The Village Green

A blog about how Canadians can achieve energy independence by powering down and then powering up the right way.

I was called recently by a film journalist looking for a shoot location for a segment he was doing on “green homes”.  We quickly got into a discussion about the definition of “green”.  As we hurtle into the “greenTM” future, it’s a definition requiring some further discussion and consideration.  

“Green” homes is a topic about which I am asked often.  Indeed, it’s the focus of this blog we’ll be doing in the coming weeks (months?, years?) with Green Living Magazine.  As I discussed the focus and intent of this blog with the people at Green Living over the past weeks, I was thinking about our first post and what it would be. 

A couple of years ago I was called to be on a show on a cable channel that skews heavily toward the youth demographic.  The show, ostensibly about a “green future” and “green living” quickly descended into the territory of the fantastical, with talk of George Jetson-like hydrogen bubble-top cars (including a pre-recorded segment with an auto company executive intent on selling those bubble-top cars) and robots in the home.  

This is a mistake that keeps re-occurring; we assume the future will be like the past except with ever more amazing “stuff”.  To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, we are driving into the future while looking into our rear-view mirror.   

As we reach – indeed exceed – the biological carrying capacity of our already “green” home – this already fantastic (as opposed to fantastical) spaceship called earth – the future will most decidedly look different from the past, all the techno-utopians notwithstanding.  

As we talk about “green”, I am finding increasingly there are two distinct sets of people:  there are the techno-utopian, George-Jetson-bubble-top-car set with their hypertrophic fantasies of green “stuff” and then there is the deep ecology set with their focus set on more passive living arrangements, appropriate technology and the rethinking of basic, formative assumptions upon which our culture and civilization rest.  

I think it is the latter approach – the less prevalent of the two approaches – that will be more fruitful and realistic in coming years.  It’s certainly the one that’s more appropriate to the challenges we face in the advanced years of Limits to Growth. 

But green homes.  What will those look like?  What will our built-form evolve into? What vision and strategy should we be retrofitting toward?  What should we design? What will our basic assumptions need to be?  

First, I think we’re going to have to get used to making do with a lot less.  This is not about deprivation but rather about rethinking the basic assumptions about what we need and how we define prosperity.  The fact is, we don’t have any deficits of prosperity.  Rather, we have a problem with the distribution of wealth.  How we share our wealth – I’m talking about natural wealth, not financial wealth because the two are very different – will likely be one of the defining, if not THE defining, questions of the 21st century.  How we answer it will shape our collective destiny and will tell us a lot about the kind of people we are.  

Second, as we get used to making do with a lot less, we will have to find new ways of designing things.  Appropriate Technology is a phrase you’ll start hearing about.  In its most basic form, appropriate technology is a design philosophy which seeks to design things to be effective using the simplest design approach possible.  Think Mennonite designed hand-drawn water pumps in villages in the developing world as opposed to electric pumps.  Think solar water heating systems on our homes instead of nuclear reactors generating electricity to run conventional water heating tanks running at 60% (if even) efficiency.   

Third, our homes and buildings will become “passive” instead of “active”.  In Scandinavian countries, there’s even a Passivhaus design protocol.  Houses designed using the passivhaus standard can use 90% less energy for heating than a conventionally designed home.  

Passive elements will range from and include things like: cisterns for collecting rain water; drain heat recovery systems; passive solar design elements for shading and capturing heat; high levels of insulation; energy recycling technologies; the planting of deciduous trees for shading; rain-barrels; onsite composting (something Torontonians are starting to understand on Day 30 of the garbage strike).  The list goes on.  

Finally, only after we exhaust the passive elements should we begin thinking about “active” technologies and systems like geothermal and solar and wind.  

Al Gore talks about political will as a renewable resource.  He’s right.  But he’s forgetting other resources that actually come first.  It is poetry, imagination, artistry and story-telling that drive political will.  

Our challenges are not technological in their making.  The technology is merely a physical reflection of the collective story we are telling ourselves.  Rather the origin of our challenges lies directly in the narrative arc of our culture and civilization.  This is not about technology.  It is almost purely about artistry, myths and the songs we sing. 

We need new stories.  The technology will follow.   It pretty much always does. 

Gabriel Draven 

July 2009