Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Home in Harmony with Nature? Why, that's illegal!

Pete Ryan
[This week's guest post is by Scott Erickson, author of The Diary of Amy, the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Saved the Earth, a fun little book to share with friends and family. It works, in a way that many other books don't. It tells the truth, in a way that's hard to ignore. And it gets away with it, because it is firmly in the category of humor/satire. This, it turns out, is necessary, because it turns out that any attempt to tell the truth without making it into a joke is automatically tagged as undemocratic, unpatriotic, elitist, sanctimonious, moralizing and overly negative...

Actually, there is a way to tell the truth without making it into a joke, and that's to charge money for it. For example: Do you want to live in an eco-friendly home in the center of a very expensive, prosperous big city, without making unaffordable rent or mortgage payments? Well, I am doing that right now! I live right in the center of things, within walking or bicycling distance of everything I need, I enjoy fresh air and a million-dollar view, and it is costing me next to nothing. I even manage to use passive solar heating to keep the heating bills down. Do you want to know how that's done? Well, how much is that worth to you? Or do you expect me to give this valuable information away, feeding the trolls, so that they can take pot shots at me? (The “donate” button is over on the right, by the way.) How's that for humor/satire?]

When we look at any aspect of what we call “civilization,” we see tangible designs, arrangements of matter formed into specific shapes. And all this shaping and forming is done by the cultural paradigm—by the worldview or philosophy of the particular culture. Does this sound abstract? Well, if you really want to experience the tangible reality of a paradigm, just try defying it. And the most direct way to defy it is to choose a nonstandard way to occupy the landscape.

More than anything else I’d like to live in what I call an “eco-home” - an inexpensive home in harmony with nature. My first preference would be a strawbale home. My second preference would be the kind of small homes made by Tumbleweed TinyHouse Company or the Four Lights Tiny House Company. My dream home would be a modest, inexpensive home built with natural, local materials. It would be very energy-efficient and not require much heating or any air conditioning. It would require far less money than a “normal” home. It would enable me to abandon the current “normal” requirement of wage slavery for an entire adult lifetime.

My eco-home is a great idea, right? Well, except that it would be fiercely opposed by every aspect of society. But how could this be? The lack of affordable housing is a big problem, and so is environmental destruction. Small ecological homes would help solve both problems. Shouldn’t they be… oh, I don’t know… encouraged or something? Why are some things legal and others not? Consider: What is “the law” other than the enforcer of the social paradigm, of what we define as “normal”?

I live in a somewhat “normal” neighborhood which includes many tidy, orderly well-trimmed lawns. So many times as I sit down to relax, I’m distracted by the racket of gas-powered lawnmowers, or gas-powered blowers, or one of those obnoxious weedwhackers. No, not “distracted”—I feel attacked, assaulted. The noise is philosophical as well as audible: I am hearing the noise a paradigm makes. When I hear a lawnmower, I’m hearing refineries making gasoline and oil for a two-cycle engine that spews noise and pollution to sustain an unnatural monocrop of shaved grass. There are 30 million acres of lawn in the United States. Mowing this much lawn burns 800 million gallons of gas per year. Seventy million pounds of pesticides are put on yards each year, polluting groundwater and sending phosphates and nitrates into lakes and streams. And this is legal. Perfectly acceptable. Any sane society would see this for the insanity that it is.

I have not tried to follow my dream of building an eco-home. I chose not to face threats and opposition and—ultimately—the destruction of my dream. I have enough self-respect and common sense to not put myself through that. So I created a fictional character to do it for me. Her name is Amy Johnson-Martinez, and she is the protagonist of my novel The Diary of Amy, the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Saved the Earth. During a visit to a rural institute that demonstrates sustainable living, she falls in love with a cute little straw bale home.

The MOST EXCITING PROJECT is the “natural building project” that makes “alternative” homes out of local materials. The one that got me REALLY excited was a strawbale home. It’s very easy to build, and VERY inexpensive! And it’s very energy efficient: The straw bales are over a foot thick so it’s better insulation than even the most expensive manufactured insulation (which is VERY polluting to make).

What a great idea, right? But Amy discovers something that shocks her naïve sensibilities:

The tour guide told me that something like EarthSage would not be legal in Portland. I asked him, “Are you saying that it’s illegal to build a home that’s in harmony with nature?” and he said, “Of course, didn’t you know that?” and I said “That’s crazy!”

