cabins. in all the woods.

Browsing Cabin Porn (a photo collection of beautiful cabins) always makes me want to build my own. Living in a cabin is, after all, part of my ‘apple tree‘, which is also supposed to be an ecologically conscionable life. But how sustainable, really, is rural living?

Cities are often accused for being gargantuan consumers of natural resources, devouring energy and wasting food and water literally like there’s no tomorrow. Sometimes these accusations are correct, but too often we forget that cities have the potential to be the most efficient living arrangement possible. This is due solely to economies of scale: where people are packed inside a smaller space resources need flow to only one destination. Public transit and electricity grids service a smaller land area. A greater volume of waste and waste water outputs are collected and treated in the same facility. The efficiency gains of a densely populated, compact city can be enormous.

How efficient is it to live in a cabin in the wilderness?

One NYT blog post reader comments: “One good way to judge the morality or sustainability of a proposed course of action is to ask: “What if everybody did what I propose to do?” At least gives an interesting perspective.”

Another has a similar perspective: “Think of green living like this. What if everybody did or will do it? That is – scattered living whether in the woods or corn field exurban sprawl is bad for the environment, especially when there are 7 billion people on the planet and growing. We all can’t live in the woods – if we did – there wood be no woods.”

These two comments made quite an impact on me. It opened up the debate of rural living to considerations that it is less, not more, sustainable than urban living. That, of course, saddened me. The dream of living on (and off) the land has, I think, established itself deeply in the psyche of Western industrialised nations, where some of us yearn for the romance of simplicity.

But there is no romance in treading heavily on this earth, only guilt. Damn the categorical imperative.

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2 thoughts on “cabins. in all the woods.

  1. I’m beginning to believe that the problem is “everybody”, i.e. the size of our population. There are already too many people in this world requiring a certain minimum standard of living for any one way of life – urban, rural, agricultural, nomadic – to be sustainable or feasible. At least in China, though, it seems that cities are (reasonably) seen as excessive consumers and producers of waste primarily because of the habits of its inhabitants, wealthier than their rural counterparts and accustomed to practising consumption and waste like it is their right. The structure of cities itself may be efficient, but it is urbanites’ culture that truly requires examination.

    When I stayed at a farmer’s guesthouse a few weeks back, I was initially taken aback when the owner informed us that we would be charged an extra 20RMB for turning on the A/C for a night, immediately jumping to the conclusion that she was just trying to get more money out of us. But then I realized how incredibly reasonable this was, and that something that I’ve come to take for granted — A/C in a guesthouse or hotel room — does have its costs. Making me pay for it made me not want to pay it. Chinese city dwellers do nothing but look down upon rural folk, but the latter, even as they scramble to catch up any way (including dubious ones) they can, still have a lot to teach us if we would only let them.

  2. Insightful, thanks. You’re absolutely right that Chinese urbanites treat resource use and waste as an entitlement that comes with having money in a sort of binge after being deprived of material wealth for millenia. And city-dwellers in the West are similiarly removed from the sources of their inputs (heat, electricity, water, food, consumer goods) and don’t understand the cylcle of production>consumption>waste, so focused are they on the consumption stage. Your story about a/c in the farmer’s guesthouse is a good example of re-establishing a relationship and understanding between people and the goods and services they need/want in life. As you said, what has to change in cities are attitudes and culture.

    In both China and India the rate of urbanisation is very high, meaning high resource consumption. The difference between urbanisation patterns is that in India it is unplanned and unorganised – an organic mass migration that creates cities. In China cities are created top-down by the government and migration into cities is controlled (or at least monitored). Because of – shall we say – the substantial power wielded by the Chinese government over its citizens relative to that by the Indian government, I feel like it has more potential to shape and steer patterns of urbanisation and consumption.

    Of course, it would be reluctant to do anything that curtails the rights of its citizens to accrue material goods, as economic and financial satisfaction are key to its power.

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