Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression
Jonathan Ochshorn

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The very idea that a building can be "green" is, on the face of it, problematic. For one thing, as pointed out by Pat Murphy, the term is so imprecise that its use in any particular instance cannot be validated:

Green has become a word that can be applied to almost anything e.g., a green lifestyle. Its widespread use makes it very difficult to come up with measurements that are vital to determining the energy inputs and the waste products of buildings … It is unfortunate that green became the word of choice for buildings, since there is terminology available that does a better job of communicating the environmental and energy considerations with which we are concerned—energy-efficient, high-performance, energy rating, low-energy, energy savers, super-insulated, etc. Of great importance is that these are measurable and comparable.1

In other words, "green" is, prima facie, a meaningless description of a building because there are no metrics attached to the term that would establish some sort of testable (falsifiable) criteria. But there is a larger problem with the idea of a green, or sustainable, building. Sustainability only makes sense in relation to an entire society (or humanity as a whole), that is, with respect to a society's ability to reproduce itself more or less indefinitely by managing natural and human resources in a manner consistent with human survival. But to view human survival (reproduction) as the sole criterion for sustainability is setting the bar a bit low: such a standard is consistent with a global history of destructive wars, widespread human despondency, along with low life expectancy and grinding poverty for the majority of the species. Natural resources are exploited by competing private entities, each seeking to profit by such exploitation, and, at the same time, each driven by the fear of being overtaken by more successful competitors. This competition puts pressure on individuals, corporations, local jurisdictions, states, and nations to "balance" issues of environmental and human well-being against their own self-interest (i.e., in terms of economic and military power). Within that context, some agreements are reached between competing political entities (whether at the local, national, or international level) to allow for continued exploitation of resources by organizing their extraction according to scientific management principles. Yet this ad hoc management of resources does not preclude massive species extinction, despoliation of the environment, or the continued misery and impoverishment of large segments of the population. It simply establishes a minimum floor for sustainable exploitation, without abolishing poverty or environmental damage.

It is this observation that has led some scholars—like biologist E.O. Wilson—to propose a radical vision of "non-use" in which half the planet is excluded from direct anthropocentric activity: "The Half-Earth solution does not mean dividing the planet into hemispheric halves or any other large pieces the size of continents or nation-states. Nor does it require changing ownership of any of the pieces, but instead only the stipulation that they be allowed to exist unharmed. It does, on the other hand, mean setting aside the largest reserves possible for nature, hence for the millions of other species still alive."2 The idea that "ownership" need not change hands would be, of course, small consolation to those owners whose property rights have been so radically constrained; Wilson admits that such a virtual taking of property would need to be accompanied by a "major shift in moral reasoning."3 Yet the sort of reasoning that accepts the continued division of planetary resources into privately owned parcels of property while simultaneously agreeing to relinquish the use-function of that property has yet to be adequately explained.

Jan Laitos, a Professor of Environmental and Natural Resources Law, attempts to establish a legal framework for a similar objective, proposing to somehow establish for property a right of non-use. For Laitos, "the environmental and resource-protective fixes that humans have added to their laws, rules, and legal requirements do not seem to be working … Despite a promiscuous array of both proposed and adopted government standards for saving the planet, there has been a continuous deterioration of nature, natural resources, and environmental goods."4 He explains the inability of current laws to adequately protect environmental resources by critiquing the use-function of property—a function that historically has been enshrined in law and ideology as the absolute right of property owners to exploit their property according to their own self-interest—and then proposing a more contentious non-use function for property—a function that historically "was grounds to divest the owner of a property interest"5 but, according to Laitos, has become necessary to protect both humans as well as "nature" from damage, depletion, or extinction. Like Wilson, Laitos has no apparent interest in challenging property itself; rather, he wants to provide nature, as property, with an independent right of non-use—that is, the right to be left alone. Such a right has already been implemented in several constitutions (e.g., Ecuador) and even in U.S. law (e.g., Endangered Species Act). But like all other rights granted to citizens within capitalist democracies, any right of non-use does not challenge, and only reinforces, the freedom to accumulate wealth on the basis of property and competition. In any case, sustainable buildings, in this context, are part of the problem, and do not, by themselves, seriously address the function of non-use that is inherent in any rational and truly sustainable organization of the planet.

