The New York City Audubon Society has announced the most dangerous buildings for birds in NYC. The top three deathtraps:

* The Metropolitan Museum of Art
* The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
* Bellevue Hospital Center

I’m not surprised that these buildings are killers. I am surprised that the article describes glass-intensive buildings as green, unless “green” is here, as it is so often, not “green” as in environmentally friendly but “green” as in “demonstrating that the architect and buyers/renters have green cash money to chase trends.” Walls of glass, unless intelligently placed and equipped, make apartments a bear to heat and cool. It’s akin to certain yuppies I could mention who buy organic milk for their kids because that’s what good parents do, but can’t be bothered to recycle and hop in the car to drive three blocks – it’s about status, not a stand.

Of course, it’s not exactly news that environmentalism and status have become tangled in often contradictory, self-undermining ways. Ideally, environmentalists want products that don’t push the true cost of production – in packaging waste, pollution, or whatever – off onto the Commons, but that often means that these products are more expensive at the point of purchase. And generally, the poor pay at both ends – taking the brunt when the air is fouled, the soil soiled, and the waste needs to be dumped somewhere, and only able to afford deliberately-disposable crap that increases the problem. Meanwhile, upper-crusters take on “green” projects as though they were detox diets or some other form of ritual purification – all personal, never political, and ultimately ineffective except as a way to demonstrate your virtue in public. And the marketplace chases both sets of people around like interchangeable sales units, resulting in all sorts of absurdities.

My colleague David Barouh has written a series of articles on how this plays out in the world of drinking water. You can read the first two here and here. As David lays out, bottled water perversely captured people who probably bought organic fruit and single-source cheeses, by selling itself as healthy and exclusive. By doing so, it’s undermined the idea of clean water as a public resource. (David’s articles and hard work were instrumental in getting the Park Slope Food Coop to stop selling bottled water.)

Or consider the issue of coffee. Fair Trade, shade grown, organic – it’s right, but it’s also ritzy, in part because our system makes it cheaper to do the wrong thing. Again, the problem of companies who externalize costs onto their producers and the environments that provide raw materials is the tooth-breaking core of the problem. But on the American end, the perception is that environmentally friendly (well, friendlier) coffee is a luxury, a status symbol.

But when the environment is considered a plaything for the rich, there’s a danger of backlash, either suddenly in these economically trying times, or over the long term as strivers emulate the top dogs and the trendsetters decide to move on to something else (consider how white bread went from status symbol to just the opposite over three generations.) Species and ecosystems can’t wait around to come into style again, or long withstand stupidly symbolic, counterproductive gestures like building a glass atrium and putting a tree inside.

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