Radical Revelations: Homecoming

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.


January, 2010—California’s coast came into view. It looked dry and ragged. My jaw was throbbing and I tried to reassure myself that if one thinks they are going insane, then that is proof that one is not. Unless of course that’s all just part of the delusion. Fuck. Something was terribly wrong with me; I knew that. The plane had crossed the international dateline a few hours earlier and it was January 6th—again. Of all the days to experience twice, this was one of the worst. I couldn’t wait to get off this fucking plane.

For most of the flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles, the masses of heaving protoplasm around me had been quiet, which was good because the sound of their breathing and snorting was barely tolerable. I was in the center aisle, with two people to my left, one to my right. There were three more seats on either side of them, across the wide aisles that bustled with the movement of Qantas’ beverage carts, which kept the flow of esophagus-burning wine and the piss-water that Australians call beer. These rivers of booze that streamed down the two aisles were necessary to keep the passengers subdued. 14 hours in a confined space—even in one of the most commodious of jetliners—was just too long. I could smell everyone’s stink. I watched them sleep soundly, mouths open, spittle collecting on their pillows, shirts and seats, as the minutes drudged on. My eyes hurt, as if the pupils themselves were bruised. I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept.

Somewhere over the immutable Pacific in some unknown time zone, the dawn broke in double time (since we were traveling east) and two women started to do their best to shove me off the edge of reason. I was at the back of the enormous Boeing 747 and they were talking six or seven rows up. Yet they were so loud it was as if they were sitting on either side of me shouting into my ears like a soldiers during a barrage of heavy artillery fire. But it was not so much the volume of their conversation that bothered me as much as the subject matter. Fashion. Reality TV. Celebrity gossip. I couldn’t take it. Not after what I had seen. Not after what I knew was happening right at that moment, in the sea 30,000 feet beneath me, in the air around me, through which I was slicing through at 500 mph. I clenched my teeth until California broke the horizon, the two women bantering all the way.

Imagine the battle scene again. Mortars bursting all around. Death screams sound in between the bursts, each one robbing the sounder of his dignity as he screams for his mother. It’s the second straight month of artillery assault and you’re still just as scared as the first day when the enemy opened up. You’re in a foxhole and you’re shaking with palpitations, your heart is beating so hard you can feel it in your throat, your chest feels constricted, like you’re wearing a corset, and you are just sick of all the fucking uncertainty. You just want to it be over and you don’t really care if you make it through alive or not—just as long as it comes to an end. Instantly though, you think of your family, and you feel guilty for having this thought and you curse yourself for how selfish you are. Meanwhile, two other soldiers are yelling at one another over the pandemonium. You tear yourself away from your own panic long enough to hear one lamenting the decline of baseball. The other shrugs—he prefers to watch hockey. They’re both smiling and continue to yell back and forth. Eventually, they end on the topic of wine and decide that, despite it being morning, they could really go for a Shiraz. They rationalize the decision to themselves out loud—lest anyone else around them may judge them—and they drink.

I felt like that lone soldier, stuck in the middle of massacre that no one else seemed to see or hear. Hundreds of souls living obliviously, worrying about their connecting flight, if the coffee in LAX would be any good or if their trinkets from Australia would be intact when they opened their luggage at baggage claim.

The plane banked to make its final approach and I got a glimpse of Los Angeles through the window.

My used ignorance-in an instant
Was shaken by the demon’s hand,
And he combined my poor existence
With his existence to the end.
His evil eyes became my own,
I gain poor treasure of the worlds,
My heart was beating in a tone
With indistinguishable words.
I’d looked at all with look that’s clear,
And I was shocked by what I’d seen;
Whether such world could once appear
As great and beautiful to me?

-Aleksandr Pushkin

I looked away. The screams in my head grew louder and the women’s conversation faded as I receded again into pure terror. I leaned over in my seat to catch the tears in my hands so that they wouldn’t drip onto my cheeks. I wondered if I’d ever sleep again. I wondered how all of this would end.

Radical Revelations

Many of us have resided in the dominant culture all of our lives. When faced with the deterioration of that dominant culture, we may become unglued and don’t know how to act. The old culture isn’t working anymore, but the new culture is only partway formed, and difficult to navigate. So we sit, apathetic and rudderless, or fall back on addictions to numb the pain. For those of us actively living in the new minority descent culture, we may experience oppression, shunning, and difficulty in living in either new or old.