But whereas the exploitation of natural resources in the past has been destructive, both to environments and humans, the damage itself could often be managed and compartmentalized so that those with wealth and power were insulated from its worst effects. Many urban reforms at the beginning of the 20th century that established standards for light and air, or provided public parks, for example, have this character. The more recent concern with global warming (climate change) adds a new dimension to this old story, since its impact cannot be compartmentalized in quite the same way: sea-level rise threatens not only small Pacific islands, but also the wealth and productive capacities of coastal cities in industrialized countries. Worsening environmental conditions in poor third-world countries threaten the security of wealthy nation-states as drought and famine trigger large-scale migrations. And changing climate patterns threaten to disrupt both natural ecologies and agriculture.

Since managing the emission of greenhouse gases or the use of finite resources (such as fossil fuels or even uranium) can only be accomplished on a global scale, the term "sustainability" simply does not, and cannot, describe the qualities of a single building—except perhaps in reference to Robinson Crusoe or other survivalist fantasies. Rather, human needs are satisfied within a web of social production. And whether or not that web collapses due to some combination of "environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors … [lack of] friendly trade partners … [or] the society's responses to its environmental problems"—a framework suggested by Jared Diamond6—any number of platinum-rated green building designations for individual structures has no useful meaning if the sustainability of that society remains at risk.

The term itself was popularized in a 1987 report prepared by the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development ("Our Common Future," or the Brundtland Report) that defined sustainability and provided its rationale: "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."7 Current interest in sustainability as an architectural function builds upon prior movements with different names but similar motives: that is, to live in harmony with the natural world or, putting it more bluntly, to live without destroying the conditions necessary for continued survival.8

Clearly, two factors have "energized" and validated current initiatives in this area: high fuel costs and global warming. But whereas the motivation to invest in "sustainable" building practices triggered by the energy crisis of 1973 dissipated to a great extent with the return of cheap oil in the 1980s (although the legacy of increased governmental intervention to reduce the use of energy persisted), the global warming crisis appears to have successfully disengaged itself from the price of fossil fuels. For example, even as oil prices have generally trended lower in the decade since the financial crisis of 2008 (with the price of a barrel of crude oil reaching $157.73 in June 2008, $48.74 in January 2009, $29.64 in January 2016, and even falling below zero during the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020), the interest of architects in reducing the "carbon footprint" of buildings, and the interest of (some) governments in mandating reductions in the use of fossil fuels—since those fuels, even when relatively cheap, still contribute to global warming—have not appeared to subside.

The list of "problems" related to sustainability also includes other sources of human and environmental damage (e.g., poor indoor air quality, threats to endangered species, loss of natural areas such as wetlands, pollution of the air, water, and ground, and so on). As is typical when such problems are discussed, two arguments are made: first, that individuals, corporations, or governments can be convinced to take action through moral exhortation; and second, that market forces, driven by competition, render state intervention unnecessary. Two books dealing with sustainability will be examined in this light. Both arguments are represented in each book, although the emphasis in each book is markedly different. The Hannover Principles provides only a brief summary of practical strategies and only occasional hints about markets and governmental intervention, but contains a large dose of advice from idealist, moral, and even mystical standpoints. It will be discussed in Chapter 13, in the context of expression. The LEED Reference Guide, on the other hand, is mainly a practical manual with specific advice on the utilitarian functions of sustainable buildings within a market-driven context—although there is also some interest in moral principles, particularly in the discussion of "community"—and will be discussed in this chapter.

LEED, standing for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design," is the name of the "Green Building Rating System" developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and first released in 1998. There are numerous LEED guides planned for different development needs ("Existing Construction," "Core & Shell," etc.) and the volumes themselves are constantly being revised, with new editions issued periodically. The discussion that follows refers primarily to the Version 4 Reference Guide for Building Design and Construction (LEED v4) and the older Version 2.2 New Construction Reference Guide (LEED v2.2), covering commercial and institutional buildings, as well as high-rise—that is, more than three stories—residential or hotel occupancies.

