Catherine Mohr Builds Green

In her TED talk, Catherine Mohr Builds Green, Mohr articulates a suspicion I often have when trying to figure out the “right” thing to do by our planet: that there are an awful lot of people “long on moral authority and short on data trying to tell us what to do.”

While these tips may be well-intentioned, you really have to figure out for yourself what really makes a difference. Often they are trying to get you to buy a new product? Are you missing the elephant in the room? Mohr has an anecdote comparing several different ways for wiping up a spill: using a paper towel, sponge, cotton towel. Her illustration shows a funny obsessiveness with finding out the truth that I can identify with. Some of these truths can be trivial, but there’s still something interesting in the process of discovery.

Then she takes the obsessiveness to the ultimate level by making spreadsheets comparing different building methods for her new house. She writes about the process on her website, 301 Monroe. Her spreadsheet takes a little effort to pore through, but she has clearly put a lot of time into researching the relative effects of lots of different materials used in building a house. For comparison, she includes the effects of other activities that we are more familiar with, such as driving and flying.

Still, is “embodied energy” the right measure for making comparisons? Tons of CO₂? Water use? A different measure could lead to a different “right” choice. Everything we do or use involves tradeoffs, and we should take care that the tradeoffs are worth the worry, and that they make sense. Mohr gives real examples of how the answers are not always obvious!