Who Cares.

I preached to the choir yesterday. A gang of staffers from the USGBC, already card-carrying converts to green, came for a tour of Green Community yesterday and I struggled to think of what to offer them that they didn’t already know. Almost to a person they were extremely young, at least to my presbyopic eyes. So while I always emphasize that we are not the first generation to face the issue of living cooperatively with Mother Nature, for them personally it is a first.

The time-tube in the exhibition tends to sort visitors by age. People will tend to collect at those dates that mean something to them personally. Those of a certain age will inevitably pause at the early 70’s gas crisis and Carter’s installation of solar panels on the White House. Slightly grayer ones will pause in the early 60’s with Rachel Carson. The 20-somethings may have only a vague memory of the Exxon Valdez and probably think that ISTEA is a cold drink. USGBC’s LEED rating system is just over 10 years old. Young people, working for a young organization, on a young idea...with a very, very old context.

As I led the group through, pausing at whatever communities I thought would resonate, I found myself telling stories about my personal connections with a few of them. I had to offer the choir something more than just preaching. So I mused about being in Santa Monica years ago and wondering what that thing was with the pink parasol roofs--the SMURFF, Santa Monica Urban Runoff and Rainfall Facility. Or visiting Mississippi State and listening to students in the Carl Small Town Center talk about the miracle of sidewalks. Coming out of a post-transcontinental flight stupor and seeing the streets of Mendoza lined with acequias and huge trees. Meeting the matriarchs of Stella at the opening.

As I was reminiscing about Mendoza I noticed one of my own students standing nearby. Valeria is from Mendoza, studying here for a year. And she is, along with a growing number of her Mendocino predecessors, another stitch in an increasingly strong seam that binds me to that faraway place. Through my teaching at the WAAC (Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center) I am increasingly bound through my students to such places: Tallinn, London, Weimar, San Luis Obispo, Mexico City, Baton Rouge, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Santiago, Quito...

The opening interactive in Green Community is the slowly spinning globe where visitors can activate different representations of how we are all connected. Population, national boundaries, shipping channels...these never fail to awe our visitors. But there’s no layer that is "people I know" but in my mind’s eye I see it when I’m at the globe. It keeps the world’s condition from being an abstraction and renders it instead as a patchwork of social sustainability, and through that we start to care. The quilt may be an overused metaphor, but it is an accurate one. The swatches themselves aren’t sufficient. A quilt depends on the stitches, and sustainability depends on connectivity...personal connectivity. Mexico is in the news now, and I pay a different kind of attention because I know Maria, Eduardo, Gabriel and Tania are there. Ecuador is having an election, so I think of Patty, Pamela, Jose and David.

I always finish my tours by asking if anyone has any questions, but I’ve never turned the tables and asked if they would take questions from me. I should have started with this USGBC group. My first question would be: how did you come to care? About your neighbors? About far away places? About other species? About the buildt environment? About the very planet? Everything depends on caring. Without it, all the money, technology, cleverness, and innovation will be for naught. Next time, I’ll ask. And then I’ll ask if anyone has any answers.


Want to see my insulation?

I hear there was a big concert on the Mall on Sunday to celebrate Earth Day, with Flaming Lips and all. I wasn’t there. Instead my husband and I were adding insulation to the roof and walls of part of our condo. That seemed a more fitting way to honor Mom Earth, actually, with apologies to the Flaming Lips.

Adding insulation is not glamorous. In fact it is a nasty job, particularly if you need to remove the old stuff and in the process discover that your roof has probably been leaking since before they began numbering wars. The manufacturer assures us all that the fiberglass itself won’t mold, but…ick!...there’s definitely some funk up there. So, while my skin is irritated, my mind is righteous. The pathetic and slipshod job the original renovators did on our building is being remedied at last. R-30 in the roof. Rigid on the wall. Foil-faced R-max, baby. That’s right. Bring on the heat. We’re ready.

But no news crews came to film our Earth Day activities. It’s not photogenic, and neither am I buttoned up in full battle dress, gloves, N95 mask, goggles, every stray hair up in a bandana. No pictures please. And in the end, with the drywall up and painted there will be no sign of all that work, except the subtle difference in the ambient temperature and the not-so-subtle difference in our electric bill.

We hear over and over that the biggest difference we can make in energy use begins with conservation, and conservation begins with paying careful attention to our present situations: our houses, transportation, diets, consumption. The idea? Insulation before green bling. But the bling gets all the attention. PV panels! Hybrids! Trombe walls—they’re French! Flaming lips!

Insulation just isn’t sexy. Sure Brad Pitt is out there doing his darndest, but he’s focusing on cute new houses for areas that probably should be surrendered to the sea at this point. Why isn’t he pitching caulk? Or maybe George Clooney (the thinking woman’s Pitt) could replace that stupid pink panther. That’s pretty stale and the recent remakes haven’t helped. Can Victoria’s Secret make silicon thermal enhancements as desirable as silicone enhancements? I say, let’s put the stripping back into weatherstripping! Now, bring on the Flaming Lips!


Guardians and Merchants

I’m thinking again about guardians and merchants...and Jane Jacobs. But this time it’s not Death and Life of Great American Cities, it’s the slightly quirky Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. The title is a mouthful, and what’s between the covers is no easier to chew. I stumbled onto this book in a research ramble motivated by the recession of the early 90’s to understand why architecture, as both cultural product and practice, is such a hapless misfit in contemporary capitalism. The ramble—on closed track with professional driver; do not try this at home—led me to read Lewis Hyde, (The gift: imagination and the erotic life of property, and Trickster Makes this World) Garth Rockcastle, even Jacques Derrida (yikes! Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money) and finally Jane. One of these days I’ll tackle the guy who started the whole gift theory thing, Marcel Mauss.

