For several years now, we've been watching the final crop sprout on the hillside across the valley from our farm. After more than a decade of regulatory, ecological, and economic disasters, bulldozers are now rapidly converting several hundred acres of rolling hayfields and mature forest into 70 house lots. Local zoning laws require at least one-and-one-half acres per house in order to accommodate a well and a septic system. This development requires that each dwelling be at least double the building code's minimum size. About a dozen houses are already finished and occupied. Expansive lawns have replaced fertile fields and productive woodlands.
These big houses and starter mansions are the current epitome of the American dream. They provide what many people strive for: lots of interior space, a yard big enough for the kids, plenty of clean air and views of distant forested hills, not yet conquered by new subdivisions. This rampant development is a sign of confidence in our town's school system and quality of life.
Unfortunately, the requirements that this suburban lifestyle places on the rest of the world are completely unsustainable. These homes start at over $300,000, come with a $4,000 to $5,000 per year real estate tax bill and essentially require a six-figure income. This obviously excludes the vast majority of the Earth's inhabitants.
With no fewer than four bedrooms, we might reasonably expect at least one school-aged child per house. Since education costs over $7,000 per year, per student, each house runs a $3,000 per year deficit with the town before requiring any other services. With two students, it produces a $10,000 deficit annually. And homes don't run on education alone.
They also need energy to stay warm or cool (especially since the sun's warmth and its path across the sky are not taken into account in the design and orientation of these houses). The residents, of course, need food, clothing, electricity and entertainment, all of which come from far away, with energy and environmental costs in both their creation and delivery. Since these homes are many miles from the nearest park, small store, shopping center or high-paying job, and there is no public transportation, the only option is to get in a car and drive. Three-car garages are common.
The authors of the book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, calculated that in 1991, the average American needed over 12 acres of ecologically-productive land to support his or her lifestyle. For each person, that includes over two acres of forest to produce paper and lumber, nearly three acres of farmland to grow food and fiber, and over six acres of good land to absorb the carbon dioxide and other pollution from our extravagant energy use. And these figures were calculated before the last decade's expansion in house, car, and human waist sizes. Unfortunately, there are just four acres of this ecologically-productive land per person on Earth, including only half an acre of food-producing land.
The ecological deficit produced by just three residents amounts to 24 acres per house. Yet the nearly complete disconnection from the sources of food, energy and environmental services fostered by our culture encourages ignorance of this lifestyle's effects on the rest of the planet.
We are all caught in this very dysfunctional system. The energy and land required by this final crop and its residents are unsustainable.
It is time for us explore and develop another way of living on the Earth - a way which consumes fewer resources, creates less pollution and satisfies more of our needs locally. We've got quite a lot of work to do.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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