Save the humans
Every generation in human history has faced seemingly greater and more difficult challenges than any previous. We have all heard of the difficult times during the Great Depression. We know about the ‘Greatest Generation’ that responded to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Within months, Detroit’s auto industry was transformed into a war-fighting industry producing military vehicles and equipment to face the Axis Powers.
Cleveland Heights residents made sacrifices in everyday life with food and gas rationing. Children collected metal for recycling munitions, iron fences and gates were taken down and contributed to the war effort. No new cars or trucks meant alternatives were necessary. Dean Dairy went back to horse drawn wagons to deliver milk. Cleveland’s public transit system had the highest rate of use in its entire history. More women than ever entered the workforce, blackout drills were a common exercise, war was priority one and it succeeded in defeating the common enemy.
This generation faces a similar, maybe greater, worldwide challenge. It will mean the very survival of human species on the planet. From the beginning of homo sapien existence, roughly 160,000 years ago to about 6,000 years ago humans lived a ‘stone-age’ life, collecting food, hunting and creating the first tools. From about 6,000 years ago until the late 1700s, an agriculture-based society dominated the world. Some societies remain so. But the western world transitioned to an industry-based society that dominated until about the mid 1970s. At that point in time, a knowledge and communication-based revolution emerged, breaking worldwide across all political boundaries.
Before the Industrial Revolution human societies lived in an ecological balance with the natural world. Pollution existed, but mostly in densely populated cities. It had no significant impact on the environmental balance of food, waste and regeneration, the balance of nature. With the Industrial Revolution, originally powered by water driven and coal-fired machinery, the demand for inexpensive energy grew as well. With the development of the oil industry, the prominence of carbon-based energy took off. Over the last 150 years the most significant side effect has been the saturation of the earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide, trapping the heat previously radiated back into space. Since the earth only has one atmosphere, the impact is worldwide. Now that China has emerged from their own industrial revolution, they are already the number one gross producer of carbon dioxide pollution, the United States being number one in terms of emissions per head. China and the U.S. are planning to build many new coal-fired power plants.
While the resulting threat to the world is often illustrated by the loss of animal species, polar ice packs and rising coastlines, the bottom line is the real threat to the human species. Planet Earth will survive, and eventually clean itself. The problem is we may not be there to see it. As bad as this seems, the good news is that large parts of the American and European economy are converting to green products and technology. The building industry in particular is quickly embracing more recycled and sustainably sourced products. Today, building construction, operation and maintenance consumes between one third and one half of all the energy consumed. So changes in building construction and operation can have a huge impact on global warming. Here are some of the examples of how things are changing in the industry:
Solar Windows – Tinted windows with a thin silicone film reduce the heat gain inside buildings, generating electricity when demand is highest for air-conditioning.
Solar Energy – Solar panels now are cheaper and more productive than ever. This promises to become an ever improving product, useful far from the grid in remote locations.
Wind Energy – While solar panels only generate energy in daylight, wind turbines work 24/7. Vertical axis turbines are cheaper and operate at lower wind speeds than larger propeller-type wind generators. A good option for urban locations.
Soy-based Foam Insulation – Sprayed-in-place foam insulation, with R-values around 7 per inch of thickness, also tightly seals walls and roofs preventing air-infiltration, a major factor in heat loss.
Rapidly Renewable Building Materials – In lieu of old growth forest lumber, buildings are being framed and covered with products made from grains and small waste wood chips combined with resins to create super strong lumber and building panels. This reduces the need to destroy mature forests, a sponge for carbon dioxide. Flooring products are also now made from fast-growing and harvested bamboo, hemp and other grasses.
Recycled Carpets – Interface Carpets, among other carpet manufacturers, offer ‘leasing’ of carpet products so that at the end of a carpet’s useful life, the carpet company recycles it to make new carpet. This saves energy in manufacturing and reduces the need for landfills.
New Lighting Source – After over a century of using high energy ‘Edison’ bulbs, LED and compact fluorescent lamps greatly reduce energy use.
Adaptive Reuse – Well constructed older buildings can be adapted for new uses, rather than face demolition. This part of the historic preservation movement has been with us for some time, but it has taken on new relevance as we recognize the value of the energy embodied from the original manufacturing and construction of these older structures. And there are many, many more examples.
Waste Equals Food – This is the basic concept of nature. Nothing is wasted. Everything breaks down into elements that generate something new. The construction industry is leading the way in this. Manufacturers currently produce over 30 cubic yards of waste for every cubic yard of finished product sold. The true cost to our economy of a product is not represented in its price as long as we subsidize manufacturers by allowing waste like this that rots into methane gas and further pollutes the planet’s atmosphere.
As we look at the larger picture, real change will only take place when political leaders from all over the world confront the multi-national corporate structure that resists shifting energy technology away from gas, coal and oil to renewable energy sources including solar, wind and other new sources such as coastal tides and ocean currents. Geothermal energy systems also use natural underground temperatures to moderate heating and cooling systems. More is certainly on the way as a new renewable energy manufacturing base struggles to take hold in Ohio and other Great Lakes states (all rich in fresh water and wind). Somewhere out there, the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs types are awake tonight working in their garage-shops on other innovative solutions, and they will emerge, as they always do.
Just as the World War II “Greatest Generation” met the worldwide challenge, this generation needs to feel a personal responsibility for the survival of future generations. The difference this time is that the response will be less about sacrifice and more about living smarter. The Knowledge and Communication Era will carry the movement worldwide. A consensus among all political affiliations has already begun in support of this cause and it will become a common issue for people around the world. Just as happened even in the Stone Age, the human brain will work this out and emerge even stronger…and smarter.
Chuck Miller is principal of Doty and Miller Architects and a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights.