How one micro-scale program fits
into the puzzle of climate change solutions.
A program funded and organized through a partnership between
The LIME Foundation
Conservation Corps North Bay
Researched and authored 14 May 2019
by Paprika Clark, Tiny House Building School Instructor
The impacts of human activity on the environment present wicked problems: too many of the people with power wield it through values that prioritize the accumulation of money over all other factors, constantly adopting new strategies to concentrate profits and externalize costs, mostly onto workers and the environment. Too many people with few options, often due to limited resources and lack of access to education or upward mobility, participate in activities that are environmentally destructive and often dangerous. The rising frequency of drought, flooding, wildfires, and extreme storms, along with copious scientific research, proclaim climate change impacts are upon us. We need urgent massive global mobilization to reduce carbon emissions, conserve energy and resources, and work on our complicated inter-related issues. This is World War Climate, and it demands a broad range of practical solutions, creative research, and interdisciplinary experimentation that draws from our best understanding of not only climate science, but human behavior as known through the lenses of psychology, sociology, marketing, political science, and more. A local program called NextGen Trades Academy is one example of how such an approach might look.
We have evidence that higher education levels correlate with lower birth rates (Pradhan), more civic participation (Dineson et. al.), and increased concern for environmental issues (GEM), so it makes sense that when we discuss how to bring more people on board behind solutions for addressing climate change, the discourse often turns to easing access to higher education. Less discussed is the way our culture conveys limited metrics for success that largely exclude those who literally make and maintain our built and cultivated human habitats. Judging by wage stagnation and the decline of vocational training, unions, benefits, and worker protections, our present culture sees most of the workforce as disposable and interchangeable. Yet we can’t do anything without builders, farmers, house cleaners, trash haulers, and plumbers. Judging by pay, our present culture values financial success above achievement in the trades and values celebrities and entertainers above those who serve and instruct. Yet we can’t thrive if everyone is a lawyer or an actor, we need cooks and teachers and everyone else, too.
In a governing framework where capitalism is balanced with humanism, we use true cost accounting to evaluate the overall impacts of decisions, and we accept or favor thinner financial margins when they produce positive social, economic, and environmental justice outcomes. We value investments in human capital. Under those terms, it is rewarding to examine history for useful patterns we can adapt to solve some of our self inflicted modern problems. During the Industrial Revolution we got behind standardized systems that produced goods quickly. But standardization prioritizes machines over humans. We lost out when we applied the same model to education, eliminating the messy but richly diverse and responsive interrelated systems that once prepared young people for useful and fulfilling adult lives, in favor of a uniform “sit, memorize, and regurgitate” approach. The industrial model trains youngsters for a future of time clocks and long hours at repetitive tasks, or pushes them into university with the single track goal of a golden degree in one of “the professions” and a high salary – or both.
Now, with the internet as our publisher and memory bank and industries rushing to a robotic workforce, memorized facts and rote repetition have limited and declining value. Degrees are more common than ever before, so they no longer raise the holder’s earning potential as much as they once did; and yet for many graduates they carry such a punitive debt load, the long term costs impede other important life goals. Mass media tells us to judge our worth by what we spend on consumer goods, even as we struggle to make ends meet and still have time to think.
Making college affordable is great, but it isn’t enough. In this time of crisis, we need to cultivate minds across all spectrums of experience and perspectives, not only because we are inherently worthwhile, but also because it is impossible to know what combination of factors could drive the new creative approaches we need for the battles ahead. With time to think, that most precious resource, more of us could invest in self reflection, figure out what unique combination of traits and talents we have to bring to the world, cultivate our skills, broaden our minds, and prepare ourselves for World War C, the greatest threat to human thriving in history. We can make that time more broadly available when we cultivate widespread food security, affordable housing, equitable work practices, and access to both debt-free education and vocational training. At that nexus we find a resurgence in a modern form of the apprenticeship, exemplified locally in the program of the LIME Foundation and Conservation Corps North Bay called NextGen Trades Academy.
NextGen Trades Academy is piloting a Tiny House Building School in a way that recreates the apprenticeship systems that once conveyed priceless complex information from generations of artisans down through the ages, but without the harsh conditions that often plagued such traditions in the past. The student workers are between 18 and 24, selected based on merit and interest in the trades, and have in some way not been served by the mainstream education system. After being hired by Conservation Corps North Bay, they are paid an hourly wage as they learn about the trades, the use of tools, receive Occupational Safety and Health Administration training and certification, then build a tiny house on wheels over a two month period. The crew members learn each system from local tradespeople as they practice hands on and sharpen problem solving skills so they can move up into rewarding jobs, ready to work.
Homes and housing development patterns collectively have an enormous impact on open space, energy consumption, emissions and habitat loss, so normalizing right size housing is an important part of the spectrum of WWC solutions. The American population on average is living in nearly 1000 square feet of dwelling per person (Qualman), while many people in small homes are happy with 200 to 500 square feet per person. The Up For Growth Coalition found in their report “Housing Underproduction in Oregon” that 82% less land would be needed to build dense housing near mass transit than to build an equal amount of homes under current low-density land uses standards – scoring two goals: preserving open space and reducing traffic (Kingsella).
With a tiny house at the center of the curriculum, NextGen participants are positively exposed to images of many compact living spaces, along with concrete experiences creating a livable small home. The student crafted tiny home rests on unconventional foundations, but is built to meet current energy standards, with some features of advanced framing methods to reduce use of materials and increase insulation performance. Students learn about creating an efficient and air sealed building envelope, with moisture management and ventilation. When it comes to insulation, the students compare R-value and install rigid foam and fiberglass batt to prepare for current trade practices, but they are also taught about alternative insulations like naturally hygroscopic, non-toxic, and rapidly renewable sheep wool.
The program includes discussions of passive solar and active solar systems, both at a tiny house scale and at a more conventional size range, explorations of waterless toilets, and methods and facts around the use of graywater. At each stage, the crew takes steps to conserve and re-use material to reduce waste, and materials and methods are selected with longevity and the full life cycle in mind, and with an eye toward a thrifty budget. It is not yet decided what the fate of the tiny house will be, but there is discussion of using it in a program for unsheltered people.
NextGen is a focused, replicable, adaptable program with short and long term potential: it can nurture self efficacy in promising but thus far overlooked young people, coach them to know their worth and expect decent wages and conditions in their future careers, demonstrate that work in the trades puts us at the center of creating a functional world, give evidence that a smaller, simpler lifestyle can be rewarding, and get desperately needed people into local businesses to meet the construction demand from our long standing housing shortage and the loss of nearly three thousand of homes to the climate related Tubbs Fire in 2017 (Wikipedia).
As we look to our next steps as global citizens to reduce emissions and slow climate change while we adapt to the new conditions we have created, we must act strategically using every resource at hand. Our greatest advantages are collaboration and cognitive diversity: we need to leverage them to explore and enact large and small solutions, research and test high and low tech approaches. We are in many respects more similar to each other than different, yet our different ways of thinking have potential to generate and link huge iterative chains of positive change, uniting millions of tiny stitches on a patchwork of large scale institutional efforts to create a quilt that protects and uplifts the most vulnerable and includes all of us in the effort to create a livable future on Earth for humans and the ecosystems on which we depend.