Is “The Housing Bomb” too alarmist?

Guest post by M. Nils Peterson, Tarla Rai Peterson, and Jianguo Liu

Paul Ehrlich was taken to task for alarmist language in The Population Bomb, but his book, and its hyperbolic title, played a major role in turning the tide of human overpopulation.

PetersonMNilsThe metaphor of a housing bomb is apt in many ways. Rapid declines in numbers of people sharing homes are leading to explosive growth in housing that is not directly related to population growth. The physical footprint of each U.S. house has more than doubled over the last 60 years, increasing the impact of each home.  Rampant housing speculation has left “zombie sub-divisions” in otherwise idyllic locations around the globe, including the Yellowstone area in the United States and many regions of Spain. Boom and bust cycles in real-estate values have obliterated the retirement savings of millions around the world. Demographic trends including aging, increased wealth, equal rights for women, increased freedom for young singles, and better education all drive down household size and drive up house size. These trends have shifted the major threat to sustainability from growing numbers of people to growing per-capita consumption, and that consumption takes place primarily through households. Households are responsible for the most energy use of any sector, and they use that energy inefficiently. They drive water consumption and waste production, and their patterns on the landscape drive social unrest, obesity, and oil dependence.

Despite the enormity of inefficient energy use, The Housing Bomb is not a doomsday book. We discovered numerous ways to defuse the housing bomb that are unbelievably easy, even self-serving, for individual homeowners. Our book highlights ways homeowners can cut their energy and water use in half while saving rather than spending money, and increasing rather than decreasing their quality of life. We highlight how the most self-serving cities are obsessed with complete streets and conservation sub-divisions, and how states and nations can overcome obesity and oil dependence by tackling the housing bomb. We know our estimates are conservative because every time we share these insights in presentations at least one audience member shares a brilliant new way to make housing more sustainable, something that pays for itself, costs very little initially, and requires no sacrifice from the home owner. Last time, it was a water heater timer. Unlike solutions to the population bomb, which required culturally difficult decisions about family planning, the housing bomb can be defused simply by waking people up to the incredible opportunities we have to make housing more sustainable. At the same time, the alarmist language is honest. The bomb is ticking, and it’s up to everyone to defuse it!

M. Nils Peterson is an associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. Tarla Rai Peterson is the Boone and Crockett Chair in Wildlife and Conservation Policy at Texas A& M University and a professor of environmental communication at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Jianguo Liu is the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, a University Distinguished Professor, and the director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University. Their latest book, The Housing Bomb: Why Our Addiction to Houses Is Destroying the Environment and Threatening Our Society, is available from JHU Press.

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