Throwback: Henry David Thoreau on Small Living

Hdt Recently, I wrote an article for another website (full disclosure: I decided to stop writing for this website) called, "What’s the Deal with Big Green Homes?"  The article lead to some good comments and discussion, but I’ve been nagged by some thoughts that were in the comments.  Two of the homes that were discussed in the article were very green by almost all green measures except that of size: one was 4,700+ sf and the other 6,000+ sf.  I readily admit the superior green amenities and features of each home, but here’s a portion of my argument:

Think about all the materials that went into such a behemoth. In many ways, big a** homes represent the unsustainability of gross commercialization and over-consumption. Good old fashioned American waste. If you’re the Cheaper by the Dozen family, a big house might be necessary. Otherwise, big does not equal green.

One of the entrepreneurs of this green website disagreed stating, "if it’s Green, go as Big as you can and want."  I don’t understand this line of thinking because for this to be logical, a green home would have to have absolutely zero impact.  But there’s always an impact, even if it’s managed or negligible or offset or balanced.  There’s always an impact, even if it’s the impact of taking something that could go to someone else. 

And then I decided to pick up Henry David Thoreau’s "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For."  It was a breath of fresh air.  Here are a few nuggets of wisdom that apply to this situation regarding unbridled consumption and the modern equivalent of "keeping up with the Jones." 

  • If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?
  • While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.  It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.
  • As long as possible live free and uncommitted.  It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail (speaking with respect to people that can’t afford the homes they live in and that work their entire lives trying to pay them off successfully or unsuccessfully).

I finished the book thinking that the people who deserve the biggest houses probably have the smallest houses.  It’s good to live lightly. 


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  • http://www.greenoptions.com/ Shea Gunther

    I’m the entrepreneur from the un-named green website mentioned above (Green Options) who made the pro big-ass green building comment that Preston snipped from. Here is my entire comment:

    “OK, so I’m going to defend Big Ass Green Houses.

    As long as there are rich people, there will be Big Ass Houses. Shouldn’t those Big Ass Houses be Green?

    The average American lives what, 150X better than people in slum towns in developing countries? The average American with their average 2,000-ish two car garage that takes up 500x as many resources as the slum livin’ shanty house. It’s all a matter of perspective, glass houses and all.

    Beyond creating a law restricting the square footage of a house (which is completely ridiculous), what do you all propose people who want Big Ass Houses do?

    It’s easy to rip on rich people, but I for one applaud people like Laura Turner Seydel for showing square-footage-hungry cash-flush folks that they can build their dream palace without totally raping the earth.

    I say, if it’s Green, go as Big as you can and want. ”

    My thinking is that there will always be people who want to build big ass houses, for one reason or another. Those big as green houses should be as green as possible. I know that smaller houses are ideal and that everyone can’t live in a 5k square foot eco-mansh, but the reality of life is that big ass houses are not going anywhere any time soon.

    FYI, The GO Home (http://www.greenoptions.com/blog/2007/03/16/green_options_taking_on_sustainable_living_in_a_big_way_with_the_go_home_project) will be ~2,500 square feet and will be as green and low impact as you can get.

    Shea

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    Hey Shea, thanks for dropping by. I’m not going to say it’s ironic that you’re announcing on this post about small living that the GO Home is increasing in size from ~2,000 sf to ~2,500 sf.

    But I will say that I don’t understand your second argument above either. It sounds like: “Well, people are always going to build big houses, so we might as well get them to add green technology to them to minimize the impact.” In your words, “the reality of life is that big ass houses are not going anywhere any time soon.” It’s such a hands-off, defeatist perspective, especially for us green enthusiasts that blog because we think we can make a difference. We can make a difference with green technology, but not by advocating that Americans change its consumption preferences (myself included)? I’m not taking aim at you because I think this point of view is common (same reason I didn’t identify you in the actual post), but I’m trying to enunciate an approach for a different tack.

  • http://www.futurehousenow.com JohnCommoner

    I’m fascinated by this subject, and the little debate on it here. Human beings, by definition, are consumers. If we don’t convert resources for our own consumption we will, literally, die.

    I get Preston’s argument, totally. Consumption is consumption. But I have to agree with Shea in that consumption is highly relative, and furthermore it would be impossible and impractical to try to set some judgmental standard of how much is too much. The fact that I can sit here in my 2200 sq-ft house, using my $2000 laptop and wireless network to write this post, while my kids watch Dora the Explorer on TV and my wife cooks dinner in a nice kitchen reflects an absolutely fantastic level of consumption compared with well more than half of how the world’s billions of people expect to live.

