some might argue that oil provides more jobs per btu than a wind turbine does, I’m not sure. The point is that practical solutions to problems can be greener than others, but being green is not the most compelling aspect of their practicallity. Oil was greener than coal, but that is not why it displaced coal. The driving force was and is the demand for energy to get things done. Take that away and there is no need for wind turbines because oil will last longer and remain cheaper longer.

    Can someone let me know who is paying the difference between the real cost of oil and what we are paying? I keep hearing that some entity is keeping me from having to pay the actual price that it costs for some unknown reason. Should I be thanking oil companies who are giving up their profits? Is the government paying the difference? What the heck are you people talking about?


    Yet change is how economies grow through innovation and risk-taking. Look up the word historic fatality, where one way of thinking eventually leads to ones own demise. I am all more a new comprehensive energy policy that would specifically invest in renewable but will also use nuclear as a stop-gap measure. Our trade deficient is primarily due to our reliance on oil. I do not live in a fantasy world and realize we need oil for more than just pumping our cars.

    Trace One

    Oil is subsidized artificially by our government in too many ways to count, Andrews – road building, construction loans, our whole society is built around oil subsidies – not to speak of drilling subsidies on public lands..
    The real cost should mean no government subsidies, plus add in the destruction of the natural world, the air pollution, water pollution, loss of habitat, that is occuring, and that is coming home to roost in many ways, only one of which is global warming..
    Why is that so hard to understand? When you turn on your tap, and a flame comes out, you will be paying the true cost of oil..
    Fertilizer runoff has caused dead zones in the Gulf for years.
    Every time we loose some species of animal, we loose all the developmental biology millions of years of it, that that animal posesses..
    Haven’t you read “The Lorax?”
    It is really not difficult to understand that the true cost of oil is far higher than we actually pay..jAnd that is for both the human construct, the economy we have built around oil, that includes specific subsidies, as well as the very hard to calculate environmental damage..and permanent loss..

    Trace One

    Rob, I have to say, I can think of hundreds of progressive acts that were done because they were the right thing to do – the bill of rights, the civil war against slavery, Brown vs. Board of Education, the code of hamurabi, the Magna Carta, the clean air act, the clean water act – these were decisions society made to move forward, instead of backwards..

    Rob Halpern

    I wasn’t saying we never move forward. I was saying we need to get kicked in the ass to do it. Read what I wrote. The Magna Carta was signed at sword point!

    Roland Beinert

    Have you heard of the economic term “externality” (We’re learning about economics in my bioregional planning class this week. That’s the only reason I’ve heard of it.)? An externality is when there are physical impacts from an activity on individuals not directly involved in an activity. Pollution (according to the article I read for class) is the classic example of a negative externality. It can cause all sorts of health and environmental problems that result in real costs (healthcare costs, resource degradation, etc.) that someone has to pay. The oil companies (or any other type of company that pollutes) does not have to pay these costs, and neither do we, the consumers of oil (unless we are the ones with the health problems or polluted land). In the case of the air or a river or anything that is owned by everyone, no one would be paying for the cost of pollution, unless the government steps in.
    That is what people mean by the true cost of oil.

    Ben Yahr

    This article clearly explains many of the factors that are not accounted for in the apparent price of gasoline-

    Ironically, it’s from 1998, when gas was around $1.00 a gallon.

    So yes, we truly are paying the real price of oil, but it is though taxes and government debt rather than at the pump.

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