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What green jihad? A response to Ross Elliott (Online Opinion)

Director of Strategic Ideas Charles Berger's response to Ross Elliott's article "Waging a green jihad on suburban homes".

Ross Elliott makes a number of usefully provocative challenges in his piece "Waging a green jihad on suburban homes". His observation that wealthy people in inner city areas tend to have a higher ecological footprint than less wealthy people in suburban areas is correct, and is no doubt a confronting fact for some.

And he is certainly right to focus attention on the environmental impact of our lifestyles, not just our choice of housing. Higher density housing doesn't necessarily mean people will lead more sustainable lifestyles, especially if we fill our homes with energy-guzzling devices and arrange our lives around conspicuous and mindless consumption.

Again, Elliott correctly points out some of the environmental tradeoffs involved in higher density housing patterns. Things are not at all straightforward here: in theory, a person in a home with a garden can dry their clothes using the sun, whereas somebody in a high-rise may be reliant on a power-hungry clothes dryer. On the other hand, many suburban homes have a clothes dryer anyway, whereas the folks in the high rise are more likely to be sharing a common laundry facility. Topics like this need careful, well-researched analysis, and everybody, including environmentalists, should be prepared if some of the findings are counterintuitive.

It is therefore a shame Ross Elliot's piece takes the form of a diatribe against some imagined "jihad" on detached suburban housing, rather than a nuanced and thoughtful look at the issues.

In some places, his piece is imprecise or inaccurate. He claims, for instance, the Australian Conservation Foundation's Consumption Atlas, released in 2007, shows that "smaller household sizes have greater environmental impacts than larger (chiefly suburban) households". Taken literally, this statement implies that an average five-person household has a lower environmental impact than an average 2- or 3-person household. But that's nonsense. What Elliott presumably means, and what the Consumption Atlas shows, is that the per person impacts are lower for individuals living in larger households.

Similarly, his claim that homes don't use energy, only the occupants in them do, is facile. Of course people in homes are the ones using energy, but it would be silly to suggest the design and characteristics of a house have nothing to do with it. People in well-insulated homes generally use less energy in heating than people in poorly-insulated homes.

Such misstatements and misdirections indicate a certain careless attitude towards data, but alas this is not the biggest flaw in Elliott's diatribe.

There are three fundamental points he gets very, very wrong.

First, I'm not sure who Elliott is referring to when he speaks of the "green jihadists" who are waging a war on the suburbs. He doesn't name any names, nor even provide any quotes from this supposed war. The only specific example of the "jihad" he gives is the creation of green star rating schemes for housing, which must make this the mildest jihad in human history.

I suspect this is really just a strawman. Most environmentalists have no objection to "the detached suburban home". What gets us riled up is inefficient, thoughtlessly designed housing of any kind – inner city or suburban, detached or high rise. When we see housing that lacks even basic attention to sound passive design principles, that relies entirely on air conditioning and other energy-intensive systems, and that has no good access to community services, employment and public transport, we see a market that is not meeting the real needs of either people or the environment.

Second, Elliott's correct observation about the high-impact lifestyle of some wealthy inner city residents in no way makes a case for the environmental or economic soundness of current suburban development patterns. Neither inner city nor suburban housing and lifestyles are anything like ecologically sound at the moment: both need to change fairly dramatically, and for the better. In suburban areas, improved efficiency requirements for new housing, a more diverse mix of housing options and better public transport would go a long way to reducing environmental impact, lowering household power bills and insulating people from fuel and energy price shocks.

Finally, Elliott describes the apparent preference for detached housing as the simple result of individual people's choices. No doubt many people do indeed aspire to a detached home with a garden, but there are many other factors at work. One of these is undoubtedly the marketing of developers, which consistently pushes the image of the very large single-family dwelling as the most desirable housing option. (And if such advertising has no effect on people's choices, then why do developers spend so much money on it?)

And then there is the vast array of implicit and explicit government policies and subsidies for low density housing. Historically, developers have not had to pay for much of the infrastructure needed to service new developments. New, low density housing estates have, in effect, been heavily subsidised by the state. Tax policies like land tax exemptions and negative gearing have encouraged overinvestment at the top end of the market and underinvestment in more affordable options. And for folks at the entry level in the housing market, the outer suburbs are generally the only option, like it or not. There is no question of choice here; if you can only finance $300,000 and want to purchase a home in Melbourne, you're looking at a detached home in the outermost suburbs, even if that means your transport and energy bills will be far higher over time.

Mr Elliott says he's in favour of choice. Me too, but I want people's choices to reflect the full cost of their housing options, to include a real range of affordable housing types, to be informed by good disclosure about the efficiency of housing, and to be guided by planning frameworks that help us protect the environment and adjust to a world in which energy and other resources are likely to be far more expensive.

I'm not sure if that makes me a green jihadist, but I do think it's a better bet than just letting the developers keep having it all their way.

Disclosure: Charles lives in a detached home in an outer suburb, owns a car, rides the train to work, buys green power, grows vegies, travels by plane too often … and doesn't own a clothes dryer.