    I guess at some point we’re not talking about just efficient and clean use of resources, nor simply being responsible consumers, we’re talking about a total social question centered on how we all live our lives. I’m not suggesting that is what Preston is saying, but at some point on the spectrum, where do you cross the line? When are you no longer talking about how big your house is versus how you, as a member of a society and culture, fundamentally live your life? It’s a really amazing subject. How will people in the world live in a hundred years? Will there be more or less divergence in standard of living around the world? Will the divide be yet larger, or is globalization bringing people closer together?

    I don’t know. But just the fact that people even have this kind of debate shows that we have a whole new awareness, a more sophisticated view, and that alone is a very important and promising sign that we are stepping up to the many challenges of a rapidly changing world.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/lloydalter/ Lloyd Alter

    great post on a difficult subject, on which I have taken much abuse. I will read Thoreau tonight.

  • http://www.greenoptions.com/ Shea Gunther

    I’m a pragmatist. I think you have more of a chance of getting Bush out of Iraq next week than getting all of humanity to buy into your idea of what is “the soul of green”. Short of restricting how big people build (which will never happen in a free society), what do you propose people do when they want to build big? Should we just all point our fingers at them and whisper “for shame…”?

    Oh, and on the GO Home, we still haven’t even drawn up blueprints, but I’ve decided that we want to add in a garage and storage space, hence the bump up to an estimated 2,500 square feet. 2,500 square feet of house that has less of an impact on the world than a 1,000 square foot conventional build. Do I win?
    :D

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    But you’ve already lost. Your arguments are based on weak logic. John Commoner made some sophisticated points, but your argument is based on being a pragmatist and some sort of “I’m rubber, you’re glue” conclusion. It’s not only my idea of green. There’s a reason the green world has phrases like “light footprint,” “live smaller,” and “zero impact.” This isn’t my perspective on green, I think there’s a lot of people out there that feel a 5,000+ sf home for a 2-3 person family is big.

    I’m not talking about your average home, either, which is about 2,400 sf. I’m not talking about forced limits on homes. We’re talking about homes that are more than double the average home size that are putting themselves out as being green. I repeat, they are putting themselves out there. It’s like calling Refrigerator Perry the poster-boy of Fitness: he can run, he’s got a lot of muscles, and he was in the NFL. We would all do well to be fit like the Frig, right? That’s Fitness. (no offense Mr. Perry).

    What it goes back to is Ted Turner’s daughter and son-in-law building a 6,000+ sf home, getting hounded by the USGBC because the USGBC didn’t think big houses were green, and now look at them. They’re trying to lobby the USGBC to be more lenient on bigger houses so rich people with big, a** houses will build green. Build a 6,000+ sf green home all you want (get that, Shea, go ahead and build it) but don’t try to force it down everyone’s throat as if it were some pearl of great value and achievement. I’ll give you achievement when you live with less and do more for other people on your own volition and not on some rule or standard.

  • Todd

    Good debate…

    There can and will be future limits on how “big” people can build…Similar restraints are already in place, it’s called zoning. As everyone starts to realize the damage that society is doing to the ozone, environment, etc, there will be further restrictions on size of housing, requirement for perviousness on lots, etc…It’s moving slowly but it’s happening…

    There are a number of new laws on the books that require certain types of building (mostly commercial) to be either LEED compliant or some derivative of LEED compliant…Boston, MA and Babylon, NY are just two, I think Washington, DC is very close also…. why is it so hard to think that some of these laws will jump over to residential development. It’s moving slowly but it’s moving.

  • Todd

    By the way, Preston…great blog, I’ve been enjoying it daily for about 4 to 5 months…it’s one of the first things I do when I come to work (shhh!)

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    Since this story ran, there’s been a good writeup regarding “big and green” at Residential Architect Online:

    http://www.residentialarchitect.com/industry-news.asp?sectionID=0&articleID=451218

  • Michenerm

    According to Wm. Cronon, 1983, the average colonial home used 40 -60 cords of wood every winter.  Open hearth going in every room, they used 20-40 times as much wood as a large well-made home of today, which utilizes iron wood stoves, 4x to 5x more efficient.

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