Over the past decade, an eco‑friendly marketplace has been unleashed across the west. Thanks to consumer demand, the organic food business has grown by double digits every year for the past 15 – waning only briefly in 2009 due to the recession. Automakers are turning out more gas-electric hybrids and full electrics than ever before; biofuel markets are escalating every year; and the global carbon trade is now worth over $30 billion annually.
The promise implicit in these changes is that global warming can be stopped by swapping dirty products for green ones, with little disruption to daily life. Getting behind the wheel of a gas-electric hybrid is not so different from driving a regular car. Ethanol and biodiesel are the same as ordinary petrol. And paying a little extra for an airline ticket to cancel out CO2 emissions takes almost no effort at all.
One of the most popular tools to counteract the mucking up of the planet is the reusable shopping bag. Nothing exemplifies today’s popular environmentalism better. It demonstrates concern about the planet, but allows us to continue to fill our bags just as before, now with ‘environmentally friendly’ products.
Environmentally conscious shopping is valuable, and its existence demonstrates people care about the social and ecological impacts of the products they use. But green consumerism focuses on individual choices while leaving intact the underlying logic of our economic system. While capitalism may be making some adjustments, it nevertheless continues to require ongoing growth, which invariably comes from ever more extraction of natural resources, and mass production, consumption and waste.
Corporations have embraced eco‑friendliness, but only to a point. They understand that green goods can create new marketing opportunities and help curb regulations on CO2 emissions and natural resource use. Yet the captains of industry and their friends in elected office won’t tolerate meaningful conservation. Consuming less while maintaining a high standard of living is an option few of us have in today’s market of supposedly unbounded choice.
But what happens when regulations are framed in a way that fosters inspired innovation? What happens when people participate in shaping their lives around ecological and human health? Consuming less doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice freedom or walk around in grey smocks and eat gruel, as many free marketeers would have us believe. Capitalism can foster innovation, but as the dearth of truly ecologically sane consumer choices reveals, capitalism also hinders innovation when it’s not profitable enough.
Given the option of consuming less and having a good quality life many people will gladly choose it. A prime example is in the town of Freiburg, in south-west Germany, which I visited to get a closer look at what a more ecologically balanced society might be. Reputedly one of the world’s greenest cities, Freiburg is home to two renowned eco-villages, Vauban and Reiselfeld. Both are well established, having been around for more than a dozen years, and together they house a mixed-income community of almost 15,000 people.
The number three tram goes straight from Freiburg’s central train station to the heart of Vauban. I disembark amid Vauban’s small streets and pedestrian lanes lined with terraced houses. At first I see no cars, only people walking or riding bicycles, even though I’ve come in January amid a snowstorm.
The three- and four-storey apartment buildings vary in size – some have only a handful of dwellings, while others have eight, 12, 15. Rows of photovoltaic panels perch atop roofs; indoor atriums are crammed with plants. On ground level there are no cars parked on residential streets and all the flats have sheds for bicycles just outside their front doors. The velvety, snow-dusted hills of the Black Forest rise to the east.
I head to a restaurant to meet a few Vaubanites for lunch. In the five-minute walk from the tram stop I see a health food store, bakery, ice cream shop and an architect’s office in storefronts along the neighbourhood’s main street. In my short journey I also pass two parks.
‘Do you know what a heat-exchanger ventilation system is?’ asks Marcus Neumann as I join the table. The 40‑year‑old physicist’s blue eyes light up as he explains the innovative but simple technology. Distinct from a typical ventilation set-up, a heat-exchanger has a honeycomb-type filter that forces cooler incoming fresh air past the warmer air that’s leaving the house, thereby bringing the heat back indoors. According to estimates, these devices allow a building to retain 90 percent of its heat.
The most energy-frugal buildings rely on a tight seal of well‑milled and fitted windows and doors, thoroughly insulated walls and heat-exchanger vents to prevent warmth escaping. Since so much energy is expended for climate control – in the UK 58 per cent of all power used by households goes toward heating and cooling, in the US it is 56 per cent, in Germany three-quarters – heat-retaining features are vital.