–Mary Logan, Walking out on empire

The Savage State; the first in Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire

Those who find themselves with one foot in one culture and the other foot in another (and their head spinning in the nexus that exists in between) are called Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term, defining a TCK as someone “who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

The Pastoral State

My own father is a TCK, having spent his formative years in Belgium (ultimately, he is to blame for my own obsession with brewing craft beer). Living abroad, in a culture that is itself very fragmented by French and Dutch influences, has imparted upon my father a unique perspective of the world, to which he remains relatively untethered. When I was younger, struggling with my own teenaged sense of alienation, my father advised me to “revel in the loneliness.” At the time, that advice really pissed me off.  I didn’t want to be alone at all. It was only years later that I finally realized the wisdom behind my father’s words. That process of realization required a significant period of personal anguish and uncertainty.

The Consummation of Empire

You see, like my father, I have also become trapped between two cultures. But unlike a Third Culture Kid, I did not spend a significant period of time in two different countries. Instead, I have come to find myself straddling two different paradigms: the dominant culture defined by consumerism and growth and the new culture which is rooted in human fulfillment and sustainability. Stepping from one culture to another has been a conscious decision—but it is not as if one day I woke up and saw the world differently and changed my life. I did, however, have a revelation. Far from a eureka! moment though, this realization developed slowly, organically. It began innocuously, imperceptibly conceived—I do not know when exactly or by whom—but it grew too large to ignore. This pregnant thought nearly killed me.


Presenting a philosophical revelation is fraught with obstacles, especially when it’s a revelation that led me to adopt what will most people would consider political “radicalism.” I must admit that I am split between two audiences. I know there is a contingent that reads my work who feels as alienated and angry as I do. With regards to these individuals, I hope to arrive at some reconciliation between living in both the growth paradigm and the sustainable paradigm simultaneously. To my other readers who may be more skeptical of the need for (or reality of) an impending paradigm shift, I want to illustrate to you the psychological and philosophical process that turned me into a “radical.”


Most of all, I want to capture the fear and aimlessness that I felt after my cultural identity was destroyed and how I have since recovered. I want to do this because at no other point in my life have I felt so alienated, vulnerable and alone. If one person can find comfort in reading about my experience then it will have been a worthwhile pursuit. So in the weeks to come, I will tell you my story. I’ve been trying to write it for almost three years. I’ve failed twice already. I do not intend on failing again.

America’s Beer Renaissance and Beyond: Experimentation for the Future

Professional and amateur brewers are about as fearless (and shameless) when it comes to experimentation as raging ball-trippers on the first day of a four-day music festival. Some of these experiments really pay off—such as a chamomile wheat braggot (a half mead/half beer) I recently brewed, which I’ve dubbed Chamomeleon Dream—and others not so much, like New Belgium Brewing’s Tart Lychee, which tastes like a lambic brewed in hell, if hell happens to be a port-a-potty on the last day of a four-day music festival. (This might be a somewhat unfair review as I am not a fan of the lychee. When it comes to my to-do list, eating one is somewhere below getting water-boarded and only a little bit above watching reality television–yes, I rather get water-boarded than watch Jersey Shore).

Lychees. The fruit of Satan.

An adventurous “spirit” can be a good thing. For example, the revival of the medieval gruit style has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for spicing and bittering ales, challenging the conventional notion that hops are our only choice for bittering agents. And brewers continue to experiment with alternative fermentables too; Magic Hat hit it off big with Wacko, a beer brewed with beet juice, and Dogfish Head has made beers with everything from pre-chewed corn (in a drink called Chicha, complete with human saliva to break down starches) to soybeans. I myself am currently devising a recipe that includes sweet potatoes—why not, right?

Then there are those among us who are a bit more radical, those who take daring to a whole new level—like the small faction of brewers that are trying to revive the Cock Ale, for which the oldest recorded recipe begins: “Take ten gallons of ale, and a large cock, the older the better,” (please pause for comedic effect),

parboil the cock, flea him, and stamp him in a stone mortar till his bones are broken, (you must craw and gut him when you flea him) and put to it three pounds of raisins of the sun stoned, some blades of mace, and a few cloves; put all these into a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale has done working, put the ale and bag together into a vessel; in a week or nine days’ time bottle it up, fill the bottles but just above the necks, and leave the same time to ripen as other ale.

