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The Indiscreet Banality of the Bourgeoisie

The Church of LEED, Passive House, and the Dangers of Going Green

Jeff Dardozzi (jeffdardozzi@earthalchemists.org) has designed and built dwellings for over thirty years and is a longtime student of vernacular architecture. He is a cofounder of EA, a design/build collective based in central Pennsylvania.

Pat Murphy, The Green Tragedy: LEED’s Lost Decade (Yellow Springs, OH: The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, 2009), 96 pages, $12.95, paperback.

Pat Murphy’s new book, The Green Tragedy: LEED’s Lost Decade, is a dry but worthwhile effort to debunk the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) claims regarding its flagship LEED program.1 Anyone interested in solid accounting of the shortcomings of the LEED rating system and the buildings it certifies will find his book compelling. For the uninitiated, LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is a building certification system that emphasizes third-party verification that a building was designed and built using strategies intended to improve environmental performance. The LEED program purports to be a key strategy in creating a “sustainable” society.

Murphy’s arguments center on the fact that LEED-certified buildings have failed by virtue of their core metrics and therefore mislead the public in claims to sustainability. The LEED program, he suggests, does not sufficiently emphasize those areas of “building performance” most relative to greenhouse gas emissions, preferring to pursue broader, and in his opinion, more subjective qualities that have little bearing on climate change. While his critique of LEED is valid, Murphy alternatively advocates for the hyper-rationality of the Passive House as a response to the ecological crisis, failing to understand that the crisis is social in origin.

Both USGBC and Passive House offer no real evidence that their approaches will produce meaningful ecological outcomes, as both programs rely on the scientifically untenable, and largely unquestioned, assumptions of bourgeois ideology.2

Greenwash

USGBC has dominated the discourse in the United States on sustainable building practices for the last decade, not because it has good ideas based on a sound understanding of the issues, but because it is an industry trade organization with a well-funded mandate. USGBC’s current budget is $46,000,000. The truth and the absurdity of its premises, as Murphy points out, can be found in the pending certification of one single-family home, twenty-four stories tall, with a 168-car garage and three heli-pads for an Indian billionaire.

The logic of LEED is that it can be applied to any building, regardless of social context and the consequences of the activity taking place within the structure. A nuclear weapons factory, a biological warfare lab, or a concentration camp could carry a platinum rating. Guantánamo could be redeemed by virtue of bike racks, orange jumpsuits made from recycled fiber, cattle prods energized by photovoltaics, and water-boarding conducted with reclaimed grey-water.

As Murphy accurately points out, LEED is a teleological construct, a straw-person argument, which industry has made in an effort to create a “new” market for its members’ products and services. Its much vaunted third party verification is little more than a revenue-generating scheme and a public relations stunt. There is no body of evidence that validates USGBC claims that its LEED program will contribute to the development of a sustainable society, as its core assumptions are little more than articles of faith.

The problem begins with the definition of sustainability most used by LEED professionals: Sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”3

The definition, originating with the 1987 UN Brundtland Commission, is oft-repeated, but sincere sounding as it is, it is far too vague to be operational, since it can mean anything to anyone and is therefore essentially, and conveniently, meaningless. How we are to know the “needs” of a specific future generation is never stated. Needs, both physical and subjective, are so bound by context, contingent on circumstance, and central to our ever-changing sense of being that to suggest knowledge of something so complex is like predicting a specific instance of weather in 2130.

Furthermore, perception of need is highly contingent on frames of reference largely established by culture, which in ours is controlled by powerful social institutions. “Middle class standards of living” are defined, not by innate thresholds of human tolerances or evolved systems of adaptation and survival, but by the profit demands of corporate power, which must vigorously safeguard and manipulate those perceptions in order to maintain dominance in the social hierarchy. The North American homebuilding industry spends billions in advertising dollars annually to convince Americans that a “real” home requires superficially opulent luxuries, synthetic veneers, climate-controlled interiors, granite countertops, and bathrooms that could house an entire family. All the green building movement seeks to do is legitimize that perception by claiming it can be made environmentally benign.

The fact is that no existing green building program can say with any measure of certainty that its program will contribute to solving the ecological crises related to the built environment. Such claims are therefore largely disingenuous, ultimately relying on unquestioned assumptions to secure broad acceptance. The real purpose of these ritualistic displays of rationality, such as LEED’s rating system or Passive House, is to preserve the illusions of our modern selves and our society. Ultimately, as Joseph Tainter notes in Social Complexity and Sustainability, it is about the “comfort of an accustomed life,” seeking to rationalize the behaviors that we know are problematic but that are unable to change by virtue of larger social forces.

