Friday, June 12, 2009
Smaller is Greener Part II
Smaller is greener can also be seen in how we choose our places to live, our footprint on the land, to use the language of today. The family that chooses to buy a home in a location requiring long commutes often does so because the home costs less than buying one in town closer to work. That simple decision, multiplied by the thousands of similar decisions, has unintended consequences that negatively affect all of us. This is sprawl with its obvious consequences. The road building and maintenance needed to serve all these commuters requires additional taxes to fund the costs. Sprawl gobbles up additional land and resources, and the fuel consumed to power all the cars needed to travel the longer distances hastens the end to our oil reserves. Consider the empty nester couple that finally realizes their lifelong dream of owning a second home in a vacation setting. Their presence chips away at the very wilderness they love and we all treasure. That second home, combined with the original home, also uses twice the number of trees, and double the quantities of minerals and rock, often mined from our mountains, to make the concrete for the foundations.
When second homes sit unoccupied for most of the year they are a burden on local communities without the benefits of the personal contributions permanent residents provide such as volunteer efforts and input in the political process. They are also not contributing to the local economy, by shopping and dining, as a permanent resident would.
I met a nice couple from Kansas one night in The Alpine Lodge restaurant, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains southwest of Westcliffe, Colorado. I was enjoying a steak dinner before I set out the next morning for a week of backpacking and fishing the high lakes. Some years ago this couple had purchased a 35-acre “ranchette” in the valley near Westcliffe and, nearing retirement, they were making plans to move to the valley permanently.
It was an exciting time for them and they were celebrating. These nice people, along with their fellow Kansans, Texans, etc., have carved up former ranches and forested slopes, Privatizing great quantities of open space for very few people and restricting access to the wilderness areas for the rest of us - me in this case. Similar decisions made daily by each of us are the actions that create the market for the Wal-Mart we love to hate, the sprawl we revile, and the traffic congestion that diminishes our quality of life. We make these decisions with our blindfolds firmly in place regarding the consequences because we have other priorities at the time of making of each decision.
Wal-Mart’s prices are the lowest in town, and that new house 30 miles from work is less expensive. Walking isn’t an option, but buses are slow and inconvenient and carpooling is way too much trouble. SUVs are comfortable, safer and obviously roomier than small cars. If we care more about these things than the resources these behemoths consume, and can afford the equally large price tag, then the deal is done.
As with health care and retirement funding, the wealthy can afford to take care of themselves. They can buy their own piece of wilderness and big cars to commute to and from the city, but none of us can escape the growing consequences of our combined actions. We can all educate ourselves to the consequences of our everyday decisions, but will we? The truth is that some of us will begin to walk the walk, and others will continue in their old ways. A recently defined demographic group of Americans, called the “Cultural Creatives”, are characterized as; caring about social, spiritual and ecological values, they are; optimistic, uncomfortable with current politics, and try to live within their means. These consumers, who make up approximately 25% of Americans, are willing to pay more for energy efficient homes, and choose locations in densely developed areas of central cities, or close to where they work.† They support mass transportation and will walk to shopping, restaurants or other destinations as often as possible.
These are the people that believe smaller is better. They have read The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka and are loyal followers of her philosophy. They are the market for housing alternatives such as Accessory Dwelling Units, Cohousing Communities, and so called intentional communities. They are willing to make the shift to multi-family homes and their ridership supports new public transportation. All of this makes for a more compact city, a city that doesn’t impose itself so rapidly on the natural environment. Meanwhile, most of us will continue to buy at Wal-Mart and drive as many miles as it takes to travel to and from our big homes in the largest car we can afford. However, we may buy compact fluorescent bulbs for our light fixtures, they’re cheapest at Wal-Mart you know. Even if we are not Cultural Creatives, we can do our part. Being aware that square footage isn’t the true measure of a house’s value is the first thing, and Paying attention to how and where we drive is another. Finding the best house that is close to our job or to public transportation can transform life with more time at home and less time driving, not to mention the money saved. Smaller is not only greener, it can be better.
posted by Custom Blogs @ 4:05 PM