Ah, yes, of course—ripen. I am sure that’s how I would describe a beer with a dead chicken floating in it. I can just envision myself in a medieval brew hall, my hairy arms stuck to an unfinished, oaken table. I would take a large swig of Cock Ale and remark to the brewmaster, “Mhmm, That’s great, Brutus—a masterpeice worthy of the gods! It’s just so palpably ripe… After I am done vomiting in the latrine, I give you leave to pour me a pint of your lychee ale. Oh, what’s that? You brewed it in the latrine? Good man, I’ll shall fill up while I’m there.”

Chicha: a traditional Mesoamerican beverage brewed with maize.

I guarantee you that there is nothing promising in meat-based ales. Ignoring for a minute all of the alarms that are going off in your head in response to health and sanitation concerns, consider what fermented fauna would smell like. Actually, you don’t need to. Japanese scientists conducted a study of food smells (no joke) and found that fermented meats and fishes, such as Surströmming (fermented herring) produce the most putrid smells of all food in the world (easily beating French cheeses). Why the Swedes can eat this and not like peanut butter is still a scientific mystery, but I am getting on a tangent now.

Ok, so adding meat to beer is probably not a great direction to go in, not to mention we probably don’t need another reason to consume energy-intensive animal products. But we do need experimentation. By employing diverse fermentable materials in brewing—from nonconvetionals grains like rye and millet, to root vegetables, to fruits and honey—as well as different spices and flavors (hot peppers, wildflowers, basil, rosemary, spruce, oak and hemp are some of the more unique additives), new beer styles, steeped in the locality of a region, can be created. The ever-volatile hop industry, combined with increasing production issues and costs associated with large-scale agriculture and horticulture (not to mention long-distance transportation) means that we need to stretch our minds and our palates if we want to look to more sustainable beer styles in the future.

This well known Vermont cidery distributes all across the country. Still, the cider market is very small.

More than just expanding our definition of beer, brewers need to further develop cross-over styles that combine the ingredients and techniques of beer, mead, ciders and fruit wines. Unfortunately, for many regions of the world, many of the ingredients needed to produce conventional ales and lagers cannot be grown locally, or even bio-regionally. For example, New England has been blessed with some of the greatest breweries in America but, prior to the industrial revolution, it was almost exclusively a cider drinking region; barley simply does not grow well in the wet and cloudy northeast. But apples do. Mead is also another viable option for the region in the future. Support your pollinators!

While one of my favorite beers, the Pollenator contains no honey. Will that change in the future?

The majority of New Englanders may be reluctant to re-adopt these beverages but by reintroducing these flavors through hybrid beer styles, brewers can start planning for a more sustainable market. And with a plethora of local spices, fruits and vegetables at our disposal, there could be just as much diversity available to cider and mead drinkers as there is now for beer enthusiasts. While it pains me to consider the prospect of a fading tradition of craft ales and lagers in the not-too-distance future, I am optimistic about the alternatives. At least we won’t have to resort to brewing with lychees.

AmeriPoor: 8 Tips for Surviving on $4.00 / Hour

Many AmeriCorps VISTAs, NCCC, and State & Nationals are fresh out of college. Now, depending on your collegiate experience, you might know how to stretch your dollar like silly putty or you might consider your (or your parents’) credit card just another extension of your body. Either way, here are some AmeriCorps-specific tips to make your stipend last through the month, possibly with some leftover to start chipping away at that glacier of student-debt that’s eroding your financial future.

1. Research and Prepare

Choose your AmeriCorps host carefully. Some nonprofits offer benefits to their AmeriCorps volunteers independent of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). For example, Habitat for Humanity of Metro-Denver offered me a room in an AmeriCorps-designated house at very low-rent. The catch was it’s not very close to downtown or my place of work. I could have opted to just take a rent-subsidy, but after researching rental costs in Denver, I found that even with the added gas expense of having to travel across town, the AmeriCorps housing is still much more affordable.

If you are relocating for your term of service, get all your medical and dental stuff out of the way now, especially if you are under your parents’ insurance. Chances are, their insurance coverage might not extend to your new area and you really don’t want to spend your vacation time when you’re back home under the drill (or the knife).

