Laser Schmaser

laser pizza cutter

I’m picky about pizza. I’ve lived nearly all my life in New York City — home to pizza meccas John’s, 109 year old Lombardi’s, and block long lines in Brooklyn for newcomer di Fara’s – along with hours logged in New Haven, another pizza culinary center. Back here in NY, we not only have a favorite local pizza joint mere blocks away, but know and love Sal, the incredibly colorful only-in-NYC character who owns it.

It was at his place, where the tables are no-nonsense Formica but the eggplant on his slices escapes deep frying, that we taught one of our nieces the right way to eat a slice. I’m waiting for her pizza-off with Donald Trump on The Daily Show.

Folded and forkless (and laserless).

Folded and forkless (and laserless).

 

I try not to get too tied up in traditionalism with my food. I’ve openly accepted the outlier cinnamon raisin bagel as legit. (Hey, even Russ and Daughters sells them.) Blueberry, though, is another story. Similarly, I don’t turn in elitist disgust from most pizza toppings — so long as “most” doesn’t include pineapple.

Nor do I knee-jerk reject modern improvements. I make my knee wait a bit past the initial reflex until my head can tell it what it really should do. (I’m getting to the point. Promise.)

Add to this acceptance and open-mindedness to technology that lasers, are really, really cool. I get off on using my laser “tape” measure, especially as it’s an extremely handy tool when you happen to be an architect. But here’s where things cross the (uncut) line: a Tactical Laser-Guided Pizza Cutter.

Now a tactic is, more or less, a means to achieve something. Since the laser doesn’t actually divide the pizza into equal size pieces, which I could see as a valuable goal in some competitive or jealous families, I’m not sure this device is actually tactical at all. Unless the goal is simply some sort of nerdy coolness.

Alongside this object’s nomination as Wrongest Product nominee, I wonder if a better version might be a Strategic Laser Pizza Cutter. Its mission: to disintegrate by laser any wayward pineapple bits. That I could get behind – although, really, a fork would still do.

The next step? Illustration by Lori Greenberg

The next step?
Illustration by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

 

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Does An Environmentalist Have To Be a Treehugger?

photo by David Bergman

photo by David Bergman

Am I biophilically challenged? And does that diminish my eco cred?

One of the talks I’ve given at recent conferences is titled “Nature in Cities/Cities in Nature,” and among the topics I discuss is biophilia. As defined by E.O. Wilson, who literally wrote the book, biophilia is “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms,” our genetically determined affinity as human beings with the natural world.

When I get to the biophilia section of my talk, I get personal. I “confess” that we don’t have any plants in our apartment, that I’m not exactly the great outdoors type (cue the Eva Gabor lines from the old TV show Green Acres “New York is where I’d rather stay. I get allergic smelling hay.”) and I don’t feel deprived if I don’t escape the supposed confines of the city. In fact, my wife and I often feel the opposite when we take a rare excursion to areas where trees outnumber lampposts.

So what to make of the common advice (sometimes admonishment) that we all need a bit of Henry Thoreau in us? (It’s worth noting, by the way, that Thoreau’s sojourn in his Walden Pond cabin was actually pretty short.) How should I react to an article like this recent one titled “Why your career needs a walk in the woods?

In my talk, I find two faults in this idea that you can only appreciate nature and only be a “real” environmentalist if you yearn for cold water showers and mosquito bites. One lies in the hair shirt back-to-the-earth philosophy that many treehuggers identify with and that, simultaneously, many non-treehuggers identify environmentalists with. I see no reason why that’s a prerequisite for appreciating nature.

Is it not possible that I might appreciate a tree or a squirrel MORE because I see them less frequently?  And more still when I see them within the concrete “jungle?”

The other fault is in the presumption that one can only find nature out in, well, nature. Seems a bit of a circular definition. One of the tenets of many environmental concepts is that humanity is not separate from nature and that it’s only when we regard ourselves as something apart from – and perhaps superior to – nature that we get into trouble ecologically.

