Being green depends on where you come from, where you are going and where you are now. Greening your own space could mean planting a seedling or developing a living building.
Has sustainability been an integral part of your family because of where you live or where you’ve been? Is environmental sustainability a component of your cultural heritage or religion? Have you done enough research, taken a class or had an experience that defines what “green” means for you?
Even if you can’t answer those questions, the point is that what it means to be green originates somewhere. The variety of meanings is broad enough that we can be green anywhere.
The only way we can determine whether businesses are operating in a “green” way versus merely telling convenient “green” truths is through research and experience. If this sounds like a lot to ask, think about the ecosystem services we receive. It is worth knowing the difference between greenwashing (organizational disinformation to create the appearance of an environmentally responsible public image) and green solutions, because our health depends on healthy ecosystems.
We Are Heading for a Different Environmental Future
With over 60% of the world’s ecosystems deteriorating, we are heading toward a future that is very different from the past 100 years. Climates are changing, more species are facing extinction and resources are being depleted.
On the flip side, green infrastructure is on the rise. Between green certification programs and growing public opinion favoring environmental causes, we are getting better at developing green solutions that veer away from greenwashing and toward using resources efficiently.
Better Environmental Policies and Planning Are Needed
Green infrastructure, green certification programs and public engagement to validate green solutions won’t happen unless environmental policy and planning tools are also developed to reinforce successes.
Any efficient environmental policy must consider the ecosystem of problems it exists in. A single policy focused on one issue can be designed to prevent other environmental issues from worsening. Even if we can’t get the policy design right on the first try, we can design them to be changeable when necessary and to incorporate the unique knowledge gained from simply executing that policy.
When it comes to designing multi-problem policy solutions, we can learn simply by doing. Due to the scale of environmental problems and the limited resources available for solutions, problem-solution couples have been developed. For example:
Problem: Pollution from over-fertilization in mono-culture agriculture
Solutions: Organic farming and permaculture
Problem: Climate change effects
Solutions: Marine spatial planning, adaptive management planning and disaster resilience rebuilding policies
Problem: Pollution reduction in the air, water and soil; ecosystem deterioration and species extinction
Solutions: Permitting requirements (percentage of impervious surface on properties), green material and product tax incentives, conservation easements and incentives, construction moratoriums and conservative resource extraction policies
Problem: Loss of cultural heritage
Solutions: Conservation of place incentives and cultural heritage retention building policies
Planting in Urban Spaces
Seeing more green in your environment helps you make other “green” decisions, whether it’s a plant in the corner of your office or a sky-lit atrium in the lobby. The greener our spaces, the more likely we are to take other green actions.
For example, office plants improve indoor air quality and in turn increase employee productivity. That means we have more time to integrate our “green team” work into our everyday work. For instance, indoor gardens can be stress-relieving sanctuaries. Plant nurseries reduce the carbon footprint of a space because green plants reduce carbon emissions.
The benefits of converting empty spaces into growing oases are clear. These benefits include increased property values, greater food output, more product production and therefore more job creation along with carbon sequestration, storm water/waste management.
Impermeable Surfaces Increase Flash Floods and Pollution
We have always had to deal with the consequences and benefits of rainwater. We have migrated away from deserts and floodplains, we have built levees and dams, and we have captured rainwater in many ways. So what has changed?
In more recent human history, we increased impermeable surfaces throughout the world by constructing parking lots, roads and building foundations. The increases in impervious surfaces can also lead to increased flash flooding, redirection of natural water courses, and ecosystem degradation and pollution.
Even with alternatives such as permeable surfaces, the current amount of impervious surface equals the size of Ohio. Rather than argue about where we should pave or re-pave, we ought to consider what we can do with existing infrastructure to address the consequences of impervious surfaces.
In our urban and suburban spaces, we can integrate permeable parking lots, bioswales, bioretention ponds and mulched green spaces, which channel rain for meaningful purposes. Rain gardens also collect water while giving us a hands-on family-, community- or school-based project to deal with the problem of storm water and pollution.
The green movement accelerated especially after the 1974 energy crisis. Building green means rather than greenery being an afterthought, it is incorporated into whatever is being constructed – homes, businesses, parks and more.
Building green aids in storm water management and carbon footprint reduction. The cost of treating water in central water facilities can be reduced if we reduce pollution further up in the watershed, on our own property.
When properties are derelict or disaster-stricken, there is even more opportunity to rebuild green. If we consider what our landscapes looked like before the Industrial Revolution and our deteriorating ecosystem services, we are actually rebuilding what we once had.
Building green can be as small as making sure there is grass, plants, shrubbery or mulch as part of the landscape. Building green can be as large as green walls and roofs that both cool buildings naturally and serve as carbon sinks.
Building green, working green and living green yield tremendous benefits for us and the ecosystems we depend on. The most convincing benefit might be that seeing more greenery both improves our health and reduces our stress. Simply put, more green equals less stress.
This is a Guest Contribution. Dr. Ariana Marshall is a faculty member with the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, American Public University. She is the Director for the Caribbean Sustainability Collective and focuses on culturally relevant sustainability and climate change adaptation. Ariana completed her doctorate in environmental science at FAMU.