Monday, July 02, 2007

The environment

Our environment seems to be in the news more recently. There have been a number of serious reports around global warming and emissions. There is some scary stuff of what we could be in for the next 4 generations in some of the projections. That's like within all of our lifetimes, near enough that we can't ignore it as some future problem we don't have to care about today.

Sometimes I think about the environment and I wonder if a major factor in the damage to the environment is being consciously or unconsciously overlooked. That factor is the single family detached and semi detached house.

I mean think about it. The Kingswood subdivision which is typical in Canada has been described as "800 acres, 800 houses". That's a pretty inefficient and wasteful use of land for the number of people living there. Most people there has to drive a long way to commute to work, typically in downtown Halifax. Clogging traffic and spewing emissions.

Then there's oil heat. Each home having an independent heating system seems pretty inefficient. Plus the oil trucks going around to every single individual house, generating emissions and burning more fossil fuels as they go. It's causing a lot of environmental damage. I suspect the independent home heating plant is based on historical rural traditions of the small family house with the big cast iron stove that heated it. They used wood or coal off their own land to get their own heat, it was the only way. With the rise of the suburbs probably people just did what they grew up with and put in independent furnaces without thinking that gridded heat, like the electricity grid, is better. Surely it's better for the environment.

It seems strange to me nobody ever mentions the damage to the environment and consumption of land and resources caused by the detached family house. Is it because most people live in or grew up in a house and it's just something that's part of life like sidewalks or the clouds that we don't think about separately.

Or is it the pink elephant in the corner for government and the media, something they dare not ever say or even hint about for fear of a swift and sure backlash. A lot of people have a deep emotional connection to their house or the house they grew up in. If the media or the government said this was causing excessive damage to the environment then a lot of people likely become very defensive and hostile at this suggestion. There would be a huge backlash with no meaningful discussion. Who would want to face that wrath?

What's the alternative to the detached house. Probably large 10-100 storey residential buildings right in the city as close as possible to where most people work. Telling people today they have to give up their house for that generally would not be well received. Many (most?) people would say let New York sink into the ocean and the polar bears go extinct before I give up my house. But the thing is if we focused on it then the architects, engineers and city planners could come up with innovative designs to make such shared living comfortable and nearly as good as the traditional detached house. I wouldn't be surprised to see this happen in my lifetime though.

I'd like to see a meaningful discussion on the effect of the detached house on the environment and global warming. I'm not expecting to hear anything about it from the media or government any time soon though.

You never know though. In just the last couple of years SUVs have gone from the toast of the town to frowned upon due to the price of gas and the damage to the environment they cause. The recent federal budget introduced a new tax on these types of vehicles to discourage people from buying them and to get them to fund dealing with the environmental problems they cause.

This same transformation may take place slowly in the coming years in more areas of society, including home ownership. The new gas guzzler tax establishes an important precedent in linking individual activity to the environmental impact of that activity. In the future additional such levies could be established on things like clearing land for a subdivision, installing an oil or wood burning furnace, building a detached or semi detached house.