The preface to LEED v4 cites evidence that humans use resources, and generate waste, at a rate that would be only sustainable if the planet had 50 percent more capacity than it actually has. What are the "forces driving this situation"? According to LEED, a global capitalist economy—in which growth, accumulation, and profitability force corporate entities to damage human and environmental resources in order to compete and survive—has nothing to do with it. Rather, three "problems" are cited: the growth of population, the "linear use of resources, treating outputs as waste," and the forecast that populations in developing nations will eventually increase their standards of living.9

These forces create major global issues that, according to LEED, consist of pollution ("toxins that are accumulating in the atmosphere, in water, and on the ground"10), the depletion of finite resources, and climate change. Climate change is considered by LEED to be the biggest threat; energy, per se, is not even mentioned except as one of many finite resources threatened with depletion. LEED then makes the connection between the issues it has identified and the rationale for its green building standard: first, that "in the U.S., buildings are associated with 38% of all emissions of carbon dioxide" and, second, that human survival is at stake.11

These facts, however, are misleading. U.S. buildings actually produce relatively little CO2, mainly by burning oil or gas directly for heating, cooking, and hot water; and indirectly by using electricity for lighting and cooling. The big generators of global warming gases are not buildings, but rather coal- and gas-burning electric utilities. By including the CO2 emissions from electric power plants in the category of "buildings," LEED essentially lets the electric utilities off the hook—their contribution to global warming is barely mentioned in the Reference Guide. The reason for this is clear: LEED has no interest in threatening the infrastructural basis of corporate profitability by challenging the cheap supply of energy. Yet there is another flaw in the statistics showing how much electricity is used by buildings. A significant percentage of fossil fuel use in buildings is not used by the "building" itself. Some primary fossil fuel use is for cooking and clothes dryers, or to heat water; and much secondary fossil fuel use (secondary because it is used to generate electricity which then enters into buildings) is in the form of so-called plug loads, drawn by appliances, computers, printers, televisions, and other items that are "plugged" into outlets. These types of fossil fuel uses have absolutely no relationship to the question of whether a building itself is energy-efficient, or how much the building itself contributes to CO2 emissions and global warming.

Not all building types have the same ratio of "building" vs. non-building utilization of fossil fuels, and it is difficult to find reliable statistics that itemize exactly how energy—derived from various sources and used in various building types—is actually consumed. However, an estimate can be obtained by cobbling together data compiled for, on the one hand, energy consumption by source and sector and, on the other hand, residential and commercial energy use. We find, first, that a total of 81.1 quadrillion BTU (81.1 quad, 85.56 exajoules, or 85.56 EJ) of energy—used both directly and indirectly in the generation of electricity—is consumed annually in the U.S. by burning fossil fuels, primarily petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Of this amount, buildings in the residential and commercial sectors consume 40.18 quad (42.39 EJ), or close to 50 percent of all fossil fuel energy in the U.S.12 Industrial buildings are excluded from this calculation since their use of fossil fuels is almost entirely for industrial "processes" that occur within the buildings; HVAC and lighting in such buildings consume only about 1.5 quad (1.6EJ) annually. 13

Second, we find that the percentage of fossil fuels consumed directly or indirectly for heating, cooling, and lighting in the residential and commercial sectors is far less than 50 percent. In fact, the residential sector consumes only 5.25 quad (5.54 EJ)14 and the commercial sector consumes only 7.97 quad (8.41 EJ)15 for heating, cooling, and lighting so that the percentage of fossil fuels actually used by the buildings themselves (i.e., excluding the consumption of fossil fuels for process activities inside the buildings) is only about 16 percent. If water heating is added to the building's energy consumption, the residential contribution rises to 8.14 quad (8.59 EJ), the commercial contribution rises to 8.52 quad (8.99 EJ), and the percentage of fossil fuels actually used by the buildings themselves rises from about 16 percent to 20 percent. A disclaimer is needed, however: these percentages derive from several sources, compiled by different agencies in different years for different purposes, since it is virtually impossible to find a single statistical breakdown of energy use that addresses this question directly. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the oft-cited figure of 38 percent or 40 percent for the contribution of buildings to fossil fuel use is more than twice the actual percentage of primary and secondary fossil fuel use for heating, cooling, lighting, and heating water in the buildings themselves.

