As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times on May 3, “Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see.” We’re all seeing the effects of the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Living in a coastal state with its commensurate dependencies on the ocean for food, recreation, beauty, and way of life, I can empathize. But just because the devastation is visible in this case doesn’t mean we should ignore the invisible environmental impacts of everyday life.
Oil is constantly gushing into the biosphere because it’s processed and divided up among billions of users, who process it again and release invisible by-products. The aggregate effect is devastating, but even when we get our minds around the sum total of oil used (or trees cut, or miles driven), we become paralyzed at the thought of chasing down all the individual culprits. And who among us is not culpable to some degree? Our waste—energy from fossil fuels, excess water usage, garbage sent to the landfill—doesn’t go away; it is merely out of our sight.
We may feel helpless to do anything about this disaster. But we in the real estate business can do a lot to reduce the environmental impact of human activity. We can step up our efforts to improve energy efficiency, reduce water consumption, recycle paper and other workplace waste instead of sending it to the landfill. And we can make these activities serve the financial bottom line, either directly through reduced operating costs or indirectly by enhancing the appeal of our companies to employees, or of our buildings to tenants.