Our Green Home

Posted: October 14th, 2008 under Green Places.

When a house is tottering to its fall,
The strain lies heaviest on the weakest part,
One tiny crack throughout the structure spreads,
And its own weight soon brings it toppling down.

Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17/18), Roman poet. Tristia, 2. 83-86.

We expect our homes to provide us with a few basic but key services — shelter, running water, ventilation, heat, air conditioning, etc.  If we’re lucky, our homes may even have a garden that provides us with food as well.  They also provide us with more intangible and sentimental benefits — as Phillip Moffitt states, “A house is a home when it shelters the body and comforts the soul.”  This may be why Martha Stewart makes a similar differentiation: “What we’ve been trying to do is keep our homes — we’re trying to make our houses homes in the first place and then once they are homes, how to take care of them.”

Our planet is in many ways both our house and our home.  It provides both tangible benefits to us, including the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink, as well as intangible ones, from the awesomeness of the highest Himalayas to the mysteries of the ocean’s darkest depths.  All of this, for free and with no interest, amazingly –even better than a sub-prime loan, and without the following financial implosion.  Indeed, a study published in Nature 10 years ago estimated the total value of these services to be $33 trillion a year — nearly double the value of global GNP at the time (Costanza et al 1997).

Yet despite its incredible value to us, scientists around the world have been claiming for years that humanity is undermining and even destroying the systems that provide us with these natural benefits. A recent EU-commissioned study calculated the annual cost of forest loss around the world to be between $2 trillion and $5 trillion, which is more than double this year’s $1-$1.5 trillion losses in the financial sector.  Armed with such evidence that our great green house of Nature is, in the words of Ovid, “tottering to its fall,” they point to cracks in its foundation, in its frames and walls, in its pipes and wires.  But where is the heaviest strain, the “weakest part?”  What is causing the toppling, if indeed it is happening?  Where and how should we focus our energies to keep our house and home standing?

Scientists, engineers, and politicians all have different answers to these questions.  The climatologists argue the climate is our greatest environmental challenge, biologists claim species extinction is our most urgent and irreversible ecological issue, hydrologists believe water quantity and quality is the greatest environmental threat to human health.  Skeptics disagree with all of them, citing evidence of the resiliency and adaptivity of both the Earth and human beings over time.  And then there are disagreements within each of these groups as well, about which places, which species, which cycles are most at risk.  What is an average but concerned citizen and consumer to do with all this discord?

This section of the website will explore some of these questions about the state of our planet — who is measuring it and how, and what they are finding and saying.  An increasing number of relatively legitimate and robust efforts to assess “environmental quality” are underway, at a range of ecological scales.  While they still leave much to be desired, they are critical efforts, as ultimately all other measures of environmental performance — of products, companies, governments, and individuals — depends on an understanding of their environmental impact.  Such an understanding requires a baseline and snapshots of  ecological health over time, so we can assess the effects of environmental efforts at each different scale of human activity.

So how green is our home?  As green as it’s inhabitants, and as green as its inhabitants allow it to be.  We’ll see just how green that is in the posts to come…

Photo credit: davidreport.com/…/eco-house-from-willa-nordic/.

Ovid quote: http://www.bartleby.com/66/71/43371.html.

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