As the accompanying picture demonstrates, a dwelling, at least an urban dwelling, has several dimensions—a home, a house or building, and part of an urban and natural environment. The house or building consists of various materials, perhaps wood, a renewable product, or cement, not renewable. The building also provides its inhabitants protection from what we euphemistically call “the elements” (Fig. 2.1).
The dwelling is also a home that provides the privacy necessary for exercising one’s own autonomy and for developing one’s life-plans. It should also be a place that’s safe for vulnerability and engaging in intimate relations. The tragedy of homelessness in the United States is that homeless people are deprived of a place where their personal lives are protected. Homelessness, in other words, is not just about shelter, although that is certainly a basic human right, but even more importantly, it is about not being at home in the world.
Shelter, of course, is not trivial. We not only live with nature, but we also protect ourselves from nature. With changes in global climate patterns, we see the atmosphere becoming warmer, sea levels rising, storms intensifying, oceans acidifying, polar caps melting, and natural ecosystems deteriorating. In recent decades, many know the Earth only too well though hurricanes, heat waves, tornadoes, floods, fires and volcanoes. These trends raise new challenges for urban planners as they must retrofit their housing stock for a changing world
In response to global warming, some governments are passing regulations that require new homes to be self-sustainable. Advances in technology have made such requirements quite reasonable. Other technological developments, however, have created new problems such as the growing use of air-conditioning.
In her recent article on air-conditioning, Rachel Kyte writes that increases in temperatures in such countries as Pakistan (128.3 F), Iran (129.2 F) and the state of Arizona (118 F) have made air-conditioning more of a necessity than a luxury (2017). Growing populations in countries such as India have also increased the need for air-conditioning. Air-conditioning, however, not only takes electricity (there are still over 1 billion people world-wide without electricity), but also, in most cases, uses hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that cause global warming. As Kyte says, air-conditioning is both a lifesaver and a potential disaster. On the one hand, the trend of global warming has made hot zones even hotter, which could be managed by increasing the use of air-conditioning, but then air-conditioning increases the demand for electricity and HFCs in the atmosphere. On the other hand, if there is so much sun, then why not simply install solar panels and let the heat create electricity to cool things off? Solar power could be an essential part of the answer but finding the materials for the technology and the right incentives and regulations to persuade people to ensure its adoption—not so easy. We need to remember that this dilemma of increasing the use of air-conditioning belongs to a much larger issue of how to make life livable on our one planet (Fig. 2.2).
For some, seeing a dwelling only as a house, a home, and belonging to natural and urban dimensions totally misses what many homeowners and investors see as the most significant aspect of a modern dwelling—its real-estate value. Financial investors would argue that the property’s financial value makes possible the other values of the dwelling—as a home, a shelter, and a part of urban and environmental environments. For them, the only real question is “Is this a good investment?” Asking such a question, of course, assumes a different interpretive framework. Seeing a dwelling as something one can “buy low and sell high” dismisses the significance of what it means for humans to dwell on the Earth.
How we interpret the meaning of a building, or course, reveals how we see ourselves. If we see a house as nothing but an investment, then we become investors. This has consequences not only for us, but also for others. This is especially relevant for modern urban environments.
“If you owned your home, would you have the right to burn it down?” I have posed this question to students in my ethics classes and most of them answer that you do. After all, they reason, you own it. Then I ask them what the owner owns; it’s the property. As we have seen, however, this “property” belongs to an urban and natural environment. It’s real-estate value, in fact, depends almost entirely on its location in the urban environment. A similar building’s real estate value may vary from almost zero to millions of dollars depending on its location. Also, most houses have had a past and potential future as a family’s home and shelter. The significance of the house, in other words, is lost when its real-estate value blocks out everything else. That is not only true of our homes, of course, but also of the Earth itself. Recognizing and protecting the meaning of “things” does not prevent home ownership, but it does define ownership much more as a kind of stewardship of our dwellings.
Stewardship rests on the recognition of an entity’s value not only for its owner, but also for others and even for itself. To practice stewardship does not require a sacrifice of one’s holdings, but rather an awareness of a relationship with what is being held. In a climate of justice, the relationship would be based on reciprocity where relationships of giving and receiving are balanced. Reciprocity is possible, of course, between living things that share value and meaning. In our current climate of injustice, on the other hand, we are witnessing the further imbalance of our earthly existence. Increased global warming, resource depletion, and waste dumping continue to degrade the Earth’s viability. Also, the growing number of vulnerable refugees and the decreasing provisions for them rely and perpetuate a climate of injustice. Changing these trends requires that we change the social climate to a climate of justice which will require some heavy lifting on the part of all citizens. This brings us to the relationship between the Earth and the Civic.