Land Ethics – Something Not To Be Underrug Swept

I am studying Civil Engineering, but I am specializing in the “Environmental Geotechnical” subdivision of the broad CivE field.  For this reason, one of my classes this semester is Environmental Geology.  I thought it would be a boring class about rocks, but it really isn’t.  Despite my preconceived notions, I ordered all of my text books months in advance and have since kept up on the reading.  I wish more students could delve into these materials as seriously because I am surprised by how relevant every topic really is.  I keep recalling these Indian proverbs recited in my family (Native American, albeit in French) about how life is one fragile web; what happens to one thread happens to all.  The expression fits this class perfectly.

Just within the first chapter, I was pummeled with scientifical points and pointed fingers.  The author of my “Introduction to Environmental Geology” book, Edward A. Keller, begins his book with “Concept One: Human Population Growth… The number-one environmental problem is the increase in human population”.  True or not true?  It is clearly his opinion, but he supports it well.  He talks about the “population bomb”, where exponential growth in our population explodes our numbers… and how our flocking to concentrated areas rather than pioneering and exploring has cornered us and subjected us to natural disasters.  My mother would argue that disasters, famine, disease, etc. are all mechanisms of the planet to balance itself out.  Now that we have improved technologies, agriculture, and medicine that extends our lifetimes significantly (and thereby affecting our population numbers in one stillframe), these disasters are merely keeping us in order.

But Keller takes this to another level.  He argues that “some studies suggest that the present population is already above a comfortable carrying capacity for the planet” (16), just pages before he explains the likelihood that Earth will outlive us by billions of years.  He constantly reiterates how short our time on this planet has been relative to the Earth’s age, and it’s a matter of hours around New Year’s after a whole year has passed before our arrival.  By page 18, Keller is essentially arguing that the Earth is not in danger.  We are in danger, some of the wildlife is likely affected by us and therefore in danger, but the planet keeps on apathetically turning.  Remember, this is a geology book, so plate techtonics, physical and chemical composition – none of that will change.  However, if we keep feeding the gases into the atmosphere that cause changes in the climate and the cold front patterns, the planet will naturally balance that with its ever-changing topography and natural disasters.  What Keller is trying to say is as simple as this: Don’t fix the planet, because it will balance itself out regardless; instead, view environmentalism as monitoring the Earth for the sole purpose of saving ourselves.

This brings me to “land ethics”, introduced on page 33.  It’s interesting how many people I know will go through their lives not thinking a second about the environment.  They’ll buy what they want to buy, drive where they want to drive, and not blink at all at the looming threat of a planetary disaster.  It’s people like these who do not invest in the vavlues of land ethics.  These ethics declare humans responsible, through their actions as citizens to this planet, for all other humans as well as the flora, the fauna, the ground, the water, and the air.  Believing in a land ethic means you agree that “we are the land’s citizens and protectors, not its conquerors”, that “this role change requires us to rever, love, and protect our land rather than allow economics to determine land use” (33), which it so often does.  This is no “hippie” notion – this is purely being responsible.

It sickens me that notions such as land ethics have such a classy, hippie, cool appeal.  Trigger words should instead include survival, necessity, and catastrophe prevention.  We are “blessed” enough to live in this era which teeters on the brink of some serious global crises.  Granted, these crises may only exist for our race, for our species, because the Earth will move on without us.  But, if we want to invest in the safe future of our offspring, we should concern ourselves less with economic survival and acknowledge the big picture.  We might all have our internal disputes, even those between nations, but what are those really to the planet as a whole?  They’re petty things.  The ONE THING that this entire planet should be able to agree on in the IMMEDIATE NEED to preserve a place for our children to live.  Other planets may not be a solution, and if we can’t fix our problems here then we will be certainly ill-equipped to take on an entirely new and foreign system.

The planet really is a fragile web.  However, it can rebuild itself.  Mother Earth a.k.a. Gaia is one crafty spider, and we are merely insects she’s got saved aside for later in her web.  It’s about time every human realizes he cannot live here for free, that he is indebted to his environment for eternity.  We might have fancy technology, but Mother Earth’s power will always overcome us in the end.  What makes us any different than the dinosaurs or any other mammal subjected to the same environment as we?  Have a conscience – it just might save your life.

P.S. Did you know?  Not only does the Earth’s techtonic plates, through their convergence, divergence, subduction, etc. dictate our living conditions on the surface, but the planet’s shape controls our climate.  Ever wondered why the equitorial jungles are surrounded by deserts?  It has to do with hot air collecting and dumping its burdening water content at the Equator, then its recycling away from the Equator in arid gusts that steal away any moisture in the deserts.  This is one of the many ways Mother Earth balances herself out and decides how we live.

Why Putting Trash on the Curb Should Weigh on Your Conscience

Yesterday was yet again Trash Day in Cleveland.  I hate Trash Day.

