Monday, February 25, 2008

Does Your Footprint Cast a Shadow?

It's taken me a couple of weeks to work out my response to Dave's guest-blogger, Chris Bolgiano, and her post, My Best Friend is Building a Hummer of a House. Dave often discusses land-use issues at Via Negativa, and I think he's mostly in agreement with Ms. Bolgiano, a nature writer living and working in the Blue Ridge.

I find some aspects of the essay disturbing, and it's taken me this long to work out why. Here's a much-condensed excerpt:

Our best friends Philly and Jake retired last year and built their dream house a short walk over the ridge from where my husband and I live amid a hundred acres of Appalachian Mountain forest....Now, their dream has become my nightmare. It began with their plans for a 4,000-square-foot house....

...In a footprint eight times larger than the standard quarter-acre suburban yard, nothing above microscopic level was left alive....Fallen trees sprawled across the property boundary and their wilting canopies sagged into our creek, where they would, in a sudden storm, divert the flow and erode the stream banks. I knew this to be a violation of a local erosion ordinance.

Talking to my husband later, tears sprang to my eyes. "If it was anybody else, we would turn them in just like we did those other two neighbors when they threatened the creeks." One case involved a careless logger and the other a careless house-grader...

...Ethical questions about who is responsible for protecting the environment faded in the harsh light of being a snitch. Who am I to criticize, anyway? We sent our share of sediment to the beleaguered Chesapeake Bay when we built our quarter-acre pond. Our ecological footprint here casts a shadow even at high noon on a clear day.

Scales of space and time determine what is sustainable. Extrapolated to each of the world's six billion plus human beings, the scale of even my (minimally) more modest materialism would crash the earth's ecosystems sooner rather than later, according to climatologists....

Well, I'm hoping for another twenty good years of living next door to Philly and Jake before the world collapses or I take the ultimate "Back to the Land" trip....For me, friendship trumps ideology. And if environmentalism is a religion--if the Creation is sacred--then I want to be a "hate the sin but love the sinner" kind of believer, not a "if thine eye offend thee pluck it out" kind. All I can do is ride herd on my own damage to the earth.

The author's friends seem to have more money than sense, but that is usually a self-correcting condition. I know of several people who came to regret sinking money into large, splendid houses. Those great rooms can seem impersonal, like living in a hotel, and such spaces must be heated, cleaned, and maintained at substantial cost. Similar houses are being built here, most of them seldom-occupied vacation homes.

What disturbs me is the distinction Ms. Bolgiano draws between her "careless" neighbors, who do manual labor, and her college buddies, people she thought were just like her. I'm reminded of Captain Brierly in Lord Jim, who is shaken to the core by the cowardly actions of an officer whom he knew as "one of us." His first mate says of Brierly, "Neither you nor I, sir, had ever thought so much of ourselves."

Perhaps she intends her readers to have mixed reactions to her essay, or perhaps my perspective is to blame. The social dynamics of the Blue Ridge are different from those here on the Allegheny Front. The Blue Ridge is more hard pressed by development, more regulated by land-use ordinances and more heavily-populated. In both places, though, people who consider themselves "environmentalists" condemn people who behave differently from them. Here, a neighbor's well-maintained trailer is the ski chalet owner's eyesore, but that trailer (bought second-hand and placed where the family's old house used to be) is less wasteful of resources than the trophy-house. The loggers I know are intensely concerned with forest preservation because it is their livelihood, their home, and their recreation.

I wish Ms. Bolgiano were more friendly with her logging neighbors--she's already had indifferent success in preaching to the choir of college-educated environmentalist believers. I wish environmentalism were just plain common sense rather than religion--it's too easy to set religion aside when it becomes inconvenient. And I wish she hadn't started me trying to visualize an "ecological footprint that casts a shadow even at high noon on a clear day."

5 comments:

Bob Babione said...

Just before seeing this post, I came upon what I think is a an example of brilliant common sense that resulted in smaller footprints and shadows:

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptop, known as XO or the $100 laptop consums just 2W of energy, as compared with 30W needed by current ordinary laptops.

OLPC's former Chief Technology Officer Mary Lou Jepsen says, "By trying to do the right thing and by designing for the poorest people in the world, we've made the greenest laptop in the world." To Jepsen, the biggest feature of a CPU is how fast you can turn it on and off. "People talk about low-power CPUs -- well, you can get to zero milliwatts of power consumption if you turn it off." Instead of four suspend-renew cycles found in current hardware, the XO has 10,000 such cycles, says Jepsen.

Links to Jepsen's keynote address at the Greener Gadgets conference are

"http://www.inhabitat.com/2008/02/20/mary-lou-jepsen-at-greener-gadgets/">here


The first video is an abridgment; the second has the full presentation with a few questions from the audience at the end.

Bob Babione said...

Just before seeing this post, I came upon what I think is a an example of brilliant common sense that resulted in smaller footprints and shadows:

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptop, known as XO or the $100 laptop consumes just 2W of energy, as compared with 30W needed by current ordinary laptops.

OLPC's former Chief Technology Officer Mary Lou Jepsen says, "By trying to do the right thing and by designing for the poorest people in the world, we've made the greenest laptop in the world. And that's not just the color!" To Jepsen, the biggest feature of a CPU is how fast you can turn it on and off. "People talk about low-power CPUs -- well, you can get to zero milliwatts of power consumption if you turn it off." Instead of four suspend-renew cycles found in current hardware, the XO has 10,000 such cycles, says Jepsen.

Links to Jepsen's keynote address at the Greener Gadgets conference are
here:
http://www.inhabitat.com/2008/02/20/mary-lou-jepsen-at-greener-gadgets/

The first video is an abridgment; the second has the full presentation with a few questions from the audience at the end.

chris bolgiano said...

Rebecca, your comments on my essay "Hummer House" are very wide of the mark. The "careless" logger and house-grader are not neighbors; they were hired "professionals" who were willfully and purposefully breaking the law -- otherwise, we could hardly have turned them in. I do have very wonderful neighbors who are loggers and housegraders. They abide by the law. I also have great neighbors who live in trailers (as did i some years ago). Class distinctions are not the issue here, although they may be for you.
--chris bolgiano

Rebecca Clayton said...

Bob, I've been watching the OLPC project with great interest--very inspiring.

Chris, Thanks for reading my post, and taking the time to comment. I'm glad to hear you're on good terms with all sorts of neighbors. We have a very different social dynamic here than you do in the Blue Ridge. I think the native Pocahontas County residents have been put off by environmentalists who who come here from somewhere else and tell them what-all they're doing wrong. It's the missionary mentality, I think.

chris bolgiano said...

Rebecca, I understand and share your concerns about prejudices and stereotypes. Over the nearly 4 decades that we’ve explored and lived in the Appalachians, I have learned to make a great many changes in my attitudes. One of the things I vowed when I joined my local Ruritan Club (community service) several years ago was that I would not be like the people you mention, who move in and immediately begin telling the people who have lived there for generations what they’re doing wrong and what they should be doing. I know I have a lot to learn from my neighbors so that’s what I want to concentrate on.

The “footprint shadow” phrase may be a bit obscure. Wildlife trackers often use the sun when it’s at a low angle – dawn and dusk – to find otherwise invisible tracks because the tiny ridges left by paw prints don’t throw a shadow except at those times. So to see a track at high noon means the imprint must be large. No matter how environmentally correct one tries to be, in this society it’s hard not to leave a large footprint. Thanks, chris