If we are not separate from nature, then logically our cities are not unnatural. They are no more unnatural than, say, a beaver’s dam or a termite mound. All three alter the previous landscape and put something conforming to the needs of a species in its place. In fact, you could argue that in some ways cities are more natural than a termite mound or a beehive since the latter habitats support only their builders while cities support many organisms beside humans.

Point being that cities are both natural and awash in ecosystems, and one needn’t leave a city to fulfill biophilic or even treehugger-ly needs. So don’t revoke my enviro status in light of my rampant urbanism.

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Pascal’s Wager: The Climate Change Version

 

The prevailing view among conservative politicians and their funders (though not so much among actual conservative voters) is that responding to climate change is either unwarranted because it doesn’t exist or unaffordable and undesirable because of the costs and the supposed sacrifices entailed.

Both of those positions, of course, are not valid. I don’t need to go into the falsehoods and disinformation in climate change deniers’ arguments. That’s been dealt with exceedingly well by many others. And in terms of the deniers’ second path of objection – cost and sacrifice – the rebuttal to that is the very basis of EcoOptimism: the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

This latter point brings to mind a famous philosophical argument for believing in God whether or not God actually exists. It’s a type of gaming argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, and it goes like this:

  1. If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to remain in hell forever: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded: thus a finite loss.
  4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded, but you have lived your own life: thus a finite gain.

wager1

There’s no way I want to get into a discussion of the existence of God, but the great thing about Pascal’s Wager is that it pretty much says you might as well believe in God since three of the four conditions say it’s in your best interest.

As others have observed [some of the top ones in a quick Google search: 1, 2, 3], we can make a similar argument regarding climate change. (Note I’m using the prevailing term, but I prefer to refer to climate disruption or, better yet, climate chaos.)

wager2

But the EcoOptimism take on this is slightly different. The “conventional” environmental version of the wager is that we could lose out in some of the scenarios. However that argument omits the non-environmental benefits of responding to climate change. The argument here comes down to the observation that, as I wrote above, the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

Another important point about this variation on Pascal’s Wager: the original wager merely referred to believing in God; not on doing anything to follow through on the belief. My climate change variation requires action. It’s not sufficient to merely phrase the argument in terms of believing in climate change; the validity of the argument is also predicated on acting on climate change:

  1. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be rewarded with both sustainability and thriving lives and civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be condemned to either greatly diminished lifestyles or human extinction: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will still be rewarded with thriving civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  4. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will not be rewarded, but we will not have gained anything either: thus a finite loss.

wager3

Basically, the climate change “wager” says we’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.

 

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Has John Kerry been reading my EcoOptimism blog?

Screen capture from www.state.gov

Screen capture from www.state.gov

Can I now claim to have influence at the highest levels of the State Department? (If only.) In a speech Secretary Kerry gave yesterday in Jakarta, he compared climate change to weapons of mass destruction.

When I think about the array of global climate – of global threats – think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them.

Exactly one month earlier, I wrote:

We should really think of [remaining fossil fuels that we leave in the ground] … as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

Coincidence? I’m going to go with “no” since I really want to (optimistically) think EcoOptimism has a profound and wide reach. On the other hand, the powers that be at State have undoubtedly not read an earlier EcoOptimism post I wrote, The Keystone XL Pipeline No-brainer.

So I guess I can’t go ask Kerry for a job.

 

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E-bikes in NYC: How Not to Solve a Problem

In the past few years, under the auspices of former transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC has taken great strides in promoting “alternative” means of transportation. Bicycling is moving into the mainstream, courtesy of expanded bike lanes and Citibikes. Pedestrian safety is improving through street and intersection design improvements. Buses are actually becoming a viable means of getting around with the implementation of NYC’s version of bus rapid transit, Select Bus Service.

Electric-assist bicycles, however, have been banned from this expansion and improvement in NYC’s urban mobility, despite their adoption in other cities and despite the fact that they are an EcoOptimistic solution in that they simultaneously address ecological and economic issues.

The story of this involves a combination of conflicting and poorly conceived regulations along with misplaced blame and political expediency. Let me try to break this down and make the case for correcting this mess.