Where do we begin if we want to untangle this web of irrationality, this opposition to something that should be actively encouraged? Let’s imagine that I actually attempted to build a strawbale eco-home right on the very residential street that I now live. When the neighbors took a look at it, what would they think of it? Consider: My neighbors would be seeing my home using the paradigm that produced their home. Let’s examine that paradigm. The homes of my neighbors are tidy, respectable, orderly, and, very importantly, based on Euclidean geometry of planes and right angles that is not found in nature, except in some crystals. The yards, like the homes, should be tidy, respectable, orderly. They should consist mostly of empty space: a lawn. It’s okay to fertilize and water the lawn to encourage growth, and then repeatedly cut off the growth and consider it “trash”—then put it in plastic bags out on the sidewalk to be hauled to a landfill. Dandelions are considered a mortal enemy, no matter that they look pretty and are good to eat. It’s okay to put poison into the ground to kill them.

If the neighbors saw me putting together my eco-home, what would happen? They would immediately notice the non-traditional design and the lawn torn up to plant a garden. Then the doubts would begin. If I told them about my plans—the reptile pond, the composting toilet—the doubts would turn to panic: “How can we stop this thing?” Perhaps the skeptical reader believes I’m exaggerating? I offer Exhibit A, an article published in Utne Reader by Nicols Fox, entitled The Clothesline Question: How hanging out the laundry sparked a political firestorm. The subtitle hints at what happened: our hapless protagonist innocently begins hanging laundry in the backyard when the clothes dryer breaks, and discovers the advantage of saving money by cutting down on energy use. But when the general public is informed, he was declared to be “sanctimonious” and “self-righteous”; he was accused of insulting people forced by poverty to hang their clothes because they can’t afford a dryer. Not only is a cigar not just a cigar, but apparently a clothes dryer is not just a clothes dryer. It's proof that you can afford one.

Back to the potential neighbors of my eco-home. They would see a threat; a rat-infested jungle; a hazard to hygiene; an affront to tidiness and order; a cheap home of sticks and mud… Wait… did someone say “cheap”? Ah, now we’re getting to the heavy-duty opposition. Amy discovers this when she talks with a housing developer who is sympathetic to the idea of an eco-home, but has to stay “in the closet” with his ideas. He said there’s a “silent conspiracy” to make homes as expensive as possible. Homes have a “required minimum size” so it’s against the law to build a small home! And the building codes say you have to use expensive materials made by big companies.

When Amy starts getting some traction in the promotion of her strawbale demonstration home, she is shocked at the swift reaction of the housing industry. There is a TV commercial playing all over by some organization called “All the Real Estate and Builder Associations Put Together.” It starts with a scene of a typical oversized suburban home and a fake family like from an old sitcom. Then a narrator says, “You deserve this. But some people want you live like this.” Then the “home” becomes pile of sticks and the family is wearing rags. The dad says, “Well, I’m off to work to hunt rats for dinner so we don’t starve to death.” And the daughter looks at the camera and says, “At least we’re living sustainably.”

The government is in total agreement with this view. Amy discovers this at a City Council meeting about changing the building codes to allow affordable eco-homes.

I can’t believe that the City Council meeting was not to ENCOURAGE affordable sustainable housing but to BAN it! The mayor said it’s not just about sustaining businesses, but about sustaining government. He explained that property taxes pay for lots of city services, such as schools. So if people started living in affordable housing, tax revenues would go way down. Then the mayor said, “We have examined this issue very carefully, and have reached the conclusion that we can’t afford affordable homes.”

People generally belive that building codes are about “safety” in the sense of structural integrity, fire prevention, etc. That’s true to a degree, but the most important “safety issue” is to protect the continued profits of the construction, real estate, and banking industries. How do I know this? Simple: There are all kinds of alternative homes that meet the first criteria of safety, but aren’t allowed because they fail to meet the second criteria of “safety.” So we can blame big business for all of this, right? Amy thought the problem was just greedy business people. But later at the City Council meeting there was a shocking incident:

I explained that making sustainable housing super-affordable is great for people, because they wouldn’t have to work so much. I was shocked when a woman yelled out, “LIKE H*LL IT IS! Do you have any idea what affordable homes would do to my property value? My husband and I didn’t put up with 40 years of jobs we hate to have our profit wiped out by some hippies tearing up the lawn to plant tofu!” She explained their house was recently appraised at 10 times as much as they bought it for. I said that this means a lot of people can’t afford a home at all, and the ones who can afford it are stuck with a huge financial burden. A man who works for a bank said, “Woo-Hoo!”