Andreas Delleske walks into the restaurant late, with a tangle of cables and a switchboard under his arm. Delleske, also in his forties, is an energy consultant and one of the earliest residents of Vauban. He insists that I have the homemade spaetzle, a specialty of the region. I take his advice, and after we order, launches right in: ‘I think when people are properly informed, they will choose renewable energy. It’s not ideological, it’s common sense.’
Delleske recounts the early days of the quarter, which is a former German military base, established in the 1930s and taken over by the French army after the second world war. In 1992, the French vacated and ownership reverted to the state of Baden-Württemberg, which sold it to Freiburg. At the time, the city was in the midst of a severe housing shortage, and the local government explored marketing the area to private developers. But a group calling itself the Selbstorganisierte Unabhängige Siedlungs-Initiative (SUSI), or Independent Self-Organised Settlement Initiative, came together and proposed a different option.
Their vision was to turn Vauban – the name the French had given the base – into an eco-settlement open to a range of people, including those on lower incomes and students. SUSI made an initial plan for how the barracks buildings could be transformed into affordable green housing, with which they lobbied the local council. Eventually, in 1994, the town council agreed, by a narrow margin and against the wishes of its mayor, to sell four barracks buildings to SUSI. Delleske speaks of the time with animation: ‘We didn’t ask “what are we doing?” There was almost no discussion, it was just creative.’
In this atmosphere of experimentation, a new entity, Forum Vauban, was founded in 1995 by some of the earliest settlers. Late-night brainstorming meetings led one into another as a larger energy‑efficient, socially oriented community began to take shape. Forum Vauban won a sizeable grant from the German Federal Foundation for Environment, and further support from the city of Freiburg and LIFE, an EU body that funds environmental conservation efforts. The group’s main objectives were to flesh out its socio-ecological planning concepts and the practicalities of how to implement them. To that end, it became more formal, setting up an office and holding weekly gatherings to exchange ideas with the wider public.
Out of all this came a 400-page document with a wealth of proposals. Those eventually realised included the provision of larger, more resource-efficient apartment buildings instead of single‑family dwellings; developing self-sufficient electricity supplies with photovoltaics; and installing a ‘cogeneration’ district power plant, as well as smaller cogeneration units for individual buildings.
Also known as ‘combined heat and power’, cogeneration harnesses the generation of electricity to make not only current but also heat. Conventional power plants allow the large amounts of heat given off as a by-product to escape unused, often through cooling towers. This means that only about a third of the energy from the fuel that is burned is actually used. Cogeneration captures that excess heat and channels it to warm buildings in close proximity to the plant, taking fuel efficiency up to between 60 and 80 per cent.
Forum Vauban’s plans also included mapping out streets, buildings, and public spaces to nurture social interaction. Underpinning the group’s wide-ranging scheme was the philosophy that building a house with sustainable materials and running renewable energy through its power lines is not enough; a deeper cultural normalisation of ecologically sane living must also occur.
Forum Vauban’s ideas about motorised traffic proved most controversial. The group’s primary goal was to reorient daily habits to minimise the use of automobiles, thereby promoting a child-friendly pedestrian zone that prioritised bicycles and mass transit.
To meet this aim, Forum Vauban proposed banning parking on most residential streets, instead requiring residents to leave their cars in lots on the edge of the quarter. What’s more, car owners would have to pay a hefty fee of €16,000 (US$24,000) for each spot. The intention was to discourage residents from having automobiles and, if they did, to get them to forgo driving for short trips. Forum Vauban wagered that if cars weren’t woven into the fabric of the community, then greener options would become normal.
By the time the dust settled on the first phase of development at Vauban, only half of the parking spaces city bureaucrats insisted would be needed were occupied. As of 2007 car ownership in Vauban was half the national average. But despite its success, the hard fight for Vauban’s unique traffic concept is not over. A few days after I left, a group of Vauban residents made yet another appearance at city hall to defend the programme to Freiburg officials, who insist more cars must be allowed.
