Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day till we're done -- here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.
Shelter: working with nature to drop emissions
Once we’re thinking differently about our streets, we need to start thinking differently about our buildings as well. How we build has a major impact on our climate emissions. To see why, we need to look at buildings themselves.
Buildings offer us many things: a place we can feel at home, a status display, a means of expressing our personalities, a productive workspace, an investment tool. But above all else, our buildings offer us shelter.
Shelter from what? The power of nature. Every day, vast quantities of energy flow through our surroundings. The seasons, the daily rotation of the Earth, the tides, the forces of sun and wind and rain: These are energies far vaster than anything human beings create by burning things. Most of us have only known exposure to the real power of nature -- frost-nipped fingers, sunstroke, the misery of trying to sleep in wet clothes in unrelenting rain -- through the occasional recreational misadventure. But for most of humanity, through most of history, the elements were a constant and threatening force. Vulnerability to the flows of nature was the most fundamental fact of our ancestors’ lives.
Traditional builders knew and made use of these flows. They had to.