Step 1: Start with a conflicting legal status

There are two main issues here: the definition of an e-bike and whose regulations apply. There are actually two categories of e-bikes. One is sometimes called a pedelec and requires that the motor be activated by pedaling. The other, which is confusingly called a motor-assist bicycle or, even more confusingly, an E-bike, doesn’t require pedaling at all; the motor does all the work. The problem is that federal, NYS and NYC laws define and deal with these differently and have created a morass of conflicts. The New York Bicycling Coalition explains:

[T]he issue is their treatment as motorcycles under New York State law, and motor scooters in New York City. This is in contrast to federal law, wherein an electric bicycle is officially defined as a “two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 hp).” This means that in New York State, electric bicycles are generally considered unregistered motor vehicles and subject to the same laws and penalties as automobiles. In New York City, electric bicycles that do not have the ability to be operated solely by its motor (pedal-assist bicycles) are legal, but those that do have that ability (motor-assist bicycles) are subject to fines and impoundment.

In short, it’s a mess. One blogger writes “e-bikers in New York may just want to keep a copy of the federal law with them, HR 727, which specifies that when it comes to e-bikes, the federal laws supersede all state and local regulations.”

Attempts to legalize e-bikes at the NYS level have failed in recent years. NYC, meanwhile, has taken the opposite approach with new laws to further restrict e-bikes.  And, of course, there’s a story behind that, too.

Step 2: Conflate the issue

Why, you may reasonably ask, would NYC want to outlaw the use of a congestion and pollution relieving mode of transportation? There are a few explanations. First is the confusion about the regulations. It’s been unclear what exactly NYC’s current reg’s restrict. So, rather than clarifying the rules to make them legal (and consistent with the supposedly superseding federal reg’s), the rules have been tightened so that it is easier for the police to ticket e-bike riders. And it’s worse than that; the police can actually confiscate e-bikes on the spot. Imagine if ticketed drivers had their cars confiscated.

Another reason is closely related to the ongoing debate and public perception of cyclists as dangerous and selfish law-breakers. In both groups, bicyclists and e-bikers, there are some bad apples. Riding on sidewalks is an especially egregious example, as is recklessly running through red lights and pedestrian crosswalks. But banning the entire mode of transportation is not the solution. In fact, a recent study shows that as more people are riding bikes in NYC, safety awareness has increased, and there’s every reason to believe that e-bike riders would follow the same pattern.

Step 3: Solve the wrong problem

The problem the city faces is not how to restrict e-bikes, but how to enable alternative means of transportation that relieve congestion, pollution and safety issues. Progress is being made in terms of beginning to reverse the car-centric approaches that were prevalent until recent years. But bicycling still faces opposition from a very vocal minority, and e-bikes have even less support since most New Yorkers have never ridden one.

A better route

However, e-bikes are eminently suitable for getting around cities. The goal should not be to ban them but to accommodate them, encourage them and integrate them into our streets. And there are ready means to do this. The primary question is whether they belong in bike lanes or vehicle lanes, and the simple, albeit slightly difficult to enforce, solution is speed limits — establish a lower speed limit in bike lanes than in vehicle lanes. Part of the reason for the stricter ban on e-bikes has been that the NYPD claims it is too difficult for them to enforce speeding in bike lanes, but that doesn’t stand up; there’s no reason that should be any harder than enforcing vehicle speed limits. (Not that the city does much of that in the first place; speeding in cars is hardly enforced at all.)

The speed restriction issue doesn’t exist for classifications of motorcycles. There are different licensing, insurance and operation rules for types of motorcycles based on their speed. What keeps e-bikes from being classified the same way? As far as I can tell, the problem is solely that e-bikes don’t have VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers) stamped into them and, therefore can’t be registered and receive license plates. But that hasn’t prevented other places from legalizing them.

From “New York Moped Laws,” http://moped2.org/laws/new-york.htm. But e-bikes are not considered mopeds.

From “New York Moped Laws,” http://moped2.org/laws/new-york.htm. But e-bikes are not considered mopeds.

