Plastic

Most of us have probably come to recognize that plastic is an extremely difficult item to cut out of our lives. From tupperware to composite lumber, plastic has become so engrained in the modern way of life, most people do not even realize how strong their dependency is upon it. There are ways, however, to curb the impact of our plastic addiction on both the environment and our health.

The EPA’s Resin Identification Code for plastics categorizes plastic into seven numbers. The numbers are useful for consumers who can tell whether a plastic product is recyclable in their neighborhood based on the ID number. For example, #1 and #2 (PET and HDPE) are considered the “most” recyclable and can be broken down into their base form and reworked entirely. Examples of these categories are translucent milk jugs, soda bottles, and plastic bags.

Moreover, the system also shows which types are most harmful to human health. #3 (PVC) and #7 (Other) are considered particularly hazardous to health. The chemicals in plastic have the ability to leach onto food, especially when they are left in the sun or microwave. According to an article in Health magazine, #3 and #7 are often used in “cling-wrap” for meats and cheeses, and plastic baby bottles. Chemical intake can lead to lowered testosterone levels, malformation in children, and cancer. Our advice against this? Buy a refillable metal water bottle and transfer your meats and cheeses to a paper container as fast as possible.

Construction and building is the number two user of plastic products (second only to packaging). According to the EPA, only about 8 percent of plastic waste generated in 2011 was reclaimed for recycling (http://www.reportlinker.com/ci02375/Plastic.html) This is impacted by the fact that most common plastics in construction are rarely recyclable (especially PVC piping). According to a 2000 Green Paper, only 3 percent of PVC is recycled, 17% incinerated, and 80% landfilled. These numbers have improved in recent memory, owing in part to a popular trend in Europe to recycle PVC in window-making (including Eco Brooklyn friend, Klearwall http://ecobrooklyn.com/klearwall-windows-doors/) . One way around this problem is to use PEVA (non-chlorinated vinyl), which is biodegradable and does not contain the hazardous chemicals of PVC.

Christopher Jeffrey

InsideClimate News – Brooklyn

Eco Brooklyn would like to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of a fellow green advocate located in Brooklyn.

InsideClimate News is a rising nonprofit news website that focuses chiefly on environmental issues. Their objectives include providing scientific and objective investigations and news stories to inform the public and our officials living in these times of serious energy change. Additionally, InsideClimate News attempts to preserve the tradition and utility of environmental journalism.

InsideClimate News covers a wide scope of environmental information. Their hot topics include Keystone XL, natural gas drilling, climate change, nuclear energy, and environmental economics. It is a great site to keep people informed on green topics – from individuals to companies.

Most notably, InsideClimate News won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for its investigative journalism on a 2010 oil spill in Marshall, Michigan. Their ebook, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of” is the work of journalists Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer. The book’s message details how the spill in Michigan was exacerbated by misinformation, substandard preparation, and a delayed response.

For example, the pipeline that leaked into a local stream, which entered the Kalamazoo River and threatened Lake Michigan, was carrying diluted bitumen. Diluted bitumen, or “dilbit” is a very heavy type of crude oil which is diluted with a cocktail of chemicals. More importantly, no one knew that the pipeline was carrying dilbit and the company, Enbridge Inc., did not inform first responders what they were dealing with until days after the spill was reported.

When all was said and done (though cleanup is still going on at some capacity) at least one million gallons of oil over 36 miles of between the Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo. These bodies of water were closed for over two years and about 150 families were permanently relocated. The $765 million+ that Enbridge spent on the spill makes it the most expensive in US history. The reason why the spill went virtually unnoticed by the popular media was because the BP Deepwater Horizon spill occurred around the same time.

Enbridge is a Canadian oil and gas company. The dilbit that flowed through the pipelines comes from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. It is very similar to the type of oil that would be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline.

For more information check out ICN’s website at www.InsideClimateNews.org

 

Christopher Jeffrey

The Real Cost of Cheap Stuff

Bangladesh Building Collapse Kills at Least 70

Texas Fertilizer Explosion Kills at Least 16

Boston Bombing Kills 3

All three of these events happened this week. Most people see the third as very different from the first two. I don’t. To me they are all part of the massive hidden cost of cheap stuff produced by the poor for the over-consumption of wealthy countries.

Next time you buy those $20 jeans or eat the 10 cent banana stop and ask yourself how the hell they can sell them so cheap. I’ll give you a hint: it is not because the business owners are taking less in profits. The answer is they rape whoever they can to get the price as low as possible. This could be people, animals, plants, water, earth, whatever will not fight back in the short term.

And thus we get badly built buildings, slave labor, substandard production, and massive ecological destruction. This is why the overcrowded Bangladesh building collapsed, the understaffed fertilizer plant exploded and the angry, disenfranchised youth lashed out in Boston. It doesn’t take a genius to see the connection. Just don’t look for the answers in the media – big business has too much invested in the current setup to expose it’s ugly side.

This is why when people ask me to compare the cost of green building to normal building I don’t say anything incredibly stupid like, ” Green building is 10% more expensive”.

Normal building is five planets more expensive than green building, which is the amount of planets needed if everyone built like America.

So avoid all that slave labor clothing. ‘You’ got a deal; ‘they’ got dead/poisoned/in-fertile/ enslaved/ abused…fill in the blank.

Its our appetites that are killing us, killing our fellow humans, killing our Earth planet. Our desires and greed.

Get less and pay more up front for it should be our credo. Maybe then will we get closer to paying the true cost of things.

Degrowth

In 2012 Eco Brooklyn Inc. made a conscious choice to NOT grow. As a for profit corporation this may seem a bad business choice. But ironically we see this as thinking BIG. Peoples’ obsession with growth is such a massive part of us and it is illogical and suicidal.

Especially in speed crazed NY is this obsession rampant. I meet people on the street and ask them how things are and it’s so often, “Oh things are great, I’m so busy. Got these great jobs. Just hired another employee….”

What people forget is that cancer is a growth. Mold is a growth. Tumors are growths. Obesity is growth. Just because it is full of growth doesn’t mean anything. It could be good, it could be bad.

And yet in capitalism no growth means death. If you aren’t growing, expanding, taking over the world then you are not a successful company.

Eco Brooklyn is really one person, me, Gennaro Brooks-Church. Certainly I have employees and all sorts of people who make Eco Brooklyn shine, but in the end it is my vision. When I write “we” it isn’t a group of people sitting at a conference table. It is me sitting at my deck with a gold fish bowl next to my monitor.

And I have seen enough businesses to know that no matter how big they are, it usually is only one or two people working very hard. Yet they portray themselves as so much bigger than that, like puffed up roosters.

The temptation to grow is great. Yesterday I visited two clients. One wanted me to replace their front metal fence. The other wanted me to sheet rock their cellar. I talked them out of it. The fence was fine – it needs some paint and new footings.  The cellar was fine. The beautiful brick walls just need a little patching and a coat of paint.

Again, it may seem strange that I am doing this. But I honestly think this is the most intelligent business move I could do. I will be fine financially. Getting less work will not break my company. I’ll just get more work elsewhere. Yet I saved a lot of materials yesterday. I also saved my clients money. Money is energy. Energy is resources. There is a connection with that money and the ecology of the planet.

So all this is to say that I found a term for this kind of thinking. It is called Degrowth and it is very self explanatory.

Degrowth baby!

Next time you meet somebody in the street resist the low self esteem temptation to appear successful. Instead say, “I’m doing my best to not do much. Today I’m taking the day off from work and just wandering.”

The trick to all this is to lower your needs. In a world where we are educated to need and expect so much from life this is hard. It takes a lot of undoing. And until you pay off your debts it is not easy. But it is a valiant goal and one that will give you more happiness that anything I can think of. Happiness isn’t everything but it sure beats a life full of pointless business.

How to become a green builder (aka aware human)

As a New York green builder I get a lot of interns eager to learn about building a better world. They are young, eager and often impatient. After six months on a job site they think they should become manager. This is a big mistake.

It is not that they are not capable of moving up. They are bright and talented and would make a pretty good manager. But by moving up you move away from the base, the foundation, the little daily tasks. And without a broad knowledge base you will not have the depth to keep moving up.

But that isn’t even the point. The point in life is not to be forever going bigger and better. The point is to explore and learn – to become more aware. And you can’t do that as easily if you are all grown up.

A volunteer building with straw bale at the Czech building center Permalot

A volunteer building with straw bale at the Czech building center Permalot

When you are jobless, homeless, without children, a mortgage and a career you are perfectly poised to loose yourself in the flow of experience, letting it carry you where it may.

Here is part of a letter from an intern who wants to join Eco Brooklyn. For the past six years they have drifted from one cool experience to another, creating a great base. This is what I did. It is what I suggest anyone does.

my boss worked out an arrangement with me that allowed me to take time off each year to explore my growing interest. I chose to be involved with the following projects:

– Found out that Paolo Soleri (of Arcosanti fame) is still alive, and signed up for the 5-week construction internship helping to build an arcology in the Arizona desert.
– Volunteered for Yoga Cusco (offshoot of  Yoga Inbound) in Peru for a month, helping to build their yoga studio in the Sacred Valley.
– 3-month natural building internship & PDC (the only one to “graduate”!) at Permalot in Czech Republic, including over a week with a client in Germany, and additional time in Czech helping my former roommate build his cob home on an empty field.
– Volunteered 1 month at  Totoco in Nicaragua, helping to build the farm/animal husbandry part of their project.
– Random volunteer gigs with Habitat-NYC, Cool Roofs, and the local neighborhood garden.
– Visited Gaviotas in Colombia and The Venus Project in Florida.
– Just started (literally, on Friday, after months of bugging them) helping Oko Farms build their aquaponics project in East Williamsburg.

This is a smart path. It is something I can’t do as easily now. Sure I am a green builder doing cool things and maybe Eco Brooklyn will be lucky enough to be listed on this person’s resume with all these other visionary projects. But although definitely possible it is harder for me to take off and sleep on a floor somewhere donating my time carrying mud all day, no matter how great the project is.

But when you know and have very little – like everyone who is fresh out of the nest, you can be the sponge. Just my two cents on this Monday morning as I got this intern’s resume. Now I must go back to bidding jobs, negotiating contracts and all the other things a “cool and alternative” New York green builder has to deal with.

Building for Children

Eco Brooklyn recently completed a number of jobs in a building where there were children living. We renovated  three children’s bedrooms, two bathrooms where they bathe, and two play areas. Doing this increased our focus on using non-toxic materials and building in a manner that created no dust.

A toxin free green building process should be done in all homes, but because children’s bodies  are so much more absorptive of chemicals than adults, the harmful effect on children can be much greater if precautions are not taken.

Eco Brooklyn has a zero toxin policy in our home renovations. But that is a lot harder to accomplish than people think and we don’t always meet our goals.

The reason is that even the most harmless building material has toxins. Take sheet rock compound for example,  used to plaster the seams of sheet rock. With the exception of a very few buildings (adobe, for example), sheet rock compound is in every single building in america.

Sheet rock compound contains Formaldehyde, a known cancer causing chemical. To the trained nose, Formaldehyde is easily detected in a newly built home. True, it off-gasses very quickly and although I don’t have numbers to back it up, I feel that the Formaldehyde levels in dry compound are very small.

But what if you are building in an apartment where children are currently living, like we recently did. The apartment had a six week old baby and we were posed with the challenge of repairing some sheet rock. The family was not able to move during the renovation. This is not an ideal situation.

Our solution was to seal off the area with taped plastic walls and to make sure we had a window in the plastic enclosure.

We then created a negative vacuum in the work area by blowing a fan out the window. That way air was constantly being sucked into the enclosure and out the window. Due to this constant pressure minimal dust or toxins entered the rest of the apartment.

Likewise the workers took great pains to clean themselves before leaving the enclosure. We left the enclosure up for two days while the bulk of the Formaldehyde off-gassed out the window.

We then painted with zero voc paint, which again for a green builder like us is pushing the boundary of what we consider safe. Even though the paint may be zero voc, if it is a mainstream company (Benjamin Moore, for example) then the paint contains hundreds of chemicals, most of which have only been around for a couple generations.

Like the millions of chemicals humans have created over the past several decades, we don’t really know the long term effects of there high tech paints. You just have to smell a zero voc mainstream paint to know it isn’t harmless. It smells like toxins.

It would be great for our health if we all lived in adobe buildings, surrounded by natural materials like wood, earth and stones. I am convinced cancer rates would plummet  But most houses are not adobe. As New York green contractors our strategy is to educate ourselves as much as possible in non-toxic hypoallergenic building techniques and apply those strategies to existing conditions, which often are not ideal.

When possible we eliminate the toxins. We never use wood with Formaldehyde (often found in cabinets, flooring, counters…). All our floor finishes are natural oil based. We build a lot of clay walls. We have built a lot with non-Formaldehyde sheet rock compound, although it is more expensive and not as easy to work with.

When it is not possible we do our best to understand the risks and to reduce exposure as much as possible. Simple plastic (yuk!) walls and negative pressure techniques do wonders to reduce any dust or toxins in the living space. An educated work force takes care of the other exposure issues (simple things like removing shoes, blowing off our clothes, washing our hands….).

After considering the immediate effects of toxins like airborne gasses and dust on adults and children, we as a green building company are interested in finding and understanding environmental stressors that may contribute to more subtle and long term childhood issues like OCD, ADD and Autism.

This is part of our Build It Forward process where we are not only thinking of the current client but are also considering future generations. That is our gift that we build forward into the renovation. Likewise the client is paying a little extra to benefit people they many never even meet. This process is very different to the slash and burn building technique that dominates the industry and has caused so much harm to our world.

That extra up front building cost that we as a green building company and the client share is pennies on the dollar compared to the massive hidden costs we all end up paying later when we build with no consideration for anything but maximum up front profit.

It is the difference between paying cash for something that you then pass on for free to your children vs. paying with a credit card that has outlandish interest and that you give to your children as a death present.

With this attitude it is easy to understand our obsession with uncovering hidden costs (financial, social and ethical) and paying for them up front. If you want to be perfectly callous, you could say this for us is simply smart long term business planning. aka it is sustainable in the long run.