My copy of Systems of Survival, which I bought brand new in 1992, still shows its price: $22.00 US, $27.50 Canada. The dust jacket is a little smudgy and nicked, the pages marked with pencil and post-its. It is probably no longer worth $22 or $27.50 to either a Usonian or a Canadian...or is it? It also happens to be autographed. I rarely seek autographs on books, but I do have a few, and Jane (why am I calling her by her first name? Perhaps I should be more respectful, but she did sign my book, so we’re close) wasn’t getting any younger when I saw her lecture so I got it while I could. So, what’s it worth now? More? Or, nothing at all because it is worth more to me than to anyone else?

That is the point exactly. By signing it for me, she initiated the transmogrification of this particular book from its life in an exchange economy into a gift economy. This book became different from all the others previously identical to it. It acquired worth, “achieved value,” and shed its market, or “ascribed, value.” Those are Hyde’s words to describe the different ways that we treasure things. Systems is written in the form of a dialogue. Taking on the entire guardian/merchant paradigm, her characters debate the merits of Hyde’s thesis that art is by definition a card-carrying part of the gift economy but come to no real conclusion except that it is, like medicine and agriculture, an anomaly. The battle of over the shape of health care is the apotheosis of this problematic. No money? Sorry, no kidney. Is this in any way acceptable?

We all know intuitively that certain things have a value that can not be sufficiently described by the market. When Teddy Roosevelt drew a line around a chunk of Wyoming, he excised Yellowstone from the box labeled “”real estate” and put it in the box labeled “treasure”…forever. This is the flip side of the tragedy of the commons: the beauty of the commons. Of course, the flora and fauna—charismatic mega- and others—to either side of that line remain indifferent and unmoved by Roosevelt’s line and it is the boundaries between those territories of the guardians and the merchants that are the most contested. Development at the edges of national parks throws reveals the friction in individual profiting from a commonly held treasure. As Hyde says, “one man’s gift must not be another man’s capital.”

A recent article in the Washington Post, “In Bill’s Big Idea: Save the Climate, Share the Wealth” Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets among other things, is treading that boundary in his proposal for a “cap and dividend” strategy for carbon emissions reduction. He’s quoted in the article: “The trouble is, markets have no appreciation for intrinsic value. They’re blind and dumb and stunningly mindless; they do what they’re programmed to with ruthless aplomb…”

Jane would say: of course they are. Like the joke about the frog and scorpion, it’s in their nature. It is no more viable to nudge all of human activity into the merchant syndrome (money grubbing swine, naming rights sold off for everything, privatization of government functions, mercenary armies) then to guilt everyone into being guardians (self-righteous tree huggers, don’t sell out, non-profits know best, money corrupts). The very phrase “sustainable development” hides the internal contradictions that Jane tries to detangle.

Jane summarizes their characteristics. Merchants: be open to inventiveness and novelty; use initiative and enterprise; be efficient. Guardians: adhere to tradition; dispense largesse; show fortitude. (the complete list is in the book) In its unique city fabric Washington reveals the character of a city shaped by both guardians and merchants. The sharp line between the commercial city and the national landscape is constantly debated, criticized, fiercely protected, and tested. It is the front line in the face off between the guardians and the merchants, but those lines proliferate in battles over open space, historic landmarks, water rights, resource management. But that is how it should be, as long as each side can understand the role the other plays.


Toyota Pious

I drove twice this week, in two different cars, for two different reasons. Although the Old Dominion has pledged to increase intercity rail, the service doesn't yet include Blacksburg, so once again I Metro-ed to National Airport and picked up a rental. Imagine my glee in seeing a patient Prius in the Emerald Aisle next to a line of SUV's looking like angry toasters. The Prius was green...really, not just metaphorically. My husband and I had rented one once before in California for a trip from San Francisco to Yosemite. We took to calling it our "Pious," so righteous did we feel silently and efficiently rolling through that precious landscape.

So, pious once more, I headed down 81. The Pius is great at positive feedback. I constantly glanced at my energy consumption performance as I dodged 18 wheel beasts. 53. That was my average mpg: 53! Yeah. That’s right. More than my age, less than my IQ, and a heck of a lot better than the various Pontiac products that usually dominate the rental choices. Still, I would have preferred the train.

Yesterday was Zip truck day. Sometimes one must haul mulch, and those times were made for Zip truck. My usual mulch-hauler is Tonya the Toyota; she lives on 18th Street in one of those challenging back-in-at-an-angle spaces. I felt very odd driving through the city in a truck, feeling oddly tall and wide. (Does this truck make me look fat?) Not only because I'm not a regular driver, I’m also not a truck driver. I found myself puzzled by one way streets, no left turns (surely either a subtle warning or an actual conservative plot on the District) and getting riled up by arrogant pedestrians acting like they own the place. Fortunately, I parked, tapped Tonya good bye on the windshield and with canvas bags in hand walked up to the grocery store. And my blood pressure returned to normal.

Acres of cars sit unsold and forlorn--buy me! buy me!--and our newly elected President and Congress have vowed that the US without an auto industry is like a day without orange juice…or whatever. Yet, I can't help but think that individual car ownership is just so 20th century and that we really need to think differently. I would never have bought both a Prius, for highway travel and a truck for mulch-hauling and a Mini for errands. Zip gives me all those options, tailored to suit each purpose.

The Big 3 are falling all over themselves and each other to get people to buy cars offering incentive after another. Maybe they’ll start to throw in chauffeurs next. But there is nothing, not one thing, that would entice me to buy a car. Nada. Zilch. Nihil. Why own when you can share?