Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Green Building -- Missing the Point
distributed 8/23/01 - ©2001

The idea is so complex that it takes a cartoon to make the point eloquently.

The drawing shows two neighbors putting their trash out by the curb. One is setting out a small trash can and a plastic trash bag. The other has piled up nine trash cans, four trash bags, and a box full of junk.

Neighbor #1 is saying, "We help the environment by consuming less."

Neighbor #2 says, "We help the environment by consuming lots of environmentally safe products."

(You can see the cartoon at [It is no longer available on that site - sorry!] It is the one titled "Green Consumption and Reduced Consumption." Enjoy the other cartoons on that page, and check out the rest of the excellent site for The Center for a New American Dream!)

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Here in the Denver area, we've seen that cartoon acted out in a very public setting.

Each year, the local Homebuilder's Association sponsors a Parade of Homes to showcase the newest trends in home construction and design. This year, the publicity for the tour highlighted environmentally-conscious "green" features incorporated into the homes.

A brochure from the National Association of Home Builders says that "green building" may include elements such as:

  • details of land planning and site development

  • water conservation indoors and outdoors

  • energy efficiency in heating/cooling systems, appliances, lighting and the building envelope

  • selection of materials based on recyclability, durability and the amount of energy used to create the material

  • waste reduction, reuse and recycling during construction and throughout the life of the home
These are wonderful principles, and their implementation in recent housing construction has had a dramatic, if sometimes hidden, effect in conserving resources.

The problem with the Parade of Homes is that the green building principles are applied to homes that are excessive. A news story this summer began with this proclamation:

More is more when it comes to what's new in home design, judging from the colossal casas on display at this year's Parade of Homes. Why have one hot tub when you can have a pair? The $1.2 million Renaissance built by Orchard Homes features a tub that will accommodate a crowd on one deck, while another spa just off the master bedroom is built for two. The two dishwashers in the kitchen will come in handy when you're entertaining a crowd." (Denver Post, 7/30/01)
Are these monster shrines to conspicuous consumption "green?"

Well, they are better environmentally than homes of the same design would be if they were built on filled-in wetlands, using only old-growth lumber, and without any insulation. So, yes, they are "greener" than they might be.

But to call these trophy homes "green" goes beyond the mindset of Neighbor #2 ("We help the environment by consuming lots of environmentally safe products.") These homes are built with an astounding quantity of "environmentally safe" products, and will now keep on using an excessive amount of water and energy for decades to come.

As we try to sort out what it means to be environmentally responsible, and how to work for a just and sustainable society, we must always remember that unbridled consumption can never be an acceptable part of the solution.

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Theologian Sean McDonagh wrote:

The poverty which is affecting more and more of the world's population is directly related to the misuse and squandering of natural and human resources in First-World -- mostly traditional Christian -- countries. The life-style and consumption patterns of many people in First-World countries are way beyond what the Earth can support, and can only be maintained by enslaving the vast majority of the world's population.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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