As we research what is smart and not smart building we never forget the myriad of  political, economic and social interests behind many of these chemicals it is hard to know the truth. For example, for decades “studies” came out saying there is no connection between cancer and tobacco…

So most of the time when we are building we have nothing but common sense to back up a lot of what we do. And we use historical reference. This means we not only look towards the newest science for guidance but we also look into the history of building in different cultures. The Eco Brooklyn office has a whole wall of books on traditional building techniques and cutting edge science techniques.

So when we build, if it makes sense to do something and we have evidence that a certain society utilized the same technique with success then for lack of any other authority we will use our best judgement to decide.

For example, historically clay walls have been used safely since the beginning of time in construction. Recently there is also mounting evidence that the negative ions in clay cause people to feel good. These are the same negative ions found after a rain storm when the air is fresh and the light is crisp.

At the same time there is evidence that one of the ingredients in clay walls contributes to cancer – silica. It is added either pure or in it’s most common form – sand. Of course people have worked with sand since the beginning of time as well.

As builders we look at all this information, determine the benefits and risks and then decide how or whether to use the green building technique. In the case of clay walls we feel that there benefits are great. The ongoing exposure to silica from the wall dusting is minor and we feel does not contribute as an environmental stressor that may contribute in aggregate to cancer.

So in the case of clay we wholeheartedly use it. Other applications, such as zero voc paint or sheet rock compound, we use but with less enthusiasm and with a lot more care in order to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

We understand we can’t eliminate all environmental stressors. Sunshine after all can become an environmental stressor that when combined with other elements (genetics, formaldahyde etc) can contribute to cancer. But we feel the benefits of sunshine far outweigh the risks and we enthusiastically encourage windows in buildings :).

The point here is that as New York green contractors we feel our role is more than to build kitchens for people. We need to educate ourselves not only in how to professionally install kitchen cabinets so they look great and work perfectly but also we need to understand our role is one of amateur doctor, educator and social activist.

Along with the normal questions like, what color are the cabinet doors, how do the hinges work and what handles does the client want, we try to ask ourselves other questions as well, questions that definitely will impact the client much more in the long run.

These questions are different for each situation but they always focus on the triple bottom line of planet, people and profit. What is the health impact on the client and the environment (is the wood free of chemicals and salvaged)? Who wins and who loses financially (are workers paid fairly)?

The questions are endless and the answers many. It is more an ongoing process than a final goal. As long as we keep at it I feel we will continue to be effective New York green contractors.

This blog was inspired by a recent article I read about chemicals and autism. Here are a list of chemicals you can be pretty sure contribute to autism (and cancer, headaches, mood swings, tiredness and just simply a shitty day). If you have time you can google the chemicals to see what products contain them.

If you don’t have time, then use your common sense. A popcorn bag made out of some sort of plastic that you put in a microwave? Duh! Save yourself some time and go smoke a cigarette instead. Not sure if a liquid is toxic? What does it smell like – a new car or a walk in the forest – hint: that new car smell gives rats tumors the size of grapefruit.

Really a better term for this than common sense is being aware of your surroundings. Most people are aware enough to notice a fire in their house. But how many are aware of the smell in their new pillow and whether it will give them cancer in 20 years? Studies show it very well might (although there are plenty of others that show it won’t….but again it is worth looking at who is pushing what study….).

The first step in becoming aware is to pay more attention to your body and to use available information both current and historic to see what works. Available info and history show that certain activities and foods work while others don’t. You don’t need to be a genius to know the basics of exercise and died to live a good life.

And yes, exercise is a great way to reduce the harm of that new paint since an increased metabolism passes the toxins our of your body faster.

Here is the list for chemicals connected to autism..

Lead
Found in paint, dust, drinking water, some canned imported food, older toys, some imported toys, lead-glazed or lead-painted pottery, and some inks.

Methylmercury
Methylmercury is not the same as ethylmercury, the form found in Thimerosal, the controversial preservative formerly used in vaccines and which some believe is linked to autism. Methylmercury is released into air and water mostly from industrial emissions. It is the form of mercury that is found in high concentrations in some fish.

PCBs
The U.S. government banned production of PCBs in 1977, but they continue to be released into the environment from hazardous waste sites and from illegal or improper dumping. PCBs are also found in some types of caulk used in building materials, including in some schools.

Organophosphate Pesticides
These make up the majority of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables ingested by pregnant women and kids in the United States.

Organochlorine Pesticides
Less common, organochlorines are still used. The most infamous organochlorine is DDT, which was fully banned in the United States in 1972.

Endocrine Disruptors
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can potentially interfere with prenatal development. There are literally hundreds of endocrine disruptors, the most well-known of which is bisphenol-A, or BPA.

Automotive Exhaust 
Toxins of concern in motor vehicle exhaust include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
These chemicals are found in an array of sources — from cigarette smoke and burning coal to industrial waste incineration and hazardous waste sites.

Brominated Flame Retardants
These fireproofing chemicals are added to pillows, vehicle seats, fabrics, and some electronics — including computers.

Perfluorinated Compounds
PFCs are found in sources as varied as water-resistant clothing, some non-stick cookware, and microwave popcorn bags.

Leave Your Surroundings Cleaner Than When You Arrived

When I first started mentoring interns one of the first things I told them was that they always had to leave their work area cleaner than when they came to it. Over time this metaphor became the most powerful thing I think I can teach them.

Leave your surroundings cleaner than when you arrived…..

If that isn’t the most beautiful mantra to live by I don’t know what is. And unless it isn’t painfully obvious, by “cleaner” I don’t mean organized or disinfected. I mean leave nothing behind but footprints in the sand.

And because of the laws of entropy this does not mean simply not making a mess. By merely living you make a mess. Even the most austere yogi consumes, kills other creatures, and creates waste. So if you really want to leave the world cleaner than when you arrived you have to actively clean up.

And you can’t just clean up after yourself. Because the world is global and most of your mess is actually being made by a manufacturer across the planet, it isn’t enough to simply keep your own life clean. You have to proactively clean up after others if you want to even make a dent in the mess your life creates around the world.

As a New York green builder I am blessed by an occupation where I spend my days cleaning up after other people. So this mantra is easy for me. We are constantly salvaging other peoples’ garbage and creating beautiful eco homes out of it. I can think of nothing more satisfying than knowing each day I have made the world a better place. I am very grateful.

Here is a great clip on this topic that shows how you can create friendship, a sense of connection, a sense of purpose and a sense of fulfillment by simply picking up garbage. It is a powerful and simple message, and one that I plan on doing with my interns. We are going to the Gowanus Canal, which happens to be a block from the Eco Brooklyn Green Show House, with a bunch of garbage bags and a six pack of good beer to leave it cleaner than when we arrived.

Fun Built with Salvaged Material

The growth in sustainable and green living has given rise to a movement of eco-tourism in a variety of forms across the country.  Specifically the use of salvaged materials is making a breakthrough in the realm of practical and/ or novel green construction.

Across the country salvaged building trends and communities are blossoming and their projects range from the awe-inspiring to the comical.  I recently came across this link to a list of 8 “roadside” attractions made primarily or entirely of salvaged materials:

 

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/photos/8-roadside-attractions-made-from-salvaged-materials/must-see-places

 

There’s a beer can house, a quilted-oil-protesting-gas station, and the largest tree house ever built (complete with sanctuary and basketball court).  Besides roadside attractions I’ve come to find through friends and my own travels a number of interesting things made by hand with salvaged materials.

Made from recycled material

The Recycled Roadrunner.

Once a year in Glover, Vermont there is a gathering of people, “The Human Powered Carnival”, that is the only (to my knowledge) 100% handmade and human powered carnival in existence.

 

Internationally there is a movement of “freeganism”, a life style based around obtaining all necessary materials to live well without using money, this means dumpster diving for food, squatting (sometimes clandestinely), bartering services, and general scavenging.  There is enough usable waste produced by most large companies and institutions to feed, clothe and shelter everyone who needs it.  This movement is intrinsically related to the Human Powered Carnival, there is no advertisement besides word of mouth and there is an air of communal co-operation in all aspects of the event, from cooking to cleaning and operating the rides.

One of Cyclecides attractions

In a similar spirit, in California, there is “cyclecide”.  Cyclecide is an organization based on finding expressive, interactive and alternate uses for bicycles and bike parts.  This idea sprang in 1996 and is rooted in a “freegan” ideology, their first pieces came from dumpstered bikes and some still do.  Their main event is a touring “bike rodeo” featuring varied attractions, from art installations to interactive bike or “pedal” powered rides, and valuable information.  This rodeo is not for the faint of heart, group events and contests such as tall bike jousting, while extremely fun and entertaining do pose some real danger, perhaps that’s what makes it so fun?

This is an excerpt from their website that clearly describes the group’s core beliefs;

“We remain passionately devoted to the idea of the bicycle as a piece of interactive kinetic sculpture that can make music, breathe fire, even save the world!”

 

Cyclecide

Cyclecide

What I find most exciting about this small grassroots movement is its power to subtly invoke great change in a person’s cognition, with the near comic novelty of some of these art pieces and attractions people will let their mental guards down and approach this concept with a more open and relaxed mind, which is sure to get the wheels turning in ones head (whether pedal powered or not).

Abundance, The Book and it’s myopic viewpoint

I recently heard about a book called “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, so I checked out Diamandis’ TED Talk available below. He has some good points, namely that technology will continue to create abundance for humans…..but his view is so incredibly human centered I am skeptical. It reminds me of when humans thought the earth was the center of the universe.

To make my point I counted the key words in his speech:

1. All words like “human”, “people” or references to people like “A lady…”, “All of you…”.
2. All words like “technology” or references to technology like “computer”, “phone”
3. All words like “oil”, “gas”, “fossil fuel”
4. The word “Abundance”
5. The words Nature, Plants, Animals or references like “Dog”, “Tree”

The numbers came out like this:
1. Human words: 85
2. Technology words: 65
3. Gas words: 1
4. The word “Abundance”: 3
5. Nature words: 0

His message? Humans are the only life forms that are important, and our intelligence will harness technology to stay great. Technology is what has driven us to our current success (not oil). Technology will give voices to the voiceless (all humans).

Plants, other animals and nature in general is not part of the equation, and if they are then they are simply raw materials to harness (sun, water etc).

He does mention nature three times and water fourteen times but they are purely human centric:
1. He uses the word “environment”: For survival reasons we are programmed to monitor how the “environment” can harm us. In this case the word is not really about nature but about the things surrounding humans (cars, muggers, falling pianos).
2. He mentions “climate crisis” and “species extinction”. It is used dismissively, though: Yes we have problems like climate crisis and species extinction but still humans are great.
3. His mentions of water are nothing to do with nature but merely about how humans can use technology to collect the raw material “water”.

I don’t disagree that technology and humans are great but I have a problem with his myopic view that excludes all other life forms. How different is his view to that of a white male a hundred years ago who’s decisions may have never considered women or blacks? I guess he is more open minded because he has broadened his view to include all humans?

His web site lists people who endorse his view:

  • Jeff Skoll Co-founder of eBay
  • Arianna Huffington CEO, Huffington post
  • Richard Branson Chairman, the Virgin Group
  • Ray Kurzweil Inventor & Author, The Singularity is Near
  • Matt Ridley Author, The Rational Optimist
  • Elon Musk CEO, Tesla Motors, Co-founder, PayPal
  • Stewart Brand Author, Whole Earth Discipline
  • Timothy Ferriss #1 NY Times bestselling author
These people are all pillars of what I call new capitalism, which is a slight variation on old capitalism. They love technology, they still love growth, and they exalt the power of humans to overcome all obstacles. Yea, they are pretty similar to old capitalists, the ones who trashed the planet in the first place.
Only this time they are way cooler. Capitalism Lite; still the great consumerist taste but with less guilt ridden calories.
They are in denial that all our progress so far has not been technology but an abundance of cheap energy in the form of oil. When a barrel of oil provides more energy than ten years of one person’s labor you have a society moving so fast they make a coke addict look sloth-like.
Could fuel have been the jumping stone to get us to our next technology driven stage? Maybe.
But that is not my point. When your global plan completely ignores the opinions of 99.99% of the planet’s life forms, as Diamandis’ human centered viewpoint does, you are being extremely narrow minded.
His presumption is that humans and technology can do it alone. We are that great. My answer to that is, first why would you want to? and, second, I don’t think so.
Diamandis and his cronies need to wake up and smell the flowers. They need to calm down from their oil induced speed binge and realize that the last hundred years were a blip in the planets overall trajectory. And we may very well look back at these hundred years as a momentary time of “irrational exuberance” and unrealistic bubbles.
Over the past several thousand years humans have moved from infancy to youth to middle age. I think it is time to start acting like adults and not teenagers with our father’s car, regardless of what fuel that car uses.
How a grown up would act is for another blog post, or more accurately it is all the blog posts on this site. The answers are not single bullets. They are a web of connected awareness that go far beyond humans and their meager little technological playthings.

I Am A Weed

How does the nature we find in and around our city reflect who we are?

There are two approaches, generally speaking, one can take when dealing with habitat conservation in urban areas. The first and most common is an attempt to return to the historical habitats that were found in the city long before it had been built. In this approach, native plants are protected and natural systems, like streams and fields, that have been disrupted by city infrastructure are attempted to be restored. This is undoubtedly a noble effort.

