The tiny house movement is an environmentalist dream's come true — less space means you need less stuff and you consume less energy. The problem is you have to live in a cramped space and dedicate yourself to the Marie Kondo credo of only having a few objects in you home that spark joy.
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By Maria Saxton
Interest is surging in tiny homes — livable dwelling units that typically measure under 400 square feet. Much of this interest is driven by media coverage that claims that living in tiny homes is good for the planet.
The Unsustainable U.S. Housing Model<p>In recent decades, the building trend has been to "go big." Newly constructed homes in the U.S. generally have a larger average square footage <a href="https://www.slideshare.net/ORDEQ/deq-building-lca-forwebsite-16minfinal1" target="_blank">than in any other country in the world</a>.</p><p>In 1973 the average newly constructed U.S. home measured 1,660 square feet. By 2017 that average had increased to <a href="https://www.census.gov/construction/chars/pdf/squarefeet.pdf" target="_blank">2,631 square feet</a> — a 63 percent increase. This growth has harmed the environment in many ways, including loss of green space, increased air pollution and energy consumption, and ecosystem fragmentation, which can <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/habitat-fragmentation" target="_blank">reduce biodiversity</a>.</p><p>The concept of minimalist living has existed for centuries, but the modern tiny house movement became a trend only in the early 2000s, when <a href="https://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/" target="_blank">one of the first tiny home building companies</a> was founded. Tiny homes are an innovative housing approach that can reduce building material waste and excessive consumption. There is no universal definition for a tiny home, but they generally are small, efficient spaces that value quality over quantity.</p><p>People choose to downsize to tiny homes for many reasons. They may include living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, simplifying their lives and possessions, becoming more mobile or achieving financial freedom, since tiny homes <a href="https://www.rd.com/advice/saving-money/costs-owning-tiny-home/" target="_blank">typically cost significantly less</a> than the average American home.</p>
Understanding Footprint Changes After Downsizing<p>This study examined tiny home downsizers' environmental impacts by measuring their individual ecological footprints. This metric calculates human demand on nature by providing a measurement of land needed to sustain current consumption behaviors.</p><p>To do this, I calculated their <a href="https://www.footprintnetwork.org/faq/" target="_blank">spatial footprints</a> in terms of global hectares, considering housing, transportation, food, goods and services. For reference, one global hectare is equivalent to about 2.5 acres, or about the size of a single soccer field.</p><p>I found that among 80 tiny home downsizers located across the U.S., the average ecological footprint was 3.87 global hectares, or about 9.5 acres. This means that it would require 9.5 acres to support that person's lifestyle for one year. Before moving into tiny homes, these respondents' average footprint was 7.01 global hectares (17.3 acres). For comparison, the average American's footprint is <a href="http://data.footprintnetwork.org/#/" target="_blank">8.4 global hectares</a>, or 20.8 acres.</p><p>My most interesting finding was that housing was not the only component of participants' ecological footprints that changed. On average, every major component of downsizers' lifestyles, including food, transportation and consumption of goods and services, was positively influenced.</p><p>As a whole, I found that after downsizing people were more likely to eat less energy-intensive food products and adopt more environmentally conscious eating habits, such as eating more locally and growing more of their own food. Participants traveled less by car, motorcycle, bus, train and airplane, and drove more fuel-efficient cars than they did before downsizing.</p><p>They also purchased substantially fewer items, recycled more plastic and paper, and generated less trash. In sum, I found that downsizing was an important step toward reducing ecological footprints and encouraging pro-environmental behaviors.</p><p>To take these findings a step farther, I was able to use footprint data to calculate how many resources could potentially be saved if a small portion of Americans downsized. I found that about 366 million acres of biologically productive land could be saved if just 10 percent of Americans downsized to a tiny home.</p>
Maria Saxton / CC BY-ND
Fine-tuning footprint analyses<p>My research identified more than 100 behaviors that changed after downsizing to a tiny home. Approximately 86 percent had a positive impact, while the rest were negative.</p><p>Some choices, such as harvesting rainwater, adopting a capsule wardrobe approach and carpooling, reduced individual environmental impacts. Others could potentially expand people's footprints — for example, traveling more and eating out more often.</p><p>A handful of negative behaviors were not representative of all participants in the study, but still are important to discuss. For instance, some participants drove longer distances after moving to rural areas where their tiny homes could be parked. Others ate out more often because they had smaller kitchens, or recycled less because they lacked space to store recyclables and had less access to curbside recycling services.</p><p>It is important to identify these behaviors in order to understand potential negative implications of tiny home living and enable designers to address them. It is also important to note that some behaviors I recorded could have been influenced by factors other than downsizing to a tiny home. For instance, some people might have reduced their car travel because they had recently retired.</p><p>Nonetheless, all participants in this study reduced their footprints by downsizing to tiny homes, even if they did not downsize for environmental reasons. This indicates that downsizing leads people to adopt behaviors that are better for the environment. These findings provide important insights for the sustainable housing industry and implications for future research on tiny homes.</p><p>For instance, someone may be able to present this study to a planning commission office in their town to show how and why tiny homes are a sustainable housing approach. These results have the potential to also support tiny home builders and designers, people who want to create tiny home communities and others trying to change zoning ordinances in their towns to support tiny homes. I hope this work will spur additional research that produces more affordable and sustainable housing choices for more Americans.</p>
By Shreya Dasgupta
By Alex Kirby
Humans' appetite for gnawing away at the fabric of the Earth itself is growing prodigiously. According to a new UN report, the amount of the planet's natural resources extracted for human use has tripled in 40 years.
