Pretty Green, Real Green

Last month, the Mother Nature Network Web site released a list of the “10 Greenest Cities in America,” which included Austin, Chicago, Seattle, Berkeley, Cambridge (Mass.), Eugene (Ore.), Oakland, Boston and San Franscisco. It did not include New York.

Reflecting on this list on the Huffington Post, Dennis Markatos, the founder of Sustainable Energy Transition (SET), wrote, “It’s up to all of us in NYC to work hard to get our green mojo back” and “we have a ways to go if we want to ensure a place in top 10 green American cities lists.” He suggests the city “accelerate the improvement of our bicycling infrastructure and the deployment of renewable energy.”

Yes, we can certainly do better, and sure, bike lanes are great. But anyone who takes a list like this one seriously (unlike the growing number of environmental types who see them as counterproductive gimmicks) is affirming the criteria used to determine that New York is less green than, say, Berkeley.

Whatever such a determination is based on, it is not per-capita energy emissions—carbon footprint—which is much lower in New York City than any other city in the United States, and which is less than 30 percent of the national average.

It’s an erosion of the very concept of greenness, which is coming to be defined in a way that rewards activism at best, and consumerism at worst.

In the words of New Yorker writer David Owen, author of the forthcoming book Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability, “What we’ve done with ‘green‘ is find a way to attach it to things we want to do anyway.”

In the case of Austin, for example, the green designation is a function of the city’s efforts to be good on the environment. Austin aspires to ambitious public transportation improvements—a light rail system!—and inspects the hell out of new housing for energy efficiency. Austin is trying hard. Which is fair enough.

But green lists that reward initiative and attitude over existing, inherent greenness just contribute—against the intent of the list-makers—to the ongoing degradation of green itself. Effectively, it’s a form of greenwashing.

Greenwashing, of course,  is far more obvious—and insidious—when it’s undertaken by commercial entities to encourage consumption.

A few months ago a publication titled “Greenopia” landed on my desk.

“A definitive guide to more than 1,300 eco-friendly businesses and resources,” it says on the cover. The dozens of categories of these businesses include “grocery stores,” “hair and nail salons,” “carbon credits and offsets,” cleaning services, “salvaged architectural elements,” “juice bars,” “day spas,” “burial services,” “wine bars and breweries,” “banking and finance” and “being involved.” Greenopia has many suggestions as to where you can buy an organic cotton T-shirt, but does not list a single secondhand store, although buying something that has already been made is surely more environmentally friendly than buying something that had to be manufactured and shipped to stores.
Green has also become an integral part of the marketing, in particular, of high-end real estate.

One local example: One of many selling points of an apartment in Manhattan’s Trump Tower that was recently put on the market for $15 million is that the living room has a “new green-friendly soundproofing system and sound-deadening drywall.” It’s not clear how or why the soundproofing system is green, nor why un-green soundproofing systems are an environmental concern. But it’s hard to attach the phrase “green-friendly” to, say, “heated floors, heated towel bars, waterproof speakers and a large Neptune airjet bathtub in her bathroom.” (“He” also has a bathroom.)

Another: The Edge, a 575-unit condominium development in Williamsburg, has been mushrooming on the bank of the East River for a couple of years. Amenities that will be offered at The Edge when it’s done will include, according to the Web site, a pool, a fitness center, a “movement studio,” screening rooms, a game room, a party room, a spa-treatment room, a communal fire pit, communal “chef’s kitchens,” a “healing whirlpool” (“hydrotherapy”), a sauna, a steam room, a plunge pool with waterfall, and lounge rooms with TV. 

“It pushes The Edge of Green Building,” reads the Web site, and there’s a section that details the components of the greenness. These elements range from the basic (E.P.A. Energy Star Rated Appliances) to the random (“homes sealed against smoke and odor leakage from adjacent apartments and corridors”) to the silly (tall windows provide abundant daylight). Tall windows, no matter how well-insulated, are almost never as energy-efficient as walls.

The fancy new appliances and tall windows and soundproofing are, in large part, about the aesthetic of green. If we’re being honest, it’s much greener—in terms of environmental impact—if people drive less, buy fewer things that have to be made and moved, live in smaller spaces that are closer to work and stop using air-conditioning.

That would mean giving things up. And, maybe, moving into an old apartment building near a subway stop in New York City. Pretty Green, Real Green