LEED is not interested in any form of regional, national, or global planning that might actually address the questions it raises. Rather, its ideology is consistent with that of the corporate entities it serves so well, providing as it does a branding tool to validate their "sustainable" and "green" efforts. According to LEED, one must tap into the corporate desire for profitability, and put into motion the miracle of "markets" to solve all problems, one building at a time. In spite of LEED's claim that the non-residential (i.e., corporate) "green building portion of the construction market" has achieved a 35 percent market share in 201016 the planet continues to lurch closer and closer to some sort of disastrous climate crisis, global poverty persists, and most workers still lead lives—as Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1854—of quiet desperation. But as long as the LEED brand grows, these contraindications will not dampen the spirits of the pragmatists in the USGBC or call into question their vision of a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program.

The LEED Reference Guide is divided into six main chapters in order to deal separately with issues of location/transportation, site, water, energy/atmosphere, materials, and indoor environmental quality. Each chapter contains specific guidelines for improving a building's sustainable characteristics; a seventh chapter accounts for innovation. LEED certification is based on accumulating a stipulated number of points derived from meeting criteria for credits enumerated in these chapters, as well as by satisfying minimum standards ("prerequisites") in several categories, for which no points are given. Recognition beyond mere certification, metaphorically linked to the value of precious metals (silver, gold, and platinum) can be obtained by accumulating additional points.

While it is possible to criticize particular procedures enumerated in these chapters, or to find contradictions in what they separately stipulate, it is the general attitude towards profitability, articulated in virtually every section of the Guide, that is the most striking aspect of the LEED system.

The notion of measuring the usefulness of any given sustainable practice by checking its "rate of return" appears in virtually every section of the Version 2.2 Reference Guide as an "economic issue." The obvious problem is that this benchmark for implementation of sustainable practices—profitability—is precisely the criterion that has resulted in the very damage to natural and human resources that the Guide purports to address. Even the commentary within the LEED Reference Guide itself admits this contradiction. For example, LEED concedes that environmental degradation caused by dumping wastes in landfill is a natural consequence of business decisions made on the basis of profitability: "In the past, when landfill capacity was readily available and disposal fees were low, recycling or reuse of construction waste was not economically feasible. Construction materials were inexpensive compared to the cost of labor; thus, construction jobsite managers focused on worker productivity rather than on materials conservation." 17 Where particular "sustainable" practices, specifically those seeking more efficient utilization of resources, coincide with the drive towards increased productivity characteristic of normal business practice, the Reference Guide becomes, to that extent, irrelevant.

The most important LEED credit, as might be expected, is found within the chapter dealing with "Energy & Atmosphere." Within the "Optimize Energy Performance" credit, worth up to 20 points in Version 4, energy cost savings are computed by comparing baseline energy costs (for a default code-compliant building design) with simulations of projected energy costs (for the proposed design). In prior versions of the LEED Reference Guide, cost was explicitly made the basis of the design's sustainable value, as if cost and sustainability were somehow inversely proportional. "The intent is to encourage simulations that provide owners value, and help them minimize their energy costs."18 Yet the history of energy use and consequent environmental damage—whether the fuel of choice was timber, coal or oil—is set in motion by the same calculation of cost and profitability advocated here. President Reagan's dismantling of President Carter's White House solar panels illustrates precisely this tendency: "Reagan's actions were more of a response to a series of events than a catalytic action meant to trigger them. America had turned its attention away from the promise of solar power simply because it could afford to."19