This is not the only battle the Vauban community has had with the local authority. At the restaurant, I can see the public square outside the window where farmers, butchers, and cheesemongers are setting up for the weekly open-air market. I later learn that the community centre we’re in, Haus 037, the square it sits on and the farmers’ market are all the result of residents pushing against city planners to realise their vision of Vauban. Vaubanites also had to fight hard to get their tram line.
As we finish lunch, Marcus Neumann reflects, ‘What you see in Vauban is the result of social planning and a different consciousness, a self-organisation of the people. Instead of just complaining about it, people have done something.’
Later I meet Michael Gies, a local architect who designed some of the first new buildings in Vauban. He sketches two different floor plans on a sheet of white paper. One has many sides and the other only four. ‘Minimising the surface area of a building is more efficient,’ he says. Instead of erecting single-family houses, it’s more sensible to subdivide larger structures. ‘Single-family homes are a waste of space and resources. Higher-density residential housing is better.’
Gies sits across the table from me in a meeting room in his office, a converted apartment in an elegant old building near the centre of town, decidedly un-Vauban. Retrofitting existing structures to achieve energy efficiency, he says, is a crucial aspect of green architecture – since the vast majority of buildings aren’t new, renovation is key. While Vauban started out in existing barracks, the neighbourhood is now dominated by new buildings in which achieving greater efficiencies is more straightforward.
For some of his buildings in Vauban, Gies has used the principles of passivhaus, a low-energy approach to architecture developed by Wolfgang Feist. The engineer and architect from the town of Darmstadt, a few hundred kilometres north of Freiburg, constructed the first passivhaus in 1991 and subsequently established the Passivhaus Institute, a hub of green architecture today.
Feist created his technology to remedy older efforts at creating airtight, ultra-insulated, solar-heated shelters – they’d proven uncomfortable, in part due to stagnant air and mould. Structures built to passivhaus specifications, however, are another creature altogether. These can derive 40 per cent of their heating requirements from solar rays gleaned through windows, requiring overall just one-15th the power of a conventional abode. On average, a standard home in Germany uses about 20 kilowatt-hours of energy per square foot of space; the passivhaus needs a scant 1.3 kilowatt-hours.
The ‘passive’ element of passivhaus is that it enables the structure to retain as much warmth (or coolness in the summer) as possible, without the need for energy-sucking central heating and air conditioning – what characterises an ‘active’ home. For this to work a building must be oriented to the south (or the north in the southern hemisphere) with a facade of well-insulated windows, and it must have a virtually airtight ‘envelope’, industry jargon for the structure’s overall seal from the elements.
To achieve this, about 16 inches of dense wall insulation (typically rock wool, made from splintered rocks spun with resin) is needed, as well as triple-glazed windows with inert argon gas between the panes and a special heat-retention coating, and, of course, a heat-exchanger ventilation system. Such precision – eliminating gaps between walls, windows, doors, and ceilings – demands painstaking specifications that are more readily achieved through prefabrication in a clean, well-lit factory than at a weather-beaten construction site. Consequently, the most energy-efficient buildings are made from walls, doors, and windows manufactured on assembly lines and installed by skilled, vigilant craftspeople.
I probe Gies about costs. One passivhaus structure he built in Vauban cost 7 per cent more than traditional specifications. But the architect says the added investment will pay off in the long run. After about nine years the money saved from consuming less energy will have covered the initial outlay. Another local architect, Rolf Disch, has taken passivhaus technology to the next level. His Vauban development, a cluster of 50 terraced houses and an office building completed in 2006, produces more power than it uses. To achieve this, the development’s roofs are made of photovoltaic panels. Their surfaces are a slick of shimmering blue cells encased in transparent sheets of glass, pitched to the south so they capture the most light throughout the day.
Disch’s development is economically feasible in part thanks to the nationwide renewable energy sources law passed in 2000 requiring power companies to buy renewable energy generated by private owners, such as those in Vauban. The ‘feed-in tariff’ covers wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and geothermal, creating a guaranteed return to householders on their investment. Under the current pricing, utilities must pay more than double the market rate for solar power, or about €0.45 per kilowatt-hour. The tariff is paid for by a charge to all customers of about €0.01 per kilowatt-hour. Largely considered a success, in the five years after it came into effect the amount of renewable energy fed into Germany’s grid more than doubled.