2. Know Your Rights

If you are currently receiving any financial, housing, medical or food assistance from the government, AmeriCorps should not interfere with your continuing eligibility. If you are relocating for your service, contact the appropriate county or state office to find out the differences in their eligibility requirements.

3. Use Your Relocation Assistance

If you are moving 50+ miles from your current home for service, take full advantage of this resource. When driving from the Northeast to Denver, I only submitted a request for mileage reimbursement. I did not even consider the costs of camping and motels along the way. Also, if you are flying or traveling with limited carrying capacity, use the baggage shipping assistance. There are so many things I have left behind in storage that I wish I had with me. Remember that if you are leaving things like cookware, Tupperware, musical instruments, stereos, fans, and office supplies, you’re probably going to regret having to buy them all over again.

4. Get Your Food Stamps ASAP

…and when I say as soon as possible, I mean it. Food will quite possibly be your greatest expense in AmeriCorps, and if you can get qualified for food assistance before you are sworn in, you will receive a greater allowance. Applying may be difficult if you still need to relocate or if you are currently making more money than you will be in AmeriCorps but, if it’s possible, do it. You can thank me later.

5. Cook… A lot.

If you’re used to eating out or getting delivery, get a used cookbook or check back at the[boxcar]drop for meal recipes (coming soon). In general, try to avoid easy-to-prepare meals. Sure, they’re fast, but you’ll save a lot more money if you buy raw or dried foods. Three pound bags of macaroni go for less than $4 and, if you want to eat healthier and save even more, opt for rice-based meals. The more you incorporate beans, potatoes, rice, pasta, noodles and bread into your meals—as well as zucchini, squash and eggplant—the more lavish you can be with your ingredients. I regularly make Thai curries because, even though coconut milk and spices aren’t cheap, they make eating lots of rice enjoyable. Because I eat less meat, every Friday I can spring for some fish or seafood to cook at home.

6. Become an Urban Homesteader

We all have our passions and our pleasures. Mine happen to meet when it comes to hand-crafted ale. Unfortunately, despite a plethora of breweries, beer selection is lacking in Colorado liquor stores and the prices are obscene. By my Vermont standards, 12-pack of pale ale is never much more than $13. But for less than a dollar per beer, I can brew my own ale to my own liking. By being a producer, rather than a consumer, I now not only have a hobby to take my mind off the stresses of being a VISTA but I have an item I can trade with others. So whether it’s making tinctures, soaps, sauces (pesto!), jewelry (you’d be surprised how much people will pay/trade for a braided hemp necklace), or growing herbs, specialize in producing something and learn to do it well. It’s gratifying, keeps you out of the store and, if done right, saves you money.

7. Student Loans: Deferment or Forbearance

Let’s face it, if you’re doing AmeriCorps, you’re probably pretty interested in that education award—but to make the most of it, you want to make sure your loans aren’t accruing interest while you are in service. Make sure you know when your grace period for your loan ends, that way you can apply for forbearance or deferment through the AmeriCorps portal for your qualified loans. It’s easy to do and there is no reason to not do it; when you’re only making $4.00 an hour, 6% interest on $20,000 in loans over the course of a half year will equal one month of the AmeriCorps stipend. You can’t afford that.

8. Have Fun without a Wallet

Going to the movies, the mall and to concerts, though enjoyable (for some), is not an cost-effective way to have fun. If you love film, the internet is your new theater and, depending on your ethics and comfort with file-sharing, you can get quality downloads or live-streams for free or for little money. Better yet, split a Netflix account with your housemates/fellow VISTAs. When it comes to music, I have had a hard time not going to Colorado’s infamous Red Rocks amphitheater every weekend—but I can save the concerts for just my favorite bands and see plenty of free music at community events and bars. If you are a shopaholic, stick to flea and open-air markets. Remember that for every $4.00 you spend, that is equivalent to an hour’s worth of work.

The best forms of leisure are ones that that are personally fulfilling—they also tend to be free. Biking, camping, swimming, hiking, art, photography, writing and reading cost virtually nothing (provided you have the necessary materials) and can be highly rewarding. If you’re someone who has always wanted to get back into reading for pleasure but couldn’t bring yourself to do it while in school, a public library card is all you need to get started on tackling that long list of literature you’ve been adding to since freshmen year. Of course, the[boxcar]drop is always an excellent reading choice as well.

