Behavioral Change

I still don’t believe that technology, alone, will or can save us from ourselves. I still think the problem with heating houses in cold places isn’t that we’re running low on fuel, or that we need better insulation or more advanced, efficient high-tech heat-producing technologies.

Witold Rybczynski wrote a brief piece in the latest Atlantic Monthly generally agreeing with this. He writes,

“The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever.”

The behavioral change he advocates is a reverse exodus, from suburban housing back to high-density urban living. He points out the incontrovertible fact that, per unit of living space, detached single-family homes waste more heating (and cooling)

energy than apartment buildings or townhouses where neighbors share walls. He argues (and I agree) that any reasonably well-built multifamily building will be inherently more efficient than a suburban house arrayed with solar panels and other “new-fangled” green technologies.

But I can’t agree that the best behavior change we can make, in regard to the enormous quantities of fuel being used to heat our buildings in winter, is to abandon the millions of existing suburban homes and build millions of new urban homes for all the refugees thus created.

I think the problem is that we are addicted to extreme warmth and have forgotten how to live without it. And the simple, if unsexy, behavior-change solution is: get used to being somewhat less warm, some of the year, in some parts of your house. The way every person who ever lived in a temperate climate, for all of history, up until about 100 years ago, was used to it. Stay where you are. Don’t spend $10,000 for new windows. Spend $50 on a down vest and a hat, and decide it isn’t crazy to wear them indoors. Turn the thermostat down five degrees. See if you aren’t still alive in a week.

Towards the end of his diatribe against “tricked-out” quasi-green suburban housing, Rybczynski says “A Thoreau-like existence in the great outdoors isn’t green. Density is green.” If by “a Thoreau-like existence” he refers to the McMansions lately built in the vicinity of Walden Pond, I will agree. But otherwise, I think the author shows some ignorance of Thoreau’s accommodation and lifestyle. Much of the time Thoreau lived in the homes of Emerson or others (i.e., “multi-family” living). So far as I know, the only time he had a home entirely to himself was during his experiment at Walden– there, he lived in a ten-by-fifteen foot cabin. Not many people– urban or otherwise– live in 150 sq. ft. these days, and I think that is “dense” by almost any standard. Also the cabin was built almost entirely of recycled or on-site materials, using no power tools. It was heated (barely) with firewood felled a few yards away and split by hand. And I guarantee you the average winter temperature in that cabin was lower than in any home you could find in Massachusetts today.

A Thoreau-like existence, I would argue, is green anywhere. Thoreau also wrote quite a bit on the question of how much of what we think of as “necessities” are really luxuries– heat included. Perhaps some more on that later.


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