We are awash in greenwashing — cynical manipulation of our better angels that want us to use less energy, pollute less and use products that are healthy versus toxic.Now that the economy has cross referenced everything with cost, eco chic values that used to rationalize 10,000-sq.-ft. McMansions with bamboo flooring are becoming absurd.
Like most things that reveal common sense, the sustainability ethos is nothing new — it just used to be that survival and distance made us all recyclers and localvores.
In this series I will try to connect our present confused state of fear of the economic unknown and ongoing desire to do the right thing with a New England original we see every day in our history and in some of our neighbors: The Swamp Yankee.
Before getting into the specific mindsets of those flinty survivalists amid the bogs and fens of coastal New England, it's a good idea to see how good intentions regarding stewardship of natural resources are also nothing new.
Saving the planet is not about creating a new reality, it's about recognizing the reality of very simple truths that having always been in front of us. It may be less heroic and sexy, but Swamp Yankee Green captures a reality that wiser heads have taken to heart since we all had to think about having enough to eat and keeping home and hearth intact in trying circumstances. Stay tuned ...
Past is Prologue
When Lila Vanderbilt Webb built her 24-bedroom idyll on Lake Champlain in 1886, she didn't just want to make a lovely summer home to beat the heat of Manhattan, she wanted to lead the world into a new way of thinking. A 3,800-acre farm, employing 300 workers, Shelburne Farm was designed as a way to change the way all farms worked, and, in fact, the way all agrarian life was lived. To feel at home she used the same landscape architect for her land use planning, Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park. For about 20 years new methods of farming and animal husbandry meshed with the intentionally picturesque vision of enlightened bucolic aesthetics to combine technology and art in a way Lila and her husband Dr. William Seward hoped would transform the farm life of Vermont and agrarian sensibilities in general.
Predictably it failed. Animal husbandry ceased to be a central issue for most produce farmers once the internal combustion engine came into common use. But after 70 years of slow decline into obsolescence, Shelburne Farms was reborn in the 1990's as a boutique inn, extraordinary restaurant and specialty food purveyor. All its services and products are exquisite and, predictably, pricey. The brand's aesthetics are undeniably compelling and completely irrelevant to creating food and housing that will take rural New England let alone a resource challenged world into the 21st century.
So it is with the green movement as it relates to the average American housing consumer. It was clear to Lila that the pre-20th century American farm had to address the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution overtaking every other aspect of the culture. Today it's clear that fossil fuels are not the answer for any aspect of our shared future (duh) and that the excesses of pre-housing-bust America are absurdly self-indulgent and damaging to our landscape and environment (double duh). But are the superficial green solutions offered up today (bamboo flooring, energy-efficient light bulbs, shredded denim insulation, et al) anything more than the very same well-intentioned eyewash that allowed Shelburne Farms to be built while simultaneously dooming its viability?
Duo Dickinson has been an architect for over 30 years and received over 30 awards. His work has been published in over 70 national publications. Mr. Dickinson’s latest book is Staying Put. He is the architecture critic for the New Haven Register, and writes for Design Bureau, A.B., New Haven Magazine, and his own blog, Saved By Design. He has taught at Yale, Roger Williams and Harvard GSD Summer Program.