Another approach, however, is to accept that cities are new and unique environments, therefor nothing can be native to a city. Of course life is resilient and these new environments have been successfully colonized by a mix of historically native and non-native plants that have been able to survive despite the harsh, polluted conditions that cities provide. These plants are characterized by their abilities to be both flood and drought resistant. These traits make them well-suited to life in the shallow cracks of a sidewalk or building, which get flooded during a rain and, with no soil to retain the water, quickly become dry until the next shower. The collective term for this kind of flora is “spontaneous plants.”

ny green garden

Spontaneous plants offer a plethora of services for the urban environment. They, like all other plants, filter the air to provide us with oxygen while reducing the carbon imbalance of cities. Spontaneous plants supply green cover which in turn reduces the heat island effect and increases storm water retention. They create habitat for insects who become food for birds. Some even have the ability to remediate contaminated soils by absorbing heavy metals. And they provide greenery in otherwise gray and barren urbanscapes.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, introduced by Edward O. Wilson, asserts that humans hold an inherent bond with living systems. “Biophilia” literally means love for life. Our love of plants and animals, it is suggested, evolved from our dependence upon them for survival. Simply being around plants brings us pleasure so we protect them, and in doing so, we are also protecting food sources, shelter, and habitat for animals we might eat. This love can have a substantial impact on humans when they are exposed to nature. Studies have shown that people who live close to green spaces tend to be happier than those who don’t. Hospitals that look out onto greenery or that have images of nature in their rooms have faster rates of healing. Unsurprisingly, properties that have trees or are located near parks are worth more money. So it would seem that spontaneous plants are beneficial for urban areas because they fill in the cracks, literally and figuratively, with greenery. Yet many people do not see them this way.

Spontaneous plants can go by another name: “weeds.” Their presence is often seen as a sign of decay, poverty, or neglect. They are actively sought out for removal, even when their absence means an empty patch of gray.

During an informal interview with David Seiter, a visiting professor at Pratt Institute’s program for Sustainable Planning and Development and the principal of Future Green Studio, Seiter described the value of spontaneous plants in this way (I’m paraphrasing): Remember when you were a child. You would search for dandelions and make a wish while blowing away their fluffy white seeds? Or look at some of the fanciest restaurants in Brooklyn; you can see dandelion leaf salads on their menus. But when a dandelion sprouts up in a backyard, people are quick to pull them out or douse them in herbicides. How can something with so much value– a food source, a plaything, a bright yellow flower– be looked upon with so much disdain?

ny green contractor

Seiter explained that society seems to find worth in things that are difficult. A garden of roses takes time to grow, requires careful attention, and must be watched with an anxious eye as its fragility makes it ever so prone to destruction. When we grow a rose successfully, we are proud. Meanwhile, the real hero here is the dandelion who has adapted to the harshest conditions, who can grow in seemingly impossible places with no help. Dandelions and other spontaneous plants don’t just survive, they thrive. It’s incredible really. But they are dismissed, despised even, for their independence and tenacity.

As Seiter recounted these thoughts, I felt a twinge of emotion stir inside me. I kept thinking, he is describing me. 

I would not be the first to make this connection. Look at Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The author likens the struggle of an immigrant family in Brooklyn to the Tree of Heaven, a common non-native and invasive weed in New York City. The plant struggles to find its place. It is neglected and trampled upon. But once it takes root, it puts up an inspiring fight, and despite the odds, eventually flourishes into a beautiful and imposing tree.

NY green construction

ny green landscaper

For those of us who are living and thriving in New York City, we can all look back on our struggle to take root. In the most obvious sense, think about apartment searching and how difficult it is to find your space in the city. Then there is the search for resources: money, food, air. We had to adapt to the harsh conditions of the city: pollution, noise, suffocating crowds, the heat, the cold. I’ve watched as friends have come and gone from the city, unable to “hack it,” and I’ve known many others simply too scared to try. We are the non-natives who have invaded and thrived.

And isn’t that what New York City has always been about? When I hear a native New Yorker claim ownership of the city, I admit I scoff at them. Were their parents or grandparents not immigrants? Aren’t immigrants the ones who built this city? Indeed the urban environment, especially that of New York’s, is a unique one that is constantly changing and growing and adapting. Nothing is static in the city and that is the way it should be; that’s progress. A dandelion is to a sidewalk crack as a hipster is to Williamsburg. It’s theirs now.

NY green design build firm

 So how do we better incorporate spontaneous plants and all their benefits into our city? Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at Arnold Arboretum and author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, said, “I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term. There is no biological definition of the term weed. It’s really a value judgment.” Certainly a change in perception is needed. As I was walking through Carroll Gardens this afternoon, I overheard a four year-old boy admonish his father for casually trampling a weed that had sprouted in the sidewalk, “Daddy, you’re stepping on the plant! Look out!” This child was seeing the plant as equal with all other plants, which he knows not to stomp on. He had not yet been taught by society that some plants have lesser value.

Why do we spend so much time and energy trying to green our cities with supposedly native or cosmopolitan plants who can’t hack it when there are so many plants that will willingly take their place? Why do we overly invest ourselves in removing spontaneous plants when they provide us with so much? Why do we devalue any object of nature?

More importantly, if these attitudes can be overcome, how do we prudently incorporate spontaneous plants into our cities? I do not believe by any means that these plants should have free reign. Surely a place like a graveyard or a government building overrun with weeds would send the wrong message. Still it is something we should consider.

landscape urbanism

Red Hook is my favorite Brooklyn neighborhood and is an excellent example of how spontaneous plants can bring life to an industrial wasteland. Take the above photo, for example. Without those plants, the dilapidated building would have a more foreboding and, quite frankly, ugly appearance. Their presence stirs a biophilic response in us. The success of life juxtaposes the death of a building. It reflects the burgeoning aesthetic of the 21 century which is characterized by an attraction to things that are vintage or down-to-earth (i.e. the wealthy hipster who dresses like a hobo.) I urge you to take a walk to Fairway or the Valentino Pier in Red Hook. Look out for walls of Queen Anne’s Lace lining chain-linked fences, then try to tell me that that is not beautiful.

NY urban gardener

urban plants

NY sustainable design

urban renewal

By Malone Matson

Photo Credits:

  • http://urbanplants.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-in-the-unlikeliest-places/
  • http://www.peterdeltredici.com/index.php?/contact/gallery/
  • http://www.flickriver.com/photos/cavanimages/4460203563/

The Living Building Challenge- Winner of the 2012 Buckminster-Fuller Challenge

Green building and eco-sensitive design is currently at the forefront of our modern ethos.   What this means for the green builders, contractors and architects of NY, and the world, is a period of dramatic change and challenge is ahead if not already begun. A change in the way we think about new buildings and construction, in how we consider “used” materials and how we use and interact with space.

As Scholar David Orr stated-

“We are coming to an era the likes of which we’ve never seen before, we’re in the white waters of human history. We don’t know what lies ahead. Bucky Fuller’s ideas on design are at the core of any set of solutions that will take us to calmer waters.”

 

One of the most prominent voices in sustainability and responsible design since the 1960’s is R. Buckminster Fuller.  Fuller pioneered in fields from architecture, and mathematics, to engineering and automobile design and only patented 12 designs allowing the vast majority of his work to be open-sourced and free to the public.

His life’s mission and philosophy was simple, “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

Even today, years after Fuller’s death his name is still the vanguard of the sustainable design community. The largest testament to his legacy is the R. Buckminster Fuller Institute and their annual international competition the Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge.

According to the institution’s website $100,000 is given “…to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, it attracts bold, visionary, tangible initiatives focused on a well-defined need of critical importance. Winning solutions are regionally specific yet globally applicable and present a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world’s complex problems.”

In 2012 at an awards ceremony held here in NYC at Cooper Union The International Living Future Institute was awarded first prize for their “Living Building Challenge” initiative.  According to the institute’s website the Living building Challenge is:

-a PHILOSOPHY, ADVOCACY PLATFORM AND CERTIFICATION PROGRAM. Because it defines priorities on both a technical level and as a set of core values, it is engaging the broader building industry in the deep conversations required to truly understand how to solve problems rather than shift them.

-an EVOCATIVE GUIDE. By identifying an ideal and positioning that ideal as the indicator of success, the Challenge inspires project teams to reach decisions based on restorative principles instead of searching for ‘least common denominator’ solutions. This approach brings project teams closer to the objectives we are collectively working to achieve.

-a BEACON. With a goal to increase awareness, it is tackling critical environmental, social and economic problems, such as: the rise of persistent toxic chemicals; climate change; habitat loss; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; global trade imbalances; urban sprawl; and the lack of community distinctiveness.

-a ‘UNIFIED TOOL’. Addressing development at all scales, it can be equally applied to landscape and infrastructure projects; partial renovations and complete building renewals; new building construction; and neighborhood, campus and community design.

-a PERFORMANCE-BASED STANDARD. Decidedly not a checklist of best practices, the Challenge leads teams to embrace regional solutions and respond to a number of variables, including climate factors and cultural characteristics.

-a VISIONARY PATH TO A RESTORATIVE FUTURE

The challenge seeks to encourage designers to bridge the gap between the built environment and the surrounding ecosystems thus reinventing the typical developers’ business model and transforming the role of the building occupant from passive to more of an involved partnership with the earth and her resources.

For all manner of development the Living Building Principles are applicable, whether, “… a single building, a park, a college campus or even a complete neighborhood community, Living Building Challenge provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment.”

You can download a complete document that outlines the specific requirements and benchmarks that must be met to receive certification HERE.

With its radical and rigorous requirements, this is more than “green washing”.  This is an excerpt from a statement released by The Fuller Institute after the award ceremony;

“The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is setting the standard for how to build in the 21st century by establishing the highest bar yet for environmental performance and ecological responsibility within the built environment … by “building a new model” and establishing new benchmarks for non-­‐toxic, net-­‐zero structures… The Living Building Challenge goes far beyond current best practices, reframing the relationship between the built and natural environments. LBC seeks to lead the charge toward a holistic standard that could yield an entirely new level of integration between building systems, transportation, technology, natural resources, and community. If widely adopted, this approach would significantly enhance the level of broad-­‐based social collaboration throughout the design and building process and beyond, dramatically reducing the destructiveness of current construction, boost the livability, health, and resilience of communities … the International Future Living Institute is charting a new and critically needed course in an industry that arguably remains one of the most consumptive … The LBC’s model of regenerative design in the built environment could provide a critical leverage point in the roadmap to a sustainable future and is an exemplary trim tab in its potential to catalyze innovation in such a high impact, high consumption industry…”

This is a valuable new asset and tool for the green building and green contracting community in NYC nd abroad in the fight for a greener and livable tomorrow.

 

https://ilbi.org/lbc  -living building challenge website

http://challenge.bfi.org/Winners/Challenge_Winners

http://bfi.org/  -Buckminster-fuller institute website

Food and Green Building

In my early twenties I was a vegan for ethical reasons. It only lasted a year because I did not know how to eat a good vegan diet. But ever since then I have been a vegetarian who eats meat….Yes I know that makes no sense.

Anyway, now as a New York green contractor I revisit the dilemma of eating meat constantly.

The facts overwhelmingly show that a vegetarian diet is better for everyone – people, animals, the planet. I spend my days improving the ecology of New York and thus can’t help but ignore that a vegetarian diet furthers my efforts.

At this point I only eat meat from the Farmer’s Market and a local butcher who sells grass fed meat. If you ignore the whole killing part these animals have a pretty good life. I get my eggs from a local farmer and at this point I practically know the free range chickens by name. And I only eat meat sparingly – maybe once a week.

But I still look forward to the day I can eat no meat. The reasons are too compelling.

Below I share with you two powerful videos on this topic. I prefer to focus on positive things since it is much more satisfying than focusing on what is wrong with the world. But it is important to educate oneself and this sometimes requires taking an in depth look at what is wrong.

These videos are not pleasant. They point out the horror of the animal cruelty industry – meat, milk, fur….

I suggest you watch them when you are centered, honest and strong. Moving to a vegetarian diet does not happen overnight. To be effective it must happen over time in order for your lifestyle and body to adapt and lock it in for the long run.

I do believe a vegetarian diet is a good thing to move towards and it makes the lives of so many – animals and humans alike – much better.

After checking out these videos you may want to watch Food Inc.

Recap of Panel Discussion on Green Design as (Un)usual

On June 7th, Van Alen Books hosted a panel discussion on architect David Bergman’s book Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide. Susan Szenasy, Editor-in-chief of Metropolitan Magazine, moderated the panel, which was made up of architect and professor David Bergman, Terreform ONE co-founder and Planetary ONE partner Mitchell Joachim, and NYC Department of Design and Construction Director of Creative Services Victoria Milne.

NYC sustainable design

The intent of Bergman’s book was to give perspective on what sustainable design is and where it is headed versus where we want it to go. He reminds us that before the Industrial Revolution people designed with what nature provided but after we started looking at nature as an obstacle, something to overcome. As Szenasy pointed out, people wanted to subdue nature and we always referred to nature as “her.”

Green design, in many ways, is an attempt to return to the pre-Industrial Revolution way of thinking in order to sustain our natural resources long into the future.  Bergman argues that it has evolved into several stages from “Design as Usual” to “Design as Unusual” to “Green Design as Unusual” to “Green Design as Usual”. In a nutshell, designers first started doing unusual things in response to the environmental movement– this got labeled as green design– which eventually became more commonplace in the design world, or “usual.”

Now Bergman asks if we should be heading toward a new stage called “Design as Usual” where the green element of design becomes transparent. “Transparent green” is the idea that green thinking should be integral to all design and not a separate category. It sounds good but Bergman poses this question: if green is implied in design, will consumers stay aware of sustainability issues? This is where the panel started.

It seemed to be unanimously agreed that sustainability must be achieved through redesigning systems, not just products. Milne stated that government has the ability to create sustainable, closed systems and that there is an opportunity there to change market demands and standards, unlike within the private sector, which seldom stays in a closed system and has different motivations.

Joachim asserted that there is a need to reform education so that systems-thinking is better incorporated. He was opposed to the idea of specified majors that restrict students to only thinking about the world in one sense. Bergman agreed and said that that is why he loves architecture so much, “It is one of the last generalist fields.”

There needs to be a shift in society’s mindset toward consumption. Product designers shouldn’t be working with perceived or planned obsolescence in mind. Architects shouldn’t be wasting tons of materials and energy on decorative features. The public should divorce itself from such things as the idea of shopping as recreation. How do we do this?