Where I’m from, we don’t have “Trash Day”, we having “Burning Day” where we burn anything that can’t be recycled, donated, or left to rot in our barn.  It’s not like my family is unique, though.  Everyone does it.  Everyone burns, everyone takes loads of recycling into town, and everyone finds a way to get rid of things without using landfills.

My hatred for Trash Day in Cleveland begins when I go to leave for work and someone’s decided to put the bins in front of my garage door.  (This usually turns into me returning that night to find that the trash guys threw the lids all over the place, but I never notice until I’m dragging one into the garage with the undercarriage of my car.)  I don’t even get out of my alley before being upset further.

I’m beginning to think my neighbor must hoard loads of things every week then schedules exactly how to place them on the curb.  This is because he always has several trash cans worth of stuff every week.  What pisses me off is it’s him and his wife and his dog – that’s it.  And yet they have so much trash.  Not only that, but all of the things are totally salvageable or useful to someone, or even just plain old recyclable.  Like yesterday when he had plastic flower containers stacked in one trash can.  Once I stole a set of new kitchen knives and a knife block from his trash.  The week before, I’d taken a metal wine rack.

Driving down my street, I see about five couches in three blocks just about every week.  Now, I can understand that couches, mattresses, furniture like that – those are things a lot of people don’t want.  Not from someone else, especially at a college campus.  But my first question is, why are there always so many mildly-used pieces of furniture getting thrown out?  Besides, go up the hill a ways and into the wealthy part of Cleveland Heights where very nice, intact furniture is being curbed constantly.  Lamps, crates, chairs, stools, garden trellises – pretty much anything you can imagine gets pitched weekly.

It all gets crunched up in those monstrous trucks that I hate so much, then dumped into our precious, suffering earth, polluting tracts of land and endangering little animals.  (They used to tell us in school to recycle because squirrels get their heads stuck in yogurt cups and to clip the circles out of plastic soda holders because fish get caught in them.)  With all the poor people in different parts of Cleveland, this waste just seems so unethical.

I asked my roommate last summer why people don’t take things in to recycling centers and the Good Will.  To me, there was no other form of disposal; Trash Days was a new concept.  To him, he was taken aback by how offended I was.  I explained my position and, in short, his answer was this: “I guess people just don’t want to take the time.  Plus, a lot of them don’t have trucks like they do where you’re from.”

Okay, the truck part is valid.  Although I do have to say I’ve seen services advertised where Good Will or others will come pick up your unwanted items.  But what about Craigslist?  That takes three seconds and if someone wants it, they’ll get it.  You might even get cash for it.

The lazy part though?  Are you serious?  These people live in the city.  Where I’m from, you have to drive at least 20 miles just to buy groceries.  Naturally, the recycling centers and Good Wills are nowhere near most families.  But we do it anyway.  Why?  Because we care about the land that we live on, farm on, let our kids play on.  Are people in the city so consumed by their stressed lifestyles that they can’t take three seconds to do the right thing?  Even the three seconds to post on Craigslist?  Unbelievable.

Finally, you’re only contributing to the same problems you’ll gripe about later if you toss everything.  By destroying these products, you’re increasing the demand of new ones.  These new things require resources and cheap labor most of the time (unless it’s Amish-made – my cousins run family stores so of course I support that).  E.g. a wooden chair that isn’t locally made, you can pretty much guarantee you just required a tree to be cut down and someone in a Third World country to assemble that new chair.

All I have to say is it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels this way.  I came across an article online by a poster named Trent and the points he makes are spot on: http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2010/04/07/the-stuff-rich-people-throw-away-is-often-better-than-the-stuff-i-keep/

So, for all you Trash Day culprits out there, maybe this comes as a new point-of-view for you.  Maybe you’ll start thinking about your alternatives and try to improve the world with small efforts and time donations.  Or maybe you just don’t give a damn and like contributing to the decline of American spirit (thinking of American laziness just calls upon memories of the WWII do-it-for-the-troops movements and how we seem to have lost that good ole American heart).  Or maybe you already have a conscience and you diligently work to clean up after yourself every day, in which case kudos to you.

Just do the right thing, people.  It’s not that hard, it’s just respecting the planet.

LEED Certification: The Snobby Solution to Looking Better than You Are

I go to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio where our most prized, novel building is the new North Residential Village complex on the north end of campus.  This Hogwarts-esque monstrosity replaced maybe half of the sub-par dormitory units on that side of campus, which houses pretty much everyone but sophomores and Greeks.  It also serves a dual purpose as a sports and event facility, surrounding with bleachers on one side a 400m track which encloses an Astro-turf football field.  The general effect of the NRV when you see it is, “Wow, that’s a really freaking big building…”

When I first saw the NRV, I thought A) waste of money, B) waste of energy, and C) only here to impress prospective students, I mean, parents with wallets.  I was taken aback when I first learned that the NRV was actually designed and built so that it earned LEED silver certification.  On closer inspection, you can see the signs in every window bragging about this achievement.  You realize the lights tend to shut themselves off and on by a trigger.  And, in the case of my one friend’s room, you can feel how sometimes the air conditioning just doesn’t work properly… anymore.

