Journal entry 3 – tiny house living (etc.)

Somehow I find myself on a random e-mailing-list compiled by an acquaintance who frequently sends out information on and links to matters of sustainability, food sovereignty, legislature, etc.  I never respond, as I can get a little too caught-up in the whole dialogue and debate phenomenon associated with hot topics.  The most recent email, however, was about tiny house living.  Here is a LINK to the article that provoked my acquaintance to write the original email.

After several email responses from different members of the mailing-list, one of my academic colleagues replied pointing out that I am the only person in the city who has voluntarily made a move to tiny-house living (there are, of course, settlements in parts of the city where tiny-houses, a.k.a. shacks, are par for the course). She also asked what I think of the phenomenon, with special mention of the ‘issue’ that it is not an ‘easy’ way of life. I offer my response below as my weekly diary entry:

“My partner Emma Hay and I do live in a very tiny house: a 3.6 by 3.6 metre wooden wendy I made out of reclaimed shutter-pine sourced from a building site. We are not off the grid though; we use mains water for a drip irrigation system during the Summer when our water-tank capacity is too small for the large amount of watering we have to do. The mains water also feeds our shower at the moment; there is no geyser, just 200m black irrigation piping coiled on a roof, which means showering when the water is at the right temperature. This is also our source of hot water for dish-washing – sometimes the water gets too hot to dunk hands into it. Within a few years I will elevate a water tank high enough to provide the necessary pressure to feed the drippers and the shower.

We also have one extension cord to the ‘tiny house’. It powers a laptop, speakers for our much-loved music, and four 2-watt LED light bulbs that together constitute our entire lighting set-up. We have recently acquired a solar panel but I have not had the opportunity to get a battery, inverter, etc. Once this system is in place I am sure it will satisfy our leccy needs. I must draw attention to my scepticism of the idea that solar panels, batteries, inverters, wind turbines, etc. actually help in matters of sustainability. They require massive amounts of ‘dirty’ energy to produce and are symbols associated with a kind of gimmicky technological approach that is part of the problem in the first place (please note that I am not willing to enter into a debate about this view; instead, I offer it only for consideration as part of a response invoked by Janet). My approach is to curtail energy-use down to an austere minimum: no fridge, no TV, no geyser, no electric appliances, no microwave oven, no stove, etc. The laptop is a necessary evil as our livelihoods depend on it; the music is the only electric ‘luxury’ we afford ourselves.

When it comes to the independence and relative sovereignty that off-the grid living can create, sure, I totally see this. We have managed to get to a place where, if the water and electricity grids were to go down, we would be able to survive quite happily. We use off-cut wood pieces for our rocket stove (twigs work well too) and the garden would serve our vegetarian dietary needs; we would be hungry at times, but we would survive. We would be without lights and a laptop, but these are only important to us now because of the context of having to be productive in a labour-exchange sense (i.e. earning a living); if the grid goes down, that context changes completely.

Janet, the way we approached the tiny-house / permaculture / alternative living experiment did indeed make it a very trying process. We put up tents on a ‘blank’ piece of land and ‘built’ everything around our developing nexus. We did not have the money to get things in place prior to our arrival on ‘the plot’, so instead we took a leap of faith and willed and sweated the existence of our home into being. I imagine that many people who now realise the need for treading lightly in our ailing ecology could plan the transition better: get a tiny house built first and set up the systems while still in an old-school consumer-culture-style house. We still work quite hard to keep systems going on a daily and weekly basis: the rocket stove, the fetching of water from tanks, the compost toilet and compost making, the cleaning and chores… but we have either chosen or had to settle for such aspects of the ‘alternative’ lifestyle; I say ‘chosen’ because a cheerful austerity, in my view, is necessary on a planet with exponentially too many people, and I say ‘settle for’ because we have not always had the money nor time to implement ‘easier’ systemic elements. It’s only been 21 months since starting from scratch – early days still.

That said (i.e. ‘easiness’ factor), the freedom that comes with this choice of lifestyle is profound. Our ‘landlords’ did nothing to set up a living area for us; instead, we built the residence in which we reside (and I did so using mainly recycled materials). So we pay pittance for our monthly rent, and the amount of mains water and electricity we use is so negligible that we are not charged for it. Much of our fresh produce comes from the garden, and we don’t fork-out for consumerist ‘stuff’ – we spend on necessities. So we both only have to work part-time in order to pay our way. In fact only one of us would have to work part-time for this end. This massively contributes to the sense of not being an economic slave. We have no debt, and will not acquire any as a principle. If you have the money, you could easily set up something small on a cheap piece of land and break somewhat free from the rat race. Of course, most of us will not ever be able to afford to buy land. But with the growing awareness of the corrupt economic and political systems that actively enslave citizens, we will see more and more people looking for alternatives. I say: go and find an area in which you’d like to live, approach people who think that they ‘own’ the land (such a grand deception!), explain your intent, come to an agreement so that the ‘landlord’ clearly sees the benefits of having you there, and gradually set something up. Make it dismatle-able in case you ever want or need to move elsewhere.

It is by far the most meaningful way I have ever lived, and I will not return to the ‘flick-of-a-switch’ lifestyle that is the manifestation of the insidious industrialist, materialist, capitalist and consumerist worldviews that have got us collectively into the mess we’re in – again, I offer this as an expression of my opinion and will not be entering into debate about it. Tiny-house living, in this regard, is a symbol; I think I have hinted enough above at what the symbol represents.”