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kicking the can

I saw the film, Anthropocene, last week. How it turns desolation and destruction into beauty is testament to the vision of the filmmakers but, holy shit, was it depressing. I left there feeling despair. I can’t really say that it’s a feeling I’m familiar with — living my lucky life in my little farmhouse in rural Quebec.

I sat at the dinner table a night later and when my fifteen-year-old daughter asked me if I feel optimistic about the world, I found myself welling up. It wouldn’t have been fair to her to let the tears come. But I couldn’t help thinking that, by the time she is the age I was when I had her, the world, which feels like it’s on a nearly irreversible path, is probably going to be beyond repair.

No, I don’t feel optimistic. I watch the sea levels rise and I know what it means. I watch the forest fires and tsunamis, the earthquakes and the towns drowning in tailings. It feels as if the planet is trying to shrug us off, like a horse twitching its muscles to shake off flies. And can you blame it?

So many communities will be displaced. Where will they all go? It seems the world’s nations’ willingness to open their door to their fellow man is shrinking along with our planet’s dwindling resources. We are going to have to get better at sharing very quickly, which will mean showing a level of tolerance for “other" that seems increasingly hard to come by these days.

You get the picture of my sorry state of mind. I had an evening of wallowing. It’s easier to be paralyzed into inaction faced with the enormity of what we need to do. But I can’t sit on my ass anymore.

On the personal front, it has meant foregoing my beloved bedtime bath, not eating meat (if only to assuage my guilt when buying plane tickets), cutting down on overall consumption and irritating my kids by refusing to buy paper towels and tupperware. Instead of annoyed I find I’m grateful to the town for upping the ante on the composting by only picking up the garbage once a month. It’s a welcome kick in the pants to do better.

On the work front, it has meant moving squarely into the passive house realm — not settling for the products that are crappy but easy to find at the lumber yard, really getting my head around the science and constantly hip-checking our poor, unsuspecting clients into raising the bar on their home’s energy performance. As the clever Jesse Thompson1 put it, “stealth passive”.

Of all the things I can do, hands down the biggest impact I can have is in the homes we build and retrofit. I’ve been aware of the Global Warming Potential of the products we use2 since we first started down the building science path (thank you, Yestermorrow3). But it was Jacob Deva Racusin4, (along with his fellow brainiacs, Ace McArleton and Chris Magwood) that really brought it home via a presentation a few weeks ago after Passive Buildings Canada’s AGM.5

The energy used in Canada for heating and electricity accounts for a whopping 45% of our Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the majority of which goes into our buildings.6 That’s not even counting the energy used to produce and transport the building materials or the containers of stuff we strip out of them. It is by far the biggest slice of the nasty pie. Making our homes less wasteful may not be as sexy as driving a Tesla or installing solar panels but its impact is immediate and huge. We tend to feel a certain smug satisfaction in Quebec about how clean our hydroelectricity is compared to coal or natural gas or nuclear. New research, however, points to far higher emissions of C02 (Hydro Quebec’s claims of .4kgC02e/MWh aren’t borne out by recent studies which put it at or around 200kgC02e/MWh)7 and methane (many-fold worse for the planet than C02) .

But it isn’t just about doing it, it’s about how. Yes, the tighter and the more insulated our houses are, the less energy we’ll use in the long term. But what about the damage we do in the short term when we use materials that suck? High Density Spray Foam and XPS are some of the worst culprits but even EPS and Mineral Wool and Fibreglass kinda suck.2 Jacob and company put together a bunch of terrific slides that compare the CO2 emissions of every kind of home — from a code house with crappy heating (10-24-38 with coal-powered electricity) to an airtight foam house with great heating (20,40,60 with an efficient heat pump). Yes, in the long term (like 100+ years), the high performance house might (yes, might) edge out the shitty house in terms of total C02 but in the medium term (50 years), it doesn’t. And in the short term, it’s a friggin’ disaster. What it does, in fact, is immediately release a huge amount of CO2 manufacturing these nasty products. You know the ones I mean — they make your skin itch, they stink to high heaven or give you a headache, the instructions usually involve a mask or a suit, or you’re seeing little scraps of it strewn all over the worksite or static-stuck to your clothes and skin.

I think what Anthropocene really did for me is bring home the fact that we no longer have the luxury of thinking long-term. There is only short term. We can’t afford to spend the next fifty years pumping CO2 into the atmosphere for long-term energy savings. We need to save energy WITHOUT CO2 emissions now. And if we can use plant-based products to sink the carbon into our buildings we’re doing double-good. And there’s no real excuse not to. Quebec is arguably the most backward place in North America on the construction front. Our code is positively antiquated and the bodies meant to enforce it (which they fail to do on a massive scale) don’t know thing one about building science. The green products are a royal pain in the ass to find. But even WE can get everything we need.

Yes, there’s a premium to be paid but either we pay it or our kids do. We need to wake up and realize it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road. There’s no more road.

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