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Making a Sustainable Culture Commonplace

Several decades ago, when my grandparents were children, they enjoyed things called peaches, apples, cherries and various other food-like things.  Today, those things don’t have those names.  Today they’re called organic peaches, organic apples, organic cherries and ...you get the idea.

In the late 1940’s, synthetic pesticides were first introduced for commercial use.  Interestingly enough, the first pesticides created were kept secret during World War II and were originally developed as potential chemical warfare agents. After the war, these organophosphate compounds were re-purposed as insecticides, and many organophosphate insecticides continue to be used today.  The pendulum swings both ways, and the unfortunate use of insecticides crippled upstream and downstream bystanders and non-targeted creatures like birds, butterflies, bees, fish and our entire ecosystem.  Rachel Carson noted this deafening in her New York Times bestseller, “Silent Spring.”  The book published in 1962 and created an audible environmental movement. 

For good reason, the “peach,” the “apple,” and the “cherry” are making a comeback and becoming commonplace.  As a culture, we’ve analyzed, debated and continue to vote with our dollar: shall I buy organic strawberries today, or no strawberries at all?  Healthy organics are spreading their deliciousness through common grocery stores.  Our culture’s behavior toward organics is becoming palatable and less polarized.  Shortening the steps from earth to table makes sense and is becoming widely understood. 

Which brings me to the fashionable term, “sustainability,” and in our case sustainability in the built environment.  A colleague of mine, Colin J. Williams with mtvSolar, often said, “If there were solar panels during the time Thomas Jefferson built Monticello, he would have put solar on Monticello.”  In a letter to James Madison, Mr. Jefferson was vehement: I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living."  Before the word sustainability, our founding fathers used the term usufruct.  It means, the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another's property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.  Mr. Jefferson stressed we have a multigenerational responsibility to our legacy and environment.  In these times and with the means to capture infinite energy resources from solar and wind, Thomas Jefferson would never have let fossil fuel giants dominate federal or state energy policy.  

On March 27, 2013, David Lipton, First Deputy Managing Director for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), presented key findings on energy subsidies.  In his presentation, Energy Subsidy Reform: The Way Forward, Mr. Lipton showed that fossil fuel subsidies result in countries suffering both fiscal paralysis and energy shortages.  The IMF Executive Summary noted that a combination of pre- and post-taxed subsidies equates to a global amount of $2.38 trillion, with coal receiving most of the post-taxed incentives.  “Removing these subsidies could lead to a 13 percent decline in CO2 emissions and generate positive spillover effects by reducing global energy demand.”  The report points out that removing energy subsidies for petroleum products, natural gas and coal would generate substantial environmental and health benefits.  Naturally this will begin to level the playing field and reduce the equity to the upper-income groups.  When mitigating energy costs, policy makers will need to be mindful of not increasing poverty, and redirect subsidies toward low-income and poor families.  The economic consequences of fossil fuel subsidies underprice energy, “distorts resource allocation by encouraging excessive energy consumption, artificially promotes capital-intensive industries (thus discouraging employment creation), reducing incentive for investment in renewable energy, and accelerating the depletion of natural resources.”  Therefore, over-consumption of cheap energy reduces incentives for investment in energy efficiency and renewables.  In turn, local pollution accelerates and global warming perpetuates. 

Good golly, after looking at the piling sets of data, it's reasonable to ask: Is a sustainable culture possible in our time?  Is it really all doom and doom and gloom?  Are we going to crash and burn into a pit of bitter ash, plowing ahead to a future of hardships?  Compared to just a decade ago, look where we are.  We continue to labor toward a tipping point for sustainability in the built environment.  Rising CO2 levels are a direct result of human activity and will take human activity to decrease them. 

We continue to unravel the answers.  And restructuring subsidies is only one part of a sustainable tomorrow.  Over this past decade, the price point for renewable energy systems for solar, wind and geothermal decreased dramatically.  Going forward, renewables continue to make huge strides - becoming approachable and more commonly used by everyday citizens.  In our future, we will likely see a home solar array treated like any other appliance in our homes.  You’ll go to your local Lowes or Home Depot and find solar energy systems sitting in line with rainwater capture systems, wind turbines, energy storage units, high SEER heat pumps and geothermal systems.  In the future, when you talk to your children about energy, they’ll think of the abundant energy that falls freely on your property everyday and the systems you use to capture them, while you serve them a slice of real peach pie. 

Please email me your comments at info@leafkey.com.

Live Large ~ Live Sustainably,

Michelle Liefke