How Much Are You Willing to Sacrifice for the Environment?

I feel like I’m constantly ranting here about a simple fact in the calculus of environmental awareness that seems to be continually overridden and ignored in mainstream discussions: Sometimes, it costs. Not just in the sense of being potentially expensive, although that is definitely an issue I’ve addressed a lot in the past, but in the sense that sometimes, you have to give something up for the environment. You cannot actually have your cake and eat it too, you can’t have it all, and pretending otherwise is a disservice, as well as a perpetuation of the myth that it’s possible to live destructively as long as you ‘balance’ it.

The classic example for me is the ‘green’ mansion or excessively large house, which seems to be a growing trend. As environmental consciousness has become much more mainstream, more and more people both want to do the right thing by the environment, and show that they are doing the right thing by the environment. Hence, there’s a call for homes built with environmental efficiency in mind, which, on the surface, is a good thing. Obviously a home with, say, double pane windows is going to waste less heat, which means it will require less energy to heat in the winter, and won’t need as much cooling in the summer because of the more controlled temperature.

But what about the fact that the house is four times larger than it needs to be? This requires a tremendous amount of building materials, and results in a much larger physical and environmental footprint than a smaller home. No matter how many ‘offsets’ people purchase in an attempt to justify it, they’re still living in a massive house that’s bigger than they need. They could be just as environmentally sound in a much smaller house, and could spend a lot less money doing it, too. Some of the innovations huge houses require to boost efficiency aren’t required when you live in a small or tiny house.

Large houses take up more room on lots, requiring larger lots if people want to retain yard space, which they usually do. They contribute to urban sprawl, limit habitat for animals, and contribute to a host of other problems that can be mitigated, though not avoided, with smaller dwellings; of course, if you really want to crack down on the sprawl problem, you need to be building up, not out, and you need to be building dense. Housing towers around central greens and other park-like areas make more sense than rows of homes of any size, but many people don’t want to live in such structures.

And smaller homes don’t carry the social cachet of a large house. They’re not what people want, and thus they’re not what’s being built, by and large, to meet the demand for environmentally friendly homes. People want to be able to retain their status symbols while still paying lip service to the environment. They buy hybrid SUVs and giant houses with environmental certifications and feel they’ve done their part for the environment, because they’re participating in a certified programme and they bought the thing with the leaf on the label.

Obviously, if a big house is going to be built either way, it might as well be built with the maximum of environmentally friendly improvements, modifications, and innovations. Likewise, if someone is going to drive an SUV no matter what, using a hybrid engine at least helps to cut down on usage. But taking these things for granted and assuming that they are both necessary and okay sets up a world in which they are routinely used by people who do not need them, and those people are praised for making the purchases they do because of the greenwashing; who cares that it’s a McMansion, it’s got energy-efficient heating and cooling!

The fact of the matter is that most people do not need a large house, and the average square footage of homes has been climbing radically over the years. People are demanding more and more space and they resent the idea that it may be necessary to contract the space we occupy in order to protect precious natural resources. That we may be forced to actually change our lifestyles in order to accommodate the needs of the planet and the other beings that inhabit it. We are not alone, and we only have one planet, no do-overs, which means we must take responsibility for our actions if we want to preserve it as a legacy for future generations.

Allocating the vast majority of resources to an ever more wasteful West while putting the squeeze on the Global South is not responsible. Cultivating and maintaining the idea that it’s possible to have it all when it’s really not is quite irresponsible, in fact. I’d love to see spokespeople for the environment putting their lives where their mouths are. How many celebrities claiming to care about environmental issues, for example, own multiple (very large) homes and multiple vehicles? Are these really necessary for their tasks of daily living? What if they divested those resources and focused on a more modest, scaled-down lifestyle? How would that change the way we perceive the sacrifices we need to make to protect the environment?

On an individual level, we all need to make our choices about what we’re willing to give up, and we all have to draw the line somewhere. That line seems drawn awfully high right now, though, and it doesn’t create much of a target to aim for. If we could buy our way out of environmental problems, we would have done it already. Why won’t people admit that we clearly need something more?