Sustainable City Living on 1/10th of an Acre | Degrowth in the Suburbs

There's the sustainability reason to
consume less and there's the resilience reason, and they're both important and it's
interesting how much overlap there is between the practices of sustainability
and the practices of resilience. In this context there seems to be almost 100% overlap. The same practices of self-sufficiency, frugality, exploring
renewable energy, can take the same form whether you're being driven by
sustainability reasons or wanting to be able to adapt if you find yourself with
less money or with a more insecure financial situation or a contracting economy. Hi, I'm Helen. –I'm Sam.
– We live here in Coburg, which is about seven kilometres north of the melbourne
city centre, with our son, who's 12. It's a fairly standard three-bedroom
weatherboard house on about tenth of an acre.

So when I moved here, to this house, in 2004 it had a very lovely green lawn out the front and a
garden out the back with lawn and a few natives, but it wasn't a productive space.
So one of the first things that I did was dig some veggie beds. And over the
years Sam moved in, we worked together and planted fruit trees out the back
and then started doing some more work at the front, expanded the areas there.

So
it's now become a really productive space. Producing food in our home is a really
important part of this, certainly for me, and then cooking that food, preserving it
and just enjoying it. The more you read about environmental problems, the more you read about social justice issues, the more you learn that the world's going in a difficult direction – – we're grossly over-consuming
the planet's resources, there are literally billions around the world who
are by any humane sense under consuming, and yet even the richest nations, even
the richest people, are still seeming to seek ever more and more. If it's the
case that we're in ecological overshoot while billions still need to lift their
material living standards in some form to live well, that implies that the most
over-consuming nations and regions of the world need to contract.

Not through a
recession but through sort of planned, deliberate contraction.
That's what "degrowth" means. And it seems to me to be the only
coherent way to move toward one planet living. This is our solar dish and it
works like a stovetop, so you just pop a kettle or saucepan on there. It uses the power of the sun to heat up. And the other great thing about it is it packs down
really neatly so it's pretty portable as well.

One of my passions and concerns is the
role of energy in the civilization that we find ourselves in. There's this
widespread idea that we'll simply be able to transition to green-energy solar panels or even nuclear power and maintain this way of life. I've come to the position that we probably can't run a globalised consumer society purely on green energy. And that's made us think through a range of energy practices that are trying to build resilience and to kind of deal
thoughtfully, coherently, with the problems of peak oil and climate change. In our suburban plot we have started by putting solar panels on the roof; about
five years ago we put two kilowatts on and then when we disconnected from
gas about six months ago we put another four kilowatts on.

This is our most recent and perhaps
unusual renewable energy technology, it's a biogas digester which we call Betty. We
have been putting in about a kilogram and a half of food waste into the biogas digester and over the last four months it's provided essentially all of our cooking gas and I've also set up a biogas hot water system and it's
connected to an outside shower so it doesn't replace our indoor hot water
system, but it does supplement it. We don't produce enough food waste to feed it ourselves; once a week I'll bike down to the local fruit and veggie market, hop
into their bin and take about ten kilograms of food. Biogas is produced when organic matter
biodegrades in the absence of oxygen and when it does that it produces a mixture of gases which can be used to provide a number of energy services from cooking, to heating space, to lighting and heating water.

It's been an incredible means of providing
clean green free net zero carbon emissions energy in it. For me the first year of doctoral study
you have this extraordinary privilege of essentially having to read a lot. And through that exposure to environmental literature, social justice literature, I
came across the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau's message essentially is to explore the good life in non-materialistic ways. And that struck a chord with me. And I guess most of my work has been about thinking through the politics and the macroeconomics of that notion of
sufficiency. You know it just made sense, if there
were certain problems that had certain solutions, even if they were vague
solutions and uncertain solutions, to try to explore them in practice.
That's been the experiment of our household in the last decade.
It's been a process not a destination,
and it will probably remain a process.

My upbringing was very much centred around growing your own food and making things and repairing things, Not necessarily for environmental reasons, more related to
being less wasteful and being self-sufficient. And so being able to be somewhere like
this, where I've been able to practice it, has been important. I think it's been a bit of an evolution
rather than a sudden change. For me certainly it wasn't a case of waking up
overnight and saying I've got to change something. We have this tenth of an acre
in Melbourne suburbia and we recognize that there is a privilege that comes with that.

And that not everybody can access, especially in Melbourne, like we
probably wouldn't be able to afford this house if it was purchased today. These
practices are available to us but not necessarily universally available and I
think that's important for people to recognize. Some of Sam's ideas seemed quite radical. I've needed, on occasion, a bit of persuading to adopt those, but actually it
turned out pretty well, so no regrets at all. People ask me how how do you have time for all the stuff that you do. I work four days a week. But it's partly about making
time, it's about prioritizing work in the garden or cooking or sewing over
watching TV or something like that.

But it's also it's a really enjoyable
activity to get out in the garden and harvest food. So it's about valuing the process as well
as enjoying the outcome. And you know we both have been able to
work about four days a week each, which again we recognize is a privilege, but
also it's been enabled by us being pretty frugal and thoughtful with money
and practicing voluntary simplicity, living as simply as we can in a material
sense. And when you kind of go through the
various aspects of a household's outgoings you can often find that it can
be trimmed. So this is our car. We generally don't use
it all that often because we cycle or we get public transport most of the time, so
we recently put it on the Car Next Door platform. It enables people that are
close by to rent your car when you're not using it. So it's all done through an
app. When somebody books the car, in the available time, they're given a code for the lockbox and the person can then go and get key and and off they go.

When a borrower takes our car they pay a daily or an hourly charge and they pay per
kilometer. We then get a bit of income at the end of each month. It means that not
so many cars are necessarily on the road. So far it's worked really well for us, so we're able to book out the car when we do need it, and the rest of the time other people
can book it. Otherwise our car would have been sitting in the driveway doing
nothing, so it's win-win.

There'll be, again, households that won't be able to tighten the belt easily but I think in Australian affluent society there are lots of households that would be able to consume considerably less. And that means you're less committed to working those hours to pay for that consumption. That's the kind of of key trade-off and the most attractive self-interested argument about this way of life is that you're exchanging
superfluous consumption for more time, more freedom. It looks as if the burden is going to be
on individuals, households and communities to be the prime driver for change. And so it's not that that's necessarily the best or the most efficient way to do it, but if people come to the conclusion that they can't rely on governments then it follows that the drivers for change have to be
ordinary people at the grassroots level getting active.

And so that's what motivated us to do
everything we can here but household action in itself has its limitations. These are ultimately systemic structural problems. Then the question becomes how can household action help change those structures? I think that's where
community engagement becomes important, and collective action becomes important. And also to think through the question of how structures change. There will
never be a politics or a macroeconomics of sufficiency until there is a culture
that demands it. We feel the need to try to practice our values in our context, knowing that household action is a necessary part of any change, but
ultimately the problems of the environment and social justice issues
are systemic issues.

There's a deep self-interest in
practicing this way of life as well, like it has the background motivations for environmental and social justice reasons but ultimately we're living what we feel are happier, better, richer, freer lives because we don't need to fund high-consumption living. Somehow it's just right. If you've got land grow food, if you have the opportunity to buy something secondhand why would you buy it new? If you can ride a bike why would you take a car? It just feels right to do things that
way. Hey everyone, thanks for watching another Happen Films short. It was really cool to explore another urban example of resilience and we're excited to be doing more of that in the future. If you'd like to help us make that happen please consider supporting us on Patreon. There's a link in the description below the video, which you can click and find
out more info on how to do that. Thank you for watching and we'll see you
the next film. – Bye guys!

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