How living larger is harming the planet

Story by Alex Zank, News Editor

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The nation has been living larger than ever before. U.S. Census data show that the average size of a new home in 2010 is 2,392 square feet, compared to just 1,660 square feet in 1973.

This worries some, including Graham Hill, founder of the environmental blog TreeHugger, who now is working to show people that we can live smaller and buy less.

Hill spoke on campus Wednesday, April 24 in the Dakota Ballroom and showed how living a simpler life is possible. But he’s fighting a national trend that will prove hard to change; a trend that is having a harmful impact on the natural environment.

In Eau Claire, according to a 2011 Census estimate, 38.2 percent of households have two cars available, and 21.7 percent have three or more. Compared to U.S. 2011 estimates, about 37.5 percent of households have two cars available and 19.1 percent have three or more.

Professor of geography and Chair of the department Douglas Faulkner recalled when he moved into a new home in the 1960s that was not even 1,800 square feet, and had a single car garage, which he said was standard.

“It seemed very large (back then), but by today’s standards would be kind of on the small side,” Faulkner said. “And I just see now, that house when I see it, it’s a small house.”

The main environmental impact from this evolving way of living is the increased amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere, Faulkner said.

Burning fossil fuels to create the energy needed during extraction and production of the materials needed for the increased consumption of products, he said, is what is putting more carbon dioxide in the air.

Larger homes also mean more energy is used to heat the entire house.

“Modern houses are a lot more efficient,” Faulkner said. “They have a lot more insulation, but they’re also bigger.”

Making larger homes also means more materials are being used to construct them.

Faulkner said the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at a historic high of 395 parts per million (ppm), when in the past they were only about 300 ppm.

Some consequences of the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can already be seen.

“The biggest thing is the loss of arctic sea ice,” Faulkner said. “The decline in arctic sea ice has been profound and undeniable.”

Extreme weather events are also an effect from the changing climate, as well as more erratic swings of weather behavior.

“These erratic swings of our weather … (are) totally consistent with the kind of changes we’d expect when the Earth gets warmer,” Faulkner said.

Hill said at the presentation that people, although they have more things, are no happier than before with a smaller sized way of living. He showed happiness data in his slideshow and also spoke from experience.

“I’ve had a large house (before) and a car and all those complexities,” he said. “I’ve downsized and I’m really happy about it.”
Hill said about 50 percent of our carbon emissions are building related. His objective is to build a new “model” of the way we live to make the old one obsolete.

Hill showed photographs of his apartment of roughly 400 square feet in size, significantly smaller than the average apartment size in New York City.

His living room also acted as his bedroom, dining room and an office. He had a fold-out bed, a table that could expand to fit 10 people and plug-in burners rather than a full range in the kitchen.

Sophomore Libby Faffler said that although she’s skeptical about human-caused global climate change, she does believe in respecting the environment. She recycles, does not litter and prefers to ride her bike.

She said she would probably not be willing to make a lot of the changes Hill was advocating for. For example, she said she would never not own a car.

“I wouldn’t cut basic comfort to be more sustainable, personally,” she said, although she said that everyone should do things like recycle.

Faulkner said Hill’s suggestions would be a good starting point, but more would have to be done to reverse the effects of climate change.

“I don’t know if this is through government or just the work of groups at broader scales, but to bring about a change that people become part of a social movement,” he said. “It has to start at an individual level … but I don’t think it will lead to the changes that need to happen.”

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