Friday, October 23, 2015

False Environmentalism: A Tennessee Example

I recently wrote that urbanism is one of the most powerful approaches to environmentalism, a fact that often seems forgotten in the rush to rooftop solar, greywater systems, and electric cars.  All of those other environmentally-beneficial tools are great and I fully encourage their application, but their function is often to mitigate the deleterious effects of drivable suburbia, compared to well-executed urbanism which eliminates the effects of suburbia.

Furthermore, because we like to rationalize behaviors we suspect are inappropriate, we sometimes fool ourselves about the extent of our mitigations, such as “I drive a hybrid so it’s okay if I live in a 5,000 square foot stucco mansion fifteen miles from town.”  The reality is that the hybrid is great, but mitigates only a bit of the increased environmental impact of the lifestyle.

Perhaps because I have a touch of masochism, I like collecting stories of the false environmentalism, the kind of environmentalism to which author Thomas Friedman refers when he argues that the U.S. is throwing a green party when what we really need is a green revolution.  In a recent post, I told a false environmentalism story about bamboo floors in a Silicon Valley home.

I came across another great example during a trip to Tennessee several years ago.

Through an unexpected set of circumstances, I found myself on a guided tour of the former home of country singer Barbara Mandrell and her family.  The Mansion at Fontanel is an impressive structure, a 27,000 square foot home sited in a woodland about ten miles from Nashville with a banquet hall that can serve 100 guests, an indoor pool with a cover that doubles as a dance floor, and a vast collection of music memorabilia such as a guitar signed by the Eagles.

It even has an indoor shooting range intended for handguns in which Kid Rock supposedly once became over exuberant and sprayed the thick walls with an automatic weapon.  The scattering of angled impact points seems to support the story.

But even as I was wandering along with the tour group, noting the many gee-whiz amenities, I was pondering the environmental realities of a rural 27,000 square foot home for a five-person family.

It must have been a point that others had raised because the spiel of the tour guide soon offered the story that the family were such dedicated environmentalists that Mandrell’s husband, Ken Dudney, had flown to Minnesota to personally select the trees to be felled and hauled to Tennessee for the home.

Even if we assume that Dudney had a sufficiently qualified eye to select the right trees for home construction, let’s try to count the environmental fallacies in that statement: 
  • ·         Wood building materials were hauled from Minnesota when more locally sourced materials could have seemingly met the need.
  • ·         Rather than allowing a professional forester to select the trees to be harvested for the long-term health of the forest, the trees are being selected based on building needs.
  • ·         The only environmental benefit was better home insulation, which could have been equally well achieved with extra roles of insulation from a local building supply store.

 I understand the visual appeal of a log home and agree that Fontanel is striking.  But we shouldn’t try to place a cloak of environmental benevolence over what is ultimately a matter of personal aesthetics, especially when false flag arguments often befuddle the public.  When the story of the Minnesota tree selection trip was being told, far more of the tour members were nodding in appreciation of the effort than were rolling their eyes at the absurdity of the story being told.  In fact, I may have been alone in the latter group.

Does that mean that outsized rural homes are always an environmental disaster?  Not necessarily.  I’m generally fine with people who’ve had personal success being able to spend their money where they wish as long as they pay as many of the true costs as possible and don’t leave a lot of external costs for the rest of us to cover.

With regard to Fontanel, those costs would start with the difference between the pump cost and the true cost of gasoline, including all environmental and geopolitical impacts and estimated by others at perhaps $8, for every gallon used hauling trees from Minnesota and for conveying family, construction workers, maintenance staff, and guests to the rural setting.

I can’t begin to estimate those costs, other than being certain that the tab would be huge, perhaps big enough to encourage folks with large chunks of disposable income to acquire elegant penthouse condos in the city, with enough room for lots of memorabilia, and to build relationships with nearby restaurants for those occasions when entertaining a hundred good friends is necessary.

It’s been four years and I still cringe when I think of my afternoon in the Tennessee woods.

I’ve long been thinking of a post on urban murals.  A Petaluma project soon to be implemented has motivated me to move the idea to the top of my list.  I’ll tackle murals in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Actually, the cost of over consumption has no price. There is only one earth and the resources are finite. We should not use more than we need regardless of whether we can afford to pay for it and it's estimated impacts. Ultimately, it means someone else will go without.

  2. I agree with William. Our world and environment are in too much of a mess to let people with big money do whatever they want.

    1. Bill and Lori, thanks for the comments. Philosophically, I understand and generally agree with your point. But how do you implement your vision?

      Do you cease all use of petroleum fuels and bring civilization to a halt? Obviously not, at least in the short term.

      Do you impose rationing and try to limit the secondary (black) market? It's the more planned economy/socialist remedy, but could quickly become messy and even unlawful.

      Or do you bump the price of gasoline until demand is brought down to an acceptable level, with the bump coming in the form of taxes to address the environmental and geopolitical costs of petroleum and perhaps also, although not mentioned above, an extraction control tax (a save-some-for-future-generations tax)? Paired with stronger drilling limits (why are there drilling rigs in the Arctic?), it would be the tidiest solution to implement. Yes, the rich would be able to secure more gasoline transportation, but they can already buy bigger houses, nicer cars, and better artwork. Although if you want to discuss reducing income inequality, that would also be fine. In a different blog.