Szenasy wonders why these issues haven’t gotten better PR. Why, for example, isn’t New York City prouder of its green efforts? City planners across the country look to New York as a leader in green design. Milne applauded the city’s efforts toward “active design,” which is where city infrastructure is built to engage the public and force them to exercise. But how many people are even aware that the city is doing that? How many people would be upset that the city is doing that? Look at the High Line. Cities around the country are starting projects to mimic New York’s great park yet the panel wondered, how many New Yorkers are aware of the sustainable implications of the park, how it’s revitalized a neighborhood, how the use of native plants has reduced water and energy use while also increasing native biodiversity, and so forth?

Someone suggested one reason is because when people think of “green”, they think of the apocalypse. People don’t want to think of the possibility of humanity ending, especially if it is because of their own irresponsible behaviors. Joachim said many people see green standards as a loss of liberty. Living sustainably often means giving something up and no one wants to be forced to do that.

In the end, it seems like the solution lies somewhere between education and redesign. Society needs to better understand how and why to live green and the systems we live in need to be reorganized.

 

By: Malone Matson

Wal-Mart Lies to NY Green Contractor

Eco Brooklyn does not want Wal-Mart in New York because we feel Walmart’s business model is not conducive to the small neighborhood shopping experience that makes New York and Brooklyn so special.

We posted our opinion in this blog post on our site.

Recently somebody called Keith Blackwell tried to leave a comment to that post and it immediately raised our suspicions that Wal-Mart was waging a dirty media campaign by paying people to impersonate pro Walmart opinion. I think Keith Blackwell is a PR person in New Jersey.

Keith’s comment went like this:

I will tell you Wal mart will give New Yorkers LOWER PRICES!! New York by far is the most expensive city to exist in, and in consist of mainly poor folks. You sidity New Yorkers have a bad way of acting as if poor people and crime doesn’t exist there! THE vast amount of New Yorkers give more than half of there net pay to RENT! I am from Philadelphia and the quality of life I have here I could not no way near afford in New York. You already have Targets so what’s the difference but lower prices. Zone Walmarts properly and give New Yorkers a break. You allowed Bloomberg to run for a third term, so allow a WalMart.

There are many suspicious things about this post. Lets look at who Keith is trying to be.

Words like “poor folks”, “sidiy New Yorkers”, and “I could not no way near afford in New York”, make Keith sound poor uneducated. He is trying to connect with the people in NY who struggle to make ends meet and who would prefer cheap prices over gentrified shopping neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Park Slope.

Keith portrays those against Wal-Mart as “sidity” snobs who are not in touch with the majority of New Yorkers – poor people who deal with hardships like “crime” and “paying half of there [sic] net pay to RENT!”.

Fair enough. Keith is a poor person who feels a Wal-Mart in NY would increase poor people’s quality of life. Why somebody in Philadelphia feels so strongly about this is beyond me but maybe they just love Wal-Mart.

But my alarm bells go off when I see how well informed this person is. Forget the bad grammar and spelling mistakes for a moment. This person lives in Philadelphia. How come they know the politics of NY so intricately?

Here is what Keith knows.

Many New Yorkers pay half their income in rent.

We have Targets

Walmart needs to be in the right zone in order to build

Bloomberg was allowed to run a third time

I don’t know but this poster doesn’t know the difference between “their” and “there”. Keith talks like a caricature out of a movie:  “I could not no way near afford .. New York” and “New York by far is the most expensive city to exist in, and in consist of mainly poor folks.”

Who talks like that? I live in NY and am exposed to many styles of talking and I’ve never heard this one. To me it sounds like a hodgepodge of different styles pulled together by somebody trying to create a persona.

Yet Keith, a supposedly lower class Philadelphian,  is better informed about NY politics than many New Yorkers. Call me ignorant but I don’t even know who the mayor of Philadelphia is, let alone whether they have Targets or Wal-Marts.

And is Wal-Mart cheaper than Target? Keith things so, “You already have Targets so what’s the difference but lower prices.” Is this the oppinion of an avid price shopper or the plug of a Wal-Mart advertising writer?

I decided to look up the location of Mr. Blackwell’s IP address. It is located in New Jersey. I didn’t go as far as researching what companies are in that area. A  Walmart? More probably a media and PR firm.

And the name Keith Blackwell? I’m reaching here but it sounds like a subconscious reference to a generic first name coupled with a symbolic last name.

Here is his info if you care to investigate further:

Author : Keith Blackwell (IP: 208.54.87.151 , m975736d0.tmodns.net)
E-mail : quizkwb@hotmail.com
Whois : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/208.54.87.151

I sent Keith an email to try and pull more info out of him. I said:

Hello Keith,

Thanks for the note on my site. I posted that blog post a long time ago and things have changed since then. You still live in  Philadelphia? I bet the prices are better there!

And the email quizkwb@hotmail.com? Looks like a random email to me that was recently picked since all others are taken. If Keith has a hotmail account he would have gotten it a long time ago when something more appropriate would be available like kblackwell@hotmail.com for example.

I didn’t get a response from him. I included my phone number in my email. But who do you think texted me on my phone two days later for the first time in my life?

Yup, Wal-Mart.

From a Florida phone number, 561 526 3812, I got this text:

Congratulations! As a thank you, call 855-768-1763 to recieve your $100 Wal-Mart rebate! 2 end reply STOP

So I guess my email did get through after all. But not to Keith Blackwell.

Bottom line, Wal-Mart is using dirty tactics to try to get into NY. If this includes lying then so be it. Another reason I don’t want them in NY. In case there is any confusion, I am a real human being and I don’t want Wal-Mart in NY.

As a citizen I don’t want Wal-Mart. And as a green builder and New York green contractor I don’t want Wal-Mart because big box stores do not add to community or good architecture. Atlantic Mall is ample reason not to have big box stores.

Benefit Corporations law signed and active in New York State!

Finally, a way to pursue the “triple bottom line” (people, planet and profits) with legal backing! It is called the Benefit Corporation (as opposed to a normal C or S Corporation for example). Signed into NY legislation by Governor Cuomo the new law allows businesses to be recognized and filed a for more than their financial goals.

Benefit Corporations have a legal responsibility to all stakeholders, not just the shareholders like a traditional C or S Corps.  This means they are obligated to take into account the effects of their decisions on the community, the environment, employees, etc.  Benefit Corporations can also voluntarily undergo certification by the nonprofit organization B Lab that makes them “Certified B Corporations” and ensures they have a social purpose and benefits for stakeholders.  More on that here .

With the new law, New York is joining states that have already passed similar legislation, including Maryland, Vermont, New Jersey, Virginia, Hawaii, California.

The key distinctions of Benefit Corporations from traditional corporations are these three things:

1)    Purpose: They must have a corporate purpose to create a material positive impact on society and the environment;

2)     Accountability: They must expand the directors’ and employees’ fiduciary duty to require consideration of the interests of workers, community and the environment and all stakeholder

3)     Transparency: They must publicly report annually on overall social and environmental performance against a comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third party standard

Other than these three additions, the Benefit Corporations is set up and taxed as a traditional corporation would be.  However, for social entrepreneurs like EcoBrooklyn, this changes everything. It protects the mission and purpose of the business and holds up the triple bottom line as a priority.  In other words, it legally never puts profits for shareholders above the stakeholders – something that social businesses have been trying to do for decades.

B Lab is a nonprofit that helped create the Benefit Corporation and now works to establish the option of a Benefit Corporation in all states through legislation.  Much of the above information came from their website.  More information on the requirements and specific details of a Benefit Corporation here.

“Same River: We are all downstream”

Here is a MUST SEE event. It is an inspiring creative synergy of art spread over several evenings to raise momentum against the  very serious threat of hydrofracking.

The Irondale Arts Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn is putting it on and it starts in a couple of weeks.  The show’ll be different every night: it incorporates artwork, live music, video, modern dance, and physical theater.  Each night ends with a town-hall discussion of the issues presented.  “Same River” presents the community with an opportunity to get involved in an important environmental issue, so check it out if you’re in the area.

Check out the Irondale website for more information and tickets:

Here’s their press release:

2/23: “SAME RIVER” ON HYDRO-FRACKING @ IRONDALE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

STRIKE ANYWHERE’S SAME RIVER ON NYC’S ENDANGERED WATER PREMIERES FEBRUARY 23, 2012
NIGHTLY POST-SHOW TOWN HALL DISCUSSIONS

“Same River” A Play About Hydro-Fracking @ Irondale

“SAME RIVER” is a multi-media, interview-based, improvised production.  As hydro-fracking is poised to affect NYC’s water supply, “Same River” brings the upstate war over this controversial method of drilling downstream. Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, whose production of “10 Brecht Poems” was heralded by the Village Voice as “poignant and appreciated,” will premiere “SAME RIVER” starting February 23, 2012 and run until March 3, 2012 at the Irondale Center on 85 S. Oxford St. Brooklyn, NY 11217. Tickets $20-$40 ($15 tickets Wed/Thurs only).  Shows Thursday-Saturday 2/23-2/25 and Wednesday-Saturday 2/29-3/3 at 8PM; student matinee at 1PM on Friday March 2nd, 2012.  Tix: 866-811-4111 or www.irondale.org

Including live music, modern dance, physical theater, and video, this improvised show will be different every night. Following each show, there will be a tightly facilitated “town hall” discussion on the issues the piece presents. Experts will be on hand to propel the conversation.

Audience members will experience a visual art installation upon entry to the theater.  The artwork is the result of a seven-week residency at nearby Brooklyn High School for the Arts with the science, theater and technical theater classes.  Art work will also be developed during a community art-making day for families on February 11 at 2:00 PM at Irondale Center (ages 6 and up).

Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble began to develop SAME RIVER in July 2010 as part of the North American Cultural Laboratory’s (NACL) Catskill Festival of New Theater. During this 10-day residency, Strike Anywhere interviewed local residents about water and researched community water issues. Now, as the decision to lift the moratorium on fracking in New York creeps nearer, Strike Anywhere seeks to engage the Fort Greene neighborhood in this discussion.  The ensemble will trace the path of Brooklyn’s water supply and illuminate the struggles of communities upstate which are in the thick of the gas-leasing gold rush. Interviews with Brooklyn residents will examine their relationship to water, their knowledge of local water issues and their familiarity with fracking. The piece seeks to draw connections, to give voice to multiple viewpoints and to acknowledge that we are all downstream, that the earth’s water supply is all the same river.

Established in 1997, STRIKE ANYWHERE is a permanent ensemble of world-class jazz musicians, modern dancers, and actors.  Known for their use of SOUNDPAINTING, the live composing sign language, the ensemble creates art in the moment, allowing intuition, the sounds of the room and audience suggestion to shape what they play.  SA performances always feature live music, physical theater and modern dance.  The company applies structures and concepts from American jazz to their inter-disciplinary improvisations to create performances that are provocative and alive.  Strike Anywhere has toured nationally and internationally. The company was in residence at The Zipper Factory and St. Clements developing new works. It has appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the American Airlines Theatre, The Irondale Center, P.S. 122, Theatre for the New City, and HERE Arts Center. Additionally Strike Anywhere has been featured on Radio France, NPR, WBAI and German Public Radio.

Irondale was created by Jim Niesen, Terry Greiss and Barbara Mackenzie-Wood, in 1983. Through the power of the ensemble process, Irondale creates and presents theater, performance, and education programs that challenge traditional assumptions about art, and help us to better understand today’s world. The Irondale Center is the company’s theater, laboratory, and classroom.  It is also home for ensemble artists of all disciplines and cultures.

“The Atomic States of America”

Eco Brooklyn obsesses over energy.  Our projects are built to minimize heat loss and optimize gain, while providing individual homeowners ways to generate their own energy through solar panels.  We want to minimize homes’ reliance on energy generated through fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Three Mile Island.  Chernobyl.  Fukushima Daiichi.

These names instantly bring up an instinctive fear of nuclear power as an insidious danger to public health.

Add “Shirley, Long Island” to that list.

“The Atomic States of America,” which premiered at Sundance 2012, is a documentary based on Kelly McMasters’s “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town.”  Shirley is a small working-class town that happens to be located right next to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a center for research that has produced seven Nobel prizes since it was built in 1947.

McMasters considered her life fairly normal but first realized something was wrong when her college roommate asked why she was always going home to funerals.  Further research revealed an abnormally high rate of cancer and disease in Shirley residents.  The prime suspect was low-level radiation from Brookhaven National Lab, whose reactors had leaked…into aquifers supplying water to all of Long Island.

Democracy Now! did an extended interview with the director, Sheena Joyce, and Kelly McMasters, incorporating clips from the film.  You can watch part 1 here, and a link should appear to part 2.

As far as I can tell, the story is a troubling and evocative view of human suffering caused by the presence of a nuclear facility, exacerbated by unwillingness of government and investigative agencies to act in the people’s best interest.

But I don’t think it’s a compelling argument against nuclear power.  Shirley’s story exposes poor planning (who thought it was a good idea to build nuclear reactors on top of the only aquifer system anyway?) and corruption, which would be dangerous regardless of the technology in question.

McMasters is a modern-day Erin Brockovich, except the bad guy’s now nuclear power instead of Pacific Gas and Electric.  Erin Brockovich decried unsafe conditions and inadequate disclosure, not the existence of gas and electricity.  The same horror stories surround any town exposed to chemicals and poor operating standards.  What about Minamata disease?  The Bhopal disaster?  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill?  Those tragedies weren’t enough to stop gas or electricity or plastics or oil from becoming ingrained in our modern lifestyle, so why chicken out with nuclear power?

Nuclear power has the potential for massive devastation.  I’m going to quote freely from the Wikipedia article on Chernobyl here.  More than 350,000 people had to be relocated.  The cleanup effort spanned two decades, used 500,000 workers, and crippled the Russian economy.  Russian estimates place the number of premature deaths as a result of Chernobyl near one million.  The area surrounding Pripyat is still a dead zone, the first legal tourists just beginning to tiptoe in.

Let’s look at some more numbers.  There are 441 nuclear reactors in the world, 60 more under construction, and another 150 being planned.  They produce 6.3% of the world’s energy and 15% of its electricity.  France is the leader in reliance on nuclear power (75% of total energy generated) but the U.S. wins in total number of reactors (144).  Some countries, like Italy and Australia, steadfastly refuse to go nuclear.  Germany and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima accident.  The future of nuclear power is a deeply polarizing topic, but given the prevalence of nuclear plants, having just a handful of major accidents doesn’t sound unreasonably risky to me.