A report produced by the International Resource Panel (IRP), part of the UN Environment Programme, says rising consumption driven by a growing middle class has seen resources extraction increase from 22 billion tons in 1970 to 70 billon tons in 2010.
Landscape deeply scarred by an open cut coal mine in Hunter Valley, Australia.Max Phillips / Flickr
It refers to natural resources as primary materials and includes under this heading biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metallic minerals.
The increase in their use, the report warns, will ultimately deplete the availability of natural resources—causing serious shortages of critical materials and risking conflict.
Growing primary material consumption will affect climate change mainly because of the large amounts of energy involved in extraction, use, transport and disposal.
"The alarming rate at which materials are now being extracted is already having a severe impact on human health and people's quality of life," said the IRP's co-chair, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra.
"We urgently need to address this problem before we have irreversibly depleted the resources that power our economies and lift people out of poverty. This deeply complex problem, one of humanity's biggest tests yet, calls for a rethink of the governance of natural resource extraction."
The IRP says the information contained in the new report supports the monitoring of the progress countries are making towards achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. It also shows the uneven way in which the materials exploited are shared.
The richest countries consume on average 10 times as much of the available resources as the poorest and twice as much as the world average.
This total—almost three times today's amount—will probably increase the acidification of the world's waters, the eutrophication of its soils and waters, worsen soil erosion and lead to greater amounts of waste and pollution.
The report also ranks countries by the size of their per capita material footprints—the amount of material required in a country, an indicator that sheds light on its true impact on the global natural resource base. It is also a good way to judge a country's material standard of living.
Europe and North America, which had annual per capita material footprints of 20 and 25 tons in 2010, are at the top of the table. China's footprint was 14 tons and Brazil's 13. The annual per-capita material footprint for Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and West Asia was 9-10 tons, and Africa's was below 3 tons.
Global material use has rapidly accelerated since 2000, the report says, as emerging economies such as China undergo industrial and urban transformation that requires unprecedented amounts of iron, steel, cement, energy and building materials.
Compounding the problems, there has been little improvement in global material efficiency since 1990. The global economy now needs more material per unit of GDP than it did at the turn of the century, the IRP says, because production has moved from material-efficient economies such as Japan, South Korea and Europe to far less materially-efficient countries such as China, India and some in south-east Asia.
The report says uncoupling the increasing material use from economic growth is the "imperative of modern environmental policy and essential for the prosperity of human society and a healthy natural environment."
This will require investment in research and development, combined with better public policy and financing, creating opportunities for sustained economic growth and job creation.
The IRP also recommends putting a price on primary materials at extraction to reflect the social and environmental costs of resource extraction and use, while reducing consumption. The extra funds generated, it says, could then be invested in R&D in resource-intensive sectors of the economy.
It is concerned that the expanding demand for materials that low-income countries are likely to experience could contribute to local conflicts such as those seen in areas where mining competes with agriculture and urban development.
The World Economic Forum (WEF), meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland, is the biggest annual gathering of influential thinkers and leaders from the worlds of business, politics, media and civil society. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Director General Jim Leape explains why WWF is there.
What are the main environmental issues on your mind going into this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos?
There is an ever greater need for a sustainable approach to business—especially regarding resource use, in a world of rapidly increasing consumption. Humanity is already using the equivalent of over 1.5 planets—yet for life we all rely on clean air and healthy freshwater resources, abundant forests and thriving natural ecosystems.
WWF is active in preserving freshwater systems, ocean life and forests; encouraging the use and development of renewable energy; reducing the impact on natural resources of major commodity supply chains like paper, palm oil and soy; and generally lightening humanity’s footprint on the natural world. We envision a future where humans live in harmony with nature, and we partner with major players on the world stage—politicians, civil society, faith groups, labour unions, businesses and many others—in achieving that goal.
The theme of this year’s Davos event is ‘The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models," and this links closely with WWF’s vision of change that makes room for both social and environmental sustainability. We only have one planet, and a finite bank of precious natural resources. But with bold and thoughtful solutions, there is ample room for green businesses to thrive within a model of global sustainable development.
In recent years, WEF has proved to be an increasingly important place to engage with companies on sustainability. Good initiatives have started to emerge regarding water, agriculture and sustainable consumption—and I look forward to see how these good intentions can become more concrete in the coming days and weeks.
The WEF event in Davos is an opportunity to catch up with business and corporate contacts. How important is WWF’s work with the private sector, and why should businesses care about the environment?
Business and industry have a massive impact on natural resources, and companies have a duty to ensure that they use those resources sustainably. We all benefit from products and services in our daily lives, but the private sector should be encouraged to conduct its business in a way that entails a minimum impact on the natural world and the ecosystems on which we all depend.
Companies that want to be competitive today and tomorrow should be concerned about sustainability. Licence to operate is being increasingly influenced by environmental and social performance—and this trend will only continue.
WWF engages with corporate partners to bring about real change on the ground—supporting responsible businesses to reduce their ecological footprint.
The next big event this year is the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in Brazil in June. What does WWF hope will come out of that global gathering?
Two decades after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this year’s Rio+20 conference is a major opportunity for the world to commit to charting a course for creating shared prosperity within the limits of this one planet. Twenty years ago the term ‘sustainable development’ came into currency, but this has still not been followed by sufficient action in making the concept a reality. Rio is an opportunity to put things back on track.
I am hopeful that Rio+20 will prove a catalyst in sparking new commitments and urging major players—including governments, businesses and others—to stretch themselves in aiming for a more sustainable approach to what they do. The WEF in Davos this week is an ideal platform to inspire governments, corporate players and others to step up and prepare the road to Rio.
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