Although passivhaus is being adopted as a standard in some new buildings across Germany, Gies and Disch are clear-eyed about the obstacles green architecture faces in expanding its reach. This is neither because it’s too expensive, which both contend it isn’t, nor because the technology isn’t ready, since it clearly is, but rather is due to a lack of political will. In a city as progressive as Freiburg, Gies says, ‘there were always people in the local administration interested in green architecture. But without outside [activist] movements, a place like Vauban never would have happened.’
By most accounts the seeds of Freiburg’s environmentally-oriented living sprouted in 1975. That year, officials decided to build one of the world’s biggest light-water nuclear reactors in the small town of Whyl, just 30 kilometres from Freiburg. Thousands of university students from Freiburg, and residents from nearby cities and towns, began to protest, eventually occupying the plant’s construction site.
The Whyl region was dense with vineyards and cropland, and its vintners and farmers were also wary of the nuclear project. Historically a conservative lot, the growers joined the protests, finding themselves shoulder to shoulder with the radical student movement in nonviolent direct action. Converging from around Germany, as well as nearby France and Switzerland, almost 30,000 people took part in the occupation of the site. Eventually, the farmers and activists won, permanently blocking the planned nuclear station.
On the heels of this success came similar demonstrations against nearby chemical plants and nuclear power stations. Also around that time in Freiburg forward-looking ecologists established bodies such as the Öko Institute (the German Institute for Applied Ecology) policy think-tank and the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, now one of the world’s leading solar research centres. Makers of renewable-energy hardware, such as the solar panel producer Solar Fabric AG, also started up. The momentum became self-reinforcing; as more ecologically engaged students, teachers, scientists, architects, investors and politicians gravitated to Freiburg, more projects got under way. A further impetus came from the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. ‘That had such a major effect,’ explains Professor Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute. ‘Chernobyl was the moment when everyone said, “Wait, maybe this isn’t such a great technology.”’
Increasing numbers of Germans came to value conservation and renewable energy as an alternative to nuclear. By the beginning of 2008, nearly 14 per cent of Germany’s electricity came from renewable energy, with the government claiming it is on course to meet 25-30 per cent of its needs through green power by 2020. The experiences of the recent past, combined with the rise of the Green Party and Germany’s dearth of oil and natural gas – and therefore slightly less powerful fossil fuel interests – continue to foster support for energy conservation and renewables.
Before I leave, I stop in to meet Jörg Lange, one of the founders of Forum Vauban. Lange is a trained biologist and divides his time between research and experimenting with the latest in resource-frugal building techniques. For him, an ecologically sane future isn’t just about having the right technology but how it is applied.
With Vauban almost fully settled, Lange is currently focused on the 2,000-Watt Society, a programme put forward by a group of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The idea is that each person in the world should consume an equal amount of energy.
The Swiss scientists calculate that the planet can only support six billion-plus inhabitants if consumption levels are kept to 2,000 watts per person per day: 500 for home consumption, 500 for transport and the remaining 1,000 for everything else (all the energy needed to grow the food we eat, construct the buildings we live and work in, and manufacture and distribute everything). Current energy consumption levels in Germany are just over 4,000 watts per person each day; in the US it’s almost double that.
‘The government believes it can solve global warming with renewables alone. This is a grave miscalculation,’ Lange states. ‘You also have to cut how much we use.’
Around the world, many politicians, the conventional energy sector and manufacturers of all kinds oppose any major reduction in consumption. If people start using less, then economies based on consumption will be forced to undergo a colossal transformation.
As tech-savvy as he is, Lange doesn’t believe in technological fixes; he says that for a solution to be viable it must also address the social forces that keep consumption rates too high. At the root of the projects Lange supports is the sentiment that an ecologically sustainable world requires that no one use more than is needed.
As Lange puts it, ‘The 2,000-Watt Society says that everyone on the planet deserves an equal amount of power.’