What does regenerative mean? It’s a term that we’ve been throwing around a lot in our discussions on the tiny house, and an important goal. Our tiny house, of course, is not just a tiny house; it’s a part of an ideal for the future, a stepping stone on our way to creating a small business and a cooperative of which that business will be a part. A cooperative that we’ve dubbed the Regenerative Living Community Cooperative, the RLCC for short. So what do we mean?
Sustainability is a broad and oft-used term. It often implies long-term viability, a system that can continue indefinitely and that does no harm. Renewable energy is an example; the sun will keep shining, the wind will keep blowing, the earth will continue to generate heat whether we harness these forces or not, and their use generally does not create pollution, at least not do the degree that fossil fuels do (though there’s a lot to be said about the processes by which these technologies are constructed in the first place). Organic farms, which do not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, and who generally cover crop fields between rotations are sustainable because they do very little harm to the environment, and when planned carefully, can continue to produce food indefinitely (as opposed to more conventional methods which eventually turn arable land into desert).
However, as Ethan C. Roland and Gregory Landua point out in Regenerative Enterprise: Optimizing for Multi-Capital Abundance, we’ve reached a point of ecosystem degradation that calls for action beyond current understandings of sustainability. Another way of thinking about it is this; to reach a point at which human life can be considered sustainable, we need to do more than ‘do no harm’; we need to actively rebuild the ecosystems upon which all things depend for survival. As they put it, “regenerative systems actively build life, complexity, and diversity. They grow the foundations and the potential of what humans perceive and experience as ‘wealth’” (16). They suggest that regenerative enterprises are an optimum way of achieving this goal due to their ability to function within current economic and legal systems while introducing change from within.
They divide capital into eight different forms – financial, material, intellectual, experiential, living, cultural, social, and spiritual – and see our current system as privileging financial capital above all others and therefore seeking to convert all other forms of capital to financial capital. They point out that it is no coincidence that ecosystem health has declined as the amount of financial capital in circulation has continued to rise; the former has been exploited by and converted to the other, as are other forms of capital as we continue to quantify and monetize experiences and services that were previously undertaken by individuals and communities. Regenerative enterprise seeks to reverse these trends, balancing the different forms of capital:
Within the framework of Regenerative Enterprise, the questions become ‘what are we cultivating in our interaction with this landscape? How can our connection with the system we are harvesting from grow the integrity, resilience, and long-term viability of these people and this place? In this context, we define cultivation as the addition to and removal of capital from a system in a way that develops and evolves its health, function, and resilience” (17).
So, is the tiny house ‘regenerative’? That’s maybe not the question we should be asking. In a culture obsessed with individuation, hierarchy, categorization, delineation, we ought to consider the tiny house not as a solitary object, but as a part of larger systems, an organ in a body, an enterprise in a collective, something defined more by its connections than by itself.
So, are we there yet? Is the tiny house a part of a regenerative system? In my opinion, not yet, but I think, I hope, sooner rather than later, we’ll get there.
What do we need to consider? Everything, really. Our materials, how they move, all of the people involved, the connections between them. In a world of mechanized production and reproduction, the homogeneity of objects obscures their origins, asks that we not consider these origins, only the current need or desire and its transitory fulfillment.
(On a side note, this is one way of looking at the barrage of consumer products in Joyce’s Ulysses. The crisis of identity faced by the Modernist in a time of transition from a period where daily objects almost always bore the idiosyncratic markers of the hand that made them, to a period of mechanically produced objects, nearly identical to one another, alien and removed from the subject).
Our tiny house is composed of wood, sugar beet-based spray foam insulation, plastic, compressed bamboo flooring, glass, wire, rubber, stainless steel, plywood, cedar shingles, Boral board composed of coal ash and recycled polymers, cedar siding, and a host of other materials that I’m sure I’m forgetting.
Where did they all come from? The truth is, we’re not completely sure. Our bamboo floor may have come from Home Depot, but we don’t know where it came from before then, how it was harvested, the process by which they were compressed and how much energy was needed to do so, how far these boards traveled before they made it into our hands, how they were transported, how many people were involved in their making and moving.
For our tiny house to be regenerative (in the sense of being a part of a regenerative system), the harvest, production, and transportation of the material that make it up need to be regenerative as well. Ideally, the group harvesting the wood and making it into boards would be local, would harvest their wood regeneratively, would consider the happiness and fulfillment of its workers, and even more ideally would be a part of our cooperative. Windhorse Farm in Nova Scotia (cited by Roland and Landua), for example, harvest a certain percentage (based on growth) of their forest every year, selecting particular trees throughout the whole so as to promote the continued growth and vitality of the forest. Number crunching reveals that this method not only bolsters the life of the ecosystem (the basis for all enterprise), but that greater returns are realized over the long term than clear-cutting (since 1840, over 7.5 million board feet have been harvested with 2 million board feet remaining the forest, whereas manager James Drescher estimates that at most 5.5 million board feet would have been harvested if the forest has been clear cut, with the quality of the regrown forest falling with each consecutive harvest) (Roland & Landua, 21). Buy purchasing wood from a company such as this, we would be investing financial capital into a system that nourishes the ecosystem as well as the local economy and the relationships within that economy. The environmental benefits are then, in a sense, embodied in the tiny house, just as the potentially environmentally degrading processes by which many of our materials came to us are currently (unfortunately) embodied in our house.
What of other forms of capital? The intellectual, the social, the cultural, the spiritual? Already our enterprise has brought people together, sharing ideas and expertise (Mike with his business know-how, my parents and architecture, my brother and construction); the many people who have lent a hand, whether by simply holding things in place or painting (like me. Though I’ll have you know, I learned how to nail in flooring yesterday, and I don’t think I’m half bad…), or who come with construction skills (Jerry, who has also kindly lent us his nail gun, Jim, who is more than kindly letting us use his backyard and workshop tools). Most everyone who has come to help has signed their name on the wall, and I like the thought of all those names, all those days and works of hands, embodied in this tiny house and not so tiny dream.
Spiritual capital, in a sense, is the most qualitative and undefined of the eight forms of capital. Roland and Landua cite a feeling of connection to and greater awareness of the whole. I’d agree. In its most basic, definitional sense, the spiritual is that which is not material: the connections between things, the connections between people, the beautiful interconnectedness of everything in existence.
Marx is a stated materialist, but I always felt a sense of spirituality, especially in reading his early essays. The curse of capitalism is the sense of alienation it engenders – from one’s labor, from oneself, from one’s neighbors and fellows, from nature, from one’s species-being (an amalgamation of biology and circumstance, nature and social context, the way a person should be internally derived rather than externally imposed). And the opposite of this alienation, it follows, would be connection, oneness with labor, self, nature, other, being.
And so, in considering the tiny house’s regenerative-ness, there are also future considerations of how the completed house will function once established in its new context. Our dream is for it to be with other tiny houses, in community, on land near Philadelphia, with a main house for communal space; inputs and outputs that feed one another – food grown on the property, for example, animal husbandry, apiary, a wood mill, other land-based and interlocking enterprises. Solar energy harvested for use in the house, gray water cycled through constructed wetlands to nourish the farm, humanure to build the soil, proximity to reduce or eliminate transport emissions, proximity to strengthen community, mutual support to enable enterprises to grow and thrive, to nurture emotional needs, to continue the cross-pollination of ideas and creative solutions.
We’re not there yet. But I do think that we’re on our way.
Quotes from Regenerative Enterprise: Optimizing for Multi-Capital Abundance (2013) Version 1.0 eBook Format. Ethan Roland & Gregory Landua