Passive House

While the USGBC program falls short of its claims and suffers from disingenuous intentions, Passive House is another story.4 The term passive house refers to a rigorous, voluntary standard developed by the Passive House Institute in Germany for energy efficiency in buildings. These standards are designed to result in very low energy requirements for space heating or cooling. The underlying idea of Passive House is that we can design and build modern homes with radically reduced energy consumption, intimating that such reductions will reduce energy consumption and the generation of GHG emissions, as well as conserve resources of the planet.

The ideas and methods for constructing buildings that leverage design and material advantages to produce comfortable and environmentally integrated buildings that consume very little energy have been the staple of vernacular buildings for eons across all cultures. Historically, resource-inefficient buildings were (and continue to be) the domain of wealth and power. By virtue of metaphor and symbol, architecture became a formal means, not by which to achieve social harmony and environmental integration, but to express social power—that is, power over others and over nature. Recently, the ecological crisis has spawned a global realization that the economic system is the primary destructive agent in the ecological equation. In response, those whose interests are now threatened are staging a campaign to convince us that the dominant paradigm can be operated in an ecologically benign manner. Passive House is, in spirit and in substance, part of this campaign.

Energy and social power are obviously closely related: “Last year, the 296 million people in the United States used 97 quadrillion BTUs of energy. To put that huge number into perspective, each of us used about 328 million BTUs during the year, the equivalent of 96,000 Kilowatt hours of electricity. A Kilowatt-hour is about 1/3 more work than a horsepower-hour, so we used about 128,640 horsepower-hours, or the equivalent of 147 energy slaves working for each of us 24/7, all year long.”5

According to the Energy Information Agency, space heating for homes amounts to less than five quadrillion BTUs, compared to the ninety-seven quadrillion consumed annually by the nation.6 The biggest user of energy, of course, is the system itself, approximately 80 percent of all energy consumed. The system being defined as those areas of social life directly and indirectly involved in constructing power: commercial enterprises, including everything from chemical production to movie making, transportation and communication networks, institutional endeavors such as schools, universities, research facilities, nongovernmental organizations, government and military. In short, the whole of our society.

The facts are that the bulk of our energy consumption has to do with its conversion to political, economic, and military power and that the vast majority of Americans do not benefit equally from the nation’s energy use. Reducing energy consumption of our homes would only marginally reduce the amount of energy consumed by individuals and would not reduce the aggregate amount of energy consumed by our society, due to the ecological paradox first articulated by Jevons.7 Central to green building and energy efficiency advocates’ position is that efficiency improvements conserve resources and reduce emissions when, in fact, they do not. The myth of resource efficiency improvements within the current economic system has been debunked, yet advocates such as Murphy continue advocating actions for reasons that are demonstratively false. Furthermore, they never acknowledge the relationship between power and energy.

It would be misleading to overemphasize the importance of something that comprises less than 5 percent of the total energy pie, while ignoring the fact that the largest consumer of energy and the largest source of GHG emissions is the system itself. In light of this, and the fact that ecological outcomes cannot be linked directly to energy efficiency strategies, why is it so important to Murphy, Passive House, and USGBC that society pursue them?

A clue to Murphy’s motives in his advocacy can be construed in his comment: “These questions should be answered by science and transparency. We must be able to measure things.”

It is interesting to note that Murphy does not explain why science must be the only answer or why we must be able to measure things. By inference, I can only assume that his worldview and understanding of reality are reductionist in nature, Cartesian by definition, and rooted in the mythology of the “Technocratic Society.”

The problems with reductionism and the Cartesian worldview are well known, as they rely, just as capitalism does, on denying the larger picture through a process of objectification whereby reality is reduced to the narrowest of subsets conducive to observation, analysis, and manipulation. The limitations of these concomitant worldviews are the subject of many interdisciplinary inquiries. This is not to say reductionism makes no important contributions to understanding our world, but as the single arbiter of reality, it has failed humanity terribly, as ecological and social crises testify. The fields of emergence, holism, and complexity are revealing entirely new dimensions of our existence, and work in the cognitive sciences is revealing what many of us have already known: that we are not discrete, autonomous machines, genetically driven in the mindless pursuit of self interest. Such is the reductionistic ontology of the “rational agent” of bourgeois ideology, and the primary archetype of the modern worldview, upon which Murphy’s technocratic advocacy is based.

Furthermore, Murphy incorrectly bases his entire position on the belief that we should follow Germany’s example, since the country has supposedly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions over the last two decades. He implies that this is by virtue of energy efficiency pursuits (such as the Passive House) and tries to use this to characterize the whole of German society. Germany’s claim, upon closer examination, appears to be due to gaming the system by opting to peg the baseline for greenhouse gas calculations at a point in time prior to relocating emissions to other countries via off-shoring of heavy industry.8 Proof of this fallacy is that Germany’s emissions, once the relocation of heavy industries is accounted for, have remained flat, as the 2000 to 2008 data now shows.9

Finally, Murphy makes no attempt to understand the crises, other than to see them as technical and management problems for which he advocates increased social complexity, in another attempt to assert control over a force he fails to comprehend. Certainly, Murphy should know by now recent arguments regarding increasing social complexity, ecological cost, and the accruing negative returns. As an advocate of a scientific worldview, he should also be aware of the findings in cognitive science that reveal a large disconnect between the intent of the rational agent and its outcomes.10

The reality of energy efficiency pursuits is that there are unstated objectives, in the form of energy subsidies, that are invariably linked to increasing social complexity, not to solve ecological problems, but to maintain the power of a system that has enslaved the world.

