How did green design go from a fringe concern to a mainstream crusade?
On the occasion of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people participated in demonstrations and other events. The national teach-in, organized by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, represented either the birth of the modern environmental movement or the last gasp of the ’60s—take your pick—but it’s clear that the cultural and political ground had shifted. That year, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and the Clean Air Act signed into law. Later in the decade, a new generation of architects and designers began exploring solar power and other sustainable building practices, fueled in part by a spike in energy prices.
That momentum, however, proved short-lived. By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was president and the age of conspicuous consumption had begun. Environmentalists (“tree huggers”) became subjects of ridicule. The green-building movement and its young practitioners got pushed to the margins. “We were alone,” William McDonough recalls. “We just got attacked.” But fundamental change takes time (note to disillusioned Obama supporters). The movement’s major players continued to hammer away at the problem while growing their practices and gaining the kind of credibility that only comes with age and experience. Gradually, their ideas infiltrated the mainstream.
The founding of the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993 was a watershed event, because it marked a shift in environmental strategy: LEED would attempt to co-opt the marketplace rather than hector it into submission. And in spite of its many flaws, the program has proved transformational. It also served as a model for corporate engagement (however imperfect). Recently, we talked to three of the green movement’s early pioneers—McDonough, Hunter Lovins, and S. Richard Fedrizzi—and asked them to reflect on the formative years, the perilous present, and the uncertain future.
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