How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment

Green is a trend and people go with trends. … I don’t think people know the real facts.

These words of a green consumer reported in The New York Times last year echo what we see everywhere: environmentalism has become trendy, and green fashion is all the rage. As environmental issues have become trendy, however, the way individuals and politicians make environmental decisions has changed. Instead of weighing policies or products based on their environmental benefit, many now choose policies that offer the greatest social benefit — the approval of your peers, voters and others — even if these policies don’t actually help the environment.

The growing popularity of eco-fads is not merely bad for the economy, it is bad for the environment. Waste of money is waste of resources, and choosing expensive policies that do little for the environment wastes opportunities to create clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and the like.

This growing problem is the subject of “Eco-Fads: How the rise of trendy environmentalism is harming the environment.” While many on the left will argue that we are better safe than sorry, even if it means promoting some policies that don’t actually help the environment, the truth is that eco-fads are not benign. The excerpt below shows how the popularity of “green” building mandates has actually increased energy use.

The lesson is not merely that the left’s approach to environmental policy is increasingly ineffective and even counterproductive. It is that the creativity cultivated in a free market offers the best opportunity to provide the environmental opportunities, like hunting, hiking, fishing that people of all political stripes value. The left’s commitment to eco-fads increasingly demonstrates that not only is the free market the best way to promote prosperity, it is the best way to protect the planet.

“Eco-Fads” is available from the Washington Policy Center or on

What kind of person would oppose the latest in environmentally friendly buildings – those built to meet “green” building standards? If they were honest with themselves, environmentalists.

“Green” buildings are all the rage among environmental activists who want to cut carbon emissions by making our lives more energy efficient. Inefficient buildings, they argue, are a key cause of “climate pollution.” They repeatedly note that buildings account for a significant share of energy use in the United States and the only way to cut our total carbon emissions is to take significant steps in making them more efficient.

The environmental community has even created a system they claim will achieve that important goal. LEED, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the creation of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which is the nation’s most prominent green building advocate and a darling of the environmental community. Environmental activists across the country have not been satisfied with encouraging builders and owners to adopt LEED in their design process. They have actively lobbied numerous communities, states and federal agencies, to make achieving LEED certification a requirement for government and, sometimes, private buildings.

The goal is to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and the risks from climate change. After all, climate change (or global warming…whatever term suits you), is “the most important issue facing this generation.” The stakes simply could not be higher and environmental activists stress that without serious efforts to reduce the energy used in buildings, we will never achieve the aggressive carbon emissions reductions needed to avoid the array of dangerous calamities that await us.

One might conclude that such an important, far-reaching policy would be extremely expensive. Not so, claim advocates of green buildings. Although “green” buildings do cost more, the added cost, about two percent more, is very small. Wouldn’t you pay six cents more for an environmentally friendly cup of coffee? Who would claim that an extra $10 is too much to pay for a dishwasher that helps save the planet? What kind of person would mortgage their children’s future by refusing to pay just two percent more for a green building?

After all, with such a small up-front cost, the energy savings will quickly pay for themselves. Green buildings, it is claimed, cut energy costs by up to 50 percent, allowing building owners to recover the additional cost in just a few years. After that, the savings are all planet-saving gravy.

As if that were not enough, green buildings also make you healthier and smarter.

Advocates claim green buildings provide more fresh air, reducing the potential for “sick buildings,” cutting sick days and absenteeism in green buildings. The benefits of improved health in these buildings adds up quickly, more than paying for the additional costs in reduction in lost worker time and reduction in health insurance costs – so the story goes.

As we are saving our children’s environmental future with green buildings, we’re also making them smarter. Green building supporters confidently claim the extra daylight available in green schools make children smarter, improving test scores and significantly improving their learning environment. Green schools alone increase test scores by ten percent say the “studies.”

It should not come as a surprise, then, that the Washington State Legislature and City of Seattle have both adopted rules favoring these trendy new environmental building standards. To great fanfare, the politicians behind these new requirements were quick to take credit for their courageous stand for the environment – a stand that would help save the planet and save us money.

Parading before the legislature were experts in architecture and engineering, promising that these new regulations would easily save money and reduce energy use. They pointed to a number of schools across the state that had already adopted these rules and were already “saving” about 30 percent in energy costs – money that would quickly pay back the additional cost.

When it turned out that one of the green schools was, in fact, not saving 30 percent but was actually using 30 percent more energy than a school built at the same time in the same school district, legislators were told that while mistakes had been made, the building would soon be achieving those energy savings.

When it turned out that studies promising these savings were shoddy or inaccurate, the legislative lobbyist for the environmental community laughed it off, saying he “wasn’t a big fan of studies in particular,” without explaining how he did get the information he used to make decisions.

Time would tell the story, supporters insisted, that these new rules would be a real benefit for the environment.

Six years later, what is the verdict?

Among dozens of “green” schools in Washington state, only two use less energy than traditional schools built in those same districts. In more than one instance, the “green” schools use 30 percent more energy per square foot than schools built without the elements the politicians and environmental activists promised would so spectacularly cut energy use. Frustrated building managers in these districts are candid about the failures of these new rules even as they feel obliged to defend them in public, often standing next to the politicians who promised the rules would yield great savings.

While the building managers fretted over the failure of the promised energy savings, some teachers and principals praised the buildings for being lighter and cleaner. The data, however, show that green schools aren’t healthier than new schools built without the “green” embellishments. Absentee rates among students are little different at green schools and, just like energy, are actually worse in some of the green buildings.

Most revealing, perhaps, is the fact that when comparing the student achievement ratings provided by the state of Washington for 42 “green” schools compared to the 407 traditional schools in those same districts, the “green” schools ratings are actually worse.

Higher energy use. More sick days. Lower test scores. And all for a higher price.

Such failures do not deter politicians eager to portray themselves as environmentally responsible. After all, they are showing leadership in the fight against climate change. Even if the buildings are merely a symbol of that fight, they serve a purpose – just like the electric car charging station installed at one of the green schools more than a year ago that has never been used. Even if it is not useful in the traditional sense of providing an actual service, it serves as a monolith, a monument honoring those who care about the environment.

Of course, wasting money on efforts that produce no tangible environmental benefit should be condemned especially if the stakes are as high as environmental advocates claim. Real environmentalism is based in a desire to use resources responsibly and reduce waste of money and resources.

Wasting money to save the environment should be an oxy-moron. Increasingly, however, it is not. Wasting money on trendy environmental projects, what I call “eco-fads,” has actually become commonplace for politicians and even green consumers. Rather than judging policies based on their results, eco-fads grow in popularity based on their ability to confer a green image to those who embrace them – just like the most recent fashion trends offer social benefits to those with the latest shoe style.

I have benefitted from spending a decade working on environmental politics in an area that has launched many of the eco-fads people everyone now recognize. What may seem new or trendy in other parts of the world have been the norm in the Ecotopian Northwest for many years.

The purpose of this book is to help share an understanding of the range of forces that have taken us in the wrong direction and to show how we can begin to get back on track, creating a prosperous and sustainable legacy for our planet’s future.

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