There seem to be two major models of environmental activism in this country. One group of activists looks to the government, especially the federal government, to achieve environmental protection through legislation and regulation.
The other group of activists, from leaders of large corporations to leaders of households, seeks to improve their bottom line through careful environmental stewardship.
While I hope these approaches are not mutually exclusive, I have to wonder if the general public recognizes the second group as environmental activists at all.
The establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency ranks as a landmark in the environmental movement. It culminated two decades of growing public concern over the effects of human activity on the environment.
Congress followed up on creating the EPA by passing important legislation relating to air quality, water quality, improperly disposed hazardous wastes, and so on. These new laws passed with bipartisan support in Congress and broad popular support.
Unfortunately, the legislative and regulatory approach to environmental issues soon became politicized. Entire industries objected to the financial burdens caused by the regulations. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Republicans tended to be increasingly sympathetic to business concerns and the Democrats increasingly hostile.
Democratic President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House. Republican President Ronald Reagan had them taken down.
Another difficulty with the regulatory approach is that regulatory agencies tend to shirk their responsibilities at some times and operate with an inflated sense of their own power and importance at others.
Bipartisanship has disappeared from the federal government. Both parties appear to have been captured by their extremists. Centrists have become an endangered species. As either cause or result, the general tone of political discourse from the news media to social media seems to have degenerated into name calling and sloganeering.
Just as the great environmental legislation of the 1970s resulted from a growing concern over pollution, the more recent interest in sustainability has resulted from a growing concern over overuse of resources.
Just to mention one example, we have used up all the oil and gas in this country that was easy and cheap to drill. Today’s oil and gas production comes from sources once considered too expensive to develop.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world now aspires to the standard of living we in this country have taken for granted for decades. That means that they, too, want oil, gas, and other finite resources.
The concept of sustainability means finding ways so that everyone can benefit from available resources while minimizing environmental damage. While many people in the sustainability movement favor certain kinds of legislation and regulation, the idea of sustainability itself has developed from the bottom up.
I first encountered the term sustainability when I was invited to join a university sustainability committee. No mandate from any level of government led to the establishment of that committee or anything comparable at other institutions.
Quite a variety of different institutions in this country have gotten serious about sustainability. They include educational and otherwise non-profit institutions. They also contain both large and small corporations. I have already written about Walmart and the Proximity Hotel, a four-star hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina, have pursued sustainability initiatives.
The Proximity Hotel is the first hotel to achieve the platinum level of LEED certification.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
LEED is one of the projects of the U.S. Green Building Council, “a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to a prosperous and sustainable future for our nation through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.”
A variety of different building projects can qualify for LEED certification. These include new construction, major renovations, and upgrading the operation and maintenance of existing buildings. In addition, there are standards specifically for commercial interiors, retail space, schools, healthcare facilities, private residences, and neighborhood development.
Achieving certification requires meeting basic prerequisites and then earning points in five major categories:
- Sustainable sites—strategies to minimize impact on ecosystems and water resources
- Water efficiency—strategies to minimize the use of potable water and promote better use of water both inside and outside
- Energy and atmosphere—strategies to promote better energy performance of a building
- Materials and resources—strategies to use sustainable building materials and reduce waste
- Indoor environmental quality—strategies that promote both better indoor air quality and access to daylight
Depending on the number of points earned, a project can receive certification at four different levels: certified, silver, gold, and platinum.
The new stadium of the Portland Trail Blazers
achieved LEED Gold Certification. The team president expressed pride in helping Portland in its drive to be the greenest city in America. But institutions pursue LEED certification in places that may seem hostile to environmentalism.
The KU Endowment, the independent fundraising organization for the University of Kansas achieved Silver Certification for its new office building in 2012, as did the University’s own new Medical Office Building. The School of Leadership Studies Building at Kansas State University has also applied for Silver Certification. The building’s web page is especially informative about the specific achievements the university submitted.
Less than 50% of certified LEED projects have been built in the US. LEED-certified projects have been built in 135 countries.
While government dithers and sputters, local organizations of all kinds and sizes pursue various sustainability projects. LEED certification, limited to green building projects, accounts for only a fraction of them.
These local projects are making a significant positive impact both on the environment and the financial well-being of their sponsors. And when “local” projects are initiated by companies the size Walmart, it is clear that they have very broad influence that benefits the whole world.