[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...
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”?