Ecological footprint cage match!
September 21, 2006, 1:25 am by bottleman. Filed under: ecological footprints, making a difference, simple living.

A month or so ago I was both pleased and disturbed to get a letter asking for advice on “green living.” Pleased because somebody was reading this site. :) Disturbed because the question was a good one and I didn’t have some slick-assed-smug-mouthed answer.

“Nick” wrote about a cage match of sorts, between two lifestyles that are getting the hard sell nowadays. Who would come out on top, or might these enemies kiss and be friends?

photo by zach slootsky - thanks! see http://flickr.com/photos/takemorephotos/58801792/

Hey bottleman..[Nick wrote] ..I am stuck between two conflicting views of “going green.” One is back-to-the-earth, where you get some hunk of land in the middle of nowhere and build a green house yourself and pay it off fast and you’re generally free from The Man (banks, building codes, etc.). The problem here is that very few people want to live in the middle of nowhere. And even if you can cope, you waste a lot of gas because you have to drive a long way to get anywhere.

The second scenario is living in a dense urban area because it is resource-efficient: you live near everything you need and can walk / bike / use public transit for most things. The problem with this is that building codes are strict, and even if you can get past that, you’ll be paying for your property for decades.

Do you have any thoughts on how to reconcile the two?

How neatly Nick has summarized the two prevailing schools of propaganda on how one should “live green,” and tied them both inextricably to the unavoidable bitch-goddess, Mammon. And tied her to her even more seductive bitch-in-training, Real Estate.

On one hand there’s the “off the gridder” that reads, say, Mother Earth News and reacts with excitement to the arrival of yet another Real Goods catalog. She equates living sustainably with living independently, with solar power, organic chickens, and that sort of thing.

On the other hand there’s the “urban eco-aesthete,” a person who reads, say, Treehugger and Dwell, and tends to believe that prettified technology and systems can keep everything both green and pleasant.

I’m convinced that both visions have an element of fantasy to them. No, not fun fantasy like this..

Photo by Flickr member That Guy in NYC. Thanks! see http://flickr.com/photos/nutile/101482657/

..More of an ecofinancial fantasy (damn, no pictures of sweaty girls for that idea…)

So which is better for the Earth? Both visions promise freedom through simplicity, but pursuing either one seriously soon lands you in the offices of realtors and mortgage brokers. No matter which way you go, you’re gonna be working hard — whether it’s building your off-the-grid-castle-with-chicken-coop or paying for your greened-out urban shack.

(And man, those building codes ARE onerous. I just spent 4 months fighting the city for a building permit; because of regulations, construction is going above $200/square foot.. which means a hell of a lot of hard work to pay for it.)

But let’s stay simple and make the comparison just on the basis of ecological resources. I’ve known enough off-the-gridders and urban aesthetes I can pick two combatants and run their lifestyles through the ecological footprint estimator provided by Earthday.org.

In this corner, Sandra the Serene! [not her real name, but a real person I know.] She’s an off-the-gridder, but she consumes pretty aggressively, as she drives her pickup all over and buys stuff to assemble her mini-farm and dream house, then gets bored and heads for the city or Central America for a break.

In the opposite corner, Aimee the Armbreaker! [another real person I know] She’s an urban aesthete, and poverty is helping her live a pretty “hip” stingy life crowded into a little apartment. No car for her — she’s got a bike, maybe at best a motor scooter. It’s working for her right now, but something’s missing. She’s thinking about a kid, maybe a garden plot.

Ready to rumble? Here we go..

thanks to flickr member remid0d0s0 for the pic! see http://flickr.com/photos/remid0d0s0/26772145/

..then after a quick change of costume (and sex), the tremendous finale..

photo by flickr member Wrath of God. Thanks! See http://flickr.com/photos/93648520@N00/123998805/

.. and it’s Aimee the Armbreaker who comes out on top. If everyone lived like her, says the calculator, we’d only need 2.2 Earths to support the global population. Meanwhile if everyone lived like Sandra the Serene we’d need 2.7 Earths. Neither come close to true sustainability (1.0 Earths) but both are better than a traditional suburban commuter’s — say 4.0+ Earths.

I’m sure you could argue with the technical details of the fooprint estimator, but this whole exercise has made me realize that most people dreaming about living green aren’t really quantifying their ecological impact in ANY way. Ideas of sustainability are mostly emotional; they’re pictures of blessed lives in a countrified or sci-fi setting — which one you choose is based on your personality.

To get back to Nick’s query, it seems that Sandra’s off the grid theory may not hold much water. Independence is NOT the same as ecological sustainability, and one big reason Sandra’s footprint was bigger was that she got bored and needed to escape that rural environment. Culturally, Aimee has it better and has less need to bust out.

Still, if I was going to bet on who would hold out longer in their eco-lifestyle, I’d bet on Sandra. That’s because a country setting offers more hope for getting control of the financial side of things.

If you’re willing to move somewhere in the sticks, you probably can build cheap. And the psychological value of owning your own place is pretty significant, I think. People who’ve built and paid for their own places just sound freer and clearer when you talk to them — they really do. It’s like no one owns them. Perhaps that freedom will make it easier for them to keep making ecologically conscious decisions.