So… what exactly is this LEED certification and why do people invest in it so much?  Being in environmental engineering through the Civil department at Case, this topic obviously intrigues me.  If you’re interested too, then here’s me breaking it down… and telling you what I really feel about it:

Green Certification
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  It is perhaps the most popular of several green building certifications, a standard by which to award projects recognition for their supposed environmental-friendliness.  The projects can be new or major renovations to existing buildings.  LEED attempts to market sustainable buildings by convincing prospective builders that, although sustainable buildings may seem more expensive to build than the buildings following common code (although they don’t have to be more expensive), the energy efficiency of the building over time with cause the builder to save considerably.  In theory, it is a win-win situation: green and profitable.

How the System Works
LEED awards points through a pre-determined system that can award a project up to 100 points, like an exam at school.  You only need 40-49 points to be “certified”, 50-59 to be “silver” (like the NRV), 60-79 is the larger span that awards “gold”, and 80 points and above gets you “platinum”.  The five categories for point-awarding include Sustainable Sites (SS), Water Efficiency (WE), Energy and Atmosphere (EA), Materials and Resources (MR), and Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ).  There is also the Innovation in Design (ID) category addressing noteworthy measures not classified by the other groups.  There are also “Regional Credits” which are awarded on a region-by-region basis and have to do with awarding green design and construction solutions for a particular site and situation.  You get points that are weighted different things depending on their efficiency and emissions considerations.  Lighting, aesthetics, all of these things come into play.

 

Controversy
First of all, some people reviewing LEED certification question the point weighing in the system.  A classic example of this is “The Bike Rack Argument”, as explained by this article: http://www.jetsongreen.com/2008/04/nau-examines-th.html.  Basically, installing a bike rack gets you one point in the certification, the same number of points granted to you for installing photovoltaics.  Bike racks versus solar panels?  Obviously bike racks are cheaper!  Why are they the same?  You could just install a million bike racks and save up.  Except, not really.  You have to have a combination of several design aspects and point kinds to get certification.  And there are motives behind making these two things the same value.  These motives include the incentives they imply, like the availability of bike racks encourages people to park their bikes, which means they take their bikes rather than their car, and that is considered as valuable as using energy that just happens to come from solar power.

One thing that genuinely makes no sense about LEED certification is that you could build a LEED certified project in a sensitive watershed or other vulnerable ecological scenario and get full recognition for your design.  Anyone who actually cares about the environment wouldn’t build in such a location, but how does that stop greedy people looking for the certification as a marketing strategy?

Also, there are different branches in LEED certification.  Most of these branches are in the design-build aspect and they award the planning, construction, and completion of the project.  However, the least common is the post-construction certification.  One would think this is the ultimately important project.  The function of a building in itself relies on green planning (although maybe not actual construction).  Yet projects are being constructed left and right which meet the standards upon completion, but then fail to function as designed.  These buildings may even be detrimental to the environment!  (Inefficient air conditioning sound familiar to anyone?)

Finally, this is my favorite point: So much (albeit green) energy is spent in planning, designing, constructing, and completing a project to these snobby, high standards set by LEED that no one takes into consideration the durability of the buildings themselves.  The idea is to rate the function of the building over a theoretical lifespan, but what if that lifespan is much shorter because eco-friendly materials were the concern and not durability?  This is something that was discussed on campus in regards to the NRV and similar buildings.  I remember a professor suggesting that a LEED building might be great when its build, and might theoretically work well if operated as designed, but the cost and energy used to demolish and rebuild over the same period of time as another building negates much of its environmentally-friendly implications.  I have no statistical evidence on this latter point, but, unless LEED is planning to make some adjustments to its policies, I can totally see the truth in that theory.

Conclusion
All-in-all I think LEED is a good idea.  It is a good initiative to motivate people; the only problem is I feel like it motivates them in the wrong way.  Its main strategy is to attract people to save money in the long run in exchange for some serious project planning and then a stamp of approval at the end of the day that they can flaunt to their competitors and customers alike.  Sadly, these are usually not the kinds of people who actually care about how they’re impacting the environment.  They want to do all the planning and say they did it, then sit back and rake in money without bothering after ten years to make sure they’re still living up to that standard they originally laid down.  It just seems like an arrogant, snobby, easily-abused program to me, and it makes people look better than they really are.

I work in a LEED certified building, but they don’t flaunt the paperwork.  They’ll tell you why they have skylights and so many windows, and why the lights are never on, but they don’t go “look at how good we are”.  The owners of the company are genuinely intrigued by the allure of sustainability, and so they choose to practice it – even without all the bells and whistles.  To me, that is being the true green champ.  That is what makes Case’s Hogwarts a nauseating come-to-my-school advertisement for snobs.