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What do over a thousand protests around the world last weekend in support of Occupy Wall Street have to do with Green Building?

When NYC Mayor Bloomberg was speaking via video-link at Greenbuild, and while the Toronto Airport security strike delayed green building practitioners from returning home, a growing group of "occupiers" continued a now one month old occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City. There are many attempts to explain what's going on there, but the best I've seen comes in the words of those on the ground–-this is no simple single-issue movement to be cordoned off as a faction. Nor is it a "left" or "right" movement; the call has appeal to original tea party members, greens, labor, and so many others who count themselves among "the 99%."

I won't attempt to create my own container to box-in what's happening there. I was there Sunday, and it's very clear to me that attempting to do so would do a disservice to the passion, creativity, community, diversity, and collective seeking found in Zuccotti Park. But I came away mulling over the links to what the green building community is trying to accomplish.

At Greenbuild I thoroughly enjoyed a session called Beyond LEED, which had Jason Mclennon from ILBI and Brendan Owens from USGBC exploring the interconnection of LEED and Living Building Challenge, and others also tackling the broader question with gusto. Where I go beyond LEED is beyond buildings, even living buildings, to resilient and generative communities and economies in a rapidly changing world. I also go to the question of what would material management look like in a sustainable society?

So what's the connection here?

Ultimately a smattering of living buildings in a dying economy won't take us much further than a smattering of "green" products in an economy where it's still cheaper to ignore ecological and social consequences of manufacturing and its supply chain. A smattering of companies taking "triple bottom line" and "corporate social responsibility" to heart is equally limited when publicly traded companies can get sued if they let anything get in the way of maximizing financial shareholder value, and where discounting the future is basic unquestioned business practice.

What I get out of this upswelling of activism is that many in this country and the world are ready for a new economic story. It's not just about jobs, although that's a big part of it. People are connecting the dots between things that don't work in our food system, our education system, our building industry, our government, and so much more–-and why the fixes we attempt seem to get stymied by the incentives and assumptions embedded in our current economic system. More and more people are actively looking for alternatives.

What's fantastic is just how many creative alternatives are out there–-just like the green building movement, there's a whole world of people and organizations testing new ideas and designing a new economy. There are new corporate structures that let publicly traded companies concern themselves with more than profits; proposals for a financial transactions tax and to replace labor taxes with resource taxes; new ways to get dollars circulating in local communities; even alternate frameworks and entirely new models for the economic system as a whole.

I'd like to see the building design and construction community approach the economic system as a design problem to be solved rather than a design constraint to operate within.

Don't get me wrong; I'm astounded by all the creativity and progress that's been made in "tunneling through the cost barrier", showing how green design is cost effective today–-but imagine if building green products, buildings, and communities was the no-brainer default option because the economy gave us the right signals. Just think what would be possible!

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1 What a wonderful and importan posted by Lloyd Alter on 10/17/2011 at 11:53 am

What a wonderful and important piece. You are absolutely right, it is time to take back the green building movement to its roots.

2 Interesting links. I very muc posted by Jim Newman on 10/17/2011 at 12:59 pm

Interesting links. I very much appreciate the view expressed here and the energy and open thinking of the Occupy Walls Street (and Occupy Boston) communities.

New ways to think about our impacts, both positive and negative is exactly what we at Linnean are trying to do. I wish everyone working in our commercial world would have the energy and ideas focused on new ways of doing business that these folks are showing.

Jim Newman Linnean Solutions

3 While it's always beneficial posted by Robert Riversong on 10/17/2011 at 04:24 pm

While it's always beneficial to apply our creativity to ever-larger circles of our cultural life, we don't need to completely re-invent the economy since there are superbly successful examples already in place.

The Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain have, since initiated by a visionary priest in 1956, expanded to a global network of 100,000 worker/owners in 260 companies in 40 countries with sales of $24 billion, with its own cooperative university, cooperative bank, and cooperative social security system. Its average wage discrepancy is 5:1, and – much like the #Occupy Wall Street encampment – is based on the principles of open admission, democratic organization, sovereignty of labor, instrumental and subordinate nature of capital, participatory management, payment solidarity, intercooperation, social transformation, universality, and education.

