He's short. He's hairy. His walrus-like mustache makes him look a little like professional golfer Craig Stadler. And his passionate cries of “I speak for the trees!” taught a generation of children to mistrust greedy corporations that put profits before the environment, production before nature. Dr. Seuss' Lorax, in the book by the same name, stood on the stumps of the trees he fought to save and pleaded with the corporate tyrant who cut them down to stop. It was cute and educational, and it served to inform kids about the delicate balance between the environment and big business.
The problem is, the environmentalist groups that the Lorax represents are often just as small as he is, and no matter how loud they yell, the people they're yelling at rarely listen. Nevertheless, they'll never get the support they need or stop being marginalized if they allow themselves to be bullied and get down from the stump.
Rebecca Flora, on the other hand, isn't short or hairy. And she isn't out to save the trees, not in the same way the over-zealous Lorax was. But she is just as vocal, and unlike him, she's made some headway in her effort to change the country's perception of Pittsburgh as a dirty industrial city by spreading the word about green building. As the executive director of the non-profit Green Building Alliance, she's spent the last six years educating builders and developers on the benefits of environmentally friendly buildings — those that consume less energy, give off less emissions, and are generally more comfortable to work in.
The building community in Pittsburgh may be listening now, but it wasn't always that way. Until both the Green Building Alliance gained the support of influential people in the city and the U.S. Green Building Council made the movement official with the release of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines in 1999, the champions of green building did most of their work in the trenches, at the grassroots level. And try as they might, they had a hard time yelling loud enough for anyone to hear.
But marginalized or not, grassroots campaigns can be effective, and in a lot of cases they're the only way for any movement to get off the ground. It's not very often that anyone will throw money at environmentalist groups, and it's even more rare for a cause to gain mainstream support of any kind if it isn't built upon a foundation of vocal and passionate voices. The productive majority often get their start as the vocal minority.
The opportunities for action on a local level are virtually limitless. It can be as simple as getting your fellow engineers or contractors together to discuss the benefits of green building and then graduating to petitioning your local government to make the LEED guidelines your community's standard for energy-efficient building. Or you could take it a step further and become LEED certified and actively pursue green projects in your area.
The Lorax didn't yell loud enough to save the trees, but the fact is, he tried. And the success of green building may not ultimately have anything to do with your activism, but how will you know if you don't get up on that stump and yell?