Toward a new environmental ethic

Stacey Day

Gregory Summers, associate professor of history at UW-Stevens Point, delivered a lecture titled “Thinking Like a Home Owner: An Environmental Ethic for the 21st Century” Monday, April 4 at 4:30 p.m. in Science Hall.
Summers addressed the sense of isolation and the illusory sense of detachment and independence from nature that our homes grant us. A man’s home is his castle: a place to be protected, embellished and enriched with all the consumer products and adornments one can procure to prove one’s social worth. Summers cited Victorian parlors as particularly striking examples of how space was wasted, heated, decorated and meticulously maintained, all for an external show of status.
Summers also illustrated how everything that we do in our homes does actually have an effect on, and is in turn affected by, the environment. The very act of taking up such cumulatively large amounts of space and heating them inevitably has colossal impacts on ecosystems, water systems and all other natural functions.
Summers asserted that our very idea of “progress,” technologically and otherwise, in our home spaces has correlated with increasingly greater negative environmental impacts, ever since the over-harvesting of wood by the Greeks to provide space heating.
This use of houses and their accoutrements as spaces with which to display signs of social status, combined with humanity’s completely unsustainable “progress,” has led to a model of home ownership that is problematic, to say the least.
Houses are bigger as families get smaller, living rooms lie useless and vacant, and fireplaces are nostalgic, outdated and ironically unsustainable throwbacks to a time when we were more connected to nature and used fire to actually cook our food and heat our homes.
In the sense that the house represents all the restraints society places on us that keep us from connecting to nature, Summers pointed to how Thoreau escaped into nature, utterly, by forsaking his home.
Many other nature writers have followed this path, and discovered that “going to the woods is going home.” However, Summers does not expect that everyone “go back to the wilderness, per se, because no one’s going to do that!”
However, he does urge that we think green as much as possible, and live smaller, even if immediate “convenience” remains ungratified: “convenience is not morally wrong but it cannot be our only end.”
Summers sees this movement toward greening home ownership as part of a larger quest for both beauty and economy. Beauty, in the sense that we are filling our homes with more natural sunshine, and less artificial light, but also in a larger sense, such as how we are preserving our atmosphere from more pollutants, and saving some trees for our grandchildren to see. Economy is found in less consumption, and in breaking the cycle of social competition, instead looking to utilize everything nature has already given us.
Summers closed by conceding that, since he became a homeowner for the first time a scant eight years ago, “when you own a house, your entire perspective on the world changes.” He too wanted nothing more than to kill the squirrels that invaded his home, but he still works every day to cooperate with nature on a larger scale, and he hopes that the future generation will do so as well.

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