It’s illegal to live sustainably

What good is law in these ironic times? It is illegal to construct a tiny, unpermitted home.  It is not illegal to own a large house and keep it empty.  It is illegal to build an unpermitted deck with trees from one’s property.  It is not illegal to buy a patio set made by children in China with trees from the Amazon.  It is illegal to litter.  It is also illegal to manage our own waste.

America values each citizen’s right to an indulgent lifestyle over their responsibility to know its implications.  Mainstream culture not only tells us that it is okay to have a large house–it tells us to want one.  Little do we know that the manifestation of the American Dream is the World’s Worst Nightmare; that if we all had that big house and car, we would need nearly 4 and a half earths to make it possible.*  There simply is not room for everyone on the lap of luxury.  Who among us is entitled to live in a way that cannot be shared?

Since we only have one earth, not 4, we can understand that our standard of living in this country is too high.  So when Sonoma County enforces expensive coding regulations that require a high standard of living, it does so at the expense of people elsewhere being able to meet their basic needs.  Because to the extent that money represents anything real, it represents resources.  The only way we can afford to pay for permits in Sonoma County and elsewhere is to claim resources in the form of dollars that are, by the nature of finite resources, made unavailable to other people who need them.  To spend so many dollars, so many resources, on every building in the county places an extremely high value on the safety of county residents.  Meanwhile, according to a report by the United Nations, “[e]very day, some 50,000 people, mostly women and children, die as a result of poor shelter, polluted water and inadequate sanitation.”**

Standards of living that are required in the United States are not even an option in third world countries.  That is telling, given that borders do nothing more than delineate the entitled from the exploited.  They certainly do not mark boundaries around closed systems of resource production and consumption.  In reality, despite the illusion of nation states, a system extends as far as the radius of its inputs and outputs.  If our coffee comes from Angola, Angola is part of our system.  Can we afford for everyone in Angola to permit their homes?  And to live the way that we do?

Sebastopol claims to be a Transition Town.***  It hopes to be a model of sustainability.  Yet how can we serve as such a model when our very homes demand such extravagance?  How can we inspire others to live like we do when their doing so would require 4 earths?  The standards we provide for ourselves come at a price–and we are not the ones paying it.  There can be no first world without the third world.  There can be no first world in one world.

We must strive for lower standards of living and a high quality of life.  Where there is culture, our physical spaces do not directly determine our happiness.  Where there is community and relationships and creativity and engagement, we do not suffer from a lack of purchased luxuries.  And where we are willing to truly invest in our environments through our time and physical resources, we can take accountability for our own lives.  If the government does not provide for people’s needs, it should not limit their ability to provide for them themselves.  We have the right and the responsibility to reduce our patterns of consumption.  Only when we stop using so many of our limited resources can we stop fighting over them.

In short, we are not arguing against permits simply because we do not want to pay for them–it is because there are not enough resources on this planet to justify our doing so.

*According to data from the Global Footprint Network, the average person in the United States has an ecological footprint of 8.00 global hectares per person, with 12 billion global hectares available.  “Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010”. Global Footprint Network. 13 October 2010. Retrieved 28 October 2010.
According to the Population Reference Bureau 2007 World Polulation Sheet, there are 6.625 billion people on the planet.
Therefore, for everyone on the planet to have the same ecological footprint as the average American, we would need 4.417 earths.
***Transition US is a resource and catalyst for building resilient communities across the United States that are able to withstand severe energy, climate or economic shocks while creating a better quality of life in the process. We will accomplish our mission by inspiring, encouraging, supporting, networking and training individuals and their communities as they consider, adopt, adapt, and implement the Transition approach to community empowerment and change.


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