Skinny jeans? Check. Artfully disheveled haircut? Check. Elvis Costello glasses? Check. Congratulations, you’re a hipster. You look cool, you feel cool, people think you’re cool. But in a few years you might look back at your old Facebook profile pics and wonder how you were ever so ridiculously uncool. It’s okay, we’ve all been there. That’s the nature of trends, fads, fashions. The perfect pair of jeans notwithstanding, Cool is as ephemeral as morning dew in the Atacama. Which is why the cost of green includes eco-hipsterism. If we’re ever going to become truly sustainable, sustainability has to stop being so damn cool.
Architect, professor, and author Witold Rybczynski writes in the October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it’s hardly green.”
I was living in Santa Monica when the first LivingHomes house dropped, literally. Cranes lowered giant building blocks into place and the whole thing was nearly move-in ready in eight hours. The buzz was electric. It’s modern! It’s prefab! It’s green! It’s a Ray Kappe! My wife and I would stop and stare at it enviously while walking the dog. Reminiscent of many of Kappe’s iconic California Modern houses, the place was – is – gorgeous. And green.
In a May 2006 article on Dexigner.com, LivingHomes CEO Steve Glenn was quoted as saying, “We are designing our homes to create the healthiest living environments — and to radically reduce the impact they have on soil, water, air and energy use. We are following the four core tenants of good sustainable design: to reduce, reuse, recycle and reclaim. Our goal is ‘zero energy’, ‘zero water’, ‘zero carbon’, and ‘zero emissions’.”
I was a good Los Angeleno. I shopped at Whole Foods, I rode my bike whenever possible, reused cloth shopping bags, participated in beach cleanups. I surfed, wore aviator glasses. I had plans to ditch my car and buy a Vespa. This was the house for me. For us. It would be the apotheosis of our budding eco-hipsterism. Hell, I might even be able to check the waves from the roof deck. All we needed was a half-million or so dollars to buy one of these architect-approved factory-built Xanadu-goods, plus another million or so for a postage stamp of warbling land on which to plop it.
The funding never came through. We’ve since moved to Florida, where Cool is in seriously short supply, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering just what it means to be sustainable, to be green. LA is a seductive place, for many reasons. Once beyond the reach of its sexiness, one is afforded a clearer view. I began to wonder whether designing eco-homes for the wealthiest one percent was really the best course of action. Didn’t people live sustainably before Dwell magazine came along?
For a year I lived on the fourth floor of an old pre-war brick building in Harvard Square. The cross breeze generated by open windows was the only air conditioning we ever needed, and the rising heat from the lower floors kept us toasty without ever needing to turn on our heat. Daylight filtered through the leaves and branches of trees that must have been older than the building, bathing the place is a pleasant glow, negating the need for electric lights except at night. Utility bills were miniscule. I got around mostly by subway and foot power, and could walk to pretty much all the services and amenities one could want. It wasn’t as cool as the Kappe home, certainly, but was it any less green? Isn’t it greener to live in an apartment than a single-family house, even without cool eco-features, particularly in a location that doesn’t require a car?
Witold Rybczynski thinks so: “Architectural journals and the Sunday supplements tout newfangled houses tricked out with rainwater-collection systems, solar arrays, and bamboo flooring. Yet any detached single-family house has more external walls and roof—and hence more heating loads in winter and cooling loads in summer—than a comparable attached townhouse, and each consumes more energy than an apartment in a multifamily building. Again, it doesn’t really matter how many green features are present. A reasonably well-built and well-insulated multifamily building is inherently more sustainable than a detached house. Similarly, an old building on an urban site, adapted and reused, is greener than any new building on a newly developed site.”
There are probably exceptions, but Rybczynski makes sense here. And while his focus is on the environmental impact of buildings, there’s also a social aspect of sustainability, and an economic one. Cool is inherently elite. It is of the few, not the many. Once cool becomes of the many it ceases to be cool. LEED certification is cool, PV panels are cool, and their coolness is in part conferred by their rarity. Gizmo green, as such accessories are derogatorily dubbed, is expensive. The idea seems to be that wealthy folks set the example and help generate market demand by purchasing green gizmos, an increase in which makes mass production financially viable for both producers and consumers. But what if that isn’t how things work out?
Successful producers of green gizmos are savvy folks. They build their brands, in part, by incorporating eco-hipsterism. By incorporating exclusiveness. Coolness. Eco-consumers like to be ahead of the curve, they like to be special. Mercedes-Benz wouldn’t be Mercedes-Benz if it wasn’t expensive. Brands in any field succeed by remaining consistent, so why would green gizmo producers put their brand at risk by shifting away from the market that made them? You can reach the mavericks, or you can reach the masses, but rarely can you reach both.
None of this means, however, that I’m against green gizmos. I love ‘em. I love innovation. I love LivingHomes. I love Ray Kappe. I love Dwell. I love that millions of people are choosing a Prius over an SUV. I still shop at Whole Foods, still reuse my cloth grocery bag, (still wear aviator glasses). I’m not advocating a reversion to an imagined idyll, as is the wish of some neo-traditionalists. But something’s got to give. A lot of things, actually. Because if every one on earth lived in a single-family home and drove a car, solar panels and hybrids wouldn’t change the fact that we’d all be screwed.
So long as green is sexy, so long as it’s hip, it isn’t really green. It’s an accessory. A good intention. It is important for consumers to be more responsible, of course, and things like LEED ratings and green gizmos raise awareness. They demonstrate that there is in fact a growing desire to live more sustainably. But sustainability is a way of life, not a good to be purchased. It will have to become unconscious, unnoticeable, fundamental, woven seamlessly into the way we live, if it is to be achieved. It will have to reshape the American Dream. Perhaps a single-family house, a yard, and two cars (or two kids, for that matter) is not a sustainable dream. Perhaps neither is the dream of each generation being more successful than the last. Perhaps we should learn to not only make due with less, but to aspire to less. Less space, less stuff, less stress.
Sometimes I daydream about Ray Kappe’s LivingHome. I really wanted that house. Hell, I still want it. But simply wanting something is no longer sufficient justification for its pursuit (nor its attainment a guarantee of satisfaction, anyway). Eco-hipsterism got my attention, but it also pointed me in the wrong direction. We can’t all be hipsters, eco or otherwise, but we can all be informed and responsible.
The truth is, sustainability won’t turn out to be nearly as cool as advertised. Becoming sustainable means that sustainability is the norm, the domain of the many, the uncool. Sustainability won’t guarantee our happiness, it won’t make our dreams come true, we probably won’t be able to see or touch it. Sustainability will simply allow us and the billions of other life forms we share the planet with to continue to exist. Completely unsexy, I know, but consider the alternative.