Then, having sorted out the legal morass and the short-sighted reactions to the few “bad apples,” let’s take it a step further and add e-bikes to the Citi Bike program. A commercial ZipCar-like version of this using electric mopeds is already expanding in San Francisco (where electric assist is probably greatly welcomed amidst the hilly streets).

E-bikes are a logical expansion of urban-friendly transportation. They relieve congestion, diminish pollution and create more alternatives, especially for those who may not have the ability to pedal a conventional bicycle. Banning them is simply the wrong way to go.

 

 

Posted in Policy, Transportation, Urbanism | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Scent and Non-sensibility

Hana Yakiniku-1

Our Wrongest Product Award nominations have featured several products based on dubious additions of media, notably shower heads, toilets and even coffins that add speakers. But this may be our first nomination for a product that adds scent. The Hana Yakiniku (which apparently translates as “Nose Grilled Meat”) follows a long tradition of odd mashup devices from Japan, including the aforementioned toilet with speakers.

It works by means of a scent-filled accessory that plugs into your cellphone’s earphone jack, enabling you to smell two choices of red meats. A purpose of the device, they say, is for students on tight budgets so they can eat something cheap like rice while smelling savory roasted animal.

Hana Yakiniku-2

Perhaps, then, there is a better, more environmentally-minded application in aiding meat lovers to go vegetarian: it might enable those tofu or seitan meat substitute dishes to seem more satisfyingly meat-like.

via LaughingSquid

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations 

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

Posted in Uncategorized, Wrongest Product Awards | Leave a comment

Peak Oil is Irrelevant

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Peak oil has been predicted since the 1950s to occur by various near-future dates, originally as early as 1965. The prediction that US oil production would peak in the 1970s was, in fact, accurate, but new discoveries – including North American sources involving fracking and tar sands – keep pushing the timeline outward. Some say we will always find new oil sources, though economic theory states they will also get inexorably more expensive.

Recent discussions have revived the peak oil debate. A Business Insider article last spring claimed “it is probably safe to say we have slayed “peak oil” once and for all, thanks to the combination new shale oil and gas production techniques and declining fuel use.” It was counterpointed here. But I basically don’t care.

All the talk of peak oil, that we are running out of fossil fuels and therefore need alternatives — or that we’re not and therefore there’s nothing to worry about — is a distraction. In fact, it’s worse than a distraction; it’s misleading because it makes people think that the goal is to find more oil. And that then gives people the impression that since we, in fact, do have existing and yet-to-be-found sources, we don’t have any energy problems. That’s a dangerous path.

The problem is not a lack of carbon-based fuels. The problem is that, if we use those fuels, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere far off the critical balance needed to maintain the climate. In other words, those sources – coal, oil, gas – must be left in the ground. Burning them is nothing less than suicide.

The only reason we should really care about peak oil is that it means oil will be getting increasingly expensive and, as that happens, renewable sources will become more competitive. (And that’s before factoring in technical and manufacturing advances for renewables. And certainly before factoring in the unaccounted for “external” costs of non-renewables. When you do that, renewables simply become an even more overwhelmingly obvious choice.)

In many of my environmental classes, I start with a slide that shouts “It’s not just about climate change.” And it isn’t: we have a litany of other serious environmental concerns that shouldn’t – can’t – be neglected as we address human-caused climate disruption. But in the case of carbon-based fossil fuels, it really is all about climate change. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not is irrelevant. Whether we have oil spills or polluted water from fracking is almost irrelevant, too.  (With emphasis on the word “almost.”) The carbon within fossil fuels must be left sequestered in the ground.

That leads to one more point. Those untapped fuels are sometimes referred to as “stranded assets.” Those poor assets, left stranded. (Or perhaps more to the point, those poor, poor owners of those assets.) We should really think of them, though, not as stranded assets, but as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

So we want to strand those WMDs, err, assets. It’s an EcoOptimistic solution in that it addresses both ecological and economic issues and puts us on a path to improving our lives as well. The oil industry may not see it that way, but their definitions of economics and human wellbeing are, to put it mildly, different from yours (I suspect) and mine.