But is nuclear power worth the risk?  Is it truly sustainable?  (Nuclear reactors still consume fossil fuels, cost billions to build, and produce tons of dangerous nuclear waste.)  Can safety ever be ensured?  What alternatives are available?

At present we don’t know enough about nuclear power to guarantee safety and efficiency for people living near plants or people using electricity generated by reactors, so nobody should be guaranteeing those things.  Saying that nuclear reactors are clean and safe is a big fat lie.  Nuclear science’s destructive side is still engrained in the global consciousness.  In school we learn about Hiroshima years before we get to physics.

That’s why we need to be realistic and focus on research and accountability.  Walking away from nuclear power out of fear rather than a well-informed decision is failing to make use of all the possibilities.  Maybe the facts also say that nuclear power isn’t sustainable, or that the likelihood of an accident is too high.

“The Atomic States of America” might become a new rallying point for people opposed to nuclear power, but don’t forget, it centers around an intensely personal story.  The featured testimonial for “Welcome to Shirley” reads: “A loving, affecting memoir of an American Eden turned toxic.”  It was from Oprah.  I’d rather not have Oprah making energy policy.  Her car giveaway habits would definitely not be sustainable.

On the other hand, it’s easy for me to cheer on nuclear development because I’ve never lived in a Shirley.  I am, however, in a state that’s highly dependent on nuclear-generated electricity.

New York is one of the 5 states with the highest nuclear capacities.  We get 30% of our electricity from nuclear energy.  Part of my enthusiasm for nuclear power comes from the fact that it powers 30% of my internet browsing habits.  In the end it comes down to sacrifice: would you use less energy to lower the need for nuclear power, or would you rather give up the assurance of a future without nuclear accidents?

One of these will be the obvious right answer to you, but maybe not to the next person.  That’s why films like “The Atomic States of America” are so important–they keep the conversation going about a topic that’s dominated by big money and politics, but affects us all.

New York Contractor Builds Passive House out of Salvaged Materials

Here is a short video we threw together of the Passive House renovation in Harlem. The video mostly discusses the budgeting of the project.

Now that the construction is for the most part done I think that our initial budget of $175/sq.ft is not sustainable. Of course it is great for the client in the long run. But as a company that practices the triple bottom line  – people, planet, profit – our budget did not  satisfy all three items.

Out of the three I can say without a doubt the planet was benefited by this job. We built a Passive House. We salvaged almost everything to build the house, creating a negative impact on the dump, meaning the house removed more garbage from the dump than it created.

Unfortunately the other two items – people and profit – did not get a fair deal. The workers were not paid enough, the client is not happy and the company did not make enough of a profit. Workers and company need to be taken care of in order for us to continue to make a meaningful impact on the world. Happy clients means more opportunities to build green.

The clients came to us with a very tight budget, $800,000, which is not enough for the scope of the complete gut rehab Passive House. $1,200,000 would have been more realistic.

But being realistic in not what got Eco Brooklyn to where it is now. You don’t start a cutting edge green building company because you are realistic. You start it because you are deeply idealistic and willing to sacrifice everything in the hope that it will make a difference to the world. There are huge risks to this.

So in that spirit we took on the job, our main goal to find a way to build a cutting edge green home on an affordable budget. We accomplished this, so from that point of view it was a great success.

But the clients are not happy and the company was hit hard financially. It may seem odd that the clients are not happy given they gained a $1 million plus house for $800K. We literally saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars all the while helping the environment.

But to achieve that we all had to make sacrifices. The main sacrifice was that as a company we could not afford to hire enough management. The job process was rocky. A green company needs to be even better organized than other companies because we are dealing with new cutting edge technologies with steep learning curves and we salvage materials thus we can’t tightly control the delivery time of materials.

This lack of management meant details were missed and client/contractor interaction was not as common. So even though behind the scenes we felt we were performing miracles to save the client money and add value to their home, the client did not see this.

The client simply felt they were paying what to them felt like a lot of money and we were not delivering as smoothly as they wanted. Because they don’t have a good grasp of what things cost it did not matter how many times we told them they would never be able to get this value elsewhere on their budget.

And when they did look elsewhere for comparison they saw crappy building with nice fixtures – the so called luxury condo that looks like a million dollars for the first couple years and costs a fortune to run. When you compare that to our building that does not look as fancy they felt shortchanged.

Never mind ours costs nothing to run and is built to last a hundred years. Those things are not as sexy as sparkling appliances and brand new moldings.

So we felt we were loosing our battle with the clients. It was very frustrating because we believe deeply that the building we made is decades ahead of any building built in the city today.

Core Values

In hindsight the main conflict was between the company’s and the client’s core values.

The company’s core value is clearly to put the benefit of the planet before anything else, with the understanding that by doing this we are benefiting ourselves as well. And in this case we did it to a fault (we should have done less for the planet and more for ourselves in order to continue strong in the long run).

But going balls out for the environment is both our strength and weakness.

The clients core value was to put their own benefit before anything else. This is not to say they did not care about Eco Brooklyn or the environment. But like most people, at the top of list is their own financial security, their family and their home, and when possible, but only when possible they consider the rest of the world.

I get that. I am a family man.

But I am also a green builder and sometimes things get complicated.

The problem was that we feel looking out for the environment is the best thing we can do for the client in the long run, even if it means less of a perfect construction process in the short run. The client however just wants a home for their family. Getting that done is challenge enough, never mind some idealistic and abstract global thinking.

Because of this we found ourselves at odds. For us if we could help the environment more we would. Even at the expense of short term discomforts and stress imposed by our main mistake – not budgeting for enough management and budgeting too much for the green building items – which arose from our over ambitious attempt to build a home for hundreds of thousands less than normally it would cost.

The client however found this inexcusable. If it is a choice to go some time without water in order to get gray water plumbing installed or skip the gray water and have water for their kids to take a bath they pick the later.

Unfortunately we were doing the building and not them. And we are very hard headed.

We picked to do the gray water, which delayed the job and meant the clients went without water for longer. Inexcusable in their eyes. Simply bad management. In our eyes it was a small sacrifice for something that will benefit the planet for many years to come…..which in turn benefits them.

It wasn’t like we expected the client to sacrifice alone. Eco Brooklyn always sacrificed first. If we found a way to satisfy the client and the environment at the cost of our profit then we made sure we did that first. Our priorities were planet, client then us.

Maybe we are wrong. Maybe that priority serves nobody. But I have this idea that we are connected and the ecology is in a lot worse shape than we are. Since we are ecology that needs to be dealt with first……?

But when the client is spending their hard earned money and the feel like the second fiddle, good will goes out the window fast and they stopped caring for us.

Towards the end of the job when we realized our ecological zeal had put our finances in tight stretches we got no mercy from the clients. In their memory was the lack of water and they made sure to withhold money accordingly. Water is just an example our of many conflicts of core values that arose.

What have I learned from this?

I can’t expect others to sacrifice for my cause. Next time I will only take on clients who can afford $1,200,000 and be done with it. They will get the job they were promised and I will be able to build houses that harm the environment a lot less.

This means that many people will be priced out and not benefit from Eco Brooklyn’s amazing green building.

But I have learned the hard way that when things get tight people hunker down and look out for themselves. It is about survival and humans can be the most brutal creatures on earth when they feel their own is being threatened.

I can’t put myself in that position of dealing with clients like that. Nor can I put the clients in that position. The clients of this house are scared. They feel we managed the job recklessly and this puts them at risk.

When they came to us they entrusted us as professionals to guide them in the building of a green home. They had no idea how much emphasis we put on green and at some point they wondered if we even cared about their home.

So in the future we won’t try the affordable green building thing because we can’t trust the client will be as willing as we are to build green. Instead we will charge. That way it won’t be a choice between having water on time or having a gray water system. We will have a budget to do both on time.

The clients of our current house had a tough time of it. I think with time they will forget the discomforts of the building process. As that fades they will see the value of the house. They might even be grateful towards us. But I doubt it.

Would I do it again? Yes. I think the struggle was worth the gain. It is an amazing house.

It is the first time in the history of building that a Passive House was built with such a high percentage of salvaged materials. It is revolutionary. And we did it not on some plot of land in Oregon but in one of the most expensive places to build on earth. For the price of a crap “luxury condo”!

But like all revolutions it was painful. And I am hurting more than anyone. I made sure I put my money where my mouth was. The clients probably will never understand that. But that is ok. I care about the house that we brought into existence.

When we are all dead that house will still be a wonderful home for families. That is a great gift. It is the least I can do for the planet and my fellow humans.

Here is the video that prompted this post.

The Cost of Your Carbon Footprint

Carbon footprint.  CO2 emissions.  Low carbon.  Carbon neutral.

More and more, businesses eagerly attach themselves to buzzwords like these in order to present an environmentally-friendly face to today’s green-conscious market.

I learned a new one the other day: “carbon offset.”

What is it? 

Carbon offset providers, like carbonfund.org, offer companies and individuals the opportunity to become carbon neutral by applying “carbon credits” against their carbon output for the year.  The process is simple: you donate money, which the service passes on to a certified project of your choice.

Carbon offset projects contribute positively to the environment through methods like generating renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, or planting trees.  An example project might be a small hydroelectric plant in India that produces sustainable energy without the need for a dam.  The plant reduces local air pollution and creates job opportunities, producing more benefits than just carbon reduction.

Carbonfund has excellent resources for calculating exactly how much carbon you or your business generates.  You can input details down to how many reams of copy paper you use every year.

By many accounts, Carbonfund is a reputable middleman.  They’ve helped a lot of busy people do their part to save the world with just a credit card.  Their list of “partners” includes hundreds of companies, plus nonprofits, government institutions, and schools.  Their financial comportment is probably not sketchy, as they’ve uploaded tax information for public scrutiny.

How much does it cost?

If you’re in a hurry, Carbonfund will give you a rough estimate of how much you’d have to donate to be guilt-free for one year, based on head count: $240 for an “individual offset,” $360 for a small company of 1-5 employees, and so on.

You can also offset specific items: for example, paying $11.33 will absolve you of the crime of one flight up to 6,000 miles.  Gift certificates are also available, at a rate of $10 per ton of carbon offset.  Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like “I want to wipe your footprints off the face of the earth.”

Exactly how much would it cost us to offset Eco Brooklyn’s carbon footprint?  I inputted our company’s stats into Carbonfund’s nifty calculator.

Tiny home office, skeleton crew of managers, workers, and interns.  One old truck (no  option for “veggie oil,” alas).  No copy paper.  We make maybe $1oo worth of CO2 every year.  Mostly because we take up space and breathe.  We can’t really help that.

That calculation doesn’t take into account our commitment to green methods.  Our reliance on local sourcing methods, salvaged materials, passive house-style energy conservation, bicycles and public transportation already put our carbon output far below the average, and that’s without accounting for all the green roofs and sustainable landscaping projects we’ve installed.

So what’s in it for me?

You get a nifty logo to put on your website.

You also get a suite of other publicity and networking benefits, like being listed as a “partner” on Carbonfund’s site and being able to connect with other “partners.”

$360 and we could be officially carbon free.  Certified guilt free.  Is it so simple?  Should it be?

I’m not doubting the networking powers of gathering like-minded companies in a common cause, or the potential of providing an easy way for people to make a little bit of a difference, but there’s a striking disconnect between the difference you make and what you’re making up for.

Paying to “offset” your carbon doesn’t mean you’ve changed anything about how you run your business.  Making up for your carbon footprint isn’t a commitment to changing where those expenditures came from.  It’d be like hiring a maid to follow you and mop up your footprints, while continuing to stomp around in muddy boots.

Carbon offset is one more thing a forward-thinking company could look into in order to become truly carbon neutral, but it’s not a substitute for going green.  The Carbonfree badge does a pretty good job of making a company look green, but it’s not a substitute for a business philosophy that strives for lower carbon emissions.

Carbonfund encourages people to “reduce what you can” and “offset what you can’t,” but a modest one-time payment sounds a lot easier than making a dedicated effort to change how you live.  Why change, if you can just pay to have your mess cleaned up?  It’s even tax-deductible.

So for a couple hundred dollars, what you get is a small stake in saving the world.  And a “green” mask that lets you  milk today’s environmentally-conscious consumers.

You decide which is worth it.

More food for thought: a panel of experts, including Carbonfund.org president Eric Carlson, discuss whether carbon offset is a solution to climate change or a loophole that can subvert it.

Building For the Climate Apocalypse

First 2000, and now 2012: Years in which people think the world might possibly end.

The world probably won’t end with a bang, but might just crumble beneath the accumulated consequences of our actions.

Meanwhile, American politicians’ opinions of science, especially climate science, are at an alarming low.  Sometimes TV makes me wonder if there are people who think a 2012 apocalypse is more plausible than global warming.

Watching GOP candidates in debate is a bittersweet experience.  On one hand, the stupid things they occasionally blurt out invariably wind up on YouTube for my amusement.

You-becky-becky becky-becky-stan-stan, anyone?

On the other hand, these guys have a fair shot at becoming arguably the most powerful person in the world.   That’s where the bitter comes in.  They speak in a  sober, defiantly ignorant voice, with the seeming expectation that what they don’t know doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it does matter (a combination of egregious dumbness and sexual sketchiness shamed Cain off the stage) but what scares me is when it doesn’t.

Take Rick Santorum, for example.  Here’s a short excerpt and transcript from a Q&A session he did in New Hampshire last week.

Someone asked how he integrated recent findings of climate change into his policies.  He waved away the whole issue by using scientists, icebergs, and tail-wagging dogs in a meandering metaphor to demonstrate why climate science is not worth considering.

And when he was done talking, people clapped!  Kind of half-heartedly, but still! That stopped The only thing more frightening than ignorance is ignorance with power.

Basically, he argued that there are so many factors so we can’t know for sure what’s causing any changes.  Nevermind that just about anybody with a lick of sense agrees that we’re making a lot of CO2, which gets stuck in the atmosphere.