Pumping Irony: The Last Intellectual Exercise

At what point did we accept lies and ideological clichés as answers to honest questions? And when did we learn to take pleasure in questions left unanswered by pundits, politicians and corporatists? Are our psyches so fragile that when our concerns are ignored or addressed with babble it’s actually a small comfort, assuring us that no, we are not insane, that there is something deeply wrong with our society?

Journalist Chris Hedges provides a compelling chronology of the rise and fall of American political discourse in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Death of the Liberal Class. He documents the slow, intentional killing of American radicalism, and by radicalism I mean philosophies and ideas that pertain to truth, justice, peace and love—words that any modern-day cynic will chortle or scoff at for their naivety and idealism. (Incidentally, those who chortle are probably liberal, while those who scoff are likely conservative). Such reactions are indicative of the amoral, hedonistic and individualistic nature of today’s educated classes—qualities that, Hedges argues, were consciously encouraged following World War I.

For younger generations, cynicism and irony are not just means of expression; they have become an end in and of themselves. From professionals, such as Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck (dare I mention the two in the same sentence?), to amateurs like the snide freshman in a poli-sci seminar, pumping irony is the last contest in which the outspoken can compete without interference from the anti-intellectual movement. Now, to clarify, I am not trying knock Jon Stewart—he and his writers do more real reporting than any television news network in the U.S.—but I find it alarming that he is, for my generation, the only real hope we have for honest political discourse. When your aspirations for society have been reduced to a comedian (albeit a very intelligent one), the word “desperate” does not even begin to adequately describe your situation. That’s the trouble with counter-culturalism. It inherently defines itself by what it isn’t, not by what it is. What does Jon Stewart stand for anyways?

Chris Hedges identifies several of the cultural stepping stones that American generations have been hopping from the beginning to the end of the 20th century, delivering us from the banks of true liberalism—with unprecedented support for social and labor reforms in the early 1900’s—to the banks apathy.

…after World War I, the corporate class and the liberal class, including artists, sprang from the same communities and neighborhoods, went to the same schools, and merged into the same social class… The new corporate capitalism and mass production sustained themselves through the promotion of a new ethic that promoted leisure, self-indulgence, and wasteful consumption… After the war, artists, too, became devoted to self-expression, political cynicism, and hedonism, including the cult of the body. These values were embraced in the name of the counterculture, but they were also the core qualities corporate capitalism sought to inculcate in the public. Hedges, p.100.

These core qualities are most recognizable in the Beat culture of the 40’s and 50’s, popularized by figures such as William S. Burroughs (who attended Harvard), Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (who both attended Columbia). Collectively, these writers criticized sexual oppression, materialism, militarism, homophobia and capitalism but, as Hedges points out,

The Beats “expropriated” from the upper classes their arts, sins, and “privilege of dying convention.” [They] flaunted a self-indulgent hedonism that mirrored the ethic of consumer cultures. [Lawrence] Lipton called this “the democratization of amorality.” p.101.

Beat culture never became a national movement; it was too rooted in introspection to act as a coalescing force. However, the lasting detritus of Beat philosophy—namely amorality, self-expression and body worship—made fertile ground for the counter-cultural movement of the 1960’s. Today, versions of the American narrative are still widely different when it comes to recounting that era. Depending on who you ask, the 60’s were either a lost opportunity for humanism or a lapse in work ethic and patriotism. What is certain however, is that many of the factions of the counter-cultural movement were bribed or coerced to re-adopt the consumptive model. Or as the ever-eloquent George Carlin put it:

Because nothing quite says ‘civil disobedience’ like taking inspiration from a major Hollywood blockbuster

The specter of the rebellious spirit of the 1960’s haunts today’s younger generations. We see it as a phantom of failure—a reminder that good ideas, perseverance, and bravery are ultimately no match for the Almighty Dollar. Even our most committed initiative to date, the Occupy Movement, has largely been characterized by mischievous public pranks and vague protest (with some exceptions, such as the Bank Transfer Days). Over the past decade, the voices of influential dissidents have coalesced into a choir singing for civil disobedience. But I doubt that donning Guy Fawkes masks  was what Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Julian Assange, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky or Herman Daly had in mind.