Posted in Economics, Energy, Policy | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

A Letter to Mayor de Blasio: Don’t forget the environment as a cause of inequality

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Dear Mayor de Blasio,

Your campaign platform based on the “tale of two cities” was compelling, highly needed and, as evidenced by your election landslide, popular. Having lived in Manhattan for over 30 years, I’ve watched and experienced the extreme economic and demographic changes first hand, changes which accelerated greatly during the Wall Street- and development-friendly era of Mayor Bloomberg.

Your focus on inequity during the election, though, came at the expense of virtually any discussion of environmental issues. In part, this might have been an effort to differentiate yourself from your predecessor’s emphasis on addressing the environment. From the broad mandate of PlaNYC, to the striking rethinking of city streetscapes, down to one of his final accomplishments, the banning of plastic foam food containers, former Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental accomplishments were huge.

It would be a shame if you de-emphasized – or worse, rolled back – these laws and initiatives, particularly because there is a strong correlation between environmental issues and inequality. The most obvious of these is well-documented: the high rates of asthma in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This arises from the placement of noxious uses where both land values and political clout are lower. Clearly this has health effects, but it also impacts income (lost work and increased health costs for those who can least afford it) and education (lost days at school).

Similar overlapping relationships can be found in other areas including access to mass transit and parks, programs for energy efficiency, and food deserts. (While it’s somewhat understandable that the first test of Citibike was in the densest parts of the city, there’s a strong argument that it’s more needed in areas where transit is less accessible, where bicycles can provide the last mile.) In another significant example, many of the areas of NYC most at risk from storm surges and rising sea levels are the poorer sections of the city.

Overall, this relationship between environmental issues and inequality falls under the definition of environmental justice:

The concept behind the term “environmental justice” is that all people – regardless of their race, color, nation or origin or income – are able to enjoy equally high levels of environmental protection. Environmental justice communities are commonly identified as those where residents are predominantly minorities or low-income; where residents have been excluded from the environmental policy setting or decision-making process; where they are subject to a disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and where residents experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations, requirements, practices and activities in their communities. Environmental justice efforts attempt to address the inequities of environmental protection in these communities. [source]

The synergisms in addressing inequality and the environment are a perfect example of EcoOptimism: solutions that simultaneously solve ecological and economic problems while also improving our quality of life. Environmental impacts span both halves of the “two cities” with, if anything, harsher effects on the parts of the city you campaigned for. Hopefully, you and the members of your new administration will see the importance of this and expand upon the groundbreaking environmental work of your predecessor.

 

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Cities, Community and Sustainable Development

The impetus for this post arises from a call for blog submittals on the topic of “Cities and Sustainability” for the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week Conference. Here I propose that community is a necessary part of sustainability.

While the environmental advantages of urban living remain unintuitive to some – a vestige of an earlier environmental movement belief in the virtues of living off the land — anyone who has looked into ecofootprints (or carbon or water footprints) knows that urban dwellers consume significantly less resources than do suburbanites or even most rural denizens. We travel shorter distances, more often by foot or mass transit than by car. Our homes are smaller and stacked, requiring less material to build and fill them with as well less energy to heat, cool and light them. The primary downside, perhaps, is the need to import most of the food supply. But this, too, may be a misplaced criticism since so much of the food supply is grown globally. If anything, then, the transportation and distribution of food is more efficient in cities than in spread out development. And for local, seasonal crops, we’re seeing a growing movement to urban gardens, which have the potential to provide a portion of food needs along with “reconnecting” urbanites to nature (addressing the Thoreaus amongst us).

So the rapid urbanization of the population is, in many ways, an environmentally positive – even necessary — event. Too often left out, however, is the question of what life in these cities is or will be like, and this has at least two significant implications for sustainable development.

Modern urbanization has taken several physical forms: horizontal expansion of low-rise districts, vertical densification where geography limits outward pushes, and ground-up creation of entire new high-rise cities. What most of these lack, due to the artificial influences of zoning, economics and modern architecture, are the street life and vitality of older cities. The tendency, even in the greenest buildings, is toward characterless and anonymous (or, alternatively, monumental) structures that pay little attention to the street or the community. A resulting combination of a lack of pride of place and, as I have written previously (1, 2), design that discourages neighborhood interaction, leads to a diminished sense of community. This loss of belonging to something larger than one’s self contributes to the perception that environmental issues, both local and global, are someone else’s problem.

