Some Thoughts on Earth Day

hands in shape of planet earthOn Earth Day, many people in the country stop to think about the environment. Unfortunately, for many this is one of the few times a year they take any action as it relates to our planet’s health. I have been a green builder for some time and I am often disappointed with the state of affairs when it comes to building a green home. I have found time and again that most people like the concept of green building, but not enough to actually pay for it.

I remember when CD players first came on to the market. They were billed as the future of music distribution and were the hot ticket item for sure. They were also extremely expensive. These days, a CD player costs very little and one can purchase a 400 disc changer for less that a single changer cost back in the day. Why? Because of demand. The more people bought CD players, the less expensive they became.

Green building materials are currently expensive. Certified timber is considerably more expensive than standard lumber, assuming you can even gain access to it in your area. Cotton insulation is roughly three times as expensive as standard insulation in my community. Lime plaster is roughly 25% more expensive than standard stucco and labor costs are often higher as well as many plastering contractors are not accustomed to working with lime. My belief is that there is a turning point for the costs of these materials that is based upon demand, which leaves us in a catch 22. How do we increase the spending on environmentally friendly materials in order to make them affordable when they are too expensive for the average home builder’s budget?

I mentioned earlier that most people like the concept of building green, but are not prepared to pay for it. This is a sad truth I have seen over and over again.Even clients with extra money are more likely to spend it on something fancy that can be seen in the house than on a more efficient HVAC system, for example. I tie this into an unfortunate observation I have made about the American culture in general: flashy is more important than sustainable. I say this at the risk of offending some of you; however, I believe it is true.

Over 1 million Americans shop at Wal Mart each day! Why? Because they can get stuff cheap there. The things they buy look like the same items they can get elsewhere for more money, but they are not. They are cheaper because they are made out of cheaper materials, are made to be a quick sell and do not have any long term sustainability. Even people who consider themselves environmentalists shop at Wal Mart because it is so cheap. It is hard to argue with the reality that a limited income and stores like Wal Mart create a difficult cycle to break. Again, the catch 22.

So how to step out of the catch 22 mind set becomes the question of the day for me. I believe in something called “both/and”. That belief takes the place of the common “either/or” mentality. How can I both buy environmentally responsible products and save money? How can I spend less money on a daily basis and buy quality goods? To me the answer is simplicity. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is a great way to shift out of the current culture trap. It may not be easy to do, but it is a way out.

I used to try to show home buyers how much money they would save in the long run if they built a straw bale home. Now, I focus on how much more beautiful the home will be if built out of bales. Again, people want to see and to be able to show off the areas they spent extra money. Sadly it is a side perk for many clients that the home is super efficient. I believe this perk will become more and more important as the costs of fuel and living rise; however, I am happy to exploit the beauty of straw bale homes in the meantime!

So this Earth Day spend some time examining how dedicated you are to the environment. Dig deep into your heart and see if you would sacrifice the counter tops you want in order to install a more efficient HVAC system that no one will ever see. Challenge yourself, your friends and your family to live a more simple life, without the need for so many “things”.

As we witness the drastic shifts on this planet and see the repercussions of those shifts, perhaps we, as a small group within the massive population of the Earth, can actually make a difference. Remember how the cost of CD players changed: because of people taking a stand and putting their money where their mouth is. Paying for what they wanted, people changed the World and we can do it again.

How to get started?

Below are five simple things that you can do EVERYDAY, not just Earth Day, to make a difference. I would love to suggest selling your car and riding a bike everywhere or carpool everyday, but that is not an option for many people. In light of that, I have tried to suggest some very simple alternatives.

Five things you can do everyday to make a difference.

  1. Shop where things are produced locally. Consider that everything you buy has to travel to get to you. Have you ever found yourself eating a strawberry while watching the snow fall? Just think of how much fuel was burned to get that fruit to you. Find local community supported agriculture (CSA) or cooperative farms and buy your vegetables from them. Try to buy organic if you can find it and afford it. *
  2. Grow your own food when possible. There is no shorter shipping route than from your garden or window sill planter to your table. Try your Green Thumb on and see how it fits. It’s in all of us, sometimes it just needs to be nurtured to shine.*
  3. Bring your own bags when you shop. I saw a teller ask a man who had just bought a small paper bag full of nails if he wanted a bag. He looked at her and said “I already have one” holding up the paper bag. She said “no, a bag to put that in”. Bring your own bags and make a point to tell the check out clerk why. “Paper or Plastic?”  “I don’t like either option thank you, I brought my own!”
  4. Use recycled paper products in your home. Consider the following statement from Seventh Generation® Bathroom Tissue. “If every household in the U.S. replaced one 12-pack of 400 sheet virgin fiber bathroom tissue with 100% recycled ones, we could save:
    • 4.4 million trees
    • 11.6 million cubic feet of landfill
      space, equal to over 17,000 full garbage trucks
    • 1.6 billion gallons of water, a year’s
      supply over 12,700 families of four
    • And avoid
      275,000 pounds of pollution
  5. Adjust your water heater and your heating and cooling systems. By simply reducing the temperature on your water heater by a degree or two, you can save a lot of energy. The same is true for your heating system. The difference between 68°F and 73°F is not that great, but the savings are. If you have an air conditioner, raise the setting by five degrees and see the savings roll in. Even better, open your windows at night if you live in a climate where the temperatures cool off in the evenings. If you close your windows early in the morning, you will be able to hold on to much of that cool air and keep the AC from kicking on for hours. You can save money and minimize your impact on the planet by changing the settings on your HVAC system and water heater (and perhaps opening your windows).

Just think if every to this site used nothing but 100% recycled bathroom tissue all year, every year. That would make a difference.

Consider the above items a challenge. Can you do this for a year? For a month? A week? Whatever effort you can make will have an impact. My friend Jeff Golden, host of the Jefferson Public Radio show “The Jefferson Exchange”, ends his show every day with the saying: “Until next time, please do what you can do”.  I love the simplicity of this statement and the shear truth of what it implies. We all can only do what we can do, no more. This Earth Day, think about what you do now and what you are capable of. I encourage you to stretch into your true ability and then, as Jeff says, “Do what you can do”.  Happy Earth Day.
* I want to thank my friend Scott McGuire for inspiring me with these two simple ideas.

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