Of all the weapons that the corporate-state has on its side, cultural cynicism is its most powerful. The youngest generations of this country have the ability to criticize. The art of critical thinking has not been lost. But without the creativity needed to envision alternatives and the idealism needed to commit to them, the current paradigm will continue. After all, Uncle Sam is a lot like Charlie Sheen—he’s baseless, immoral, and gives crazy answers to reasonable questions. But we just smile and wink at one another. Because in a culture of little truth and no virtue, if feels to good know that someone else is truly disillusioned. It makes it easier to justify to ourselves the lies we live.

Habitat for Humanity Part II: Remodeling

The scope of Habitat’s mission has expanded significantly since its foundation. A cynic might say that Habitat’s foray into green-building and recent commitment to sustainability is nothing more than an attempt ride the new wave of environmental concern that has swept over the United States. On the national scene, the rise of climate change as a prominent, public issue reached its crest in 2007 following Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth (and the opening of the fabled Northwest Passage due to record Arctic ice-loss) and promptly crashed not too long after the economy did the same. During this brief period, movements such as 350.org, Transition Towns and PowerShift such enjoyed a little media attention. But Habitat’s “environmental ethic,” manifested in its energy-efficient construction and ReStores, long preceded the green trend of the mid and late 2000’s. And it’s rooted in Bible scripture.

Because Habitat for Humanity’s Christian “theology of the hammer” forms the basis for its core work, we explore other critical scriptural passages. The two greatest commandments of Jesus were “love your neighbor as yourself” and “Love God with your whole heart, mind and self.” Psalm 24 tells us that “The Earth is the Lord’s…” It follows that to honor the greatest commandments – to love God and your neighbors created by God – is to care for God’s manifestations in the visible world, God’s creation. (Habitat for Humanity International)

In Habitat for Humanity Part I, I explained how the organization’s Christian roots are tied to conservation. So is green building really that much of a leap?

Given little press, if any, is the growing cohort of religious Christians who feel that we have a decreed responsibility to be stewards of the Earth. Such a movement seem to go against what we think of when we imagine a devout Christian, especially when it comes to Evangelists. But green Evangelists are out there. And while they strive for the salvation of the human soul—without preserving Creation— eventually there won’t be any souls left to save. Extirpation and extinction are evidently effective methods of motivation, even for those who believe in the afterlife.

Why “Green Building” is a Misnomer

Two years ago, I took a residential energy and retrofit course taught by David Keefe, the manager of training services for the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, which some may know better as Efficiency Vermont. Keefe, who was a building contractor for decades, pointed out that cheap energy costs in the United States—especially for coal-powered electricity and natural gas heating—has created a longstanding culture within the construction industry of emphasizing low-cost construction. Fiberglass insulation and broken thermal envelopes (think air gaps between basements, living quarters and attics) are common place in most residential buildings. The capital cost of insulating a house properly is not cheap—some estimates put it around an addition 15% of conventional construction. Unfortunately, in the long run, conventional building techniques cost more. A lot more. Not only are energy costs (which are consistently increasing) going to complete negate the savings in construction but poor insulation is almost always accompanied by an inadequate, or nonexistent, vapor barrier.

While not nearly as much of a problem in the arid west, one of the leading causes of home condemnation and the number cause of building demolition and reconstruction in the east is rot. David Keefe reported that, in the construction community, houses are seen as consumption items, not investments, with a life span of 60 to 80 years. The housing crisis might have proven them right. But land speculation, and developmental and lending practices aside, the notion that it’s acceptable for a building to decay after only three generations (or one human lifetime) is startling, especially when you visit Bruges, Belgium, which features buildings in near-perfect condition that were built as far back as the 12th century.

Perhaps the rise of the throw-away home is just the logical extreme of a throwaway culture. But this phenomenon undermines the idea of home itself. Given the long history of bequeathing homes from one generation to the next—stretching back to medieval times when a Lord’s house was synonymous with his family name—it would seem that, culturally, we think of a home as being inseparable from the notion of family. Like a bloodline, a home is a legacy. But as Americans grow evermore mobile (we move anywhere between 12-16 times in our lives, or about every 5 years) the idea of a “Permanent Residence” is not the state of our home but simply an up-to-date address to send our Amazon purchases. Or, as George Carlin once mocked in 1986:

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!

