Ecological footprint cage match!


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

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..

..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

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..

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

.. 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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