So Mammon is at the heart of this all. Thanks, Nick, for bringing it up. I don’t know if there’s any solution to your quandry… maybe some vaguely socialistic thing like “co-housing”? Or maybe simpler, you could move to some dying city in the Rust Belt and buy a cheap cheap place among other urban pioneers. That way you could live the urban aesthete style but not have to pay for outrageous loft-style real estate.

Either way, I think it’s time to meet the bitch-goddess and look her straight in the eye. She’s the real bruiser hanging around this ring.


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Glad you posted the earth day footprint quiz, I found it interesting. So far, where I live I rated a 11 vs an average of 24 for our country. Guess I will see if I can improve a bit more, most of my high score was from food sources, though I buy as much as possible from local sources, so that did surprise me. No sure if that is good or bad, since I am active in our local earth day activities in reaching out to the public as well as land and water resource activities. I think most of it is that most people today “are in it for me, and really do not pay too much attention to the other guy.” We really have become a nation that has a mentality of thinking we have to have it all and are teaching our children the same thing. Sacrifice is not the motto of Americans, at least for most. Instant gratificiation is no matter the cost at any level.

Comment by Terri on 25.11.2007 um 7:27 am

I’m enjoying your blog, but I want to make a counter claim on your urban vs rural. You claim that a rural person is going to be ahead because:

“That’s because a country setting offers more hope for getting control of the financial side of things.”

But the rural person has a lot of non obvious extra costs: sewage, batteries (if off grid), water storage, back up energy systems (IC generator), extra food for emergencies, more expensive communication links, fire safety (a big issue in Australia and California), a fossil fueled transport (bikes work just fine in urban environments, but you really need cars to live out bush), and maybe 10 other things I can’t think of right now. Every service has a fixed additional overhead of a round trip to your place, this includes the post, ambulance trips, and getting some more bog rolls for the dunny.

On the other hand, an urban dweller might have a higher cost per square metre, but they are get a lot of service with those dollars (as you rightly point out). But the costs aren’t that much greater. We bought a 600m^2 block with 90m^2 house for $200k, a 2 acre block with 150m^2 house an hour out from melbourne’s fringe costs the same amount. Sure the land is cheaper, but the overall package turns out to be the same.

Your second claim is that the rural person is more likely to be able to own their own house.

This issue is one that is close to my heart, as I have lived in many houses, ranging from a 400m^2 farm house on a 2 hectare block 50km out of Adelaide through various suburban houses and townhouses around the world down to my current 70m^2 apartment in urban San Jose. I am currently trying to decide whether to buy a (second) house here in Silly Valley (probably not for another year until the market hits the floor). I don’t think a rural house is any easier to buy for the simple reason that what you lose in connectivity also undermines your earning capacity. I am earning 5 times as much as I could earn when living in a rural area. So it is to be expected that houses will cost 5 times as much here.

As evidence of this, consider that most rural houses are either heirlooms, or older people who have made their money elsewhere.

Another thing to note is that money put on a house is essentially a low performing investment (doubling every 7 years is the claim, which corresponds to 10% – let’s be conservative and say 5% – still above inflation), unlike money put on expenses. So although it appears cheaper to spend $100k on house in danville then drive for 2 hours to work rather than spending $500k for a place you can ride to work by bike in 15 minutes, the driving is permanently lost wealth (time, energy) whereas the house money will most likely be returned when you move out. The rural liver has far more inefficient systems to maintain with a corresponding increase in expenses.

Comment by njh on 28.12.2008 um 12:50 pm

Good points, njh.

Two years after I wrote that post, I agree the conclusions may need some adjustment. It looks like we agree that the ecological footprint of living “independently” in the country is likely to be bigger than urban living. The matter we’re discussing is which offers more hope for personal financial sustainability.

I guess originally I leaned rural on that, because I was reacting to the completely insane price of real estate in my city (to say nothing of California). Also, I was thinking that for freelance/consulting stuff like my peers do, people could earn as much in the country as in the city. But for everybody except the superstars, that’s probably not true, I acknowledge.

Also, I have personal experience with your idea of the urban existence stabilizing finances. We recently got rid of our car, relying now on an XtraCycle and the occasional ZipCar. For that reason, the whole spike in gas prices this year didn’t trouble us at all. Not one bit! Meanwhile, many multi-car families saw their expenses go up by hundreds per month.

So I’m pretty much agreeing here. But now that I’m thinking back on the work I’ve done on small dwellings, and the people I’ve talked to, two people in particular stand out.

One was a guy who had built his own tiny house pretty much entirely by himself, in the country. He had no money, and no security at all except for his garden crop and chickens, but had this immense sense of satisfaction. And the other was a pink-collar woman who lived in a standard (but small) city house, in San Diego I think. At 650 sf for 3 people, it was small, but she paid her mortgage off like 10 years early, and she was actually able to invest in several other properties for investment income and vacations. She didn’t make much money, but she had managed it really well and was going to be really comfortable… and you could feel the confidence and calmness in her.

So there are various routes to peace and/or empowerment. If you’re not going to be a monk, a house that you make yourself (literally or metaphorically) seems often to be a big part of it.

If you’ve read Great Expectations, maybe you remember the character Wemmick. He was the model of a guy who had earned his own satisfaction and respectability (rather than getting it handed to him as the protagonist wants). It was symbolized in the story by Wemmick’s house, which is a miniature castle with a moat and a cannon. Something to aspire to. :)

Comment by bottleman on 28.12.2008 um 1:22 pm



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