The Great Downsizing Debate Continues

So I guess I’ve started the great downsizing debate.

Which is a great thing, really, because it focuses attention on this important sustainability issue. To downsize, or not to downsize, that seems to not be the question. The point of contention is how much to downsize where we live. What is an appropriate number of square feet per person to live comfortably yet sustainably?

We have received literally hundreds of comments on HuffPo, BlogHer and Sierra Club Green Home about this raging debate. Many of them were very critical of my original column on Downsizing, which explained the concept of sustainable living as defined by how large a home Americans aspire to, versus really need. We mentioned that ideally, 500 square feet per person, perhaps 750, would be an ideal size that balances our tradition of larger spaces with a home that can still be designed and built as an energy-efficient structure.

The real point of our article — which was missed by a number of the angrier respondents — was to suggest that we put the 7,500+ foot “McMansion” behind us as an aspirational icon. Instead, I suggested that we have a maximum of 1,000 square feet per person as a benchmark, preferably less, but at Sierra Club Green Home, we try to change hearts and minds of the uninitiated, the unconverted, the nonbelievers, those who don’t care about green. Thus we settled on 1,000 feet instead of the lower numbers, because, well, you gotta start somewhere.

Perhaps it was my bad. At least based upon your reactions, my bad. It is always a positive when we have beaucoup comments, so, even to those who accused me of elitism and being out of touch with the working class core of America, thanks for taking time to write in. All I ask is that those of you who have families of four or more living in 1,500 feet or less, please understand that we do admire your green lifestyle and the sacrifices you are making in the name of efficiency. That said, many Americans we hope to reach still leave their thermostats on 72 even in the dead of summer. Don’t recycle. Don’t try to save water. Don’t turn off the lights. You know the drill. And many of these folks hope to live in a giant house if and when they can afford it. Without regard to the environmental costs. This includes many of the newly successful types living in China, India, Brazil and other rapidly developing economies.

So how to resolve this? I would say, OK, unlike some politicians, we try to listen to our constituency. Thus we are amending our initial “benchmark” for residential downsizing from 1,000 sq ft per inhabitant, down to 500 sq ft. Hopefully this will satisfy the more committed environmentally responsible crowd, but still allow the newly green to have enough space to be comfortable. Now, for our next trick, how to get this across to the first generation upper middle class in China and India, to whom a huge house is an important status symbol of their new economic status?

Any ideas? As always, thanks so much for reading.

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