There’s one more reason to keep property values and income levels rising. If we don’t, the entire economy will collapse. Everybody knows that our economy is addicted to economic growth, right? (To explain in detail would take too long, but Amy herself explains here.

E.F. Schumacher wrote, “No system or machinery or economic doctrine or theory stands on its own feet: it is invariably built on a metaphysical foundation, that is to say, upon our basic outlook on life, its meaning and purpose.” So what is the “metaphysical foundation” of our current paradigm? As far as I’ve been able to discern, it consists of the following:
  • Humanity is separate from and superior to nature
  • Ethics does not apply to interactions between humanity and nature
  • Nothing is sacred – or alternatively, only churches and religious texts are sacred
  • Material reality is the only reality, and it includes only the pieces of it we can use
  • Progress is defined in strictly material terms
  • Ethics is based on rights rather than responsibilities
  • The default judge of value is profitability, before which all other justifications must defend themselves
It all adds up to a “metaphysical foundation” devised by and for the benefit of the human ego. Our interactions with the rest of life are based on whatever bolsters our ego at the expense of nature. This foundation explains why it’s legal to pour poison into the air and soil, to use genetic engineering to create unhealthy and damaging food, and to obtain energy via fracking. It explains why there’s mercury in our fish and pesticides in our produce. And it explains why it’s against the law to build a home that can exist in harmony with nature.

How do we fix this interconnected series of problems? Individuals come and go, but the same problems continue because the ideas we base our society upon are adopted and perpetuated by succeeding generations. In other words, it’s the paradigm’s fault. But who can possibly change it besides us? So here is my conclusion: The paradigm is in charge – but we’re in charge of enforcing and adhering to the paradigm. We’ve become accustomed to winning at the expense of nature. What will it take for us to realize that this false “win” makes us both lose? What will it take for us to “subvert the dominant paradigm”?


Kevin said...

Scott I couldn't agree more with your remarks on the assaultive nature of the noise generated by the diabolical gas-powered un-gardening implements you've named. Noise is violence, as some French philosopher stated, and every time I try to enjoy my morning coffee or read a good book one or another of these infernal implements ruptures the peace of the day and makes it all but impossible to think one's own thoughts. With the possible exception of a traffic jam, I know of no better symbol of collective mass imbecilism than the popularity of these devices. Even cell phones do not exceed them.

How to subvert the dominant paradigm? I would suggest (a) move to the sticks and keep a low profile or (b) leave the United States and similarly constituted polities for some saner place. Or we could try Dmitry's super-secret tactics, if he'll cut us in on them.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

ha ha and triple ha.
I have lawn stories galore and I also have a story of government policy eliminating efficient small housing in a community that had it only to replace it with expensive inferior mainstream housing.
First a lawn story.
Once upon a time we moved to a house on a street where the houses were set back from the street by twice the normal distance for this part of town. And this large expanse was of course covered entirely in lawns. The street was called a boulevard and if you stood in the middle of the lawn in front of your house and looked down the street, you saw nothing but lawns all the way to the end of the street.
Mowing all this lawn was of course an undue burden unless you owned a gas powered lawn mower. After a while I became tired of mowing all this lawn and started collecting local stone that other people were discarding. When I had enough stone, I built a dry wall parallel to the front of the house. This cut the lawn in half. I paved the area back of the wall with more stone to make it into a patio. And in front of the wall I planted flowers, thus further reducing the lawn area. The neighbors, being polite people said nothing, but of course they talked and little by little we found out that they did not like our destruction of the lawn and disrupting the previously uninterrupted sweep of green. They thought that what we had done was funny looking. And then we moved away. Some years later I drove down the street of the fabulous lawns and lo and behold, a number of other houses now had flower beds in front of their houses. I like to think that our example had emboldened them to defy the tyranny of the lawn.
And now a small house story.
The Aleuts who call themselves Unangan live on islands out in the Aleutian chain that stretches all the way from the end of the Alaskan Peninsula on the American side to the end of the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Russian side. The climate in the Aleutians is wet and cool and often windy and punctuated by storms. Although the islands are below the Arctic Circle, they support no trees because there is not enough sunlight. To deal with the cool wet climate, the Unangan built a type of house called the barabara. To build their barabaras, they dug down a few feet into the soil, then set up walls of driftwood and built a roof of driftwood and then covered the whole thing over with sod. Since these houses were dug down into the soil, they had a low profile that could easily withstand the violent storms. These houses also had no drafts because the sod did not allow wind to penetrate the walls. And because the houses were small, heating them was no problem. And of course, these houses could be built entirely from locally available materials.
When America bought Alaska from the Russians, the Unangan became subject to American ideas of propriety and one of the Government officials in charge of housing deemed that the barabaras of the Unangan were barbaric and should be replaced with proper frame houses of the type that civilized Americans lived in.
And so, lumber and window glass and roofing was brought in on ships from far away at great expense so that these people on the remote islands could live like other Americans. And so it was. The Unangan abandoned their barabaras and did their best to live like civilized Americans. Unfortunately, the civilized housing was drafty and hard to heat and the incidence of various lung diseases rose. But it was a small price for the Unangan to pay to become part of the American mainstream.