Nevermind that nobody knows the perfect method for, oh, say, oil mining, but they rough through it anyway because the result is valuable.  Not knowing something doesn’t mean that we should give up; it means we should devote more resources toward finding the answer.  Santorum using ambiguity as a reason to disregard the question only draws attention to how his party has utterly failed at giving climate science the support it needs.

Around Christmas, a short piece showed up in the New York Times about how climate science is stagnating, despite 2011 being one of the most extreme weather years on record.

In May of 2011, 100% of Texas was abnormally dry.  48% was officially in exceptional drought conditions–that’s even more extreme than “extreme drought.”

At the other extreme, New Jersey had an extreme winter: 50.7 inches (more than four feet) fell in my hometown of New Brunswick.  I’ve lived there for 15 years but can count the white Christmases we’ve had on one hand.

These are quick and dirty examples of extreme weather conditions with immediate effects at home.  Objective truths about global warming will emerge as trends in data analysis performed by climate scientists, and I’d like these truths to emerge before they show up as three feet of snow on my car every other week.

It’s true that there are hundreds of factors that contribute to climate change, but it’s stubbornly naive to claim as Santorum does that CO2, as a byproduct of industrial processes, is not the primary actor.  It’s true that climate science and efforts to change energy use in major industries can incur significant costs, but so can bad weather.  The final cost of this year’s weather extremes is still being tallied, but will likely surpass $50 million.  That’s in comparison to a typical year that costs the U.S. $3 or $4 billion.

Making sense of these changing weather patterns will require scientists to analyze large amounts of data, integrating trends over years and millions of square miles.  They need personnel, and concerted support from the Federal government, not half-assed pooh-poohing from a man who could well become President.

The GOP in general sets a bad example by blocking efforts to organize and increase funding for climate research initiatives.  Republicans overwhelmingly deny the general consensus on global warming,  disparaging it instead as a “propaganda attempt” by the Obama administration.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy still finance climate research, but many scientists find that there’s not enough to go around.

This research also has valuable practical applications.  Our company, for example, depends on climate data to calculate things like insulation thickness, heating and cooling loads, and gutter sizes.  We’re a green contractor, so energy efficiency is more crucial to our calculations, but every building depends on this information being accurate.  The more efficient our homes, the more money clients save.

Global change affects everyone, not just Americans, so hopefully other governments will have more sense than Congress and fund this crucial research.   Passive houses, for example, have greater momentum in Europe than in the U.S., so more resources are available to passive builders and passive houses are cheaper to build.

And what does all this have to do with Eco Brooklyn, beyond normal climate calculations?  As green contractors, we obviously take the local environment of each home into consideration when designing a plan for energy efficiency.  Compare that with, say, a large non-green building company like Toll Brothers, who may build the same exact house in Texas as in Nebraska.

Now that the environment is hitting higher record temperatures and precipitation levels than ever, Eco Brooklyn is venturing into what we call “Survival Building.”

We’ve started taking examples from extreme climates and integrating them into New York’s brownstones, in order to prepare them against heat waves, snap freezes, and flash floods.  We take inspiration from the “Earthship” and “Passive House” movements, which focus on installing tight insulation and maximizing solar gain to reduce heating and cooling needs.  These homes remain naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  We put up a blog post recently that explains these concepts in detail.

Our our buildings consider rainwater runoff seriously.  We build green roofs, dry wells, rain gardens, and other water harvesting systems to reduce flooding.

We use clay walls in our houses that work like adobe walls in Pueblo architecture.  If they can endure the New Mexico heat, they can handle New York heat waves, with the benefit of retaining heat in winter.  Our passive houses are sealed tight against energy loss, but the envelope also protects against extreme wind or rain.

Eco Brooklyn’s brownstones are green fortresses.

So even if we see the beginnings of a climate apocalypse in 2012, we’ll be ready, and if Santorum gets elected, at least we’ll be insulated against his hot air.

Chemicals in Our Society

As a New York green contractor we are especially sensitive to the effect chemicals have on humans. New York city has many environmental stressors. You have noise, lots of people, lots of cars and a million other things in the environment that cause stress to the body.

There are also a million chemicals that contact our bodies and cause stress. Cleaning products, car fumes, cigarettes, rodent poison, offgassing plastics, dies… the list is endless.

Then you have chemicals that our society has decided for whatever reason that we need to be exposed to them. The two most prominent ones are vaccines and chemicals in the water. Collectively we consume these chemicals under the pretense that their harm outweighs their benefits.

Maybe…I don’t know enough to say for sure. But I’ve seen enough to be deeply suspicious of whether they are needed. I vaccinated my children with the most prominent vaccines but I did it with deep reservation. Likewise I drink the tap water using filters like Brita. But I am aware of some of the facts around chlorine and fluoride. And these facts are not comforting.

Check out this video and do some research online. Try to look through the hype and just stick with the facts. I think it is something we as a society should be discussing more, specifically the deep conflict of interest between chemical companies seeking profit at the expense of peoples’ health.

The Weather Underground Movie

Since the Occupy Wall Street events this fall I have immersed myself in information that questions existing paradigms and searches for solutions to current problems. I’ve always done this, and as a green builder I do it on a daily basis, but the recent Occupy Wall Street events has given my ongoing education a focus and timely reference point.

This evening I watched a poignant documentary “The Weather Underground“, which chronicles the efforts of a small group of white students in the late ’60’s and early 70’s who planted bombs around the US to raise awareness of the atrocities of the Vietnam war.

The movie is powerful because these people are smart, conscientious individuals who did not take their acts of violence lightly. The movie explores their insights into the successes and failures of using violence to combat violence.

The conclusion? Well, there is no easy response to the Vietnam genocide and how we should have stopped it. Are some acts so horrible that violence to stop it is justified? Most police and military forces would say yes. And yes. And yes many times over until the threat has been obliterated.

Whether that threat is a black man in the ghetto or an Arab half way across the globe we, “we” being those who are not in the police or military view finder, find it acceptable that  the “threat” be killed regardless of whether they deserve it.

Or maybe it isn’t acceptable but we let it happen every day without so much as a pause in our lives. We accept the party line that the military is looking out for our interests even if we know it is a lie. Such a convenient lie it is.

And maybe these people are threats, if our interests happen to be cheap oil, cheap sneakers and large amounts of easy to digest entertainment.

But when it is a civilian who does something violent to try to stop violence such actions of counter brutality are not allowed nor socially acceptable. Civilians are expected to meet violence with non-violence. A civilian who meets oppression and violence with counter violence is called a terrorist time and time again.

Why is this? Is it just the people in power trying to keep it so?

This strikes a chord with my life. My father was not part of the Weather Underground but he did belong to a similar group during that time. He was accused by the government of setting off pipe bombs, one in front of the Berkeley court house that was sending draft resisters to high security prison and another in front of the Bank of America that was the main financier of Napalm.

Idealistic hippie or dangerous terrorist? Interpol and the FBI felt the later and I spent my first 17 years traveling the world under my parents’ wing as political refugees.

Did my father make a difference? He made a difference to me. I wouldn’t be a passionate green builder dead set on making the world a more ecological place if it weren’t for him.

The hippies dropped out and opened their minds to new ways of being, some good, some not. Either way they learned a lot, if anything how to learn itself, and passed that learning on to their children, most of whom dropped back into society with that knowledge.

So what do we do now. We don’t have a Vietnam to rage against. We have the less visible but more dangerous ongoing destruction of the planet. Us humans are destroying the planet with such violence and heartlessness that any informed green builder knows they are almost symbolic in their effectiveness against the machine of destruction.

Yet like the Weather Underground, an isolated small group that did little to stop Vietnam’s war machine on the surface, green builders must see that symbolism is powerful. Green builders are archetypes where success is not measured in trees saved but in torches carried.

And as long as the torch is being carried, no matter by how small a group and no matter how large the darkness, we will have hope. It is in carrying the environmental torch that we stay alive, regardless of how much ecological destruction is around us.

I don’t see much use in meeting violence with violence. Trying to kill the corporate machine is like trying to kill a monster with endless heads. The success and downfall of capitalism is that it has no moral judgement. You can’t kill something if it is heartless.

But meeting violence with passion, now that is a winning strategy.

I have looked deeply into the soul of our society and have concluded that we are fucked. We are on a crash course with ecological destruction for the sake of greed, power and the blind genetic imperative to spread the human seed as far as humanly possible.

And so I have thrown up my hands and decided I have two options. One, build a pipe bomb and, like the Monkey Wrench Gang, try to wreak as much havoc as possible against the machine of ecological doom. Or two, create a reality where my existence is not part of that machine.

Not a reality like the mind numbing lala land of mass media and material consumption, which is the current solution to numbing the pain we feel as we destroy our own global body.

But a reality that looks at reality with brutal honesty and takes one step, no mater how difficult and painful, yet so amazingly liberating, to a greener personal life. That existence may be lonely. It may be difficult. In fact it may not work at all.

But you just get back up. And before you know it a day has gone by where you didn’t take part in anything too destructive. You may have even helped grow something green, as simple and small as that may seem.

But then a strange thing happens. I have seen it happen in my life and I have seen it happen in every successful revolution in the history or humanity:

You meet somebody else who is holding the same torch as you.

A friend. A person who speaks your language in the babel of destructive insanity. Even if it is a passing in the darkness it is enough to keep the flame alive and even brighten it.

And all of a sudden you aren’t as freaky and alone as you thought you were, not that it matters because by then you are pretty used to your way of life. It takes balls and stubbornness and  a deep passion to stick to what you know is right. And sometimes what you thought was right is wrong and you have to continue seeking.

But you learn it is the seeking that is important so you aren’t too worried when you fuck up. Well, worried maybe a little, but you get used to making mistakes and learning from them.

Then you meet somebody else. Over time you have a little group of people who experience life like you. You may be in the belly of the beast but together you have your own parallel universe. This is not a universe in reaction to something bad. This is a universe in creation of something good. You aren’t there in opposition anything but rather in search of the very best way you can be.

And in the end, who cares if what you discover is right or wrong. Or right again. Because over time you live what is true to you and what you do today becomes yesterdays history, your history, like a stick to lean on as you walk into the future.

So yea the Weather Underground may have been stupid kids in a stupid society or visionaries in a stupid society…..but at what point does that torch become society and back again?

We are society and society is us. We are the machine that kills nature to grow and we are the nature that is killed. It ain’t easy sorting it all out but god knows we try. And so did the Weather Underground. And for that I salute them with pride and honor to be part of their tribe, no matter how confused we are.

Greenwashing At Its Best

I heard somewhere that the building industry is more honest than other industries when it comes to greenwashing. Building only lies 96% of the time as opposed to the average of 98%.

I don’t know if that is true but Eco Brooklyn tries not to focus on negative elements like greenwashing or environmental destruction because it would be too damn depressing. So we focus on solutions almost exclusively. If you want to know how bad a state the world is in there are plenty of sources for that. Solutions are not as abundant.

But I just got such a prime example of blatant greenwashing I just had to share it. What these people are selling is so far from environmentally friendly that I can only think it is an open joke. The people selling know it is a joke, the people buying know it is a joke, and the whole thing is a farce to make more money with wanton disregard for anyone or anything but themselves.

So here is the email I got. From a guy called “Jay Rich”. I kept it’s formatting since it is so hideous:

Subject:  Luxe Interiors + Design celebrates living GREEN with its SPECIAL EDITION…LUXE.ECO

Dear Sir or Madam,

Sustainable living is luxe, and Luxe Interiors + Design celebrates living green.

Poised to debut in May 2012, Luxe.ECO will feature the cutting edge of sustainable high-end design, building and luxury products, showcasing award-winning initiatives by internationally known interior designers, architects and custom home builders.

Luxe.ECO will be mailed to a proprietary list of top trade professionals including architects, interior designers and custom home builders.

Our wealthiest homeowners nationwide (450,000 high net worth subscribers in total) who have expressed an interest in sustainable design will receive copies as well.

Requested copies for distribution will also include design centers, select showrooms and targeted trade, consumer and green events.

As audited by Wealth Engine, our readers have an average household income of $388,000, an average net worth of $11.7 million and an average real estate value of $1.5 million.  This demographic has the drive, initiative and means to make a considerable impact.

Nationwide, Luxe.ECO will also be available at Hudson News, Barnes & Noble and at private airports.

  • ·        Luxe Interiors + Design is up over 2010 with a 37.6% increase atBarnes & Noble!
  • ·        Luxe Interiors + Design sales at all the Hudson Newsstands are UP 78.5% for the first  8 months of 2011 versus the first 8 months of 2010!

I am currently scheduling 30 minute appointments beginning January 2, 2012 to discuss this SPECIAL EDITION of Luxe Interiors & Design.

Rates as low as $495 to advertise in our first ever Luxe.ECO annual edition.

Media kit upon request.

Feel free to email or call me prior to the New Year to book a date/time that is most convenient for you.

Best regards,

Jay Rich
Senior Account Executive
LUXE Interiors + Design

A Publication of Sandow Media

www.LuxeSource.com

3731 NW 8th Avenue
Boca Raton, FL 33431
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jayrich@sandowmedia.com
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Postponing the Debate: Tentative progress in Durban

We’re Brooklyn-based green builders dedicated to turning our local neighborhood green, but we’re always following the latest developments in global standards for more sustainable living.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Durban over the past two months in order to hammer out a plan for extending the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCC is the body of the UN that is in charge of pulling together all the countries under one unified agreement on how to handle important climate issues. Getting 194 nations to agree is no small task.

Stressed out: Conference President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane of South Africa

The main focus of this year’s talks was to establish a binding agreement that would build upon the Kyoto Protocol by applying the same emission limits to all nations regardless of industrialization.  The U.K., for example, would be held to the same standard as India, even though the U.K. is highly developed with a high average standard of living–in contrast with India, where hundreds of millions still live in poverty.

The greatest conflict erupted between the E.U. and India, due to the E.U.’s determination to lay out a “road map” for a legally binding agreement for all nations.  Developing industrial powers led by India and China argued fiercely against what they saw as an unfair constraint on projects that would improve standards of living nationwide.

