• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


House and Home and Unsustainability

One aspect of how invested we are in unsustainable behaviors.  And how we got that way.

June 26, 2014

Part of how and why we (and I include myself) exhibit so many unsustainable behaviors is that the patterns of our lives -- the fundamental decisions that overdetermine our behaviors -- are generally made with no thought of sustainability at all. Some examples:

  • We burn more gasoline that we'd like because of where we live.  Unless you're lucky enough to live in a city with good public transport (and those are few and far between in this country, certainly compared with other developed nations), you probably drive pretty much everywhere.  Not because you want to, particularly.  Because you don't have any reasonable alternative.  You knew that when you bought the house, but your housing decision probably didn't focus primarily on how many miles you'd be driving.  It focused on curb appeal and number of bedrooms and size of garage and quality of schools and prestige of neighborhood and monthly mortgage payment.  If the implication in terms of miles to be driven during the years you'd live in that house was considered at all, it was probably limited to miles to and from work.  Likely not considered were miles driven to shop, to visit friends and family, to see a movie, to take the kids to soccer and piano lessons and anything else beyond the daily commute.  Not considered was the lack of public transit, because most of us weren't raised to expect public transit.  Certainly, not clean reliable enjoyable public transit.  We were raised to expect -- to aspire to -- single-family houses with large lawns and low population density and good public services but low property taxes.  Twenty-five years ago, a guy I knew unfavorably characterized America as "the most over-housed society in the world"; he was in the mortgage finance business. (And since then, the size of the average newly built home has gone up by about 50%.)  Where and how we live wastes energy in a myriad of ways, but increasing the number of miles driven in private cars is a major one of them.
  • We eat cr*p (as one commenter noted) for some of the same reasons, or at least for corollaries thereof.  You see, having to drive pretty much everywhere to do pretty much everything consumes more than just gasoline -- it also consumes time.  So (broad generalization, I know) we're all convinced that we're incredibly busy.  Not because we're actually doing more than our parents or our grandparents did -- in fact, we're probably accomplishing less -- but because each of our activities imposes a higher transaction cost in terms of time and conscious effort than used to be the case.  So we value any life option that saves us time.  So, on average, we rarely cook.  (Heating up commercial frozen lasagna or anything similar isn't cooking.)  So we lose any real sense of what we're eating.  (Don't believe it, read the ingredient list.  "Cr*p" is often an understatement, even before we get to unintended/unlisted ingredients like insect parts and rodent feces.)  Time implications likely factored into the housing decision even less than gasoline consumption implications did.
  • A couple of generations ago, many families raised the bulk of their own vegetables, grew at least some of their own fruit, had some chickens in the back yard.  They knew not only what ingredients went into the cookpot, they also knew where those ingredients came from.  And how those ingredients had been treated when they were alive.  Rather than paying extra for "organic" (interesting term, that) produce or "free range" (don't get me started) chicken, once established they paid little or no money -- just time and attention.  Which they could afford because they weren't constantly driving from hither to yon and back again.  Somehow, I doubt that "will I be able to grow my own food?" factors into very many housing decisions.
  • What does factor into housing decisions, of course, is space.  We love our space.  That's why the average house (certainly, the average newly built house) keeps getting bigger.  And why suburbs keep getting sprawlier.  The default decision is to keep going further from the urban center until you can afford the mortgage on the size of house and lot you think you deserve.  (Oops, I mean "need".)  But then you've got all those square feet of enclosed area and nothing to fill it with.  So you need some stuff.  And more stuff.  And it has to be inexpensive stuff because your house is twice as big as your parents' house was but (on average and adjusted for inflation) your family probably isn't earning as much as your parents did at a similar age.  So you drive (and not just once per week) to the big box retailer and buy as much stuff as you can afford at as low a price as you can find.  Which (often) means that the stuff is cheap and breaks easily so you get to repeat the experience again in a couple of years or months or weeks.  And if it isn't just plain cheap it's probably designed for rapid obsolescence.  Like almost anything electronic these days.  But we need more electronics because we have to keep ourselves (and our kids) occupied and entertained and placated inside the big house because the alternative is to drive somewhere to see (and be entertained and placated) by other actual people and that's too much bother and so 20th Century.

Am I disparaging The American Dream?

Not really.

What I'm doing is pointing out some of the realities concomitant with pursuing a bad caricature of anything anyone should actually dream of.  And, maybe, that the post-WWII version of the American dream was actively and intentionally concocted and sold to the public to benefit  the construction industry and the automotive industry and all the secondary industries that depend on those two.

IMHO, we in higher ed can't claim to be doing much to promote sustainability until we're willing honestly and forthrightly to question -- and to encourage our students to question, and to encourage our alumni and donors to provide real-world alternatives to -- a lot of the implicit decisions that are inherent in how things currently are, whether we refer to that current state as The American Dream, the prevailing narrative, or the dominant paradigm.  


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