Greening the American dream

How does the 'green' imperative fit with the American Dream and what role does technology play? E&T visits Florida to find out.

The concept of the American Dream has meant different things to different people, ever since a new life in the colonies was promoted to 17th century Englishmen, but think 'freedom', 'opportunity' and 'prosperity' and you won't be far wide of the mark.

Although many Americans would be hard pressed to define what the dream means to them - and even fewer would admit to achieving it - the concept is alive and well in advertising. A flyer seen recently in Florida, for example, exhorted potential reps for a $50m Californian company to "Live the American Dream" by accepting its "unlimited income opportunity". Meanwhile, older Americans seek the dream by retiring to Florida to hang 'gone fishing' signs on their doors.

Disney's Celebration town, Florida

In fact, several thousand dream-seekers moved to the town of Celebration, a planned community established in the 1990s by the Walt Disney Company in Osceola County, just south of Orlando, and directly connected to the theme parks by World Drive. Billed as unique and innovative, but also 'Disney-esque' because of its pastel shades and nostalgic architectural stylings, Celebration was voted American Dream Town of 2007. Despite this recent accolade and some initial good publicity, most reports suggest that the magic has worn off, and even the band Chumbawamba's satirical song, 'Celebration, Florida', suggests that residents are "buying up nostalgia for a time they can't remember".

A more reasoned analysis is provided by 'Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town', a book by Andrew Ross, which explains that the town was effectively a realisation of Walt Disney's dream for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (the original EPCOT). Although the dream was eventually downgraded to little more than a theme park, Disney's original idea encompassed "a showcase for innovative new technologies" with clean, car-free streets, electric public transport and underground garbage removal systems. But real life fails to live up to theme-park perfection and, according to Ross, housing stock build-quality was poor, digital connectivity left much to be desired and people still drove their SUVs to the malls outside town. Dreams aside, it seems that Celebration is, at best, just another small American town.

Beyond this urban anachronism, the state of Florida exhibits an apparent dichotomy. While city-dwellers to the north and west consider it a sleepy southern state, it is, as home to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, also the heartland of the American space programme. So what's the truth? Is Florida a retirees' paradise and natural wilderness area, or a centre for advanced technology and key strategic resource? And as environmental issues grow increasingly important in Washington, DC, how does Florida balance its conflicting attributes? In other words, how green is the Sunshine State?

America's dependency on oil

Although urban Americans like to tout the green credentials of the Toyota Prius, America in general seems reluctant to relinquish its 'gas guzzling' vehicles. While the low-slung, wallowing Caddies and Chevvies have largely disappeared, a cruise down Florida's A1A shows that they have simply been replaced with thirsty sports utility vehicles and GMC trucks packing V-8s under shoulder-level hoods. According to 'USA Today' motoring journalist James Healey, such vehicles typically return just 14 miles per gallon in town, creeping up to 16 in "combined city-highway use", so they're not exactly environment-friendly.

In an attempt to address this, GMC has lately introduced its Yukon 2-Mode Hybrid, a so-called 'full-size', truck-based, eight-passenger SUV with a gasoline-electric drive train. The six-litre V8 saves fuel by powering down when the vehicle is stationary and running on four cylinders in "light use", while a variable-ratio automatic transmission blends the 332 horsepower petrol engine with power from two 20hp electric motors. The relative horsepower suggests a lack of equality in hybridisation and, although GMC quotes up to 23.5mpg with careful driving, Healey's test drive gave 20-22mpg, which even diehard petrol-heads could not describe as 'planet-saving'. Apart from that, as Healey points out, the hybrid "sells for sticker price, while the non-hybrid is discounted".

Nevertheless, increasing fuel prices are beginning to make headlines, and in April 2008 Floridians were worrying about the possibility of a $4 gallon (high though this is for America, news that it compares well with the UK's $10-gallon equivalent was met with looks of shocked disbelief). The fuel price increase has led to a sales boom in smaller cars and, according to Autodata, in a market down 12 per cent on last year the small car segment was the only one not showing a loss. But, as Healey points out, "car companies don't make much on small cars [which] cost nearly as much to design and build as large cars", and buyers are more likely to "buy larger later from the same manufacturer". So the trend could easily be reversed.

Moreover, personal experience shows that it remains difficult to hire 'economy' cars at Florida's Orlando Airport, with renters obliged to upgrade to mid-size. America, it seems, has yet to really get the oil crisis.

Florida's solar power

Florida's name as the 'Sunshine State' is well earned, but while several Californian cities are planning to help homeowners install solar power systems, Florida shows very little evidence of solar power, which appears limited to a few lights in public parks and the occasional street sign.

Of course, these things take time and it is only in recent years that the US government has made any attempt to help with the cost of domestic photovoltaic systems, most notably with the 2005 Energy Policy Act (EPAct), which offers tax credits to consumers. Florida followed with its Renewable Energy Technologies and Energy Efficiency Act, in June 2006, which according to the Florida Solar Energy Center "qualifies consumers to receive a substantial rebate". This amounts to $4/Watt, with a cap of $20,000 for residential systems and $100,000 for commercial, publicly owned, or private not-for-profit systems. No doubt the devil is in the detail, but at least it is a move in the right direction.

