Working through the LEED process on the 100k House project has made me think about the ways in which the government is and should be involved in sustainable progress. LEED is, of course, a voluntary certification program. There are no laws requiring its use (in residential building at least), and no government incentives for adhering to it. It is a great tool for organizing a building project and has growing marketing clout, but LEED doesn’t have the power of legislation behind it. Lacking that it grows slowly and is vulnerable to other watered down “green” certification programs that are easier on the builders and developers that choose to use them.
The solution could be to legally require LEED in some segment of new residential building projects, but is that the role of our government? Should legislation trump the natural workings of market forces or should we allow the demands of consumers to be the sole factor deciding the future of sustainability? There are those on both extremes of this argument, but I believe the solution, as usual, lies somewhere in between.
One of the key, but often forgotten, purposes of legislation is to educate. Even the smartest among us (and most of us aren’t the smartest among us) can’t possibly be educated in enough topics to understand the effect of . . . well . . . everything. The government, on the other hand, is in a position to collect the combined learning of a great many people and share the important information with its citizens.
Sometimes this dissemination of information can be done through pamphlets or a detailed white-papers but with over 20% of us functionally illiterate (beware of boring PDF) and a far greater percentage functionally disinterested, it is a long shot. Other times, television can be a useful tool to disseminate information, but then you’re competing with Two and a Half Men and sensationalist news stories. Try talking about mitigating the effects of energy loss through better insulation against thermal bridging when, one channel over, a man has kissed his girlfriend to deaf (that’s right I said deaf).
Legislation can be a solution to this problem. If something is important enough to be incorporated into law, more people will be inclined to find out why (or at least listen to their TV explain it to them). When the government outlawed lead in paint, many of us spit out our mouthful of paint chips, scratched our heads and said “What? Lead is bad for you?” Now, the unpleasant effects of lead are fairly common knowledge. People often lack the information to choose actions that are in their best interest, and legislation is sometimes the most powerful means of delivering that information.
Of course, there is bad legislation. There are laws that teach us the wrong lessons. I won’t go to far into those since I try to avoid what some might call “politics”, but I’m sure we can all think of a few recent examples. There is also, I think, a balance between laws that are proscriptive and laws that are educational. Proscriptive laws tend to ignore the potential of the market and demand obedience without room for thought or debate. Educational laws leave space for innovation and evolution. This is more difficult to judge as it has to do with intent, but I will return to the LEED example to try to explain what I mean.
A proscriptive law might be, “All new homes built in the US must be LEED Certified.” This law ignores the market entirely and attempts to effect change simply through force. It ignores conditions which will damage its effectiveness such as a shortage of expertise and an inability among the majority to understand the necessity of such a law. This law’s intent is not educational. It does not lead by example. Rather it demands immediate, blind adherence which kills creativity and threatens market stability.
A better law might be, “all new homes built using federal funds or subsidies must be LEED Certified.” This law leads by example and, in doing so, educates. The market is still free to act, but the requirement signifies the importance of what LEED embodies. This law also recognizes that LEED may not be the best standard in the end and allows the market room to pursue other ideas. With a proscriptive law, other ideas are weakened or killed.
Now, I am aware that what I am saying is already happening. Many government agencies are requiring LEED certification for their buildings and there has been a good deal of legislation in the commercial market. However, I stuck with the example because I think there needs to be more of a push in the realm of home building. Weaker programs are being developed to allow “green” certification in less sustainable projects, and the consumer is in no position to judge their merits. Most are simply not educated. LEED is not perfect but it could be a great tool for moving us toward perfection.
I’m sorry for the length of this post. I tend to go on a bit, particularly when I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I am no expert on legislation, but I hope that by putting these thoughts down I might draw out someone with that expertise. So, come on out green lawyers and political pundits. Tell me how I’m on the right track or how I’m raving like a lunatic. Either way I want to hear your opinions on the best way to educate the public on the importance of building sustainably and the way in which legislation may or may not be involved in the curriculum.
Let’s get the comments rolling and remember . . . disgree with class.
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