Listening to the radio recently, I heard an interview with the mayor of Greensburg, Kansas, the town that was almost completely destroyed by a massive tornado on May 4th. Now, the mayor, the governor of Kansas, and others hope to make Greensburg “the greenest rural community in America.” They are already planning to rebuild the town in an environmentally sound fashion.
While I immediately perked up at the idea of green building in the heart of the Red states, interweb naysayers began the usual tirades against kooky liberals and their (expensive) environmental agendas. “Yeah but whose [sic] gonna PAY for all this????”-type rants started popping up a day after the governor’s announcement.
As I’ve said before, “conventional” (outdated and environmentally destructive) material and energy consumption have got to go. The very tornado that chewed up Greensburg may be attributable to global warming: a higher incidence of Class 5 tornados (like this one) is one predicted effect of rising temperatures. And rising temperatures are themselves byproducts of some pretty flawed thinking and decision-making. So what’s wrong with trying to get it right this time? And what about all the benefits that accrue to the townspeople, the town itself, and even this country, if the plan succeeds? Hello? Patriots? Are you paying attention?
Let’s take one single material, likely to be used in every house built in the new Greensburg: insulation. The conventional choice these days is fiberglass. Fiberglass is energy-intensive to make, and more importantly, a health hazard. To install it you need to wear glasses, gloves, a mask, and long sleeves — it’s a skin and eye irritant, and causes lung damage and disease. You’d never want to stay in a room with lots of uncovered fiberglass insulation — you might want to be careful about having children and pets around, too.
An alternative, insulation made from recycled denim (mostly scraps from factories, but soon old worn-out jeans themselves), causes no health problems and can be installed with bare hands. Environmental issues aside, wouldn’t it be nicer for the Greenburgians to be able to stay in their houses when they are built? To be able to insulate, or at least help with insulation (a simple and safe job) if they can? And the recycled material is made in Arizona, not too far away.
So we have, at reasonable transport distance, an American-made product made from recycled material (which lessens waste-disposal costs) with less energy and pollution (again reducing costs — to build and maintain power-supply systems and to clean up the environment and/or deal with health problems, like childhood asthma, caused by manufacturing pollution). The material is safe enough to be handled by kids and to be installed by non-pros. And it won’t make anyone sick if another tornado comes and spreads it around.
The denim insulation itself costs around 20 percent more than fiberglass, but I’ll bet if you factored in ALL the costs, and the money saved by all the family members helping, the two materials would at least break even.
As Governor Kathleen Sebelius put it when she announced the green city plan for Greensburg, “Why go back to 1950 standards when you could rebuild it to 21st century standards?”
The fact that Greenburg is a totally blank slate actually makes some green initiatives much more affordable. What if the town put corn-burning boilers in all the new houses instead of oil or gas? The guys who delivered oil were all wiped out too, so they can as easily switch over to being corn dealers. Rebuild with corn storage facilities, instead of oil storage. While the boilers themselves are more expensive, the whole rest of the infrastructure won’t cost any more: I’d bet good money that rural Kansans know how to work with corn. Everyone’s heating bills would go down, local corn farmers will have a dramatically increased local market, and an entire town will be off oil from the Middle East.
The question shouldn’t be who’s going to pay for making these changes, but who’s going to pay if we don’t?