Where profitability might be threatened by implementing sustainable practices listed in the Reference Guide, warnings are posted. For example, in the chapter on "Water Efficiency," building owners are told that reusing graywater might not be a realistic strategy. Alternatively, where sustainable practices recommended by the Reference Guide do not necessarily correspond to profitable strategies for businesses, specious arguments are often employed to argue the case anyway. For example, in the chapter called "Sustainable Sites," it is suggested that development in "downtown"-type urban areas improves worker productivity and occupant health: productivity because workers spend less time driving (as if workers somehow automatically live near their places of employment simply because residential areas exist within a specified radius; and as if workers with shorter commute times spend the "extra" minutes thereby obtained by arriving early at work and donating free labor to their employers); and health because of increased physical activity as people walk to the neighborhood grocery store (as if this small-town model of local grocery stores and daily walks to shop for fresh vegetables corresponds to typical patterns of life) .

This LEED section also defends urban development by criticizing "sprawl," using two familiar arguments: first, that suburban commuters spend more time commuting (in cars), and may require additional cars to support their suburban lifestyles; second, that by developing projects in urban areas, cities are restored and invigorated, creating "a more stable and interactive community." 20 Both arguments, however, lack historical perspective. It is precisely the congestion of urban areas that leads to the development of interstate highways and the redefinition of growth centered on the nodes created at the intersections of such highways.21 The ideal of living one-half mile (0.8 km) both from one's workplace as well as from "basic services" abstracts from the reality of work under capitalism: the city is useful to particular businesses precisely to the extent that their physical proximity to a range of services and labor pays off. The attraction of such places to those who need to find work has a well-documented trajectory, but one that is entirely contingent upon the presence of businesses whose decisions to locate in a particular place have to do only with calculations concerning profitability. Whether workers move to follow jobs, or businesses move to reduce their costs, has nothing to do with supporting a more stable community. Community is a historically bounded and often unintended consequence of urbanization, neither its driving force nor its inevitable result.

For many of its credits, LEED establishes "baseline" points of comparison so that compliance can be measured. This strategy has several problems (or advantages, depending on one's point of view). first, the value of an improvement compared to a baseline value depends on how the baseline is defined. For example, the baseline standards for indoor air quality are set relatively low, so that an improvement may not constitute a healthy indoor environment (although it could generate a LEED point). In fact, the Reference Guide describes its criterion for "increased ventilation" as being significantly lower than what would be required to achieve optimal air quality, justifying it "as a compromise between indoor air quality and energy efficiency."22

Second, relative improvements over baseline conditions indicate neither the extent of environmental problems, nor the steps actually needed to remediate those problems. For example, increasing the energy efficiency of individual buildings is completely consistent with an increased overall use of energy in buildings (perhaps because more buildings are being built). This discontinuity between so-called sustainable actions and global impacts has been noticed by numerous commentators: "For every BTU of energy saved through better insulation and proper solar orientation," argues Richard Ingersoll, "the same amount has been squandered in other forms of consumption, mostly related to the Western way of life."23 In the same vein, Alex Williams writes that "it's as though the millions of people whom environmentalists have successfully prodded to be concerned about climate change are experiencing a SnackWell's moment: confronted with a box of fat-free devil's food chocolate cookies, which seem deliciously guilt-free, they consume the entire box, avoiding any fats but loading up on calories."24 Andrew Revkin adds, in relation to carbon-offset programs: "The average American, by several estimates, generates more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide or related gases a year; the average resident of the planet about 4.5 tons. … 'Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins' [quoting Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group.]"25 The point is not whether things would have been even worse were it not for programs such as LEED, but the fundamental lack of interest in actual global environmental outcomes built into the design of the guidelines themselves. LEED has no mechanism for considering or evaluating alternate courses of action. Any building can potentially gain certification, even if a far more rational scheme was never considered or was considered and rejected.

Third, isolated comparisons (e.g., this building uses 10 percent less energy; air quality in this building is 10 percent better) have no bearing on the reasons that businesses choose to implement various "sustainable" practices, nor on the actual ramifications of such practices. In fact, by asking the same question over and over again ("Does this building, in comparison with some arbitrary baseline, perform a bit better?"), LEED guarantees that an examination and explanation of ongoing environmental and human damage will not emerge. Buildings that support the long-term destruction of both environmental and human factors can achieve certification, since no questions are asked about what actually takes place either in these buildings, or out in the world as a result of plans hatched in these buildings.