In 2009, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation entered into a joint venture with the United Steel Workers Union to bring cooperative organization to the US labor market.

In British Columbia, cooperative enterprises employ 13,000 people and hold $10 billion in assets. Vancity, Canada's largest credit union has 417,000 members, holds $15 billion in member assets and returns 30% of profits to members or the community. Mountain Equipment Co-op is a 40 year-old Canadian consumer co-operative with $261 million in annual sales and 3.3 million members.

The United Nations has declared 2012 the international year of the co-operative to raise public awareness of this alternative business model and its contributions to poverty reduction and job creation.

4 exemptions from existing taxe posted by John McBain on 10/19/2011 at 08:38 am

exemptions from existing taxes for sustainable products and services is in my opinion better than a carbon tax. it reduces footprint rather than just carbon, and reduces the cost of living for people who make green choices. if a carbon tax was effective in reducing carbon and climate change (a big if!) it may still allow us to continue to an unsustainable future

5 Fiscal policy alone will not posted by Robert Riversong on 10/19/2011 at 04:17 pm

Fiscal policy alone will not move our economy toward a truly sustainable one. The problem with tax deductions (more likely than exemptions) is that they complicate an already far-too-complex tax code, are created by lobbies with access and influence (who decides which goods are "sustainable"?), and are available only to the upper income brackets (those who itemize deductions).

The primary problem with our economy is that it is debt-based, requiring continual growth to pay back interest with principal. And the primary problem with our political economy is that it is funded by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy, largely due to the categorization of corporations (profit-seeking artificial institutions) as legal "persons" with constitutional rights, limited liability, and perpetuity.

We began this country with the legal fiction that some persons were property and then fought a civil war in order to substitute the legal fiction that some property can be persons. We will not achieve a sustainable economy until we rediscover that human and natural rights take precedence over private property, and that the best things in life aren't things.

6 You may find the following sh posted by John McBain on 10/19/2011 at 10:07 pm

You may find the following short videos of interest - sorry, the volume levels are low : 1.Conciousness Shows that carbon pricing is an incomplete solution at best by exploring the impact of conciousness, awareness and cultural values on the sustainability of our planet. 2. Cultural values and sustainability.mp4 Underlying cultural values and how they impact on our planet (and us). It also weighs up a carbon tax against exemptions for sustainable products from existing taxes like gst. 3. CO2 & behaviour change.mp4 Compares positive behavioural change motivators for a sustainable planet with existing & proposed motivators, and considers 'problems, solutions & beneficial pathways'. 4. 'Solutions' & resource use.mp4 Examines the 'bipolar' ideas of 'problems & solutions', 'opportunities & beneficial pathways' and how we allocate technology, capital and resources in modern society. 5. Planit Pearth.mp4 The positive and inclusive use all forms of media and the creativity of all of us to improve the sustainability of our global community - a media series called "Planit Pearth".

7 What a great discussion! Bil posted by Jennifer Atlee on 10/20/2011 at 07:15 am

What a great discussion!

Bill, Robert, John—No doubt there are a plethora of options for accounting for the true costs of resource depletion and pollution and creating incentive for sustainable products and services—each with its own political challenges and complex consequences.

I tend to look for which options (1) give the clearest directional signal, (2) facilitate innovation, (3) aren’t regressive-- harming those with the least, (4) are the least corruptible and co-optable, (5) have the potential for political appeal.

With these as criteria, I tend to lean away from many forms of tax exemptions and cap-and-trade as highly corruptible (see Story of Cap and Trade -- I lean toward directly taxing resource depletion and pollution, and eliminating subsidies of many kinds, particularly for fossil fuels.

This kind of taxation is still potentially regressive and politically unappealing—but it doesn’t have to be if done via tax-shifting (lowering income and payroll taxes along with raising resource taxation), or in conjunction with a social dividend (This is like what they do in Alaska—and not unlike Bush’s stimulus checks: if an equal amount is given to every citizen to compensate for depletion of the commons, it helps those with the least deal with rising prices, and can create broad support, and stimulate the economy toward purchasing those greener—and now cheaper-- alternatives).

