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Housing - social issues

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Social and cultural perspectives on moving to energy efficient housing

Derek Wrigley


If we are to achieve any meaningful result in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the enormous number of existing houses in Australia then it must be realised that the problem is as much psychological and socio-cultural as it is technological.

It must involve not only house owners, but tenants and their landlords (the latter having no real incentive to spend money for a tenant’s benefit), government regulators, developers and the housing and real estate industries as well as those who lend the money. Each group must realize that they have considerable influence in how energy is used both in capital as well as recurrent situations and who must, in all conscience, adjust their attitude toward reduction of GHG emissions.

Dependence on electicity - Unfortunately, most groups are divorced from the actuality of this now urgent reduction and perhaps do not realize how important their role is.

Western society has been slowly enticed over the last 200 years into a style of living that has become increasingly reliant on technological advances and resultant novelty, gradually divorcing us from the natural environment so that we are forgetting how to live simply and in harmony with it.

We are now so far down this track that it will be hard to accept that a lifestyle which has become so dependent on highly polluting electricity cannot continue.

Society has two choices – either make drastic reductions now in our consumption of electricity or quickly find a non-polluting, renewable means of generating electricity. The latter is beyond the scope of this paper and the former will come as a rude awakening to most people when what we have taken for granted becomes ‘a highly inconvenient truth’.

Air conditioners - Our collective consumption of polluting electricity continues to rise at ~ 7% pa, so unless we all reduce our individual consumption now we can expect serious inconveniences in the near future. The recent surge of air conditioning installations in homes is a case in point as these will almost certainly overload the electricity supply system causing blackouts. The solution to that problem is obvious – the need for cooling occurs when the sun is usually radiating at its maximum and the use of photovoltaic panels could easily supply that power, but for some reason our regulating authorities cannot accept or do not understand, this obvious clean, renewable answer.

The irony is that installing air conditioning is now the easy answer for correcting the bad design of our existing houses, but rarely do house owners consider the deleterious consequences to the environment. The alternative of retrofitting the house to alleviate summer temperatures is certainly a more difficult operation for most people, but is of significant long term benefit to the environment and to the occupiers.

Scarcity and cost - Inevitably we will have to face scarcities and consequent rises in cost of many items, particularly electricity, water, petrol and natural gas, on which we depend for convenience in moving around and for comfort at home – and eventually, of course, we will have to find alternatives which are readily available and nonpolluting – but so far ignored. Failing common sense, the hip-pocket nerve will drive house owners into wondering how they can modify their houses in an attempt to maintain comfort conditions. This will divide society very sharply into those who can do it for themselves and those who can’t – the latter, from my recent experience, being the larger group (a major weakness in our biased educational system).

Retrofitting - Those who are unable, for various reasons, to do their own retrofitting will be in a difficult situation because the appropriate trade skills will become scarce and, when they do exist, expensive due to scarcity value.

Those who are capable of doing things for themselves will have less trouble, but the longer the practicalities are delayed the more expensive the resources will become because of increasing transport costs and material shortages.

In both cases occupants will have to make some difficult decisions about relative values and costs of essential personal comfort versus the not-so-essential personal pleasures of possessions and, in many cases, their consumptive running costs. Choosing between needs and wants will become increasingly difficult, particularly as our desire for novelty has led us to an acquisition of more stuff – a lot of which is electrically powered, consuming ever more kilowatt hours per day to run. The thought of reducing our polluting consumption does not come easily to many people and even to the committed it requires conscious will-power.

