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In our recent Tolkienian journey from the west coast to east coast of the United States in search of a greener future, Sarah and I noticed a few major themes popping up at our stops. The people and organizations we spoke with were as diverse as the country itself, but there were common threads that connected their overarching goal of leading the planet to total sustainability. With this post I’m going to explore a few of the big ideas we noticed taking root across the nation.
Reclaiming What Was Thought to be Lost
At many of the stops we made we found people finding new and creative uses for land, objects, and..ahem..matter that would otherwise be considered worthless by conventional wisdom. This applied not only to waste but to land that had previously been deemed useless. This concept is important not only because it is reconditioning surplus materials but also because it represents a way of thinking that I believe we’re going to be seeing more and more of as we forge further into the Green Age. Namely that a given object or space doesn’t cease to exist once it has been discarded. Many will be around for a long, long time. The survival of our planet depends on us adopting a “cradle-to-cradle” mind set. After something has reached the end of its original purpose, what can we use it for next?
Thinking of Structures as Living Organisms
We were first introduced to this idea by the team at Arizona State University and quickly began hearing it again and again throughout the trip. It’s a simple idea really, but a transformative one when you begin applying it at home and the places you frequent. Like living organisms, buildings have a metabolism that can be measured with energy consumption and efficiency. Like us, they also produce waste products that must be handled in a responsible manner. Hence, it’s easy to draw parallels between other biological systems of a living body and a structure. When any one of these systems is out of whack or unbalanced, the building should be thought of as a sick organism that must be healed. This mind set develops new approaches and innovations in order to keep the structure running optimally with minimal waste. In addition, a sense of urgency and consideration is added to the project that might otherwise be missing if it were seen as merely an inanimate object.
An Exchange of Ideas that Transcends Borders and Labels
What we saw was really just the tip of the iceberg as there is plenty of great work going on not just in the United States, but across the Atlantic and beyond. This is hardly surprising considering the consistantly high fuel costs in Europe that the United States is now experiencing. For decades, developing greener energy innovations just made more sense in places like Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, not only because of an organized and energized environmental movement, but because the high cost of oil and coal made the development of alternatives a necessity. According to Thomas Friedman in his new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, alternative energy development began in Europe after the first oil crisis in the late 1970s and has not abated since. With energy costs rising sharply in the US, the same impetus to innovation is being applied and American engineers, thinkers and dreamers are responding with inspiring vigor. As Friedman points out, this is a challenge that plays to the United States’ strengths of bold experimentation and innovation. Couple that with the brilliant and new ideas that are popping up all over the world and you’ve got the makings for a new, greener world.
Looking Forward to the Past
This theme became apparent from one of our very first stops in San Francisco, where Victory Gardens were beginning to make a comeback. After that early introduction, we began noticing this theme just about everywhere. Our forefathers accomplished much without the luxury of relatively cheap fuel and a landscape shaped for development and communication. Thanks to their efforts, we are able able to take many practices that were abandoned and almost forgotten and apply them to a more modern lifestyle. Green roofs, wind energy, passive cooling and heating, and inner city farms are not new ideas. They are just lost practices being plucked from the past and improved upon with recent scientific knowledge. The results are a mix of the best of both worlds.
As I said earlier, this is only a taste of the themes Sarah and I encountered as we rolled down America’s highways and byways in our trusty hybrid. We could literally fill a book with the other great ideas we ran across and there are still many, many more yet to be explored. One of my favorite quotes I’ve heard since joining the ReGeneration team came from Jim Hightower when I spoke to him earlier this year. He told me that America’s green future is going to be shaped by “shade-tree mechanics:” everyday people tinkering with green innovations from their own backyards and garages. We sampled this innovation during our trip and were humbled and inspired by what we saw. What comes next is hindered only by our imagination. Stay tuned! The ReGeneration will be along to report on these developments and we invite you to join us for the trip. As always, we look forward to your thoughts in the comments section below.