Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Special Supplement
GREEN, COLOUR OF EASY VIRTUE
By E.M. FARRELLY
THERE has to be more to it than simply planting a few trees, before retiring to pat ourselves on our aching backs and call our consciences green. Luxuriant suburban foliage is very nice and certainly helps nurture the capital gains, but it is absurd to assume that ecological soundness is somehow measurable as biomass. The lucky pun which enables treeplanters and voteseekers cheerily to cash in on serious ecological urgency must be acknowledged as merely that.
The danger here is not just of complacency but of active, if unwitting, environmental mischief continuing beneath the green aegis. At its sharp end, the old, pre-80s-style “greening” urge may have had some serious ecological intent; preserving habitats, stabilising topsoil, even soaking up carbon dioxide, at a pinch. But in general its ambition has been more innocently aesthetic (and financial) – nothing a spot of irrigation and a working bee couldn’t fix.
This kind of devoted self-concern, a close relative of what one may affectionately coin nimbism, has no doubt to be expected from minor weekly organs, residents’ lobby groups and the like. But latterly it has easily acquired both political clout and government funding; spawning, for instance, the Federal Government’s Green Street initiative, under which the same old suburban patterns – green-labelled like the latest detergent and about
as reliable – are repackaged for sale as a “new” code for residential development.
One thing about suburbs; they depend, like nothing else, on energy. Until the advent of serious mass transport, Sydney was developing like Paddington; dense, close-grained and above all walkable. Transport – the tram, the train but above all the car – changed all that. The car made the suburb possible; the suburb, in return, made the car necessary. A neat symbiosis indeed.
The idea was foreign, but as we know to our cost exotics can sometimes flourish fantastically outside their natural habitat, and the garden suburb ideal – to which Canberra now makes a closer approximation than any city on earth – burrowed quickly
and deep into the Australian dream. Combining traditional Angle-Saxon anti-urban sentiment with the 19th century’s egalitarian explosion, it took as its unwritten premise the notion that each small pleb had a right to a country seat – chimney pots, sweeping drive, grounds, the lot. The surprising thing is not that the dream should prove vulnerable, but that even now we decline seriously to question its long-term sustainability. For the longer and harder we struggle to make the tree-lined vision universally available, the deeper and more irredeemably it eats into our ecological future.
Each new suburban plot in Sydney costs some $40,000 in hidden infrastructure, before you even start to remove the topsoil. But that’s not the worst of it. Each plot diminishes the countryside, drains the city, and perpetuates our thunderous profligacy with energy – however heartily we may encourage solar collectors to nest in compensation on the roof.
Small gestures are necessary of course, and with it now clear, Gulf war or no, that the ’70s energy crisis was less a false alarm than a foretaste of the inevitable, energy matters are back at the head of the architectural agenda.
There are dozens of small things a thinking architect should habitually do to reduce the energy needs of individual buildings – using glazing, orientation, thermal mass, colour, vegetation, insulation, and a few very simple rules of thumb. (Although things are seldom as they seem, and it should be borne in mind commercial buildings in particular which bill themselves as”energy conscious” are often designed merely to use off-peak supply – cutting energy costs but not, crucially, energy consumption).
In Britain, where buildings are estimated (however it could be determined or defined) to “contribute (directly and indirectly) to 50 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions”, there are architectural initiatives towards CFC-free airconditioning, subsidised low-energy fittings and a green-labelling system for building materials.
But we must avoid the easy trap of blaming technology – the car, the air-conditioner, the innocent hamburger box. Technology is blameless. The guilt lies much closer to heart – in our chosen and cherished (and for godsake fought-for) way of life. That is our real quarry, much harder to focus on; in common Thatcher-speak, “the enemy within”.
To go on sorcerer’s apprentice-like, meanwhile, helplessly carving out more and more petrol-greedy suburbs squatting round more and more tarmac-swathed shopping centres – then dry our tears on the thought that the plywood is biodegradable, the lightbulbs low energy and the carpark lined with growing green things is about as daft as an ecological bumper sticker.
Fig leaves could never hide facts. Be suspicious. The sheriff is dressing as Robin Hood, and our simple-minded eagerness to take verdure for virtue only abets the masquerade.