BonRobi said...

Not to beat a dead horse (into nice little recycled dead horse meat patties...yumm) but combining a "eco-home" with the benefits of being quickly relocatable (like the Roma folks) sure bolsters the case for boat living over entrenched dirt dwelling. For example say you are a contented marine dweller on the pacific coast of north america and conditions change and tendrils of radioactive water are forecasted to come your way in awhile and a big ole pile of tsunami debris is wedging itself right into the center of your shipping lane desires and your countrys economy seems poised for a swan dive and the constabulary is getting a bit surly overall: it's almost a no-brainer to just RELOCATE via wind power to even just down the coast to central america and out of the impact zone. Boats, and particularly wind driven boats, are the ultimate swank trendy global loft apartment for the spoiled western dood or doodette. A lovely eco home with a luscious backyard be it Valparaiso, Chile or Mobile, Alabama.

GHung said...

"What will it take for us to realize that this false “win” makes us both lose?"

It's already underway; the Great Smackdown; excruciatingly slow by our standards; relatively swift by Nature's. Nature will dispose of us, and doesn't care about "realization". Fossilization trumps realization every time.

DiSc said...

I live in a small (50m2 - 500sq ft) apartment with my spouse and 3 children - to keep costs down, buy less, respect the environment, blabla... and wait off the Dutch housing market crash.

And yes, I can relate to the story above. There is a lot of social pressure to have as big as a house you can buy (with borrowed money). If you do not comply, people will try to use the law against you, invent dangers, call you irresponsible and some more subtle insults.

Even in Calvinist, progressive, individualistic Holland. Even if they suffer in no way from your choices.

Rita Narayanan said...

E.F. Schumacher wrote, “No system or machinery or economic doctrine or theory stands on its own feet: it is invariably built on a metaphysical foundation, that is to say, upon our basic outlook on life, its meaning and purpose.”

A large number of elite highly educated women(India) who are known for their environmental&social activism among desert villages,tribes and agrarian areas (and who hang out at Schumachers in London) hardly acknowledge the occult involved in metaphysical world.

They run in an out of ivy league univs,take on first men on US TV and hang out with the Prince of Wales but could not be more removed in *spirit* from rural women and society.

Modernity has allowed these women to physically show solidarity with a world they are most removed from.....they do not have to enter the underworld like Innana.

Luciddreams said...

What will it take for us to realize that this false “win” makes us both lose? What will it take for us to “subvert the dominant paradigm”?

I've been working on this problem since I resigned from the Matrix. When I talk about it with people, I like to bring up what Dmitry pointed out in "Reinventing Collapse": the fact that the Soviet populace had pretty much just stopped taking the government and their declarations seriously. Nobody paid the government much attention and eventually the government collapsed. I think that is a good strategy.

You can witness this now with the Obamacare dictates. Nobody is signing up for the disaster. It's as if nobody gives a shit, or believes anything negative will happen to them if they don't comply. I'm among those whom are simply turning around and going the other way.

I'm trying to hide in plain sight. Follow the rules of the Matrix enough to simply not draw attention to myself. The living arrangement, specifically, is difficult. I'm starting to think that a front is the best way. Get the cheapest piece of crap trailer one can find, get it hooked up so that it's all up to code, and then live in the woods behind it in your earthen home. Keep a low profile. Home school the kids. Be careful with the company you keep, and you should have no problems. This is the strategy my wife and I are planning to employ shortly.

For now, we are living in a glitch, a secret glitch probably similar to Dmitri's glitch. It's a glitch that allows my wife and I to not work "jobs" for money. The secret is finding a way to live rent free. If you can do that, than you can live your life more on your terms. I realize nothing is for free, and when I say "rent free" I mean there are no financial requirements, and it is possible to do so. My wife and I are doing it, and have done it for two years now.