Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Abundance is a very old word. It came to modern English speakers virtually intact from Middle English about a thousand years ago. They got it from Old French, which picked it up nearly intact from the Romans who had a goddess, Abundantia, who reigned over the concept and guarded the mythical cornucopia, the horn of plenty. At some point she passed the torch to St. Abundantia, an Italian girl from Spoleto who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and spent five contemplative years in a cave in the Egyptian desert. St. Abundantia was known for her generosity, the spontaneous ringing of bells and the tendency of flowers to bloom in her presence, even in the middle of winter.
People have always been aware that abundance was what we desired. It is a feature of every Utopian vision. But nature has a bad habit of reminding us that the symbols of abundance — flowers blooming in winter or a goat’s horn that delivers unlimited amounts of excellent food and drink — are mythological. In the real world resources are limited.
The only practical means of creating abundance in our world requires examining the ratio between our capacities and our desires. Our capacities can be measured. Our desires can, presumably, be adjusted to fit within our capacities. And if we fit our desires within our capacities with some room left over then abundance is possible.
A few years ago Natural Home magazine profiled Michael Funk’s California foothills home on the Yuba River. Funk made some money in the natural-food business and chose to build his dream home among the waterfalls, gorges and pine-scented woods of the Sierra Nevada. He built the home off the grid to generate all its own electricity with passive-solar energy for heat and efficient natural ventilation. He used reclaimed wood, recycled wood and wood certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council from renewable sources. He used local granite for walls and foundations, insulation made from recycled denim and wool clothing, natural wool carpets, permanent natural slate for the roofs, natural waxes, solar hot water and cultivated extensive orchards and gardens that provide a lot of food for Funk and his guests.
By the time he had incorporated guest rooms and conference rooms for business events and an extensive root cellar, the home was a little bigger than he had originally planned — about 6,000 square feet in all.
And some of the magazine’s readers took exception.
These objections reek of dogma. Michael Funk’s home is off the grid. No matter how big it is, it isn’t burning any fossil fuels. It takes almost nothing from nature. Perched on its rocky hillside, it’s covered a few thousand square feet of nature — maybe enough to feed one goat for a month, in the rainy season. The materials he put into the house were as conscientiously acquired as possible. If he had used a little less, well, that would have made some small difference. But the example he provides — of luxury with a conscience — sets the standard for hundreds of thousands of new homes now being planned across the globe. The aggregated positive effect of his example far outweighs the impact of using a few extra repurposed timbers.
It’s the idea of a big house that offends some people.
So be it, but we aren’t going to preserve our habitat by recruiting humanity to the small-house religion.
Presuming that some people — probably a lot of people — will continue to want big houses, isn’t it great that more and more homeowners are building their dream homes in conscientious ways?
In fact, isn’t it great that people like Michael Funk are building houses that provide an example not only for other big-house projects, but are also risking a little money on experimental technologies that all of us may eventually use in houses big or small?
Funk’s example is valuable precisely because it is a big, expensive home. He had the choice of virtually any amenity — multi-car garages, swimming pools, indoor tennis courts, heated horse arenas — but he chose to build off the grid with a conscience.
Put another way, if we are frugal Americans who live modestly and choose to have four children, we have in purely environmental terms made the choice to build a house at least as big as Michael Funk’s, but without any particular control over its impact on the planet.
Neither Michael Funk nor the prolific parents in this example have done anything evil. Both simply illustrate the definition of abundance: An excess of resources over needs. If we choose to have big families, then we will face resources that are more and more constrained. If we can find a way to stabilize the human population, we can decide for ourselves how much we should consume of the planet’s resources. If people want big houses, so be it. If we’d prefer to build small houses to preserve more of the planet’s resources for other people or other living things, then that is our prerogative. To live, we must consume resources. The rate at which we consume those resources is a management issue with moral implications. It is not an intrinsically moral issue, however, because as we consume resources we also create them. We are part of a living system that recycles our waste — even our corpses. We cannot live without consuming. And we cannot living without providing our own energy to others, in turn, for them to consume.
To judge other human beings based on their rates of consumption implies that we’ve worked out all the pluses and minuses of one lifestyle or another. We haven’t. And the task is complex, to say the least.
Who is more at fault for environmental damage, the Southern California commuter burning gasoline in his Chevrolet or the Brazilian farmer burning the rain forest? The Californian has more choices but the Brazilian does more damage. What about the rich entrepreneur with a vacation home in Oregon compared with the modest Arkansas family with seven children? Or the Kansas farmer with a heavy-duty pickup (me) compared with the sub-Saharan nomad pushing his camels and goats across the overgrazed savannah?
In a world without abundance these questions become critical. If we consume our surplus then we’ll need to manage lifestyles with increasing rigor. That will mean weighing the impact of our choices on more and more sensitive scales. The implications are bleak. A world full of people counting their rations of rice and toilet paper. Perpetual bitter conflict between cultures is virtually guaranteed.
In a world of managed abundance, on the other hand, we have room to explore and experiment with our lifestyles. Some houses may be bigger than others. We can make wise choices and manage the planet for abundance. Just as some of the pastures on my farm go ungrazed, each year, we can leave part of the Earth unexploited. On an abundant Earth there’s room for life to flourish and for beauty to blossom. On an abundant Earth we have time and space in which to negotiate fairness in human society.
Without abundance it’s difficult to imagine how we might create beauty or fairness. Without abundance it’s difficult to imagine a sustainable human future, much less a desirable one.
This essay is excerpted from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want published by B&A Books in December, 2010. The book is available now on the Mother Earth News bookshelf.
Photo by Bryan Welch
 Agnes Bailllie Cunninghame Dunbar. A Dictionary of Saintly Women: Volume One. London. 1904.