They make a compelling argument: first world nations achieved their high standards of living through decades of environmentally damaging industrialization, so why should rising nations have to pay the price through limits on their own development?  India, especially, refused to sign off on an as-yet-undefined “road map” that they viewed as signing away their future development rights.

The Kyoto Protocol, first established in 1997, was a global agreement to limit emissions in the interest of sustainability.  191 nations have signed it so far, but the U.S. is still holding out because we refuse to accept the point that nations are held to different emissions criteria depending on development status.

Grey: undecided nations/Red: nations with no intention of ratifying.

The U.S., as the only major power not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, stayed mostly quiet in the Durban brawl but will add a third dimension to finalizing an equally binding agreement.  Did we refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because we didn’t want to be held to different standards than developing nations, or because we didn’t want to be bound at all?  Will we throw around our economic and political clout in further attempts to avoid emissions regulations?  Will the agreement conceptualized in Durban become a reality?

So, what was really accomplished on Sunday?  Not much, according to most commentators.  It’d be easy to bash the agreement as an inadequate solution, but let’s focus on the hard-won victories:

1. Compromise was achieved between the E.U. and India/China.  All nations agreed for a legally binding framework to be completed by 2015 and implemented by 2020.
2. There’s a definite timeline: work on the new agreement will start next year.
3. Nations confirmed the Green Climate Fund, which was first agreed on in Copenhagen in 2009.  An as yet undetermined body under the U.N. will oversee the fund, which is to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to problems posed by climate change.  The exact terms for the fund remain vague, with no definite plan on where the money is to come from or how much is already in the fund.

Our dream is to turn New York green, one brownstone at a time, so we understand the necessity of taking very small steps to achieve a greater goal, but the talks’ tendency toward compromise and vague planning represent procrastination rather than progress.  But still, I guess it’s a good thing that the climate conversation is still grinding on, one year at a time.

Click through for the official UNFCCC Durban website.

Breaking news: NY City Council enacts proposals from Urban Green Task Force

As New York green contractors we follow the latest developments in NY building codes very closely.  Yesterday, the New York City Council enacted three proposals from the Urban Green Task Force.  The new codes, effective July 1, 2012, mandate more stringent regulation of waste, recycling, and pollutant filtration, representing a step forward for green building.

 

Introduction 0576-2011: Treat Corrosive Concrete Wastewater

Wastewater from concrete trucks or containers  must either be treated on site or returned to the manufacturing plant for treatment.  Rinsing and wastewater containers must be located at least 30 feet from sewers.  Corrosive wastewater from construction sites may no longer be discharged into rivers or public streets.

Introduction 0578-2011: Use Recycled Asphalt

At least 10% recycled asphalt must be used in heavy duty construction applications, and at least 30% in constructing new streets and buildings.  Allowing asphalt diverted from the construction waste stream to be reintegrated into new asphalt reduces construction waste and consumption of new materials.

Introduction 0592-2011: Filter Soot from Incoming Air

Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems will be required to filter out soot and other pollutants at a rating of MERV 11 or greater, increasing the quality of indoor air by restricting the concentration of outside pollutants.

The Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) measures performance of air purifiers treating air for entire houses or buildings.  Scores range from 1-16, and up to 20 in special applications.  Filters are rated based on the efficiency with which they remove particles of varying sizes from the air.  Purifiers rated at MERV 11 are capable of trapping auto emissions and smog, among other urban pollutants.

 

We’re excited to see New York moving forward with more green considerations in city-wide construction.  We pride ourselves on being the most innovative green contractor in the city, but we’re looking forward to a day when green construction practices are no longer innovative, but commonplace.

 

Click through for more detailed summaries of the new codes on the Urban Green website.  Search by proposal number or topic to find them.

Mayor Bloomberg, Green Mayor but Tone Deaf

I have tolerated Mayor Bloomberg because he has done some good things for New York’s ecology. He isn’t the mayor of Copenhagen, Denmark. Now that is a city worth looking at in terms of ecology and social planning.

But Bloomberg could have been a lot worse. His plan NYC is an acceptable plan, the bare minimum any city should be doing.

But I stopped trusting Bloomberg when he used his power to extend his term. That was a Machiavellian and arrogant move that showed he thinks he knows better than the people who elected him.

So it comes as no surprise that he does not understand the importance of Occupy Wall Street. The movement isn’t a group of freaks living homeless in a park. The movement stands for something profound, it is a voice of the people.

Unfortunately Bloomberg, for all his intelligence, is a man of the 1%.

I mean this not only financially but morally. Bloomberg is one of those people who is always on the side of the law because he makes the law. With a phone call he can get a judge to sign, whether that be extending his term or squelching the voice of Occupy Wall Street.

A leader needs to make tough choices and sometimes minorities will not be happy. But I believe Occupy Wall Street is the first real voice of the majority in a long time. Just like you support things like the arts, community events, sports events and all other things that make a city vibrant, you also support things that give the citizens a voice.

This has a direct impact on the ecology of the city. As a New York green contractor I understand that the largest ecosystem here is the human one. If we are not healthy as a community then there is no chance in hell we will make room for the health of plants and animals.

By taking a stance against the Occupy Wall Street movement Bloomberg is not respecting the natural ecology of the city. Things change, things grow. And right now Occupy Wall Street has grown into being. You don’t cut something like this down. You let it grow. It is an organic development of the city that I believe will make our ecology better.

Bloomberg is full of benevolence as long as things are growing in the direction he wants. But now things are not going his way and he is showing his true colors. Being mayor is not about staying in control. It is about listening to the people and doing their will, even if you don’t personally believe in it.

I’m surprised Bloomberg’s serious conflict of interest has taken this long to surface. How can a media mogul also be the mayor of the media capital of the world. The financial ties between the two posts are irrevocably in conflict.

Occupy Wall Street and Bloomberg’s Dynasty have some serious differences and they are coming to a head. He has to be Mayor first or resign. The ecology of the city depends on it.

Check out this clip. Pure genius.

Doing good when the game is rigged

When I was 25 I paid a lot of money to have my fortune read from a palm leaf. Turns out a wise man way back when in the depths of Eastern India scratched down on palm leaves the destiny of every soul who was to incarnate on the earth.

So I tracked down this stash of leaves and had the custodians find my leaf. They translated it from ancient Tamil and two days later had transcribed it into a book for me.

They read the book to me in one sitting. They told me my past life, my yet to be fully lived current life, and my next life.

There is something deeply profound about seeing a person’s destiny encapsulated so concisely, like seeing it from gods view above. It touched me deeply.

It made me wonder what our purpose is on earth, my purpose at least. We, I, strive so hard. Yet what if our destiny is already written on a tablet somewhere?

Eco Brooklyn is a construction company who caters to clients who want to do good in this world by using their renovation money intelligently. The clients are partners in helping to turn NY, and thus the world, green.

But what if we are destined to destroy the planet? Or maybe we are destined to almost destroy and then save it? But what if it is destined already?

Sometimes I wonder what Eco Brooklyn’s moral endeavors really do. Humans are so full of themselves and maybe Eco Brooklyn is just a tool to make us feel good about our sorry little selves. Saving the world my ass, my cynical self sometimes feels. We’re just helping rich people feel good about spending money.

We seem to ride a swing of self important arrogance to depressed lack of worth. We surge out with a cause or we lay back in apathy. One day we are supporting the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Another day we are letting the city wipe their existence away like garbage under a street cleaning truck.

What really gets me is what my role in all this is. I know it is all predestined. I know my souls trajectory is already burned into a DNA CD somewhere. I know I’m just a small variation on a human model that has been born a thousand times already. I’m an archetype. I’m a white male with creative talent, two kids, a wife and a wandering eye. Human Variation number 200,103,133.

I understand that life is exactly as it should be.

And yet I can’t help but strive anyway. I can’t help but be like Jesus, another archetype of humanity, and try to save the world. I’m convinced Jesus knew from the get go that he was screwed. And yet, like a movie you are watching for the second time, he laughed, cried and lived.

Unlike him, I am a lot more tormented and doubtful.

And I guess that is his secret. To live life without fear despite the knowledge that we are ultimately screwed, and to end it by sliding into home base, tired and breathing hard saying, “Man what a ride!”

I guess that is why I carry on. I have no illusions that the cards have been dealt long before I decided to even play the game. I have no illusion that me saving the world is a self centered act based in genetics inside me that I will never understand.

But its like a roller coaster. We all know the path is fixed. We all know you pay your ticket, take the ride and everyone gets off at the end. Yet we keep getting on it for the ride, no matter how predictable it is.

The fact that our lives are predestined is not the point. The act of living is the purpose. Not what we do or what we don’t do – there is a palm leaf somewhere that has taken care of that part for us.

Pick a lane, any lane and drive. Don’t worry too much. You are responsible for experiencing it. The path, well, that is gods work.

So I carry on with Eco Brooklyn. Despite the cynicism, the stress, the many reasons not to do it. Running a green building business at a time when the destiny of the planet seems to hang on the passion of ecologically minded people is a real rush for me.

For others it might be accounting that gets them off. That is not the point. The point is the act of living.

The rush of life. I’m alive! Who knows why I got into green building, whether is it good, bad, important or not. The point is that it makes me feel alive. For now. And this too shall change. Life if what happens between.

There are days when the drudgery of being alive is worse than the deepest torment of hell. Then there are days when god grabs me by the collar and kisses me. And then there are days when nothing much happens at all.

And yet every night I can go to sleep having lived. Until the day I won’t wake up and it will be over. I see now that day is a lot closer than I had thought when I was 25.

And that is ok. It makes the experience of life all the sweeter. I’ve seen my destiny. Now it is up to me to live it.

================

Here is a little story I wrote about my trip to find my destiny on a palm leaf:

Gone to India, back in five minutes

I don’t suppose you’ve ever found yourself in London with lots of money and nothing to do, a pause in your life with no direction but the thrust of a bulging wallet. Maybe not, but maybe something similar. So when my friend Ben asked me to go to India, knowing I had the freedom to go if I only knew where, I’m sure you’ll understand the feeling of my saying, “What the hell.” I had never thought of going to India but since my life had come to a punctuation mark of some sort, like a comma or momentary full stop, just enough to take a breath but too long to be reassuring, I was glad to get moving again. London had a feeling of uneasy calm that irked me, like the calm before a storm, and I wanted to get out before the storm hit. Ben’s invitation was just my chance, giving me that feeling that maybe I’ll just ride this wave and see where it takes me.

A week later I was following Ben around the beaches of Goa with the same lack of direction as when I was in London, and since Ben wasn’t really the direction type, we fit just fine; two beach bums looking for shells in an off hand way, but no worries if we didn’t find any.

Being British, Ben had been pulled to India by unseen ropes that his grandparents wove from tales about the Raj and British colonialism. They had tied these stories around Ben during his childhood as they sat by the fire in England, weaving them tighter and tighter around Ben’s neck, until he was gasping for this exotic land that was so far away yet so much part of his history.

As for me, I had gone on a whim. So actually I had traveled three thousand miles to do what I was doing in London, vaguely searching and vaguely lost, only now I had more money since the Pound Sterling in India is backed by a long history of colonialism; elephant caravans hunting tigers and Queen Victoria back in England writing to say, “The tea is just fine, boys, send some more.” I’m sure you’ve had that experience of wealth before, like putting unspent money back in your coat pocket and finding the coat already held some bills that you had forgotten about, and suddenly you are richer, yet you were always that rich and just didn’t know it.

But as I sat on the beach, so far from that brooding London storm, I began to get the same uneasy feeling and realized that it does not matter how far you travel, your baggage always catches up to you. Not that Ben minded, his blond hair and beautiful torso adapted well to lunghis wrapped around his waist, and he took a tan better than any ex-pat. The coconuts chopped for us on the spot and quaint Hindi lessons at sunset with the local boys, who’s friendliness was genuine, despite their uncle’s business down the beach, kept him nicely entertained. But I still felt suspended in limbo, my life a bated breath. Just how many coconuts can you eat before you get a call saying your baggage has arrived, so deal with it. In my case, the baggage was a yearning, an inner buzzing that couldn’t be pinned down and wasn’t going away no matter how many coconuts I drank.

Sensing my restlessness, like a sentence wanting to start but held back by a word that refused to come, Ben tossed me a book one day, Travels in India or something. It was a collection of short stories about different people’s travels in the continent I had now decided to call home. One day I had simply told Ben that I had decided to cease being a visitor and was going to call India home, not because it said “home” to me, but because I had nowhere else to go and felt like calling somewhere home. He laughed when I told him and asked if I minded he join me. I moved over, patted my towel and said, “No, not at all, welcome home. Care for a coconut?” He accepted and we moved in together on the Goa beach. It seemed like a good enough place to settle down. But as I said, he sensed my restlessness and as if playing matchmaker between me and destiny, tossed me the book called something like Travels in India.

The first story was about the foothills of an area called Salem, little Swiss-like villages where the rich Indians spend their summers, away from the heat of a dry Southern India. Interesting but nothing to start a sentence with. The second was about Bangalore’s silicon valley, little companies that fix computer glitches while the West is asleep, being a twelve-hour time difference. Cyber world has no borders. Silicon Valley in California and Bangalore have many things in common that you or I wouldn’t even understand. They speak frequently. Yet, I wasn’t pulled in and, while entertained, the full stop that my life had taken still remained.

However, the third story changed all this. Somewhere in a little village south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu is your life story, including your last incarnation and your next. Two thousand years ago, a yogi channeled the lives of all the archetypal people in the world; past, present and future. He spent his whole life reciting our destinies to scribes who etched his words into palm leaves. Called Nadi Leaves, they still exist in an unnamed village south of Pondicherri. As I read this, I felt my life creak, the vowels of a word forming, the blurry vision of another sentence starting.

