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Weekend Reading: Great Moments In Urbanism That Weren’t; An Etymology Of Greenwashing; The Biggest Misconception About Energy Efficiency

Friday reading is best enjoyed at the end of a workday on Friday, but these links were picked to stay fresh for at least 14 days. After that, you should probably sniff your screen to make sure everything’s okay.

  • Without ambition, green building would not exist. But while there’s a certain basic virtue inherent to ambition, there’s also such a thing as too much (or too silly) ambition. Stephen Millhauser’s “Martin Dressler” is a great novel about this. And this New York Times slideshow on the over-the-top, under-conceived, hugely ambitious failures in urban planning in New York City is a very entertaining tour through moments in New York City history when laudable ambition became… well, too interesting and too big to exist.
  • As it’s one of the most vivid bits of language in the green building lexicon, I’m generally inclined not to look the gift horse that is “greenwashing” too squarely in its metaphorical mouth. (Great sentence there, you’re welcome) Considering how polluted with acronyms and jargon the vocabulary of green building is, a colorful and effective neologism is a welcome presence. But where did this most colorful of words come from, and how did it enter the green lexicon? At AOL’s WalletPop, Mitch Lipka offers a look at the history of the word, and at the interesting career of Jim Westerveld, the upstate New York activist who coined it.
  • David Owen, who is something of a favorite around these parts for his very good book “Green Metropolis,” has apparently fallen in with the wrong crowd. Not the wrongest crowd — those would be the House Republican trolls looking to defund Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s wildly successful (in terms of saving money and reducing emissions) “Green The Capitol” program — but one that’s far closer to the wrong side of things than usual. As enjoyable as Owen’s book is — and we recommend it highly (and repeatedly, I know) — it also evinces an unfortunate Freakonomical tendency towards Oh Did I Just Shock You?-contrarianism. It’s common enough, and it’s never cool, but it does perhaps explain why and how Owen found himself endorsing a study from the Breakthrough Institute endorsing the generally discredited “rebound theory.” The rebound theory, which has nothing at all to do with Toronto Raptors forward Reggie Evans, holds that any increases in energy efficiency are inevitably canceled out by activities and behaviors that use more energy. Which puts Owen and the Breakthrough Institute in the strange position of advocating for more and more effective energy efficiency measures, while simultaneously warning that those measures aren’t really going to do anyone much good. At Grist, David Goldstein and Ralph Cavanaugh offer a concise and effective rebuttal. David Owen, come back.

The most obvious rebuttal to “rebound effect” claims is the performance of the U.S. economy since the early 1970′s: Between 1973 and 2009, U.S. economic production more than tripled even as total U.S. energy use increased by less than a third. If “rebound effect” advocates were right, that record would have been flatly impossible, since savings in energy use would be offset by activities that demand energy, keeping energy use trends in lockstep with economic growth (just as they were for the first three decades after World War II).

That was indeed the confident prediction of some economists when we began our careers in the mid-1970s, and such forecasts lie today on the ash heap of history — along with hundreds of unmourned power plants that never had to be built and mines that never had to be dug.

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