Act: Inspiration

What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 93 with Vicki Robin

November 21, 2022

Show Notes

Hear from our host Vicki Robin in another solo episode, as she shares a topical theme for “What Could Possibly Go Right?” including:

  • Ideas for creative solutions and alternative arrangements to address America’s housing issues
  • Recognizing the intersection of population pressures, the wealth gap, and the climate crisis
  • Transforming the idea of the American dream, that “we can discover the freedom of belonging as we end isolation as a symbol of wealth and privilege.”


Hi Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? Every so often, I turn the tables to ask myself, as I do my guests, to read the tea leaves of our times. In this episode I’m going to take some leaps, so buckle up. In part, this episode marks a sober statistic about our predicament. In part it tells the story of one community – mine – coming to grips with the real estate fall out of population pressures and the obscene wealth gap. In part, it’s about the necessary, and current, transformation of the DNA of America, Freedom, from wide open spaces to the freedom of belonging. As I said, buckle up.

I’m recording this on November 15, 2022, the day the world population officially hit 8 billion. The tsunami of humans, every one of them precious, grows exponentially. When I was born in 1945, there were 2.5  billion humans on this earth. I came of age when the pill came on the scene, splitting sex from reproduction. We were about 3 billion then. When James Hansen alerted us to the greenhouse effect in 1988, we’d just passed five billion. A year later, When I learned about overshoot and collapse, there were five and a quarter billion people. In case you missed this lesson in geo-biology, overshoot is what happens in nature that a species encounters a rich food source in the absence of competitors. Be it fruit flies or humans, we multiply beyond the limits of what the food source can supply, and we die off – that’s the collapse part.

I learned about overshoot and collapse and IPAT at the first large US conference on sustainable development. For one dinner I sat at a table with a renowned demographer. How many people can the earth support, I asked. 2 billion at a level of technology and consumption of the US in the 1950s, and he took another bite while I dropped my fork and tried to comprehend what would need to happen to the other 3 billion.

When Your Money or Your Life was published, we passed 5.5 billion. We’d hoped that our book would impact, just a bit, the IPAT equation… In case you missed this, IPAT was a simplified expression of our sustainability predicament. I stands for impact, which derives from: population times affluence times technology. In people speak, that’s number of people times their ability to consumer more than they need times the technologies that enable consumption to speed up.

We’d set the year 2000 as our goal for turning consumerism around, but by then we’d shot past 6 billion. Decades of research, reports, and conferences on over population produced one key and actionable insight: the more educated women are, the more financially empowered women are, the fewer births. While the rate of increase has come down, in part because of women’s liberation from chattel, this dodged the very difficult fact that year over year our numbers increase while the pie, so to speak – the feedstock of civilization called food, minerals, water, soil fertility – decreases. To raise the question directly is to be like China with their one-child policy or worse… to be fascists deciding who should live or die.

We reached 7 billion in 2011. And now, 11 years later, 8 billion. Put it another way. When I was born there were about 15 people per square kilometer. Now there are 53.

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The pressure of our species growth against the limits of our niche, the earth, to support us, is hard to apprehend with our conscious minds. I’ve spent most of my life trying to change this outcome, in a way to deflect the panic I first felt at that dinner with a demographer.

Now let’s get down to earth, and over to my island home in the Pacific Northwest for some stories of how we are trying to tuck more humans onto our island in the face of growth pressures,

Our culture is layered from in migration by white settlers ever since the first farmer cameto grow potatoes and wheat on a camas prairie that has fed the Coast Salish people for centuries. First farmers then loggers. add religious idealists, then an enclave of white nationalists. Layer in Old hippies, summer fishing camps, artists, blue collar workers, Navy families who return after their tour of duty. Then layer on the consultant class, and retirees.

And now, another layer that is tearing through the prior ones. The financialization of real estate – people storing money in homes they don’t necessarily intend to live in. The extreme wealth gap has given some the ability to outbid people who intend to live here, and the ratcheting up means that essential workers can’t afford to buy. This  hot market got landlords to either raise rents or sell to  realize the once in a lifetime profit. Then vacation rentals then replaced long-term rentals for tourists and remote workers. Bottom line, like many other communities, our working class can’t afford to live here.

We’re in shock. What to do to keep our community from becoming a NORC – a naturally occurring retirement community. Our average age in the village is already 67.

Among the solutions our community is considering are three that tell some of the story of the old one of a man’s home is his castle and the one coming into being, that we are all in this together and need to adapt.

Solution one is a development on the edge of my town that is hotly contested. To meet the affordability criteria, it needs to be relatively densely packed with a variety of housing types, from family homes to a tiny home neighborhood to over garage apartments and town houses and such.

Solution two has one of those unstoppable community women at the helm.  It’ a tiny house village inside the boundary of our town that has been slowly built with lots of love, money and labor from members of several island churches. The ten 294 square foot houses are almost all done, along with a laundry cabin.  They will provide homes for lower income employed people.

Solution three is what I’ve done, and many others: housemates but with a twist. I have a less than 2k square foot split entry house. There are millions with the same floor plan.  The ground floor is a family room and a garage, upstairs are 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and an open floor plan great room. The family room was converted into a mother in law apartment. It already had a separate entrance and a bathroom so with the addition of a sink, apartment fridge and some countertop appliances, it’s provided a home for a dozen people – a physician’s assistant and her daughter, a financial planner, a filmmaker, an actor, some farm interns and a farm school instructor, a hotel receptionist, a nurse in a care facility.

