Re: GBlist: Comment on Watson's Green Building Council LEED

Hal Levin (
Thu, 06 Mar 1997 11:58:48 -0800

You are right - environmental impacts are very difficult to assess. That is
why Azar, Holmberg, and other in Sweden have developed the Socio-Ecological
Indicators of Sustainability. That has led to the Natural Step program.
While I am not familiar with Natural Step, I have read several of Holmberg's
and Azar's separate and joint publications, and I find their approach a
refreshing response to the problem you raise. Essentially, they say we
monitor the rates of human transformation or translocation in comparison to
natural flows. The data are available for the analysis they recommend, and,
looking at some preliminary results (Azar et al, 1996, Ecological Economics)
I think they point us in the right directions (based on what little I know).
I recommend you look at some of the papers if you are interested in learning
more. I think you will find many of your concerns are addressed quite well.
There are several collected in John Holmberg's 1995 dissertation,
"Socio-Ecological Principles and Indicators for Sustainability," from the
Institute of Physical Resource Theory, Chalmers University, in Göteborg,
Sweden. Most are referenced in the Azar et al article in the June 1996 issue
of _Ecological Economics_ which may be more accessible to you.

- Hal Levin

At 05:26 PM 2/20/97 PST, Mike O'Brien wrote:
>Hi, Hal--
>Your point about values and LCA is very well taken--but I am skeptical that
>environmental impacts can be fairly valued. In fact, I believe companies
>are excluding environmental costs that they classify as "externalities".
>For example, I'm looking at a brochure from Western Wood Products that says
>"What's the most environmentally compatible building product in the world?"
>on the cover, and inside contains a simplified LCA. What is the key
>assumption about wood products? Quote, "...only wood products come from a
>renewable resource--America's Forests. Annual growth in these forests
>safely exceeds removal volumes by 30% or more."
>That claim is an assertion, not a fact: no one knows if forests are renewable.
>But also, wood products companies have not yet started to pay the costs of
>sustainable forest management and harvesting--they're still cutting the
>national forests and leaving the "external" costs of environmental damage
>for the public to pay. Today, the Forest Service goes along with the
>charade--for example, the costs to taxpayers of building roads for loggers
>to access the forests is excluded from the calculated cost of a sale. When
>wood products companies have to build access roads that don't cause
>landslides, or buffer streams against erosion, wood products are going to
>become much more expensive. Until then an LCA could rate wood favorably
>because real costs are excluded.
>Mining companies are similarly disinclined to accept the costs of cleanup
>for past environmental damage.For example, no mining company accepts any
>responsibility for the billions of dollars it will cost to clean up the
>Berkeley pit in Butte. When they prepare the LCA for a product, they will
>exclude that cost. Yet, someone's going to pay it!
>How can LCAs ever become objective when companies have so much at stake--to
>skew the results to make their products look good?
>>It is the WEIGHTING of different environmental effects or impacts that
>>requires subjective judgment. But, even that can be made systematic (not
>>objective, but potentially consistent) by using consistent criteria and
>>applying them consistently. Values will still enter in. That is unavoidable.
>>That is exactly why I insist that we talk about them - if we don't, then we
>>are likely just using those of the people who are currently empowered by
>>default. We should not refuse to talk about values that we don't share,
>>whether we think we can change them or not. We cannot change them if we do
>>not talk about them.
>>The value choices are always present. They cannot be avoided. Not discussing
>>them or pretending they are not there, or not making them explicit does not
>>make them go away. It simply hides them from view and precludes discussion.
>>Why are we so afraid to discuss values? Just because we may disagree? All
>>the important decisions are made with tremendous dependence on embedded
>>values. Sustainability is about values - valuing other species, and valuing
>>other humans, living now and in the future.
>O'Brien & Associates
>Environmental Building Consultants
>Portland General Electric Earth Smart program
>Earth-Wise Builders
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Hal Levin <>

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