Over the last 50 years, the average American has seen their private space more than triple. In the 1950s, the average American, according to Pat Murphy’s excellent book _Plan C_, had 250 square feet per person. By 2005, the average American had 850 square feet of space in their home per person. And we want more – even bigger houses proliferated during the boom, with more amenities to allow people to be away from each other – private studies and bathrooms, media rooms so you don’t have to watch tv with anyone else…
Now some of this may have been good and welcome – there is a case to be made, as Virginia Woolf did, for a room of her (or his) own. But that doesn’t necessarily mean close to a thousand square feet. The costs of this – in energy used for heating, cooling and powering, the cost in mortgage dollars and debt both good and bad, the cost in hours worked to maintain lifestyle, the cost in commutes and soil as these increasingly huge houses were built out at increasingly large distances on good farmland – all of these were extremely high.
Along with them came the outsourcing and fossil fueling of the labor needed to keep up these houses. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes in _Nickled and Dimed_, many of these houses required low paid household help in order to maintain them. The large lawns require lawn services, again, with low paid labor. The household work of maintaining and financially supporting these houses precluded things like cooking dinner or having one parent stay home, which in turn raised costs further, and raised energy usage further as Dad made his 45 minute commute with a 20 minute diversion to drop the baby at daycare.
Even with enormous quantities of fossil fuels, which, as Jim Kunstler has observed have provided the equivalent of a huge quantity of slave labor for us, we still haven’t been able to keep up with the houses by ourselves. We still can’t support the family and the house and also have time to mow the lawn and clean the toilets. We still are bringing poorer people, who themselves are then burdened with the costs of further outsourcing – ie, they work long hours cleaning houses, so they buy their children fast food and leave them in crappy daycare, and move aging parents into barely passable nursing homes – into the mix. We still find that we cannot fully maintain even the very limited domestic obligations of a single nuclear household. We need to go no further than this to realize that the nuclear family is failing us. We’re exhausted, and hiring out for our domestic responsibilities – and we’ve got a lot of cheap energy and money to subsidize them.
Imagine a world of energy constraint and less money, and the struggle gets a lot harder. What happens when Dad’s carefully invested savings are no longer worth as much from the next bubble pop and the one after, when Medicare begins to crash, and when state subsidies for the elderly and disbled begin to crash even more than they have? What happens when our gas prices go up and we can’t afford our enormous homes? What happens if we have to add to our work homeschooling our kids (because our local school systems are now so underfunded we can’t in conscience send our kids there, or because they no longer provide transport to a now-centralized district 8 miles away), growing some of our food to balance rising costs, or any one of many other obligations? What happens when we can’t pay the cost of our fossil fueled slaves?
Some of what happens is that life gets harder and changes – millions of people have already seen their homes subside into foreclosure. But rental markets aren’t easy either, especially for people with pets and children, or the elderly and disabled who need accessible facilities in short supply. And some of what happens is this – we need more people in our homes and apartments.
Whether we have fewer fossil fuels because we can’t afford them, or because we regulate emissions, or because of peak energy or, most likely, all three, we are going to need more help and more hands in our lives. The increasingly vast private spaces, maintained at enormous monetary, personal and energy costs are becoming unviable already. Whether we like it or not, there are not enough people in a nuclear family or single household to substitute for that energy. We’re going to need each other.
And we’re going to get each other – there are a huge number of forces pushing us together, sometimes whether we want other folks or not or not. One of my most reproduced pieces, called “The Brother-In-Law on the Couch Version of the Apocalypse” which also appears, slightly differently in _Depletion and Abundance_ argues that most of us intellectually towards “Mad Max” sorts of scenarios when we think about “collapse” but in fact, for most people, what collapse looks like is your brother-in-law living on your couch for a year. It looks more like young people couch surfing, and people combining households out of necessity. I joked in my original writing that many of us are psychologically less troubled by the Mad Max scenarios than actually having to live with our relatives or friends. But that is what the future looks like.
It looks like aging parents, whose retirement savings won’t cover medical and living costs moving in with grown children. It looks like grown children who can’t get a job or another job moving back in with their parents, who at least have houses. It looks like the state slashing funding for the disabled and making it impossible for them to live alone. It looks like unemployment above 25% for 18-26 year olds. It looks like not being able to get a rental because you have a dog and kids. It looks like more climate induced natural disasters and people who can’t go back to their homes. It looks like the fraying of safety nets and the recreation of those safety nets among family, whether biological or chosen, and in communities.
Sometimes we get tighter ties because we need them. In _A Paradise Built in Hell_ Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary book about the way communities self-organize in response to serious crises, Solnit writes that most of us, in dire straits, set about the work of working together, even if we’d never done so before, or had hated the idea. Sometimes, as the song says, you can’t always get what you want – but if you try, sometimes you get what you need. In some measures, all of these bad things may also be part of what we need – which is fewer feet of private space around us and more people in our houses. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. It doesn’t mean it won’t suck some of the time. In fact, it will. The best answer I’ve got to the sucking part is to live with the family (biological or chosen) and friends that you like best, and get started early, so that you can say “Sorry, Sis, I’ve got Aunt Eleanor, cousin LaShanda and her two kids living here already, you have to take Grampa Jim, his asthmatic poodle and Cousin Lori who spends 2 hours a day on her hair.”
As many of you know, we’ve been looking for housemates for a while, but we’re busy and have been somewhat desultory about it. We began our farm as an extended family project – Eric’s grandparents lived with us until their deaths. We had hoped that Eric’s grandmother would live much longer, and we’ve missed them – even though sometimes living together, caring for aging and disabled family members was also hard. It left us with a house too big for just the six of us.
There are a lot of people in our lives that we would love to live with but it won’t quite work – our former housemates who also have children – but are tied to the DC area by a job, a college friend who is tied to a location by her custody agreements, etc… So we started looking outwards, through the blog. We met some wonderful people, but in the end, other obligations usually made it too hard for them to relocate – and that makes sense, because, after all, most of us have a compelling reason for living where we do.
We have finally found housemate #1 – Phil, Eric’s TA at SUNY Albany and our friend. He’s in his 20s, passionate about environmentalism and wants to learn to farm as well. He’ll move in at the end of the term, in May to two of the unused bedrooms downstairs. We’re still looking for someone(s) to take the 1000 square foot apartment as well. We’re excited by this – by life with more people and someone for Eric to make music with, by shared friendship and the ability to barter housing for things we need – like occasional babysitting and someone to work in the garden with us.
I’m a big believer that it is almost always better and easier to make changes that will be coming before they are necessary, on your own terms. That’s why we brought Eric’s grandparents to live with us – we wanted them to come before things became acute, while they could still enjoy our family. So too, we want our household to expand before we have to – because we have stuff to share and so do they, because we enjoy being with others, because we don’t need as much as we have, because many hands (mostly) make lighter times and lighter work. The future is more of us in less space. The future is community, whether we like it or not, so we might as well try and like it. So far, I’m having fun.