Materialism has been pushed to a point where construction companies are subject to a consumer culture of cheapness (and ignorance) despite overwhelming evidence that for 10-15% more, an eco-efficient home will save its owners more money in the long run. The Catch 22 of it is contractors are forced to play a game where the lowest score always wins. So despite huge strides in say, insulation materials, fiberglass (which is nasty stuff) is still the number one choice for insulation materials today, because it’s cheaper than anything else and easy to install (despite being about half as effective as the leading polyurethane panels).

It is strange that we have to qualify practices that are beneficial in numerous regards with charged (and therefore, limiting) words: “Green building,” “sustainable development,” “organic agriculture” –these terms are hopelessly mired by pop-political connotations. They are almost in the same breath for the Right as “tree-hugger,” “socialist,” “communist,” “elitist,” “unpatriotic,” “lazy…” –the propaganda train could continue, but you get the idea. It is unfortunate that “non-conventional” development—whether in agriculture, economics or construction—has been tainted by some notion that it is fiscally irresponsible because it’s part of a “socialist” agenda, despite the fact that when we evaluate these practices on a pure cost/benefit analysis, they often save the investor money (the same can’t be said for Exxon). Similarly, a higher upfront investment in energy efficient measures offsets the tremendously high public costs (or “externalities” such as Climate Change”) that come with fossil-fuel use.

So what if “Green Building” was called “Modern Building” or “Efficient Building?” What if “Organic Agriculture” became “Low-impact Agriculture?” Or “Ecological Economics” became “Viable Economics?” If we are going to invest in the future prosperity of natural resources we shall have to divest ourselves of the connotative language that divides groups like Evangelicals and Environmentalists.

Habitat for Humanity Part I: The Foundation

Most people think Habitat for Humanity (HFH) was founded by Jimmy Carter. But he was simply an ardent supporter. HFH was actually created by Millard and Linda Fuller in the 1970’s. Before going into nonprofit work, Millard Fuller studied economics and went on to law school, becoming a self-made millionaire before he earned his JD through running a variety of ventures, such as selling birthday cakes, Christmas trees and housewares, and through local real estate investment, including student housing.

As if often the story, despite enormous financial success and a lavish lifestyle, Millard and Linda Fuller found themselves feeling deeply unfulfilled and their marriage on the brink of collapse. They moved by happenstance to Koinonia Farm, an intentional Christian agrarian community led by minister Clarence Jordan, who founded the farm on the following four pillars of belief:

  1. Treat all human beings with dignity and justice
  2. Choose love over violence
  3. Share all possessions and live simply
  4. Be stewards of the land and its natural resources

Along with supporting racial integration and equality on Koinonia Farm, Clarence Jordan was deeply committed to supporting independent agriculture and soil conservation, believing the Jeffersonian principle that a strong, agrarian community formed the backbone of true republican ideas (take note of the little “r” republican). It’s quite remarkable that such a communitarian model, with such “progressive” principles, was founded in Georgia in the 1940’s.

Long story short, the Fuller’s were inspired by Jordan and Koinonia, and began to experiment with a model of partnership housing, which they later took to Zaire. Consequently, Habit for Humanity is an international organization. In fact, US Habitat affiliates participate in what is called a tithe, which means they dedicate a portion of their donations to building homes in the developing world. A tithe is worked into the cost of each house constructed domestically and, because building materials are much less expensive abroad, for 10% of the cost of building a home in America, Habitat can build another house elsewhere. So whenever a home goes up here in Denver, another is going up in Haiti or Nepal.

Following the wise words of Clarence Jordan, “What the poor need is not charity, but capital, not caseworkers but coworkers—“ which have only since been reiterated by Mohammed Yunus, founder of micro-lending institution, the Grameen Bank, who said “Credit should be a human right—” the Fullers designed their housing program based on a zero interest loan. Using donations to fund the initial construction of the house, all Habitat homeowners eventually pay this cost back, less inflation. These mortgage payments are help to partially finance other home constructions. This is still the model used today—all Habitat homeowners also invest 200 hours of “sweat equity” by contributing in some way to the construction of their home or to the Habitat organization.

In my next post, I will explore the modern Habitat for Humanity model, which has since expanded into the recycling and reuse sector, which is where I play out my role with the organization. I will also discuss some of the significance and pitfalls of the Habitat model given the current financial climate of concentrated capital and credit-control, a depressed real estate market and an expansionary American monetary policy.