Barriers to change - Lethargy, apathy, lack of awareness of the seriousness of our situation and a ‘leave it to the government’ attitude by the community will almost certainly result in a bleak period of some decades because of several factors:

  1. most existing houses are not only inadequate for the climatic period we are now concluding, but they will be seen as hopelessly inadequate for the climatic changes which are now forecast as a consequence of GHG emissions, global warming and climate changes, eg. when gas and electricity become too expensive to use, what other heating fuel can be used and how many houses are built to use the free energy from the sun?
  2. the widespread ignorance of the community about the potential problems we face is such that there is great reluctance at the moment to spend money on something that is not seen to be necessary by most people, - our sense of values will need adjustment, sooner rather than later.
  3. when the moment of realisation does become evident the costs of retrofitting will have risen in cost, possibly to the point of unacceptability. The Stern Report (Oct 2006) indicated that it would be far cheaper to take action now as waiting will incur unbearable costs for future generations. We who have been partially responsible for the current situation surely have some responsibility to correct it?
  4. our governments appear to be equally unconvinced/ignorant and unwilling to financially persuade members of the community that corrective action is vital to our survival, preferring to place their faith on the unsustainable road of maintenance of the status quo rather than logical reconsideration of our consumptive lifestyle. Should we not be urging our politicians to take appropriate action?
  5. by the time most people wake up to the urgency of the need it seems most likely that the tipping point will have passed and any delay in acting will be inadequate and probably useless. Recent reports have indicated that an 8º temperature rise is already built in to the system (Fritz Schumacher forecast this event in the 1960s – almost 50 years ago!)
  6. as a result of all these factors it seems likely that a regressive period is likely to occur in which rationalisation of personal needs will be regarded as necessary, resulting in reductions in low priority spending - travel, entertainment etc, leading to general recession
  7. large nations, and individuals will not want to be the first to engage in activities which affect their economic and comfortable wellbeing unless everybody else does their share at the same time – a psychological dilemma requiring the highest degree of statesmanship. Do we have this quality of leadership?
  8. a major block to corrective activity is the unwillingness of owners to undertake major modifications on grounds of cost and/or lack of skill/time/incapacity, or inability to appreciate the benefits to be gained (often intangible and non-quantifiable, but worthwhile from a national perspective)
  9. For many decades there has been a trend away from a “do-it-yourself” approach to life; less confidence in our individual ability to tackle practical, hands-on creative and maintenance projects. This has led to more reliance on tradespeople who are now in short supply, and even worse, are only conversant with how it has always been done, rather than awareness of how to use natural forces effectively without reliance on fossil fuelled electricity see Designing new houses
  10. In addition to the above, the owner is not usually competent to tell the tradesmen exactly what is wanted or how to do it, the only answer being to commission a consultant to provide detail drawings at further cost
  11. This is more difficult than it need be and in my opinion the only real solution to getting retrofitting activity under way is for government action by way of subsidies on a generous scale, sufficient to motivate owners and ensure early action.

Future trends - Even a superficial study of environmental indicators which affect society’s wellbeing will show that there are two broad trends:

  • most indicators point to future shortages, discomfort, economic hardship and social unrest
  • renewable energies would seem to be the only forces trending toward human wellbeing. Nuclear energy is a tempting force for the maintenance of our unsustainable status quo – our consumptive lifestyle - but it could equally be the cause of social unrest because of dwindling access to non-renewable raw materials, problems of disposal of waste material and transport (unless fusion becomes quickly viable which seems most unlikely). Nuclear terrorism could also become that much easier to achieve and should not be ignored.

Living within our means - Society is faced with one inescapable conclusion – that we must all learn, belatedly, to live within our means if we wish to achieve any degree of real sustainability – which, of course, presupposes that everybody understands what our ‘means’ really are and how they affect our daily lives.

Dr Karl Henrik Robert crystallised these for us in 1988 in the form of the Natural Step Conditions - simple requirements that all of us should be putting into practice if we are to achieve sustainability on this planet :

  • Natural materials must not be used faster than they are created
  • Processed materials must not eventually pollute the environment in any way
  • Bio-diversity and the quality of natural substances must not be allowed to diminish
  • Energy & resources must be shared equitably & used efficiently to satisfy human needs.

All four conditions are currently being ignored by all nations.
Above all else – there is a need for urgency by all enabling organisations, governments and bureaucracies to determine policy for achievement of the above practicalities and removing restrictive barriers in order to achieve significant results in acceptable global time.

We will not be given a second chance.