In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Walmart feels quite comfortable in the role of exemplary "green" retailer. Using less energy, urging its workers to take responsibility for their own well-being by sponsoring various self-improvement initiatives (the "personal sustainability project"26), or pressuring suppliers to reduce packaging (and packaging costs), all are designed to increase efficiency, productivity, and profits. That such efficiency also makes efficient use of resources is not the point: Walmart would be engaging in such efforts whether or not the word "sustainability" even existed. This can be seen by comparing their "default" Supercenter designs with two experimental stores built in 2005 to find out "how to achieve sustainability improvements," among other things. Subsequent testing showed that, in many respects, the default stores out-performed the experimental prototypes, proving not that the experimental designs were necessarily flawed, but that the drive for profitability already has led to relatively energy-efficient store designs.27

That the drive to reduce costs can sometimes lead to reductions in energy, materials, and resources does not mean that this competitive drive for profitability is consistent with human and environmental well-being. On the contrary, reduced corporate costs often mask low wages that damage workers as well as externalized costs of pollution (including global warming gases) that damage the environment without showing up on the corporate balance sheet. Nor do they account for global growth—more buildings, more cars, more factories, more people—that puts additional strain on environmental systems even when individual buildings and vehicles become more energy-efficient.

Comparisons are not only used as a basis for misrepresenting sustainability, but also as a general tactic to disarm any criticism of corporate or governmental practices. For this purpose, it is most often argued that the history of any particular "problem" reveals a trajectory towards improved conditions: after all, look at all the cell phones and refrigerators in use now, compared with some other epoch (pick your century) or some other culture (pick some third-world destination). What such progress-centric attitudes overlook is the fact that human misery cannot be measured quantitatively on the basis of material objects; that extreme global poverty is rampant and, by some measures, increasing;28 and that using "absolute" metrics (e.g., defining the threshold for extreme poverty at $1.02 vs. $1.08 per day) obscures the ever-widening gulf between the potential for human well-being—arising out of enormous gains in agricultural and industrial productivity—and the reality of human exploitation and poverty within a global "market" (aka capitalist) economy.

LEED's Reference Guide provides actual standards for building design similar in form to what one finds in building codes and zoning ordinances. It is therefore not surprising that the cost–benefit basis of such government-imposed mandates also constrains the Reference Guide, even if the specific economic rationale presented in the commentary accompanying each LEED credit is often illogical or implausible. To the extent that the LEED credits make economic sense to business, they are implemented without consideration of their status as "sustainable" design objectives; to the extent that they make sense for overall economic growth, but where competition among businesses prevents their implementation through individual initiative, governmental intervention increasingly makes such practices mandatory. Where there is still uncertainty about the economic impact of sustainable practices (whether from the standpoint of an individual business or of economic growth as a whole), one finds large quantities of moral posturing, but only tentative, exploratory steps to test the waters.

Non-sustainable building practices—using up finite resources while polluting the ground, the oceans, and the atmosphere—are not aberrations in an otherwise idyllic world populated by "responsible" business owners; rather, they are logical outcomes in the actual world where competition for profitability underlies every business decision. LEED, as we have seen, prefers to sell its product on the basis of an economic argument rather than a moral one. And if its economic argument made any sense, we would already be living in a world consisting of pedestrian-friendly communities, working within healthy indoor environments, and congratulating ourselves on having successfully averted global warming, the greatest environmental threat to our anthropocentric lifestyles in the past 10,000 years. Yet arguing for green buildings on the basis of moral, rather than economic, principles is equally pointless. Such an exercise is either naive, to the extent that it implicitly presumes that business, compelled by the laws of competition to consider nothing other than profitability, might be influenced by such moral niceties; or else cynical, where such moral principles are knowingly used to sugar-coat the practice of "business as usual"—what has come to be known as greenwashing. Only governmental intervention, by enforcing standards applicable equally to all competitors, can overcome the inability of property owners to transcend their competitive drive for profit; but only comprehensive global agreements can induce nations to seriously intervene and address the problem in the first place. Yet such agreements are problematic, in particular for those nations that not only benefit from the status quo—because of their access to cheap sources of energy—but would lose a competitive advantage under a low-carbon regime.