8 Chris, to my mind your quick posted by Jennifer Atlee on 10/20/2011 at 07:16 am

Chris, to my mind your quick note on GDP is the tip of multiple icebergs.

First, we need to start using new metrics to judge “success” in our society. (For a fun example, check out Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness -- -- of course, reality is always more complicated than the story presented, but it’s excellent food for thought.) There is a lot of great exploration on alternative indicators; we need to use and report on more of them more often.

Bigger than that of course, is what you and Robert both pointed to—our economy is structured so that it requires growth to function. We need growth to service debt (to pay back with interest) and growth to accommodate increased productive capacity (less effort creates more stuff). I’ve long thought there MUST be ways to get out of the growth trap while increasing true quality of life, but have only recently started to see alternative approaches that address these root issues in a way that looks coherent and potentially viable (at least, given the alternative of where we’re headed now, and the extent to which this inquiry is now bubbling up everywhere).

9 Robert and others, have you s posted by Jennifer Atlee on 10/20/2011 at 07:17 am

Robert and others, have you seen Story of Citizens United -- ? It lays out some of what Robert’s talking about in a clearer more accessible way than just about anything I’ve seen. I also agree employee ownership is an important puzzle piece -- one of many strategies and structures that can help.

And yes, obviously I like the series. If you haven’t seen the original Story of Stuff, do check it out! I challenge folks to point me to more accessible multimedia efforts to explain system level concerns (John, I was about to post this when your video links showed up—maybe you’ve already met my challenge, I’ll take a look).

Another challenge: What can building design and construction professionals do directly in their practice that addresses the economic system as a design problem? Is it through purchasing decisions? Through conversations with clients? Through collaborative efforts to change the playing field? As Maia brought up, is it through building less (and if so, how do architects get their financial and creative needs met)?

10 It will be impossible to tax posted by Bill Swanson on 10/18/2011 at 07:09 am

It will be impossible to tax carbon at this point. Half of the public has been conviced there's no need to. And that the reason to tax carbon is just propoganda.

It may be better to just focus on taxing the consumption of raw materials. If it's a finite material of any kind that is being pulled out of the ground then tax it heavily. This may be better then a sales tax or labor tax. Encourage the reuse of what we have. It would also then be a defacto carbon tax since only carbon based energy is mined from the ground.

11 Wow...this may the moment whe posted by graham on 10/18/2011 at 08:12 am

Wow...this may the moment when historians look back and say "this was when capilalism ended in the US and Socialism began..." only they will not be historians writing as free US citizens, they will be from some other country where freedom of the press still exists.

12 I agree with Robert - Employe posted by Chris Schaffner on 10/18/2011 at 02:32 am

I agree with Robert - Employee ownership is a key part of rethinking our economy. Nothing ever works when it is "us" vs. "them." We are all us.

Two other key steps.

1) we need to stop seeing the economy in terms of GDP. If we've learned anything from systems thinking, it is that you can't have infinite growth in a finite system. When we focus on GDP growth and staying out of "recessions" we miss what is really happening. 2) putting a firm price on carbon, and more generally consumption would go a long way towards changing things. The "right" is correct about one thing - market forces are real. Putting a price on carbon will drive innovation and change in a way that prohibitive regulations cannot.

13 I've been thinking a lot abou posted by Maia Gilman on 10/18/2011 at 01:46 pm

I've been thinking a lot about how and what we as architects design, in relation to the 'Occupy' movements around the world. The construction industry is tied into a large part of economic health and also pollution, consumption. We will always build, and will benefit from living in healthy spaces, but we need to build less than we think, and much more mindfully and sustainably.

14 Though we all must drasticall posted by Robert Riversong on 10/18/2011 at 11:29 am

Though we all must drastically reduce personal consumption, any tax on consumption would be highly regressive since it is working people who have to spend all their income to get by. A resource extraction tax, however, not only creates incentives for industry to look to renewable material and energy sources, but also transfers wealth from those who exploit the commons to those who are charged with protecting it.

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