“Assumptions Are the Mother of All Fuck-Ups”11

We are now learning things about ourselves that are in complete contrast to what we have been taught to be true for hundreds of years. The model of human agency and the assumptions that underlie it frame our entire political, legal, and economic system. That model is now being shown to be false: “These assumptions culminate in the widespread and persistent belief that regardless of physiological processes, developmental history, or current circumstances, the person is ‘free’ to choose any course of action among the alternatives that present themselves. This view of human behavior is simply untenable from a scientific perspective.”12

This belief is the basis of selfhood in the form of the rational agent. It is the foundation of both progressive and conservative dogmas and what allows the structures of power to perpetuate themselves. The narratives and legitimization rituals of our society are designed to enforce this conception of the human animal, but they ultimately depend on the acceptance of these assumptions of the self as true:

  • Actions are freely chosen
  • Choices imply preferences
  • Preferences are stable over time
  • Preferences implicate identity of the self
  • Outcomes are mostly controllable
  • People are responsible for the choices they make and the resultant outcomes.13

Americans accept these assumptions as true accounts of the human animal without reservation, unconsciously conforming themselves to the behavioral models prescribed by elites, all the while assuming that such models are the product of individual will. This singular conception of mankind has served as justification for four hundred years of capitalism’s systematic destruction of human community and ecosystems. The ecological and social catastrophe devastating the planet clearly shows that capitalism’s hero, “the selfish individual,” has no idea what he is doing, and now we know why: the hero’s life is based on a lie.

When it comes to buildings, it is an elemental truth that our dwellings are powerful metaphors, for they are the physical embodiment of lived social relations and the underlying narratives that construct social reality. This reality has created the crises that Murphy claims are the cause of his advocacy. Neither the Passive House nor USGBC programs alter this situation, as they affect neither underlying social relations, their concomitant mode of production, nor the situation’s epistemology. On the contrary, programs like Passive House and LEED ultimately seek to codify the total encapsulation of energy efficiency initiatives within the bourgeois worldview, where the relations between nature and humanity are mediated by elites and technology, under the false assumption that we as individuals can control outcomes.

When it comes to meaningful social action, we should recognize that our hostility to the dominant social system is rooted in the fact that this system is a falsehood imposed upon humanity, often with devastating consequences, and the very essence of our rebelliousness is a validation of our common humanity. Food, buildings, and all other areas of material culture are precisely the place to begin redefining the terms of a different social life and the nature of our relationship with the earth. The material conditions of daily life are changing rapidly, and the old narratives are no longer believable. All those trapped in the fairy tales of a dying world and who share a desire for another must first abandon those conceptions of selfhood inculcated from the moment of birth. There begins the journey to a different world—that has already begun to emerge.14

Notes

  1. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, http://usgbc.org.
  2. For further discussion on bourgeois ideology, see Harvie Ferguson, The Science of Pleasure: Cosmos and Psyche in the Bourgeois World View (London: Routledge, 1990).
  3. Gro Harlem Brundtland (chair) and the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), ch. 2, section IV.1.
  4. Passive House Institute, http://passivehouse.us.
  5. Jennifer Barker, “How Many ‘Energy Slaves’ Do We Employ?” Altenergy Magazine, http://altenergymag.com.
  6. Energy Information Agency, Annual Energy Review 2008, http://eia.doe.gov.
  7. John M. Polimeni et al., Jevons’ Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2008).
  8. Joseph Kahn et al., “Choking On Growth; China Grabs West’s Smoke Spewing Factories,” New York Times, December 21, 2007, World section online, http://query.nytimes.com.
  9. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Summary of GHG Emissions for Germany,” http://unfccc.int/files/ghg_emissions_data/application/pdf.
  10. Joseph Tainter, “Social Complexity and Sustainability,” Ecological Complexity 3 (2006): 91-103.
  11. Jon D. Hanson and David G. Yosifon, “The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal,” Harvard Public Law, Working Paper No. 08-33 (2004).
  12. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, DVD, directed by Guy Ritchie 1999, London: Summit Entertainment.
  13. J. Michaels and R.R.Vallacher, “The Ghost in the System: Where Free Will Lurks in Human Minds,” Mind Magazine, October 21, 2009, 9.
  14. Hanson and Yosifon; Michaels and Vallacher.