We live in an age of excess, and nothing better captures this point than the average size of new homes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average new home went from 1,100 square feet in the 1950's to 2,340 square feet in 2002. In the 1950's new homes averaged 290 square feet per family member, by 2003, new homes constructed averaged 893 square feet per family member! I'm proud to report that at about 450 square feet per family member, my 2-person household is way below the national average.
A large house, no matter how green and energy efficient, is hard to justify in a world plagued with homelessness and crushing poverty. I tend to see this less as an environmental and more as a social justice issue. In the SF Bay Area, one frequently encounters well-meaning Liberals with strong environmental credentials, who are ensconced in large homes in trendy hillsides and neighborhoods. While the green movement is slowly going mainstream, social justice and simplicity have yet to be embraced by most Liberals.
Home contractor friends have told me that 2500 square foot homes are way too big for most families. I suspect that a family of 4 can live comfortably in a 1500 square foot residence. So why do environmentally-conscious and well-meaning Liberals continue to live in large residences, located in affluent neighborhoods?
One clue is to look at the primary residences of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President. Edwards, Gore, Clinton and Obama, frequently champion anti-poverty and environmental issues, certainly more than their Republican counterparts. I'm not claiming that anyone who passionately fights for anti-poverty programs should take the vow of poverty, but these home sizes are incredible:
(To enlarge an image, click on it.) To put the home sizes in perspective, I included the square footage of a regulation-size basketball court. Anyone who has walked around a basketball court knows that even a "half court" takes quite a bit of space. These home sizes are for their primary residences: Clinton, Gore, and Edwards own multiple homes. The Clintons have another 5000+ square foot residence in Georgetown, and the Gores have a luxury apartment in SF, and at least one other house in Tennessee. Obama's home sits on a 7500 square foot lot, and since I was unable to track down the size of his home, I used aerial photos to give a conservative estimate. The Clintons applied to have their home expanded, the above estimate takes into account the proposed thousand square foot expansion.
People claim they need larger homes for when they have parties or events. My response is that they should rent out a ballroom on the rare occasions that they need to accommodate a large number of guests.
Friends in the SF Bay Area constantly talk of the "strong field" of candidates, and I definitely sense a lot of excitement among Liberal professionals. I too will end up voting for the Democratic nominee, but based on the lifestyles they maintain, I am not hopeful that they can truly push through meaningful anti-poverty agendas. John Edwards' talk of the "two Americas" rings hollow -- does he really need such a mega house!
Ironically President Bush, regarded as being pro Big Oil and pro rich, has a smaller residence than most of the leading Democrats. Clearly, home size is not a strong indicator for enlightened leadership! But shouldn't Democrats expects more (in this case less, is desirable) out of their leaders? Seriously, I look forward to the day when we elect leaders who not only promote social justice and simplicity, but have lives consistent with those values. (And no, I'm not voting for Kucinich.)
As we celebrate Buy Nothing Day this Friday, my hope is that we take its message and try to practice it as best we can, throughout the year. With an economy heavily dependent on consumption and consumer spending, no politician will advocate and, based on the chart above, maintain a simple lifestyle. Change will have to come from American consumers.
I remember being in a Clean Energy meeting at Google a few months back, and Googlers were emphasizing that by embracing renewable and efficient energy sources, "sacrifice" or the lowering of lifestyles, was not only unnecessary it was undesirable. I suppose if your main source of revenue is advertising, consumer spending/consumption is a natural consequence.
Buy. Less. Stuff.
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