Life in a Tiny House

He may not have made a documentary about it, but my boss, the Executive Director of Northwest Earth Institute, and his partner Laura have built an almost-as-tiny, tiny house. If you haven’t heard, these things are all the rage right now, especially in Portland. I’m not really surprised either, but I’ll tell you this: it’s nice to have a boss that walks the walk to match his talking the talk of what voluntary simplicity can look like in our “bigger-means-better” society.

While it sometimes seems as if I live inside my own personal Portlandia episode, it sure is great to be part of such a positive movement. And did I mention CUTE? Cute as kittens, I say. Sustainable Business Oregon recently caught up with Mike Mercer and his charming partner Laura (really, I’ve met her!) to do what I apparently was too lazy to: “better understand the motivation, enjoyment and challenges” behind the impressive new home:

Terry Iverson Photography
Terry Iverson Photography

Sustainable Business Oregon: What was your motivation for living in a tiny house?

Mike Mercer: Our motivation had a number of factors — financial (and with the rental of the home we own, we have great cash flow), quality of life experiment (could our lives be just as meaningful and happy living in a small space?…so far the answer is yes) and design (Laura is a designer and had the opportunity to design our home).

SBO: What do you miss, if anything, about living in a larger space?

Mercer: We haven’t missed much at all. That said, we don’t have a place to hang art and it is hard to have more than two over for dinner, at least in the rainy season. We do have the garage of the rental house, so our bikes, art supplies, camping equipment and yard tools have a place to live.

SBO: What’s the most challenging part about living in a tiny house?

Mercer: For us, the most challenging part was moving in; figuring out what to bring in and what to sell. Honestly, the upsides have been significantly greater than any of the challenges. Well, OK, making the bed in the loft is a little tough on my knees.

SBO: What piece of advice would you give to others considering tiny living?

Mercer: Probably the greatest advice is to not do it on a whim. We didn’t make this choice out of necessity, it was a result of many factors: the strength of Laura’s and my relationship, our comfort with having less of our stuff around us and a desire for an adventure.

Click through the gallery above to see inside the tiny house.

Danny Lampton is Communications Associate at Northwest Earth Institute

What does the issue of same-sex marriage have to do with sustainability?

Have you guys been reading the news lately?

OK, there’s been a lot of it, but I’m talking specifically about the wave of attention brought to the issue of same-sex marriage rights. From the CEO of Mozilla being brought down with the help of the online dating site OkCupid, to a brilliant Honey Maid response to bigotry, one thing has been made clear: our generation (dare I call us millennials?) will not tolerate LGBTQ inequality. What does this have to do with sustainability? Lots, as it happens. I’ll let MLK begin:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Photo Credit: NASA
Photo Credit: NASA

In a recent interview with The Sun, author Barbara Kingsolver (of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle fame) says that those are the words she comes back to on her bad days. When it comes to injustice, the arc of history is so long that it’s hard to sense the movement. But it’s there.

When Kingsolver was born, women couldn’t sit on juries in some places, and blacks couldn’t use the same public bathrooms as whites. Interracial marriage approval didn’t exceed current gay marriage support until the late 90s. “Now, quite suddenly, gay marriage appears to be on the verge of countrywide acceptance,” says Kingsolver. But it takes time for some people to see how it’s all part of our greater evolution of culture and consciousness.

Now, let’s not mistake the tipping point at the end of these long struggles for an isolated moment of sudden change. As is evident in just one lifetime, it takes countless sparks to ignite deep empathy on a cultural scale. In the words of author Adam Hochschild, “All 
I know is that those of us who care about justice in the world have to make an effort to find those sparks.”

Beyond finding sparks, there’s something more remarkable about the early leaders in every one of these social justice movements, past and present: they try to draw the connections to things that people can’t immediately see. Just as slavery was an issue that was morally invisible to people 200 years ago, today that invisibility can be found in the form of a cell phone that may have rare earth metals from war-torn Eastern Congo; in the denial of equal rights to lesbians and gays; and in my own Honda CR-V’s fuel that contributes to an unstable amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

The consequences of these injustices aren’t abstract. While it’s popular to amuse ourselves with predictions of an apocalyptic future, the fact remains that climate impacts are happening now, and it is a problem that mostly poor people and people of color are going to have to reckon with before I will. These are the people who have had virtually nothing to do with causing global warming. It’s not just that our children are at risk. Our neighbors are already suffering.

Because “they” may be our neighbors but not a part of our immediate tribe, we are wired for a false separatism that, on our shrinking planet, is no longer viable. As the arc of history has shown, it never has been viable. As humanity’s collective vision has expanded, we have dismantled walls—walls that have protected racism, classism, misogyny, bigotry—and we are still working to dismantle these walls today.