This also has bearing on the potential for another positive environmental movement: the sharing economy. Sharing objects and services means less consumption has to take place, saving both resources and money. The good news is that urban living, by definition, has a good deal of sharing built into it: sharing of lobbies, floors and ceilings, of sidewalks, parks and transportation. But the possibilities are greater, ranging from tool libraries and community gardens to cars, communal cooking and guest facilities. These are often a part of what’s come to be called “intentional communities” such as cohousing where people band together to form communal groups. But urban areas in general have great potential for sharing, due in no small part to proximity and convenience – so long as a community exists that is conducive to sharing.

There is a reinforcing loop present in this. A strong community sets the stage for sharing, and sharing tends to strengthen the community.

We know that cities objectively represent a more viable path to sustainable development than either suburban sprawl or off–the-grid lifestyles. The much needed — and too often missing – part is attention to the quality of urban life, particularly as cities get denser. Density can be justified on both environmental and economic grounds, but true sustainability demands more. This is the premise behind what I call EcoOptimism: solutions that symbiotically address ecological and economic issues while also improving our lives. Urban living, if developed with people and community in mind, is perhaps our most fundamental EcoOptimistic path.

Posted in Architecture, Community, Policy, Role of designers, Urbanism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My 2013 Word of the Year

transparency sm

When I posted around this time last year that the word of the year, at least according to me, was resilience, I wasn’t sure whether I’d make the word of the year a continuing event. I mean, who needs yet another commitment?

Nevertheless, I’m going to use my mini bully-free pulpit and anoint a 2013 word of the year. Here it comes.

Transparency

The word’s been tossed around a lot for a while now, most commonly in regard to government and making information and processes available. What makes it new and timely for us is its application to the businesses and manufacturers that make and sell the materials, chemicals and products that so heavily impact our lives.

For years, our ability to select products that are safe in terms of environmental and human health has been hobbled by businesses’ claims to proprietary information. Frequently, if you wanted to know, for example, what chemicals were used in a paint, that information was unavailable because it was considered a trade secret in the same way that the formula for Coca Cola is kept under lock and key.

We’re not about to learn exactly what’s in Coca Cola (or Pepsi, if you prefer). Nor are we going to find out the exact make up of every material and finish in our buildings. But the advent of two types of product information labels, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), may change the information and transparency landscape dramatically.

EPDs and their more recent complement, HPDs, are often compared to food nutrition labels. They aren’t the type of green labels we’re used to in that they don’t tell you whether the product meets a green standard such as Energy Star. Rather they tell you what’s in the product and how much of it there is. Equipped with this information, which has been verified by a third party, the idea is that you can come to your own conclusions.

First page of a fictional Health Product Declaration

First page of a fictional Health Product Declaration

Another newcomer in the product and material transparency movement is the Living Building Challenges’ Declare label. With the introduction of another transparency label, the risk arises that the number of labels could start to get confusing and off putting, as has happened with the world of green labels. It’s good news, therefore, that Declare and HPD have formed a partnership.

LBC Declare label

The transparency movement dovetails with another concept, one that I wish I could label the word (or phrase, to be more precise) of the year: the precautionary principle. I’ve discussed this concept previously. Basically, the precautionary principle states that an action or policy or, more relevantly here, a product or material must be proven safe before use or implementation. This principle applies elsewhere in the world, but not in the US.

While information transparency, as provided by EPDs and HPDs, doesn’t directly invoke the precautionary principle, it does enable wider availability of information such as Red Lists so that we can exercise our own precautions.

Can there be too much transparency? One potential issue is information overload. How many people really make use of nutrition labels on foods? Who has the time or the inclination? But it doesn’t matter that many folks won’t take the step of diving into these labels. The fact that they exist and are getting notice is proving to be an incentive for companies to pay attention, to open a window onto their products’ make up as well as altering those products and, in short, to  “come clean.”

 

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