The Global Citizen: You Are Not Your Square Footage

Bill Gates's new mansion comprises 20,000 square feet of living space, with another 20,000 for guest house, sports courts, gardens and garage.My brother just built a new house, a bed & breakfast with a floor area of 5000 square feet.The average American house in the 1940s had an area of 1200 square feet; now it's more than 2000.Until recently I couldn't have told you the square footage of anything. But for the first time in my life, I'm designing a house, and I've developed a sensitivity to built area. Wanting to keep my new home as small as possible, I've begun sizing up everything, comparing rooms of different sizes, trying to figure out how much space I really need.So I suddenly noticed something that had been in front of me all year. As I took down my 1997 calendar, I discovered on every page a house with its square-foot measurement.The calendar was derived from Peter Menzel's wonderful book Material World, a collection of pictures of the lives of families from 30 different countries. In addition to photos of cooking, schooling, work, celebrations, there is for each family one spectacular picture of the family members in front of their house with all their possessions spread out around them.Twelve of these pictures grace the twelve months of my calendar. They put world housing standards in perspective.From January through December the calendar shows:The Namgay family of Shinka, Bhutan: 13 people (father, mother, four children, one son-in-law, five grandchildren and an uncle), 726 square feet. That counts just the living space on the second floor, which sits above a barn for the animals.The Abdulla family of Kuwait City, Kuwait: 8 people (father, mother, four children, two servants), 4850 square feet. This family also owns four cars and a 45-foot-long sofa.The Costa family of Havana, Cuba: 9 people (father, mother, two children, their spouses, three grandchildren), 1400 square feet. Each of the three families has a separate living space within this area with its own TV, radio and stove.The Natomo family of Kouakourou, Mali: 11 people (father, two wives, eight children), 990 square feet. The wives live in separate houses, but do most cooking and childcare together.The Regzen family of Ulaanbaator, Mongolia: 6 people (father, mother, two children, father's sister and her child), 200 square feet. This house is a one-room yurt, called a ger in Mongolian, with electricity and a big TV set.The Delfoart family of Maissade, Haiti: 6 people (father, mother, two children, a nephew and a niece), 325 square feet. That doesn't count a small separate cooking hut and a storage shed. There is no electricity or running water. Much household activity takes place outside in the courtyard.The Zaks family of Tel Aviv, Israel: 4 people (father, mother, two children), 667 square feet. A three room flat on the fourth floor of a modern apartment building.The Khuenkaew family of Ban Muang Wa, Thailand: 5 people (father, mother, two children, mother's brother), 728 square feet. This farm family owns a motor scooter and a TV, but no car.The Wu family of Shiping, Yunan, China: 9 people (father, mother, two sons and their wives, three grandchildren), 600 square feet. No car, but a bicycle and a boat for harvesting water hyacinth from a nearby lake to feed the pigs.The Calabay Sicay family of San Antonio de Palopo, Guatemala: 5 people (father, mother, three children), 216 square feet. The main item of furniture in this one-room house is a large loom with which the father makes his living hand-weaving.The Ukita family of Tokyo, Japan: 4 people (father, mother, two children), 1420 square feet. This home contains three radios, one TV, one VCR, a microwave oven, a computer, and an electrically heated toilet seat (because electricity is expensive and it's cheaper to heat the seat than the whole house). Outside sit three bicycles and a Toyota minivan.The Kalnazarov family of Tashkent, Uzbekistan: 8 people (father, mother, six children), a heated 600 square foot winter house and an unheated 1000 square foot summer house, plus a separate kitchen building and a barn for the animals. This family owns only one bed and four chairs, but its picture is one of the most colorful in the calendar, because of the many brilliant handmade carpets and quilts spread out on the snow."My house is me, and I am it," said Bill Gates as he showed off his new mansion to a Washington Post reporter. It seems to me that one must have a pitifully small self-image, to need to pump it up with 20,000 square feet of house. Most people in the world have no opportunity to confuse themselves with their homes; they are simply grateful to have shelter from the weather and a place to sleep in peace. Judging from the pictures in Menzel's book, they manage to live full and interesting lives, anyway, to love their children, do their work, have fun, test and develop their souls, rejoice in life, no matter what square footage they happen to occupy.(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)


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