Our resistance to change is natural, but our common destiny is inevitable. It can be tempting to think of our present selves as somehow beyond the profound injustices of the past, when in fact we are an integral part of this past. And we are but a small blip on this arc of time, working towards justice. But cultural progress never comes from guilt-tripping ourselves. Driving progress comes from our own epiphanies about the system as a whole, and by encouraging one another to take the steps we can towards a more peaceful, just and sustainable world. Howard Zinn said it better:

“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Danny Lampton is Communications Associate at the Northwest Earth Institute. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of NWEI, though he always hopes they do.

If you’re trying to save the Earth, you’re not supposed to talk about it?

Photo Credit: NASA
Photo Credit: NASA

Yesterday an article on Grist caught my eye. The headline: “Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? Never say ‘Earth.’”

Here we go again, I thought. But then I got to reading.

Midway through the piece, veteran environmental marketer David Fenton explains how tough it is for people to wrap their heads around acting on climate change. People really can’t do it, he said, unless they know what can actually be done about it. In other words, the environmental movement, he contends, hasn’t put forward a clear solution.

“Go out on the street and ask people, ‘What can we do about climate change?’ They won’t know,” Fenton says. “So we have to make this a lot simpler.”

Though his insight rings true, it’s tricky to implement. Not to defend the environmental movement’s penchant for poor communications, the fact remains that there are no easy solutions. To say otherwise is to contribute to the ever-growing fury pointed at environmentalists’ alleged hypocrisy. To paraphrase David Roberts, while a carbon tax is the best answer to climate change on a blackboard or in a spreadsheet, in the real world, power and special interests matter and anything that alters them in the right direction is desirable.

This truth, put simply, is why I believe so strongly in the work of NWEI. Our understanding of the problems and our choice of solutions do not lend themselves to simple slogans or taglines. Rather, it’s up to us to nudge the power and interests in the right direction, and to spark the change in our own communities. To quote David Roberts:

“To fight for a sustainable path is not a discrete task, it’s a life, an orientation, an enduring context in which smaller, discrete tasks unfold. There is no ‘beating climate change’ or ‘solving the problem.’ There is no policy unicorn. There are only degrees of better or worse, opportunities claimed or lost, steps forward or backward.”

I submit that this idea reflects the exact reasons for supporting NWEI. While our communications are, like many in this field, a work in progress and there is no unicorn in sight, together we recognize that our small acts are significant and do change the world for good.

In other words, we’re the unicorn we’ve been looking for!

Danny Lampton is Communications Associate at the Northwest Earth Institute. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of NWEI, though he always hopes they do.

Announcing our new course book. And first-ever Crowdfunding Venture!

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We’ve got big things coming. Really, close to as big as you can go: how does one weave such loaded concepts as peace, justice and sustainability into a coherent story? That’s exactly what our new discussion course book, Seeing Systems: Peace, Justice and Sustainability, is all about. It’s for those of us doing our best every day to make sense of the interconnected systems of our world, and to respond in ways that actually begin to make a real difference for good.

To kick it all off, we have a fundraising campaign underway now on the popular crowdfunding website indiegogo. Take a look! Every dollar we raise will go directly toward the publication and distribution of the new course book. Even if you can’t support us with cash, we’d love for you to make some noise about the cause. Watch the video and share the campaign far and wide! And, order your copy of the course book now and get it as soon as it’s available!


Participate in Climate Research Project through Evergreen State College: Student Hosts NWEI’s Change By Degrees Course

indexRobyn Wagoner, a Master of Environmental Studies candidate at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is currently recruiting participants for her thesis research on pro-environmental behaviors. She’ll be hosting NWEI’s Change By Degrees, which explores global warming and the big picture of energy. Participants in the course will also learn simple actions that can be taken to reduce your carbon footprint. Robyn will be assessing the curriculum’s effectiveness, particularly across demographics.

The discussion course is being offered free of cost for anyone who agrees to complete Robyn’s entrance and exit surveys prior to and following participation in the course. The survey template is taken from the Global Warming Six Americas survey. The Change By Degrees discussion course will meet 6 times beginning Saturday, Feb. 15th and ending March 29th, 2014. Robyn says, “This is a good opportunity for folks to broaden their knowledge on climate change and obtain access to a proven curriculum at no cost other than completion of 2 anonymous opinion surveys that take 15 minutes each.”

If you are in the Olympia area and are interested in participating, or know someone in Olympia who might like to participate, please share this invitation and contact Robyn before the 15th at Space is limited!

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