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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The problem with "housing starts"

There was good news today for the economy: nationwide housing permits were up. But there was bad news for the environment: nationwide housing permits were up.

Here’s some of the story from our restless culture as reported in
The number of building permits issues in the U.S. increased more-than-expected to hit the highest level in five years in April, official data showed Thursday. 
The report also showed that housing starts fell significantly, painting a mixed picture of the U.S. housing sector. 
In a report, the U.S. Census Bureau that the number of building permits issued in April rose 14.3% to a seasonally adjusted 1.017 million, above expectations for a 3.8% increase to 0.973 million units.
The consumption of land for sprawling neighborhoods comes with issues—many, many issues—especially when indicators like “housing starts” and building permits are linked to healthy economies, which means jobs. And so the questions: Must our ecological wellbeing be at odds with our economic? Must we continue to consume resources for more building so that others can keep feeding their families? And what happens when regions exhaust their buildable land?

This video demonstrates the realities that concern lots of folks, including me. It shows then-and-now contrasts of areas in Rhode Island from 1939 and today—even though Rhode Island’s population remained virtually unchanged during this time.

This could be many places in America or throughout the globe. We humans are building and expanding our footprint often without consideration of short- and long-term costs. We’re chewing up land and lumber while we are laying down asphalt and lawns that demand lots of water, nutrients, and toxic pesticides. All this comes with water and air pollution and the loss of a biodiversity that God made very good in the beginning. 

Before continuing, here’s my confession: My family home is one of the many that appears in a now image within the video. It is not in its 1939 counterpart. My parents built—rather, they hired workers to build—their home after World War II, as did so many others. Today, my neighborhood is not as attractive to as it once was as homebuyers look for newer stock, bigger houses, and more of a country setting.

And so the building continues. As this process continues, we’re loosing our countryside—and our souls—as we build where no one has built before. All this makes the questions above more critical to answer—and soon. I understand that many good men and women make a living from the building trades. Indeed, the King of kings was raised by a carpenter who earned His living as one. Even St. Paul made tents to pay the bills. And yet ... those questions about too much of a good thing do not go away.

I don’t pretend to know how to adequately answer these questions to the satisfaction of all, especially within a brief blog post. But I do know that the Church has spoken of such matters. For instance, from Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (with the original emphasis and notations from the Vatican website): 
On this earth there is room for everyone: here the entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature itself — God's gift to his children — and through hard work and creativity. At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it. This means being committed to making joint decisions “after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying”[120]. Let us hope that the international community and individual governments will succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment. It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet[121]. One of the greatest challenges facing the economy is to achieve the most efficient use — not abuse — of natural resources, based on a realization that the notion of “efficiency” is not value-free.
The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences[122]. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”[123]. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. 
At my parish’s May Breakfast a few weeks back I sat next to an older couple. I did not know them before we ate together that morning. We spoke of their youth, when both were raised on farms in different parts of Rhode Island. They spoke of simplicity, of family, and of quiet. Their family farms are now a residential subdivision and an industrial park. And their current home, which they bought for a few thousand dollars in the 1960s, was once woodlands and fields overlooking a small bay.

Human progress is wonderful, necessary, and at the same time, because of sin, can be dangerous. I do not seek to live in an age without antibiotics or public sewers but I do wish that our appetites for living on virgin land could be stilled. I wish that we would engage in “a serious review of [our] life-style, which ... is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences.”

And I do pray for “an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles ‘in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.’”

In other words, I pray for a time when housing starts are not celebrated as a sign of a strong society—when workers can raise families in ways other than building new buildings and then going somewhere else building some more.

I’d rather see our communal health measured by the love that we express for God and neighbor, which presupposes that we actually get to know our neighbors (and families) rather than flee from them to a find a new and bigger house somewhere in the anonymity of a place that no one yet calls home.

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