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How Green Was My Palace?

By Froma Harrop

Can one be big and green?

Environmentalists have long pondered whether you can stick solar panels on a battleship of a house and still claim to be the planet's friend. Revelations that Al Gore's manse in Nashville, Tenn., uses 10 times the energy of the average American home have goosed this ongoing debate.

How unfortunate that the Paul Revere of global warming -- the man who gallops across America to warn of the coming environmental disaster -- spends $500 a month to heat his pool alone. Gore's assertion that his use of carbon offsets somehow neutralizes his fossil-fuel consumption doesn't quite cut it. The guy sure makes life hard for his friends.

But Gore's bad example has revived an old but still useful discussion in environmental circles: Can one be both environmentally sensitive and live on a baronial scale? Imagine that Gore had installed solar screens, low-flow showerheads and erected a wind turbine behind the pool house. Would that have made his mansion environmentally OK?

"No", says Jim Motavalli, publisher of E/The Environmental Magazine. "You've hit on a sore point with me." Motavalli thinks it a shame that not only have houses become bigger, but that green buildings are bigger on average. A large house is going to cancel out all the advantages that the latest environmental technologies offer us.

Green houses tend to be big, Motavalli notes, because the people who build them tend to be rich -- and they often confuse size with luxury and comfort. Architects refer to these 6,000 square-foot monsters, with their bamboo flooring and low-emisson fireplace inserts, as "Eco Mansions."

What frustrates Motavalli is that houses can now be built with enough renewable-energy technology to take them off the power grid altogether. "You can do that with a small house," he notes, "but not 10,000 square feet and a lot of appliances."

There are some great eco designs for small houses these days, he adds. They're not hippie huts, but elegant and chic homes.

Then I ask the question that has always gnawed at a small-is-beautiful person like me. Suppose one of the emerging technologies manages to produce bottomless supplies of non-polluting energy at popular prices. Suppose you get Mr. Sun to heat up your 10,000-square-foot house, which means you're burning no more fossil fuel than the teensy cottage down the block, possibly less.

Does that mean that you can outdo Al Gore in residential grandeur and feel no environmental guilt?

Automakers are holding similar conversations. If you can make a car with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, engineers at General Motors say, that takes the vehicle out of the environmental equation. Hydrogen power creates virtually no pollution.

By that reckoning, Hummers would be rendered environmentally harmless. Heck, one could drive an 18-wheeler to the supermarket for a quart of milk without an environmental qualm.

Motavalli cannot agree. To him, size in itself is a problem. "The car still takes up space and contributes to gridlock," he says.

And the same principle applies to the 6,000 square-foot-house. It makes an enormous footprint on the Earth, contributing to sprawl. "It's still an environmental insult."

Of course, there's no urgency to resolve this question, because the golden dream of unlimited, clean and affordable energy remains in the high-tech future. We are now moving through an intermediary stage when available technologies can supplement fossil fuels but, in most cases, cannot entirely replace them.

But I have to agree with Motavalli that small is often simply nicer. As fans of the children's book "The Wind in the Willows" know, Mr. Badger's cottage was considerably more comfortable than Toad Hall, and Mr. Toad could afford the best of everything.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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