The EC Blog

Environmental and social justice related articles, news and media

My Obsession With Human Dwellings

I recently became obsessed with human dwellings. I’m not sure why or when this happened exactly; I just know that the housing crisis had something to do with it. My mom and my dad (despite being born and growing up in completely different countries—US and Brazil, respectively) both grew up in humble blue collar households and their parents instilled in them the value of honest hard work as a means to make a living.

As an American, I have been exposed to the foundational values of the “American Dream” of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This freedom in pursuing happiness offered anyone, even those born in lower social classes, the possibility of attempting to “climb the social ladder” and attain means higher than those with which they grew up. This is the basis of the so-called “American Dream” and this dream was, and still is, shared by Americans and people from other nations alike. It seems, however, that at some point in our history, this dream became synonymous with having the commodities that we have become so exposed to through advertisements and the media in general. From my perspective, this distortion of peoples’ priorities has created a lifestyle of excess where the average American is gearing away from the promised “happiness” and moving towards personal economical burden and a general reduction of quality of life. This lifestyle, in turn, is also contributing to the environmental degradation of an already very depleted planet.

However, “how does this relate to my obsession with human dwellings?” you might ask.Well, somewhere along the line I found out that one of the areas of our society that has experienced this increasing trend of “more is better” has been the size of homes. The median size of the new average American home has doubled since 1950, while the amount of people per household has decreased by over 25%, making our houses the biggest in the world—four times larger than the international average. This increase of size standards, however, has brought more of a burden to the average American than it has a sense of comfort, especially in light of the economic crisis we are barely coming out of, in which many people lost or nearly lost their homes.

This latter part, I’m afraid I cannot relate to. I grew up mostly in Brazil and my parents had a motto “don’t spend it unless you actually have it,” and it carried them through saving enough money to pay for our house in cash. My parents built our home slowly (I can still remember living for years in a house with only a few rooms actually finished), but they never had a mortgage.

In addition to the economic burden caused partially by the current size of our homes, there are many environmental consequences related to their construction and energy consumption. Around 40% of all of the raw materials consumed by humans are used in construction (around three quarters of an acre of forest are needed to build the average American home and it adds seven tons of waste to the landfill). At its current average size of 2,349 square feet, an American house emits more carbon dioxide than the average American car.

In light of our current energy crisis, dwindling natural resources and climate change, these numbers are especially startling. Despite all of the advancements in building techniques to improve insulation and design, houses still consume the same amount of energy as those built in the 1960s. The culprit, apparently, is the size of the homes.

While the majority of the population continues to partake in this culture of “excess”, others, in search for a happier and more sustainable way of living, have chosen to reconsider their lifestyles and take steps towards downscaling and simplifying their lives.

Some of these “others” are a part of what has been called the “Tiny House Movement.” This movement started out with people who advocate simple living through small dwellings for sustainability and financial freedom.

tiny houses

Some Americans choose to live in small houses to avoid going into debt and live more simply with the Tiny House Movement. Photo courtesy of Portland Alternative Dwellings (www.padtinyhouses.com).

Since I stumbled upon tiny houses, I became avidly interested in ways that people can live that don’t fit the status quo. As young people, we are in the perfect position to explore and discover new ways to solve the problems of our current times. So, if you are interested in ways to live more frugally, I’d recommend checking out the following documentary:

By Hari Baumbach

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