To what extent, then, is sustainability a function of buildings? On the one hand, a sustainable building is an oxymoron, since sustainability—essentially a code word for reducing CO2 emissions, mitigating global warming, and managing both finite and renewable resources—cannot, by definition, be addressed by any single building, any more than a forest fire can be controlled by protecting a single tree. On the other hand, from the standpoint of USGBC and the LEED Reference Guides, sustainability can most effectively be addressed by individual property owners, collecting their points and certifications one building at a time. Their counter-argument—that buildings "use" 40 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. and that, well, you have to start somewhere—is both pure cynicism and self-delusion. Constructing another corporate office building with "sustainable" features merely adds more CO2 to the atmosphere and uses up more resources, since these new buildings almost always add to, rather than replace, an equivalent amount of "non-sustainable" office space. A 10 percent increase in energy efficiency combined with a 10 percent increase in building area does nothing to mitigate climate change or promote "sustainability."

Capitalist businesses require growth; that is their essential nature. Moreover, this growth must take place on the basis of minimum cost—including the cost of energy—because businesses are competing in an unforgiving "marketplace" where success requires lowering costs of production. So, the wiggly black lines in those ubiquitous graphs depicting the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere keep going up (fig. 5.1), albeit with some temporary reprieves during economic crises when industrial production slows down. And the relentless burning of fossil fuels within this competitive environment, to the extent that these fuels combine higher energy density, greater ease of transport and storage, and lower cost, will prevail.

Graph showing upward movement of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Figure 5.1. In spite of the hype generated by green-building rating systems like LEED, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere keeps increasing.


1 Murphy, The Green Tragedy, 1–2.

2 Wilson, Half-Earth, 201.

3 Wilson, Half-Earth, 224.

4 Laitos, The Right of Nonuse, 4.

5 Laitos, The Right of Nonuse, 5.

6 Diamond, Collapse, 11.

7 Brundtland, Our Common Future (see part I, sec. 3).

8 A short, unpublished version of parts of this chapter, beginning with this paragraph, was presented by the author as "What Sustainability Sustains," Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, January 2008.

9 LEED Reference Guide v4, 4.

10 LEED Reference Guide v4, 4.

11 LEED Reference Guide v4, 4.

12 "U.S. Energy Facts Explained," see un-numbered figure titled "U.S. Energy Consumption by Source and Sector, 2018."

13 Zhou, Tutterow, Harris, and Bostrom, "Promoting Energy-Efficient Buildings." See Table ES-1 titled "Lighting and HVAC Energy Saving Potential in the Manufacturing Sector (TBtu)," 3.

14 "Today in Energy." See un-numbered chart titled "U.S. Household End-Use Energy Consumption by Fuel (2105)."

15 "Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey." See Table 5, Major Fuel Consumption by End Use; and Table 6, Electricity Consumption by End Use.

16 LEED Reference Guide v4, 4.

17 LEED Reference Guide v2.2, 259, (my italics).

18 LEED Reference Guide v2.2, 188.

19 Shelton, "Greening the White House," 32–33.

20 LEED Reference Guide v2.2, 41.

21 Garreau, Edge City.

22 LEED Reference Guide v2.2, 315.

23 Ingersoll, "Second Nature," 145.

24 Alex Williams, "Buying into the Green Movement," New York Times, July 1, 2007,

25 Andrew C. Revkin, "Carbon-Neutral Is Hip, But Is It Green?" New York Times, April 29, 2007, here.

26 Michael Barbaro, "At Wal-Mart, Lessons in Self-Help," New York Times, April 5, 2007, here.

27 MacDonald and Deru, "The Wal-Mart Experience."

28 Jason Hickel, "Exposing the Great 'Poverty Reduction' Lie," Al Jazeera, August 21, 2014, here.

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