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Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet by Anitra Nelson argues that living in modest spaces and sharing our living spaces will be essential to achieve ecological sustainability and reduce social inequalities. Environmental and social challenges can be addressed simultaneously by all of us moving to one planet footprints and one planet lifestyles.

Small is Necessary examines numerous cases and raises numerous questions to which students, activists, researchers and reading group members will have various answers. Based on arguments and evidence in the book, here Anitra Nelson offers brief responses to four key questions.

eco-housing sustainable tiny houses sharing living microapartments

Blueprint of a micro-apartment.

Why is living ‘small’ a useful principle for future sustainability?

During the twentieth century, two trends were experienced to varying extents globally — average household sizes became smaller and dwellings became larger. The embodied energy and materials, opportunities to store and use multiple appliances and consume more generally, and the continuous environmental costs of operating and maintaining dwellings — lighting, heating, cooling and waste management — all increased with dwelling size.

Still, factors associated with size are a lot less visible in sustainable building and living literature and media than approaches focused on ‘smart’ cities, technological innovations, levels of density, sustainable materials and appliances, and renewable energy. At the same time, improving the sustainability of both our dwellings and lifestyles has been identified as ‘low hanging fruit’ in reducing carbon emissions and reversing climate change.

Here, people power could achieve massive change quickly if all of us worked in the same direction both collectively and as individuals. Undoubtedly, a key principle in such change would be to think ‘small’: how much space do each of us really need for sleeping, eating, relaxing and socialising? Small is Necessary traverses the recent history of dwellings, especially apartment living, considers clever interior design and identifies some utopian schemes. Whatever the resources at our disposal, only doing what is strictly necessary to fulfil our basic needs is a feasible thought experiment and easily applied in daily practice.

How might living small be counterproductive to living sustainably?

Two examples of living small, which might spring to mind, are tiny houses and micro-apartments. There’s a whole movement around self-built and commercial ‘tiny houses’,mobile or removable structures variously defined as fewer than 20–30 square meters (200–300 square feet). Micro-apartments are particularly driven by developers in global cities where they can get more money per square metre for leasing a micro-apartment than regular sized ones while they attract tenants because the rent is cheaper than regular sized apartments.

However, tiny houses and micro-apartments suffer from a series of sustainability challenges and anti-social characteristics. Crushed into tiny individual units that suit one and two-person households best, they duplicate all the minutiae of kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities. For those in micro-apartments take-away meals or eating out might become a preference to preparing and cooking fresh food in tiny kitchenettes. Whether due to solid firewalls, dark corridors and lifts or living on isolated land, atomisation and privatised lives tend to persist.

Furthermore, living out of several global urban pads, the wealthy often literally use ‘the world as their oyster’ and their transport and external consumption, work places and storage can easily make up for small interior living spaces. Clearly, these types of cases show that living ‘small’ can be counterproductive or simply does not generate sustainable and sociable lifestyles. Such negative examples point in a complementary direction to the advantages of sharing.

eco-housing sustainable tiny houses sharing living microapartments

Designs for the OPod Tube Housing in Hong Kong.

Why — and how — is sharing more environmentally sustainable?

Sharing spaces, facilities, services, appliances and activities with others — as people did for centuries before capitalism dominated production and consumption, and the nuclear family household became the norm — has clear sustainability and conviviality benefits.

Imagine a tiny house ecovillage where small private dwellings are complemented by common dining rooms and gardening areas, or a set of modest apartments with common spaces under collective governance, i.e. eco-cohousing. In such environments people have spaces to ‘do their own thing’, enjoy their own company, and other space where they can share childcare, food preparation and eating, sporting activities, gardening … the list goes on.

Both ecovillage and eco-cohousing models keep cars to the margins of their settlements and try to share vehicles as well. They can economise on the installation and supply of water and energy as well as co-managing and reducing (through re-use) waste.

Small is Necessary presents a range of cases of urban and rural eco-collaborative housing of which eco-cohousing and ecovillages are significant models. Other variations include land-sharing, house-sharing, certain eco-housing cooperatives, squats (‘occupations’) and even urban precincts such as Christiania (Freetown) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The types of models offered are far from the navel-gazing cultish communities critics make eco-collaborative housing out to be. Members and activities of Los Angeles Eco-Village and UfaFabrik (Berlin) are firmly embedded in social and environmental ways within their highly urban neighbourhoods, and cities more broadly.

eco-housing sustainable tiny houses sharing living microapartments

Plans for a collective Eco-Housing project.

Might eco-collaborative housing lead to ecosocialism?

In a somewhat controversial post — at the Progress in Political Economy site — I argue that eco-collaborative housing, i.e.  collectively pursuing affordable and sustainable housing, can incorporate and engender a revolutionary focus. For instance, permaculture, degrowth and simple living activists use alternative housing and household practices as strategies for, and illustrations of, post-capitalist economic and political relationships.

The major illustrative cases of this point incorporate a high level of collective sufficiency; share their resources as commons and/or income-share; have strong horizontal forms of collective self-governance; rely in minor ways on the state and replace market dynamics with obligatory collective work and satisfaction of residents basic needs. In short, eco-collaborative housing and lifestyles do not necessarily lead to ecosocialism, but could be a route to such forms of postcapitalism.

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Anitra Nelson is Associate Professor in the Centre for Urban Research School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Australia. She is the author of Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (Routledge, 1999), and she co-edited Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (Pluto, 2011) and Housing for Degrowth (Routledge, 2018)

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Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet by Anitra Nelson is available from Pluto Press.