Goa is on the west coast of India, Pondicherri is three thousand miles across the continent on the east coast. I sat on the Goa beach, my home with Ben and a few foraging cows and coconut sellers, the end of the earth as we had found it, and I looked towards Pondicherri, out of sight, hidden behind old trucks, potholes, (hang in there reader, I’m about to describe a quest of epic proportions), twisty jungle roads, monkeys, fruit vendors, concrete floors, sleeping bags head level with cockroaches that had names, and food, oh food that I was told had more in its ingredients than just assorted chili’s but I wasn’t convinced. Not that I could eat that often- where did all this diarrhea come from? -from my flesh, my very bones, until I was skinny and weak like so many others around me, only I was white and rich and they were not. Yet at that point of physical exhaustion money matters much less than God, and they knew God more than I did, maybe by another name, but still they knew God. And despite the religion that surrounded me, my days were spent dealing with money: how much for this or that? Too much. Too little. The guilt, the rage. They cheat me, I rob them. If they only knew the prices in London for a taxi ride. But they do know and are robbing me silly- a day’s wage for them. And it’s still only a subway ticket for me, yet it all matters. And none of it matters- the moment you have a theory that puts it all in perspective, they raise the price on you with a whimpering sneer or give it for free with stoic kindness- wham, your moral reality is shattered again, but who cares since before you know it you’re on your back once more shitting your insides out and nothing matters but God again…

This is what lay between me and those mysterious and distant Nadi Leaves. As I sat on the Goa beach envisioning it, I felt the divine pen being raised and the unfinished sentence in my life’s book began to unravel once more.

I left Ben the symbolic keys to our home: a towel and some suntan lotion, and told him to feed the cows regularly. He was sad to see me go, but I didn’t care. Oh, I forgot! Did I not tell you that I was going crazy?

Yes, I was. I arrived in Goa with warm feelings towards my mother in San Francisco, my friends who had come all the way from Spain to visit me at my new Goa beachfront home. I liked my friends, said nice things in their direction. But then the nagging full stop in my life began to cloud my vision. The break, the new direction that my life was taking, took up all my energy, and after two weeks in Goa I was unable to even hold a conversation. They would say nice things in my direction like I had once done, and I would look behind me, surprised, annoyed, that they should be speaking to me, bother me as I desperately groped for that word that was on the tip of my tongue, which was not directed at them but towards the next sentence in my life. I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. Perhaps something close? Anyway, I had gone crazy, unable to speak, especially to people who knew I had once spoken, so I left Ben and our towel house on the beach with silent relief. He said he’d tell my friends when they got back from the market and I nodded. He understood. I didn’t want to see him again, nor my friends, nor my mother. What for…

But then I got a pang of remorse for my mother. Maybe I should just leave a note with a hotel number or something so she doesn’t worry. But my friends might want to find me, speak to me, point out that my judgment at this time wasn’t exactly crystal clear. They might try to stop me! Fuck them. Before going, I wrote in the sand, “Gone crazy, back in five minutes.” By the time they realized I wasn’t coming back, I thought with glee, I’d be far too gone to be found. And who cared anyway, the tide was quickly coming in.

That’s what I noticed myself remembering several miles into the wilderness half way into India a month and a half later. But I couldn’t remember if that was me who left Goa or if it was a character from a book. I argued to myself about this but figured it didn’t matter much anyway since either way it seemed to have brought somebody to where I was. I raised my head and peered at myself lying naked on a rock, alone in my craziness, in a landscape full of similar rocks, huge flat boulders the size of houses, tossed onto the earth, or thrust out of the earth by a random giant some time ago. I had been there several days, lying, too weak to even crap, not that I had anything left inside me, too weak to drink from my canister until I looked over and saw there was nothing left to drink in my canister anyway. I had been fitful the whole time, dreamy, almost a pleasant state if it weren’t for the dry heaves. Night had chopped into dawn, dawn into morning, and each time I awoke, the light cut brighter into the opal sky. The sun’s edge scraped across my rock and in a few hours it was full on me. Lying there alone on the slab, I fancied myself a little morsel of food on a frying pan. I chuckled deliriously, and thought, rather calmly, that if I did not get up and walk back to the village, I would die. Life had never been so simple. I pondered this a little while. I had disowned my friends and family long ago, so that was no pull on my life strings. I had no reason to live, but then again, I had no reason to die. Somewhere between Goa and here, the sentence that had revived so grandly had stopped again, and I had again been told to take a deep breath, full of momentous pause, or a comma, or even a full stop, and to just go with the very slow and cloudy flow once more. Here I was again, contemplating my next word, the next syllable that would restart me on my life story (or end it), indifferently looking at my choices: die or not, die or not, die or not. Hmmm… and then, from a distant memory of why I had left Goa in the first place, I remembered the Nadi Leaves.
Somehow this gave me the impetus to get up and drag my frail body across the boulders those few miles to the nearest village, fainting, pulled on by a palm leaf with my life story on it that some yogi held captive in an unknown village somewhere south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu. Funny how the world works.

And then I found myself on the Eastern coast of the Indian continent, looking onto the Bay of Bengal, where I picked up this Danish woman my age, twenty-five, in a nice turn of the century hotel that used to be the servants’ quarters for the Raj of Madras. It made me wonder what his house looked like. Her name was Rikke and she was very logical, something she inherited from her ancestors, all of whom were also blond with glasses and khaki shorts, the type who traipse around in the tropics with butterfly nets and Ph. D’s. I never asked why she was there. It had something to do with getting a Ph. D. She had a boyfriend in Denmark who later dumped her, but then she didn’t know this and so she was being faithful, which was fine by me because I was way too crazy and weak to consider sex. We made a good team, my tendency to have misfiring brain cells was something she could understand scientifically, loosening her up, and her logical ancestors gave me something to lean on, keeping me standing. Without each other, we probably wouldn’t have survived. She would have cracked and I would have cracked, but for the exact opposite reasons. We bonded when she took me to her small apartment in Pondicherri and I lay sick on her kitchen floor, head level with some cockroaches whose names I knew at the time but couldn’t remember once the delirium passed. She took care of me for a week, forcing me to take medicine over my cries that only God and the Nadi Leaves could help now. For her it was a religious education, for me I got antibiotics. After that experience, she too wanted to see these Nadi Leaves that kept bringing me back from the dead.

This all happened several months after I had left Goa, I had lost count exactly, and we were now on India’s East coast, bumping in crowded spice and sweat buses down the spring roads south towards an unknown village that fate had heard about, fate being a little old man we ran into on the street, or a name we read in a hotel register, or the similarity of the surrounding hills to the ones I had read about in the book, Travels Through India or something. But I could only remember the book’s story since I had sold it to a Goa book merchant so many months ago. Perhaps it is in the hands of some other person whose life has hit a comma, or maybe even a full stop. What did that person do with the book? Did he follow the second story and go to Bangalore to start a computer company, cyber-talking to Californian geeks in Silicon Valley? Why not?

Rikke and I looked good as a couple. Are we married, people would ask. And I’d reply, No, not exactly but we are to you, since you just want to get her in bed and feel like you’re taking advantage of her. I said this to one Indian guy who was interested in Rikke, or at least in using her body for a few spurtful moments. Why not? His reality of us is now different from our reality of us. I never married her and never will. I’m sure my Nadi Leaf will attest to that. But in his Leaf, he meets two foreigners who are married. Same people, different reality. Why not?

With this attitude we arrived at that unknown village south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu, two thousand miles and three months from Goa, five thousand miles from London and its subway, where one token from Bayswater to Paddington, a five minute ride, costs one day’s wages in this village. To those who saw us get off the bus and walk down the street, we were a respectably married European couple arriving late, the blue moon lighting the one street and wrestling with the kerosene lights of the little food stalls, projecting multiple gray shadows on the dirt road like several negatives of life sloppily placed on top of each other in the same place at the same time. The dirt road was spotted black by the tobacco or beetle nut or whatever the locals chewed with hardworking fervor and spit, speckling the land with bloody red dots, now black in the light of the moon, the dirt road a huge canvas of multiple realities painted with people’s own spit and shadows.

But wait! That’s all nice and fucking poetic, but what about the Nadi Leaves? Yea, they were there. The street had maybe five places advertising Nadi Leaves, each one claiming to have copies of the originals, each one willing to show me pictures of Japanese tourists who had come and spent thousands of dollars to have their leaves read, each one willing to do the same for me. Indians were there too, drawn by their superstition and the truth of a palm font with their destiny etched on it, willing to pay a year’s wages to hear it read to them, sitting before the reader with trusting, anxious eyes.

Did I have mine read? Yes. I paid a very large sum. Refused to pay the Japanese tourist rate and settled for what the Indian tourists paid, still a huge sum for all involved. Rikke, a scientist, was more skeptical. I was both religious and crazy, a good alibi when you need to justify spending fortunes to get your destiny from a palm leaf, so for me there was no problem, but she came from a family of scientists, respectable Europeans who believed in the virtues of logic. Palm leaves with your destiny went against what her ancestors had fought and died for. Who exactly did they fight, I asked, but she dismissed me, and I suspected even the Indians’ dark skin would seem illogical to her ancestors. Logic. Being somebody whose life story stopped and started regularly, I couldn’t relate. Logic seemed so shallow in the face of a good life-threatening stomach virus, or a leper, or a heated argument over ten rupees, three meals to my Indian opponent but not enough to buy a pack of gum in London. Yet, I argue over the ten rupees nonetheless, for the absurdity of it, for the logic of it, for the logical absurdity. Stop. I’m making my point too clearly.
So, Rikke compromised and got the abbreviated version of her life for half price. No past or future life, just a short overview of this one.

They located our palm fonts by elimination. Do I have four brothers, they asked. If yes, the leaf could be amongst all the destinies with four brothers over here, if no, all those. Is my father alive, divorced, is my moon in Scorpio, Mercury in Pisces….and so forth. Eventually, they found the leaf with my destiny. I saw it, crisp and dusty, filled with tiny etchings. Come back in two days and they’ll have it copied into a book, they said.

We came back. They told Rikke she came from a family of logical scientists, her current boyfriend would dump her but she’d eventually also marry a scientist and have two children etc. Pretty boring life if you ask me. The half-price destiny. My destiny was much more exciting, but then I paid twice as much for it. I was a temple garden keeper in my last life but in the face of great scandal, I ran away with a girl. This life I’m a photographer to become famous, will marry at such an age, two children…they went through my life year for year…will retire to such ashram and die at such a date as a guru to a small gathering of disciples. Next life I’ll be born into the religious life and become a famous guru. Sounded interesting. They said nothing of me going crazy. Shame, I was so enjoying being crazy. Yet apparently it wasn’t part of the plan, so I stopped. But then, I think I gave them the wrong astrological data. I don’t know if my Mercury is really in Pisces. Maybe it was somebody else’s life. Why not?

Just to be on the safe side I decided to call my mother and tell her I was fine and that the rumors about me going crazy and disappearing into the Indian subcontinent were absolutely fraudulent. In fact I hadn’t disappeared at all. Here, I have a witness, her name’s Rik…No she’s not my girlfriend. No I don’t have sex with her! I’m perfectly happy without one…look, if it makes you feel better, you can pretend we’re married, we pretend all the time. I told Rikke to assure my mother that I still existed and that every one here was actually of the opinion that I had a wonderful future as a photographer and guru, and that craziness was not even on the leaf, as long as, that is, my Mercury is in Pisces. Again, Rikke dismissed me and, drawing upon her ancestors, laid out a perfectly rational argument about something or other. Why not, I thought, she has a right to her destiny too. Besides, my mother bought it. I then tried to call my friends in Goa but I was told they had all trickled back to Europe with death-threatening illnesses. Wimps!

Keeping with the rules of a quest (go into the wilderness, return from the wilderness), I returned to Goa nonetheless, trekking across the continent with death-defying stubbornness, but when I arrived, I found it barren. The monsoon had come and my home on the beach was washed away, a huge mountain of black seaweed in its place. No more coconut vendors even. Hmmm…I noticed my life’s sentence amble to a stop once more and immediately called Ben in London. Life was good, he said, come.

I was on a plane the next day, wondering who was ahead of whom, me or my destiny, the two of us twisting, stuttering, creating each other, and all the while a scribe in an unnamed village south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu frantically scribbling it all down on a palm leaf so that in my next life I can come by with my Danish wife (who’s not really my wife) and pay outrageous amounts of money to hear my destiny read back to me, all the while wondering if it’s actually my destiny being read, since I won’t really be sure if my Mercury is really in Pisces.

Gennaro and Ben in Goa 1996

College Sustainability Initiatives

As a New York Green Contractor, here at EcoBrooklyn we focus mainly on one aspect of reaching sustainability, and that is by green building.  But of course, this is just one way to approach sustainability. Colleges for instance, are trending towards setting up sustainability initiatives.  They generally include some specific measures that will make them more “green”, such as pledging to use biodiesel in all campus buses, or promising to spit out 30 research papers that are related to sustainability.

We looked at local Brooklyn College and the University of Michigan.  These two schools were chosen based on their differing sizes, settings, and regions.   Michigan is a very large school in a small city in the Midwest.   Michigan recently started the Graham Institute, which pays students and professors to work on sustainability projects.  They also have Planet Blue, which is more of a University wide program that includes promises like reducing carbon emissions 25% by 2025 (25 is a nice number).

Brooklyn College does not have the huge programs and institutions that Michigan does, but they do have a 10-year plan, which includes a pledge to reduce carbon emissions 30% by 2017.  Brooklyn College is collaborating with PlaNYC as well as many other organizations across the city.  BC also has a sustainability roundtable for students and faculty to engage in.

Although these approaches are very different, there is not an obvious winner.  If you would like more information on either school, here are some links: http://www.graham.umich.edu/, http://sustainability.umich.edu/, http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/bc/spotlite/sustainability/index.html.  Or if you would like to start a debate, go ahead!

 

Elmo Joins the Revolution

I attended last Saturday’s Occupy Wall Street march to Times Square because as a New York green contractor I feel alligned with many of the issues brought up in the Occupy Wall street movement.

There was a big crowd and for the first time in my life I saw more New Yorkers than tourists in Times Square! But I truly knew Occupy Wall Street had gained critical mass when Elmo took a break from handing out fliers for Toys R Us and joined the Anarchists. I always liked Elmo.

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