Sustaining Sustainability
Friday, December 7, 2007 at 10:12AM
Toby Considine in Background, Markets and Innovation, Re-thinking things

In the middle ages, people were scared. They had good reason to be scared. Wolves in the forest. Plague in the village. Roving bands of soldiers, and ex-soldiers, living off the land, and farm, and village. Pilgrimages became popular. Get out of town for a while. Get out of the oppressive oversight of your neighbors. It was all to show your devotion and faith.

Virtue is a good cover for economic uncertainty. Worried about the value of your house or the stability of your job? Shocked by $100 a barrel oil and its effects on all energy prices? You cut back. But no one wants to acknowledge they are cutting back. So you can go green, instead. Turn down the thermostat because you want to reduce your carbon footprint. That’s the ticket. I’m not worried. I’m virtuous.

Those who feel guilty about how well off they are can play, too. They can buy indulgences, errrr, carbon credits. Virtue by proxy. Western society is more committed to indulgences than any time since Martin Luther stirred things up in Wittenberg.

This sustainability is as shallow and short-lived as the arguments on a late night sports BLOG. The problem is, when times are good, when the uncertainties are gone, this kind of virtue evaporates. That thermostat will creep back up. That cold shower after the power company turned off the water heater in the afternoon becomes unacceptable.

We have seen this before, following the energy shocks of the 70s. We have worn cardigans to demonstrate virtue. We have seen home-made solar thermal collection installed in house after house. Some house and factories even installed the more expensive photovoltaics. You can see them now in some neighborhoods, rusting on the roof, taken off the window and stacked at the edge of the yard, unmaintained and unused.

The last wave of sustainability faded away because it made economy tolerable, but failed to make life better. Faced with that cusp, we will always go back to a better life, when we can. The challenge, then, is not to make buildings more efficient – we know how to do that.

The challenge is to make buildings that tenants like better, that happen to be more efficient. This keeps the homeowner committed. This lets the commercial owner recapture his investment on resale. We do this by making the building more responsive to the owner. We do this by talking about tenant benefits and not about cost avoidance and efficiency.

A responsive building saves money by responding to the tenant, with enough intelligence to know when to buy on the energy markets. An intelligent building will reward the tenant with rebates and cold cash, not with imagined cost avoidance. A responsible building will provide greater reliability to the tenant by implementing Galvin’s Perfect Power principles. A responsible building will request maintenance when it needs it, reducing the thing the owner and tenant have to worry about.

And if all of these benefits just happen to be more sustainable, then the owners and tenants will keep on using them when the crisis is over.

Today’s concerns and fears are an opportunity. They give us an opening to discuss what we know how to do. If use this opportunity to re-create the un-responsive siloed applications of the 70’s, well shame on all of us who know we can do better.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (http://www.newdaedalus.com/).
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