Tiny house = affordable house

Given Tofino’s longtime agonizing over our affordable housing crisis — played out for years as summer staffing shortages, now escalating to the threat of school closure — it’s interesting that tiny houses have not been looked at as part of the solution.

As far as i know, there’s a minimum square footage requirement on habitations in the district. (Can anybody confirm that?) Which, combined with the price of land on the West Coast, pretty much guarantees that truly affordable housing cannot be achieved within the free market paradigm. Hence the resulting contortions of the Tofino Housing Corporation, now five years and some $300,000 into its mandate (per this Westerly News article), with groundbreaking for the first units now set to start early in 2010.

I see it as a “rung” effect: For an affordable-housing strategy to be effective, you can’t just build a handful of units and fill them up, because then everything comes to a stop and the affordable housing issues reappear. Affordable housing has to be seen as the introductory rung on the accommodation ladder. The idea is that, once people have built up some equity in the affordable house, they can use that to move up to market housing, thereby freeing up their affordable unit to enable others to hop onto the ladder.

But with entry-level market condos starting at $265,000, and houses at $349,000 (figures from realtor.ca), it seems that most Tofitians — with a 2006 median income of $22,696, per the community facts page from BC Stats — will find even the lowest of existing rungs out of reach.

I’m not being critical here, just pointing out that the system the THC is working within does not lend itself to quick solutions. It does lend itself to ghettoized affordable housing, clumped  together in one area, and not spread out through the village (which strikes me as a superior approach).

Tiny houses have evolved into a well developed field of  design, and can be eminently liveable for one or two people. There are a slew of websites devoted to the subject. One of the best is TinyHouseDesign.com. From that site, here are the free plans for an 8′ x 16′ Tiny Solar House (4.9 Meg PDF download) — a 128-square-foot gem that (the plans say) could be built for $4-8,000 US. That would go a long way toward getting some people, at least, off the money-pit of renting and onto the escalator of ownership.

More sites: TheTinyLife.com …  SmallLivingJournal.com

Burnin’ Toff

I am continually amazed by the aplomb with which some Tofinoites burn fuel to satisfy their lifestyle urges. Aside from the evangelical bikers and the broke, bicycle use (and walking) are rare in town. The car — one person per, usually — is the mainstay of everything from food shopping to socializing. Almost anything seems to justify a trip cross-island — shopping, meetings, whims. As for the requisite winter trip … Cuba, Mexico, even Australia are not too far away.

I include myself in this coterie of earth-rapers, by the way. A quick blast down to Ukee to check the mail … an indulgent, flown-in piece of fruit at Green Soul … effortless to justify, even as i declaim my environmental enlightenment.

I’m all for Reduce when it comes to fossil fuel. But i have to acknowledge that, in this crazy existing world, going entirely without would be an act of madness. So to make it a little easier for folks to at least offset their fuel emissions, some resources.

  1. Each litre of gas you burn produces 2.34 kg of CO2. If your car does 25 mpg (9 km per litre), and you drove 15,000 km this year, you used 1,667 litres of gas and produced 3900 kg of CO2 — almost 4 tonnes. So take a look at your odometer, estimate your car’s fuel efficiency, and do the math. (From Guy Dauncey’s EcoNews, Mar. 2007)
  2. Flying is highly fuel intensive. Here’s an on-line calculator to find out how much CO2 goes into the atmosphere from any flight. (Example: a round-trip flight from Vancouver to Acapulco emits about 270 kg of fuel, producing over 800 kg of CO2 — per passenger! Worse, because that CO2 is emitted high up in the atmosphere, it’s three times more effective as a warming gas. Yikes!)
  3. I urge you to Reduce, but for that portion you can’t eliminate … offset! Various organizations will, for a fee, pull carbon out of the air (i.e. by planting trees) or see that it doesn’t get emitted in the first place (i.e. by replacing gas generators with solar in remote villages) in your name. But which ones can you trust? Luckily, we have a recent report from the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, rating 19 different carbon offset organizations as to their effectiveness. Download Carbon offset vendors (PDF, 196 k).

Note that an ideal emissions target to avoid catastrophic climate change is something like 4 tonnes of CO2 a year per person — pretty much what average car use produces, never mind the rest of our energy use. So you can see what kind of cutbacks are required.

Another tip: Cut down on the meat, since the livestock industry produces 18% of global carbon emissions. (Econews, Sept. 2007; also a UN figure)

Thanks to Tofino District CFO Edward Henley for bring this report to a Green Breakfast. If you really want to bone up on carbon offsets, there’s a lot of info on the  Suzuki Foundation site right here.

