"Cheap fossil fuel is the central feature of our modern economy — it explains so much of how we live," acclaimed environmentalist Bill McKibben told an overflow crowd of some 700 listeners at Warren Wilson College recently. "The fossil-fuel industry is the most profitable industry in the history of the world. It's necessary to build a movement to push back against that."
The noted author has done just that, founding an international grass-roots movement known as 350.org. "The biggest problem we've faced as a planet is climate change," he said, "and the pace [of change] is faster than what is politically and economically convenient.
McKibben's Oct. 6 appearance was his last public talk before the organization’s 10/10/10 Global Work Party, which he said was mobilizing residents in 7,000 communities spread across 188 countries.
In Asheville, 10/10/10 events included a tour of the urban-permaculture demonstration site at the Ashevillage Institute and a work party at the George Washington Carver “edible park,” whose more than 40 varieties of fruit and nut trees help boost local food security.
The movement's name, 350, refers to NASA climatologist James Hansen’s contention that any concentration of atmospheric carbon beyond 350 parts per million “is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted," McKibben explained.
"We're at 390 parts per million right now," he continued. "That's why Pakistan was flooding. That's why Afghanistan reached temperatures of 130 degrees this summer. The Russian heat wave and drought reduced their wheat harvest enough that they cut wheat exports altogether. … We've got to rein in the increase in global temperature," he argued. "But can we muster the political will to do it fast enough? There are scientists who think we have waited too long."
The way to turn the tide, McKibben believes, is for everyone to pay the true cost of our consumption of fossil fuels: "We need governments to set a steep price on carbon — that's the key thing."
If the cost of fuels such as coal, natural gas and home heating oil rose enough to put a serious dent in the average person’s budget, the argument goes, people would be forced to make significant changes in the way they live. Among other things, this could increase the demand for more energy-efficient housing.
In Western North Carolina, the demand for such homes is already pretty strong.
Last month’s Green Homes Tour, sponsored by the WNC Green Building Council, showcased 20 currently available local homes, ranging from a two-bedroom duplex in West Asheville’s Gaia Village for $167,000 to a rustic mountain lodge in Arden listed at $2.3 million.
And despite selling for more per square foot than traditional construction, new green-built homes here have been selling faster, according to David Mosrie, managing partner at Push Design.
One reason may be that in the long term, these structures will actually save homeowners money, says the Green Building Council’s Maggie Leslie. “You can't simply compare the mortgage of an older traditional home to that of a new HealthyBuilt home. The significantly reduced utilities, maintenance and health expenses typically save a lot more than the mortgage savings [of the convenional house] and will save even more over time as fuel prices rise.”
This year’s tour highlighted the substantial variation in the meaning of “green-built.” Extra insulation plus energy-efficient windows and appliances can already take a bite out of utility bills while reducing one’s carbon footprint. But the tour also featured the first LEED-certified houses built in Western North Carolina and in Asheville, respectively.
LEED certification verifies that a project was designed and built to conserve energy and water, reduce CO2 emissions, improve indoor air quality and consume fewer resources.
Builder Dave Battle began with an inexpensive site in West Asheville’s Burton Street neighborhood. Integrating green-building elements into a supertight structural “envelope,” Battle saved money at every stage of construction. At $279,000, the LEED Silver-certified residence was the cheapest high-performance green home on the tour.
In general, however, high-tech “deep green” can cost more, as evidenced by a LEED–Gold certified home in Leicester. Listed at $849,000, the Southern Living Idea House uses captured rainwater to flush toilets; a solar array generates surplus electricity that’s then sold back to the utility. Most of these systems are hidden, so the place retains the look of an old-time farmhouse.
“We have to continue to push the envelope,” Leslie maintains. “Standards such as Passive House or Net Zero Energy are where we need to go to truly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”
— Susan Andrew can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at email@example.com.