So You Think Your City is Green? Introducing a Sustainable Cities Rating System


Energy Star Logo SmallHave you ever stood in the supermarket aisle, looking at rows of detergent or snacks, trying to decide which one's packaging and ingredients would do the least environmental damage if it landed in your shopping cart? Have you found yourself fretting over whether the conventionally grown tomato from your local farmer would be better for your children's future than the organic one from half a world away? Spent endless hours calculating the benefits of keeping the old workhorse-but-power-sucking refrigerator you've got versus getting a new, more energy-efficient one?

As environmentally concerned citizens, we've all experienced the uncertainty when it comes to making choices that best reflect our values of living in balance with the planet. Being born into modern civilization, almost all of our movements and transactions are tied into complex industrial processes in which each of us is but a tiny link at the end of long and often invisible chains of extraction, manufacturing, shipping, and distribution. In many ways, the same technological advances that have enabled us to escape from the confines of our immediate environment have also made it increasingly difficult to trace our very own footprints.

Understanding the true impact of our daily decisions to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves thus requires an endless set of magnifying glasses spanning the entire globe. And yet, even if all the links in the industrial chain were transparent (which they aren't), none of us individually would have the time to thoroughly assess every single thing we come in contact with. For example, just trying to figure out where in the world all the different parts that comprise the device you're reading these lines on were sourced and how much energy, water, and labor it took to get it into your hands is like dissecting dark matter. Go ahead, give it a try!

Thankfully, there are rating systems that do some of the work for us. The EPA's popular Energy Star label, for example, identifies and promotes energy–efficient products, helping us to better facilitate the above-mentioned refrigerator conundrum. The USDA Organic Seal guarantees food free from pesticides and antibiotics, and has become a leading global standard. LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a certification program that recognizes best practices in green building and architecture.

But how do we move beyond viewing our relationship with the material world and with each other through isolated, microscopic lenses? How do we account for more complex systems and mechanisms that comprise a whole range of processes in which any single object and activity is but a tiny and temporary snapshot of a much larger and constantly evolving landscape?

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