The Munk-eys debate

Hah! Did you watch the Munk debate on climate change last Tuesday (viewable online at the link, i think)?

George Monbiot, journalist, and the Green Party‘s Elizabeth May versus Bjorn Lomborg, environmental skeptic, and Lord Nigel Lawson, former financial journalist and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, two high-profile deniers. Most instructive.

I’d say Bjorn pretty much won, by cleverly steering its focus to the word “defining” in the (poorly framed) question under debate: “Be it resolved climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response“. He argued that there are other serious crises that deserve the world’s attention too, which the pro side could hardly disagree with. So the whole thing devolved into a wrangle about that.

Surprisingly, neither “denier” actually tried to deny that climate change is upon us; rather, they (Bjorn in particular) openly acknowledged that the climate is changing. So apparently that point is now conceded, and we now need a different word for that camp. In their eyes the wrangle is now about where we direct our effort — meaning, of course, money, which seems now to have entirely eclipsed principle, moral duty or anything else not readily summed up in billions, as the basis for our decision-making.

They say we should spend our money and effort (and money, did i mention money? They sure did, over and over) not on retooling our energy system to keep CO2 levels from increasing in the atmosphere. Instead, we should spend it in ways that will save lives now — on things like HIV/AIDS and malaria and making starving, isolated African tribes wealthy. (Bjorn’s example, not mine.) Because that will save more lives in the short run. And besides, it’s evident that we here in the West will not suffer too badly from climate change, insulated as we are by our wealth (and geography). So the same reasoning (except maybe for the geography part) should apply to the tropical world that will bear the brunt of climate change effects in the next century.

Exactly how this applies to the Maldives, for example — which are forecast to be entirely underwater sometime during this century — was not clear. Maybe everybody there will be rich enough to own a yacht. As for the millions we save now from disease, well, let’s hope they can all eat “the sand which is there” when their agricultural lands desertify. Ha ha, i kill me.

Pundits to the left of them,
Zealots to the right of them …
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six billion.

(With apologies to Alfred Tennyson.
And the whole ecosphere.)

Dear, dear salmon

Sent in reaction to a Westerly News article (Nov. 29) headlined Salmon crisis on West Coast:

Dear editor,

That was a grim article (Salmon crisis on West Coast), on the slide of our West Coast salmon runs into extinction. For the people who are, on paper, supposed to be dealing with this — various DFO and governmental bureaucrats — it must be something of an embarrasment.

For those of us who live here in Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds, however, it’s a little more personal. Salmon is the phenomenon that has made human life possible on the West Coast for several thousand years, sustaining us along with (directly and indirectly) the whole temperate rainforest and all of its denizens.
That I should be living here at the time when this huge, ocean-spanning “resource” declines precipitously into extinction … well, that makes me feel deeply ashamed.

I have come to expect nothing more than lip service on these matters from my federal and provincial governments, whose aims these days, it seems, are strictly economic, coddling everything job- and profit-creating at the expense of the troublesome natural world.

But it is time, and well past time, for vigorous action on this front. What we’ll get instead, I expect, is arm-waving: “Oh, we don’t know exatly what’s causing the decline.” But if we wait for sciencific “proof” before we act, we might as well just go poison all those salmon streams ourselves right now.

There is a growing body of evidence that fish farming is implicated in the decline of wild salmon. It happened in Norway, where every fjord that harbours fish farms is now devoid of wild salmon. It has been well documented in the Broughton Archipelago by researcher Alexandra Morton, who is now in the courts forcing the federal government to live up to its legal responsibility. And it has been happening here in the West Coast for years — more industrial fish farms, fewer wild salmon — during which little has been done.

It is time to invoke the precautionary principle, which mandates erring on the side of caution when dealing with permanent extinction. At the very least, fallow the Clayoquot Sound fish farms during the period when smolts are running past them to the sea, which should ameliorate the sea-lice infection problem.

In the meantime, we must get onto the science to better understand what is happening. And we must fund hatcheries as a stopgap measure.

This is not like the forest, where if an old-growth area is logged, at least a semblance of what was once there eventually grows back. This is extinction — no salmon in those areas ever again.

I no longer expect my governments to act out of a sense of responsibility anymore, even when it means enforcing their own laws. But it is no longer acceptable to me to stand by while they dither as our wild salmon die. I dearly hope my fellow West Coast residents not only feel the same way, but will call and write their elected representatives to express their concerns.