On the other side, I converted my two car garage into a studio by replacing one door with a sliding glass door and connecting  kitchen and bathroom plumbing into my sewer hook up. In that side I’ve had a chef, a shop clerk, an interior designer, a contractor, and fine furniture builder, an actor, an Americorps volunteer, and a college professor. Then a millennial journalist I knew asked if she could rent my upstairs guest room for several months to work on her novel. Right after move in, the pandemic made us quarantine companions and it was so much fun, I’ve had two millennial actors and a tech worker live there, one after another, and I’ve come to love younger creative energy in the house – who also help with projects. That room has mini fridge, an electric tea kettle, a microwave and a hot plate and almost exclusive access to the guest bath. We live independent lives.

These represent three approaches to increasing living space for working class folks in our increasingly upscale community. Some of the barriers to all three approaches are well known.

Developers and environmentalists are traditional enemies. In our case, the site for the approx. 150 new homes, from fourplexes to family sized, is by a sewage treatment plant and an inviolate wetland. Our island has a single source aquifer. Is there enough water for approx three hundred showers and thousand flushes  more a day? The land is on a slope – who pays for if/when that destabilizes? Thus the resource constraints of more people arrives in my tiny village.

Neighboring homeowners, who moved here for the peace, quiet and forest vistas, also have a thing or two to say about development. They don’t want the traffic, noise of building, then the noise of people and cars. You can almost hear minds whir. There goes my piece of heaven. There goes the neighborhood. There goes my retirement. There go property values. Will my kids be safe.

Option two, the tiny home village, has created a lot of excitement. It’s been a long hard battle to build. They wanted to be on city sewer and water, not septic, so they have to find land in the city. Volunteer labor did a lot of the building, keeping cost down. The city would not budge though on charging each house a hefty individual sewer hook up fee, adding tens of thousands to the project. It’s also a question whether 290 square foot homes will meet the need if workers have families, which of course many do.

In both the development and the tiny home village, one constraint is that new construction, excluding land, is anywhere between $250/square foot for a plain box to $800/square foot for a custom home. Can we build our way out of our bind? The city council is working hard to identify where building can happen, and how to change codes and zoning to permit more density, but could a restaurant server actually afford to buy into our town? And could an owner of one of these houses afford to rent it out for what an essential worker can afford?

How promising is option three, what I’ve done, and others too. Some research revealed that you can tuck people in, the way I have, if they are considered room mates in a home rather than renters in a mother-in-law separate apartment. What’s the difference? Turns out that here it’s whether there’s a 220 volt hook up for a stove with an oven. Of course there are other considerations to make this option legal, affordable and practical, but none of the hoops feels that big to a group of friends  who share my passion to save our homegrown culture. We are working to open what we call in-home suites. It can be a room. It can be a whole wing of a house, or a floor. they share the same sewer, water, utilities, garbage collection and probably laundry. But no one has to put up with someone else’s mess in the kitchen or bathroom.

The advantages to the homeowner are many:

  • Rental income
  • Security of having someone in the home
  • Possible work trade
  • A bit of human connection if desired

For workers, it’s a chance to:

  • Live in part of a nice home in a safe neighborhood
  • The possibility of some work trade to keep rent reasonable

As a NORC – naturally occurring retirement community – we have many family homes with just one remaining parent living in them and unwilling to leave. The realtors are thrilled; they know better than anyone how middle-income folks are being economically pushed out. The senior agencies are cautiously optimistic – they know better than anyone the toll of aging alone in a large house with no family close by.

In home suites opens a chink in our real estate impossibility. Taking advantage of already built homes with underutilized space, in home suites could add dozens of new warm, dry, comfortable homes for workers in our community.

And now we’re making a cultural scout jump… hang on.

Given the cost of building, the new subdivision of 150 homes, from tiny to over 2000 square foot does not guarantee that people earning under $50/hour, meaning most of our teachers, landscapers, contractors, shopkeepers – can afford to live here. And by the time these homes are built – at least a year from now – how many more will have flown the coop?

Tiny homes, as cool as they may be now, may not suit couples or families that work hard all day and all need a hot shower, a hot meal and some relaxation time come 5 PM.

We need to ask the question: does the American dream need to morph rather than be out of reach?

I wonder if humanity could squeeze through this tight spot of population pressure plus climate change plus resource depletion by a breakthrough in sharing spaces we own but do not use. Generosity is helpful but not needed, because property owners get plenty of tangible and intangible benefit. Even in my community I notice ever more people multi-solving for rising costs on fixed incomes and loneliness as we outlive our mates and friends and the need for a helping hand and listening ear. We are finding elegant ways to share what we have without sacrificing quality of life.

Some may presume that population pressures will bring out our worst hostile selves, protecting what we have and driving out threats. But something else is on the horizon and we can grab it.

The very DNA of America is freedom, which we see as ownership, the ability to draw a boundary and keep others out. Maybe freedom in a world of 8 billion and a shrinking ecological pie is the capacity to negotiate boundaries within shared spaces. We do, after all, share this earth.

It’s in the nature of Post Carbon Institute to wrestle with complexity – and the population/consumption juggernaut needs to be worked out loud, together. We need to flip freedom on its head, from mine mine mine to gracious sharing for mutual benefit. Our towns and cities can stop being warrens of ever smaller personal space and become ecologies of shared spaces.

What could possibly go right? We can notice the community solutions growing among the marginalized – be they youth, poor, people of color – and lift them up as a more prosperous way to live. So many sharing networks already exist, from buy nothing groups to communal households to neighborhood tool sharing to open air markets and on and on. If we squint, we can see it. We can discover the freedom of belonging as we end isolation as a symbol of wealth and privilege.

We can let these growth pangs refine our souls, we can become, in home suite by in home suite, the beloved community.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient communities, housing crisis, population growth, sharing, sharing economy