The narrative of environmental sustainability throughout society, especially in relation to the greening of existing buildings, is heavily dependent upon the discourse that constructs our view on the subject. Social construction is after all the idea that anything contains a certain set of characteristics because a societal consensus agrees that it does (Robbins et al., 2014). Following the ideas of French Philosopher Michel Foucault, he argues that power and knowledge are fundamentally inseparable, which has the ability to construct and maintain a singular means of thinking with respect to one concept or another. Considering that positions of power have a major influence on nationwide discourses, the transition from one presidency in the United States to the next has the potential to significantly alter society’s view of sustainability and renewable energy resources.
This was the case in the early 1980’s with the arrival of Republican Ronald Reagan and the departure of Democrat Jimmy Carter. The Carter presidency was responsible for the addition of 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House, which he himself believed would be the first step to setting the United States on a clean energy path (Wihbey, 2008). This plan directly impacted the oil and gas industry as it called for a reduction in consumption form these resources and instead sought to utilize renewable energy sources, including solar on buildings across the United States (Carter, 1977). However, five years into the Reagan presidency they were removed, primarily due to the implementation of a much different national energy consumption plan from that of then-president Jimmy Carter. The plan stemmed from the 1979 energy crisis due to decreased oil output during the Iranian Revolution, sending shockwaves throughout the oil and gas industry in the United States (Graefe, 1978-1979). Consequently, the widespread public fear led to questions of whether oil and gas would be suitable to meet the U.S. energy demand.
In order to maintain power, the oil and gas industry developed a close relationship with President Reagan in hopes of winning his support to remove regulations (Jaroslovsky, 1981). Furthermore, President Reagan believed in “the free market as the best arbiter of what was good for the country [and that] corporate self interest would steer the country in the right direction” (Murse, 2016). Subsequent executive actions removed regulations and price controls on petroleum resources, effectively removing Jimmy Carter’s steps towards utilizing renewable energy while praising oil and gas as the one solution to the country’s energy crisis. This is just one example of how powerful institutions (like the oil and gas industry) have attempted to ensure that their objectives and views of the world remain the norm in society. Utilizing a government to avoid the collapse of the non-renewable energy discourse constrains the knowledge that is available to the public, preventing other discourses from gaining power in their own right. Thus, it is imperative to search beyond major energy discourses in order to understand the risks and hazards they pose to society and the environment.
President George W. Bush’s terms coincided with a period of heightened concern about US energy usage. At the beginning of his presidency, Bush was pressured to sign the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The protocol strived to bring about proportional reductions by setting a standard of “leadership by the richer and higher-emitting industrialized countries” (Grubb, 2004). Bush refused to sign the protocol, though, citing its failure to include multiple high-polluting nations as a serious dealbreaker (Bush, 2001). During his 2006 State of the Union address, he did pledge to dedicate funding to emission reduction research and implementation plans (Bush, 2006), but the rest of his term saw a much greater focus on energy efficiency in automobiles than in homes and businesses (Bush, 2008). Although vehicular pollution is a major source of environmental concern, it should not be ignored that the construction industry also contributes harmful emissions and causes “more water pollution incidents than any other industry” (Gray, 2017). Thus, it seems that this focus on cars might reflect Bush’s relationship with ExxonMobil (Vidal, 2005) more than a genuine interest in environmental protection. It is very likely that Exxon was redirecting governmental efforts so that more funding could be given to the automobile industry, even though environmentally harmful building designs have just as much dangerous potential.
Unsustainable building design poses risks to human physical and mental health through both energy usage and building materials. Energy usage obviously results in an increase in emissions of carbon dioxide from the building which is a hazard to human health. Given that most energy used in buildings comes from coal and oil, the risks associated with the production and burning of those materials must be taken into consideration. When coal is burned, sulfur dioxide is produced, which is a hazard as it can cause asthma, along with the potential to worsen any existing lung problems in humans (Kampa and Castanas, 2008). With time, this health impact will end up being a risk to society as a whole as extensive amounts of money are likely to be spent trying to fix these problems, along with the time lost and transaction costs of those affected being unable to work. The risks of these types of energy are clear, but they are still the most common sources of energy today. By changing that and having individual buildings, neighborhoods, and cities work to use less of this type of energy, and more renewable energy resources, a better future can be seen for human health, and society as a whole.
The built environment influences human choices, which in turn affect health and the global climate. Distinct from the natural environment, the built environment is comprised of manmade components of people’s surroundings, from small-scale settings; offices, houses, hospitals, shopping malls, and schools to large-scale settings; neighborhoods, communities, and cities. The structures that connect the two also play an intricate part in human choices, which include roads, sidewalks, green spaces, and connecting transit systems. The development of the built environment involves many sectors, including urban planning, architecture, engineering, transportation design, and more recently environmental psychology. Neighborhood design not only influences both physical and mental health, but many current community design practices also adversely contribute to global climate change (Ewing, 2006).
Various building aspects influence the health of users. For example, design characteristics of hospitals, such as better lighting, layout, and ventilation, have resulted in reduced stress and fatigue in patients and staff, as well as improvement in overall health (Ulrich, 2004). Similarly, building placement relative to residential and commercial areas influences whether occupants must depend on automobiles or are able to walk, bicycle, and use public transit to other destinations (Handy, 2002). The conditions of a building also affect the health of its occupants. Mold, pests, lack of safe drinking water, inadequate heating or cooling, waste disposal, and ventilation systems result in adverse health effects, including respiratory illnesses, asthma, infectious diseases, injuries, and mental health disorders. These conditions, which are characteristic of substandard housing, predominantly affect vulnerable populations, specifically people of racial minorities (Krieger, 2002).
Improvements in building efficiency have for a long time been at the center of debate by experts and politicians alike. The existing social construction of energy usage ensures that nonrenewable forms of energy always win out over renewables and maintain that existing power. This discourse prevents sustainable action from being taken, which includes several long term risks to human health and resource availability, among others. As an example, the pollution released from most buildings that consume nonrenewable forms of energy, leads to chronic respiratory illnesses including asthma and shortness of breath. Even though there is extensive evidence of the benefits greening buildings and neighborhoods will have for the environment and society, the prominence of the nonrenewable energy discourse continuously overpower this narrative. As a result, action must be taken to illustrate the possibility of utilizing renewable energy resources such that greening existing structures can become common practice to improve environmental quality.
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