Big Societal Shifts Happen All the Time

Some days when I am feeling low, I can really despair about climate change and the lack of progress we as a nation seem to have made.  In tackling the question of low-energy in buildings, Passive House has really been a bright spot.  Having worked on buildings that were aspiring to be green for years, finally making a dent in the energy piece is exciting and the dream of net-zero buildings someday being the standard is now a real possibility.  What comforts me even more though is how quickly change can happen.  Cultural change combined with changes in technology can radically shift the path we take.

There is a photo I have of my mother and her brother as children sitting on the fender of their car.  Not every family expected to have a car in the nineteen-twenties.  The car has wooden spokes in its wheels and a wide running board. As I look through the photos of my mother's life I am struck by the tremendous change she saw in the world.

When she was a young girl she lived on a small farm in Glendale, then located well outside of Los Angeles.  She raised turkeys, chickens and rabbits, grew fruit trees in the yard, and tended a vegetable garden.  Her family took the bounty from their garden and canned and preserved it for the winter months.  She would ride horses in the San Fernando Valley and milk was delivered by horse and wagon.  Laundry was washed with a wringer washer and hung out on the line to dry.

When she was a young woman in her twenties she joined the air-force during WWII and had already lived long enough that airplanes were commonplace.  In the Air-Force she flew to China in a twin-engine plane.  After returning to the States she cooked simple meals in her apartment.  Canning her own food was not necessary because the small neighborhood store had plenty of canned food on the shelves.  She did her laundry in the Laundromat.

In the 1960's, when I was young, she was the queen of convenience in the kitchen.  She shopped in the supermarket and saved recipes describing how to make casseroles with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. Milk was still delivered to her door by the milkman but it was delivered by truck. Soon this too was phased out in favor of the convenience of the supermarket.  She did her laundry at home in her own washer and dryer.

By the time I was fourteen, our country had sent men to the moon.  On a return visit to Glendale, she found that her neighborhood and favorite horseback riding spots had been swallowed up by the Los Angles sprawl.   In the last two decades of her life, she travelled exploring the world this time by jet. She started rejecting overly processed food and her cookbooks became focused on fresh food that was readily available, regardless of the season.  She explored cooking Chinese, Italian, Indian, and Middle Eastern food whose ingredients were also becoming available.  Her grandchildren played with computers and spent time on the Internet.   

Looking at these changes in our culture during the course of my mother's life it is easy to see that our most serious problems relating to climate change were primarily developed in the span of her lifetime. 

In my own life I have seen rapid changes occur as well.  When I was a child watching TV, Lucy and Desi had separate beds.  I was in the second class of women to be accepted at Johns Hopkins University, my father remodeled our house with lead paint, leaded gasoline fueled our cars, and when I went to work after graduate school I was one of the only non-smokers in my office.  Our culture has proved over and over that it can turn on a dime when we understand our problems and the consequences our current practices have on our health and well-being.

In just a decade the knowledge surrounding the design and construction of our buildings has changed too.  When I was in graduate school we were learning to heat and sometimes overheat our buildings with the sun, several decades later we were responding to the list of growing environmental concerns and LEED was born. At this point we were analyzing the energy use in our buildings using fairly primitive computer models.   Ten years ago I couldn't find carpet suitable for housing that met any of the LEED criteria and today there are abundant choices.   Passive House has entered the scene and is changing the way we think about energy modeling and energy conservation in buildings. PV is starting to become more affordable.  We are finally getting serious about water use.

When LED lighting was first becoming popular I saw an early prototype for a fixture...the design was quirky, awkward and I frankly didn't see the broad application or the possibilities.  I remember talking with the sales rep and pointing to a photograph from space looking back at the earth at night.  The photograph disturbs me because it shows the sheer magnitude of our problem.  I looked at the rep and said, "... you mean to tell me that you are going to change every one of those lights in that photograph to LED?"  "Yup," he said confidently, "just like they got there... one light at a time."  That comment really struck me - that is how they got there, one light at a time.

Humanity really can react very quickly when we decide it is important and we are given the tools to do so.  At the tipping point everyone jumps on the bandwagon.  We are social creatures that emulate one another.  Climate change is a problem that was created largely in the span of my mother's lifetime.  Our culture changed rapidly because everyone saw the benefit.  It can change again quickly, if there is common vision and the tools are in place.  It is this thought that I focus on when I am low and feeling that we will not be able to solve our climate crisis. Comforted by these thoughts I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work again on my little piece of it.