More important, perhaps, is the general, widespread, profligate waste of energy exhibited throughout Florida. Super-cooled restaurants and shops are still the norm, and air-conditioning in hotel rooms is typically left on all day while tourists and business visitors are out. Somehow, it seems, the simple technology of timers and thermostats has been forgotten.

Meanwhile, astronauts in orbiting space shuttles have no difficulty spotting their favourite cities at night, because of the large amount of light they cast upwards. Satellite images of the US show clearly not only the major conurbations, but the strings of towns along freeways that link them, forming a net of light that testifies of waste. And it's not as if the technology (to use too grand a term) is not available to solve the problem: as long ago as the 1970s, astronomers at Kitt Peak National Observatory, in Arizona, lobbied the nearby city of Tucson to reduce its light pollution, which was affecting astronomical 'seeing'. Simple shrouds were added to the city's street lights to throw the polluting photons back to Earth.

By contrast, even though the population density of Florida is relatively low, the skies are invariably orange. A notable exception, however, is the town of Harmony, south east of Orlando and home to the annual Dark Sky Festival. According to the organisers, lighting has been designed to be "astronomy friendly" and is switched off for a period during the festival itself. In addition to introducing what it calls "environmentally intelligent lighting and lifestyle practices", the event also encourages "the development of scientific interest in Florida youth".

Moreover, Harmony's Town Square is the proud recipient of a Class 4 listing on the Bortle Scale of Light Pollution, a guide for amateur astronomers published by John Bortle in the February 2001 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine. A Class 4 places it at the "rural/suburban transition" in terms of sky darkness. Uncle Walt would no doubt have been proud to accept Harmony as a technocrat's enclave in his plans for Celebration!

Nasa's green launch pad

So how does Florida's most famous location (after Disney World) fit within the 'green' agenda? How does the sprawling complex of launch pads, propellant plants and other industrial facilities, based in the middle of one of the state's main wildlife reserves, meet today's requirements for a clean and sustainable environment? Quite well as it turns out.

Launch pads and other facilities are designed to minimise or eliminate chemical pollution by collecting run-off water (used as a sound suppression system during launches) and diverting it to treatment plants before returning it to the local environment. Although the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters burn a fairly 'dirty' mix of chemicals, the vehicle's main engines use environmentally-friendly liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the waste product of which is water.

Other Nasa policies include clearing wildlife, such as sleepy alligators, away from launch pads and runways prior to use. In fact, as space centre tour guides rejoice in informing their clients, Nasa was instrumental in preserving the area around Cape Canaveral when it established the launch base in the early 1960s. Given the way beachside development has progressed since then, from Cocoa Beach to Palm Beach and beyond, the real estate value of Merritt Island and the Canaveral peninsula would certainly have covered the area with motels, condos and malls. So the lesson appears to be, if you want to protect a wilderness area, build a launch site on it!

Florida's water consumption

In common with other parts of the nation, environmental policies are increasingly newsworthy in Florida, particularly in Brevard County, which markets itself as the Space Coast. According to Richard Martens, director of the Brevard County Utility Services Department, quoted in an environmentally themed issue of Spacecoast Business magazine, water conservation has been an important topic in Brevard for many years. For example, 'low-flush' toilets and 'low-flow' showers have been mandatory since the mid-1990s, reducing the average flush from some five gallons to a maximum of 1.6 gallons.

Moreover, Martens' department charges households that use large amounts of water at a higher rate than those that strive to save water - by not using it to irrigate their lawns, for example. It's not that Brevard is running out of water, says Martens, but "running out of clean water". Today, rather than returning treated water to rivers, it is channelled for irrigation, and new communities being built in Brevard are provided with additional water mains for reclaimed water.

As for the buildings themselves, the US Green Building Council has developed a rating system known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) to encourage sustainable building techniques and good practice. In response, the State of Florida has mandated LEED for all of its government buildings - for example, the new Exhibit and Artifact Storage Facility at Kennedy Space Center. Other proposed LEED projects in the area include Melbourne's city hall, a Honda plant at Grant and a branch of Sunrise Bank in Cocoa Beach.

Recycling is also being pushed in Brevard County, with initiatives in train for anything from paper products to reclaimed metals. In fact, some industrial users even recycle concrete by trucking it to Space Coast Crushers, where it is transformed into variously-sized materials for road bases and parking lots, and applications such as ground stabilisation and erosion control.

In the domestic arena, municipal bins are ubiquitous and garbage collectors can be seen sorting domestic waste on the lorry. However, whereas American TV shows would suggest that paper grocery bags are still the norm, supermarkets use plastic bags profligately, often packing just two items in each. Meanwhile, the nation remains famous for its take-out pizzas, coupon papers for shopping and restaurant offers, and doggy-bags and boxes for left-overs, all of which add to the waste pile. In packaging terms, the nation has further to go than most.

The American Dream and pollution

If the American Dream is, as postulated, founded on freedom, opportunity and prosperity, it has much to commend it. Unfortunately, cynics would translate this as the freedom to pollute and degrade the environment as long as the opportunity exists to enhance prosperity.

As a wealthy, industrialised nation that provided its populace with the modern conveniences of life earlier than most, America has further to go than most - both politically and culturally - in reversing the trend of overindulgence. Certainly, technology, which is often blamed for damaging the environment, has a role to play in redressing the balance, but a good deal more effort is required. If America thinks it can play the 21st century the same way as it did the 20th - often glowingly described as "the American Century" - it is indeed in a dream.

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