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Shelter Strategies

To live off other peoples' waste seems parasitical, yet what Charles Gray really dreams of is that, by withdrawing his support for a waste-orientated society, it will eventually collapse and a new society will be created which respects the earth. In the meantime he comes up with creative ideas of how to live simply within what he calls the WEB, World Equity Budget.

By Charles Gray

We have not dealt with ownership of property as a shelter possibility.There was a day when the land here, having been stolen from the indigenous people, was plentiful, free or cheap.Now, land and shelter have been priced way out of the range possible for a person on the WEB. There are some qualifications on this statement. In some areas the laws are such that if you can squat on land and the land owner knows you are squatting and doesn't evict you, you can gain the right to stay after some period of time.That period of time can be pretty long like five years, so you have little security in the meantime, but it's a possibility.

A small or moderate sized piece of land may be within a WEB if a large enough group of people can be organised to buy it. By forming a land trust such land could then be taken out of the property speculation establishment and by so doing a future generation could have access to it at a price that had not inflated since the establishment of the trust. Wouldn't it have been wonderful if that had happened to a sizable portion of the real estate a hundred or even fifty years ago? Land trusting should have been part of the Homestead Act. Well, it's not too late to start.If such a piece of land has shelter on it already, some of the members could have immediate housing. To build additional shelter cheap enough and dense enough to fit within the WEB may not be legally possible, so one would have to be prepared for a struggle. There are advantages to having land that already has buildings on it since doubling up can be more easily hidden within existing structures.Reducing the visibility and community impact of doubling up is easier under the WEB because the outer evidence of high density, a bunch of motor vehicles, is absent. Bicycles can be hidden in a pretty small space. A large enough community might be able to afford a truck or van under the WEB. One such vehicle is far different than the dozen or so cars one sees around some shared housing, a dead giveaway that the density laws are probably being violated. In areas where parking is scarce a lot of vehicles can turn friendly neighbours into hostile ones. So, score some more points for bicycles.

If one has access to land, relatively low cost housing can sometimes be had by moving buildings off of land where they are not wanted. Sometimes such houses or buildings can be had for the cost of moving them. Be careful, though. Such 'free' shelter can be surprisingly costly to move.If the structure is high enough to require cutting power lines along the moving route, the charges can be steep.Building new foundations and reattaching utilities is also costly. Such options are likely to be available only to groups.

We have slipped into talking about organising communities as a means of living within the WEB. That is another major tactic. Finding a group of people who are compatible, who have sufficient consensus on the kind of community they want, who have the kind of long term commitment usually needed and who are interested in a WEB is quite a challenge, but one with immense potential rewards.Community can allow many economies from cooperative endeavour. A group could own equipment under the WEB that an individual could never afford. A community with the common goal of living within the WEB would have the advantage of many minds and hearts creating new solutions to the practical problems of the WEB in the U.S. culture.The emotional strength of such a support group would be another major advantage. It would no longer be a lonely struggle.Even a community of two is a great advantage, as I discovered when Dorothy and I got together.

There are many new communities in the United States. We do not know of any whose assets and costs would be within the WEB. That does not mean that such do not exist.We have talked to a number of people about community, but generally they have not rushed to sign up when the WEB is brought into the discussion. "You've got to be kidding", they'll say,"I can't live on that". Nonetheless, pulling together a community of people is a challenge with a lot of appeal.Perhaps we can do it, or perhaps you can, or perhaps we can do it together.

I have said nothing about furnishings and how to have them within a WEB. It isn't much of a problem. Lots of furnishings are thrown into the Great American Garbage Can, so if you keep your eyes open. It's pretty easy to scrounge more than you need or to scrounge materials to build what you don't find.

Another major part of many peoples' cost of living is putting aside money for retirement.Having sufficient resources to survive when one can no longer earn a living is an important source of anxiety. The main worry of breadwinners is that their dependants will be left without funds. Sometimes the worry is so severe that it becomes self-fulfilling. The breadwinners overwork and worry themselves into an early grave.

Our strategy in this area has several facets. The most important has to do with attitude. We don't expect to retire. We are developing skills that can be used even when we are very old, barring complete disability. Also we are reducing our needs so that satisfying them can be done with a few hours of work per day. We are also developing shelter options that require very little work to maintain. Though we have managed to save money under the WEB, thus far we have not set aside part of these savings for the possibility that we might both become disabled.I don't know the probability of that, but it might be good to provide for this, or to join with a group of people for such a joint insurance plan. For the last year and a half I have been getting Social Security checks that cover three-fourths of my WEB. Much as I disapprove of the social security system and how it's run, I'm not about to refuse the checks and let the Feds reallocate that money to wars in Central America. So, until the economy collapses, I have this income. If after analysing this income, I rule out part or all of it as inconsistent with the principles of the WEB, then I would have to make it available for redistribution.
We don't expect to retire. We are developing skills that can be used even when we are very old, barring comlete disability. I think I have come to the bottom of the bag of tricks we have used as well as talking about a few we haven't tried ourselves. I'm sure you have thought of some that have never occurred to us. It's fun finding new tricks. In a sense the bag is never empty as long as we nurture each other's creative potential.

Most of the world's poor do not have access to the Great American Garbage Can.Surviving in the Third World requires very different skills. It behoves us to learn such skills and Third World peoples have much to teach us to get over our racism and technological arrogance.

To some extent learning to exploit the Great American Garbage Can, living off the waste of this super-wasteful society, seems parasitical. It might seem that the more this society wastes, the easier our lives become. That is only true in a limited sense, because the American lifestyle is destroying the world and death threatens us on all sides. Militarism and pollution are part of the waste and they don't make our lives easier. It makes sense to reuse and recycle some of this waste as long as it is being produced. To a small degree such practice reduces the waste. If we use it, it is not wasted, and if lots of people use it, the society walks more lightly on the earth.

However, at the same time that we convert some of this waste to good use, it seems sensible to us to learn the skills that will lessen our dependence on the throw-away society so that we can live on our share of the world's resources in a world that does not waste or that significantly reduces its wasteful practices. Living off the waste is a transitional expedient. Our hope is to withdraw support from and eventually to turn off the waste-making machine altogether.

As you have now seen, the Great American Garbage Can has made our lives pretty easy in some respects. Only in health maintenance and shelter has it taken considerable effort to find solutions. We have learned most of our ways from others and we have created a few ourselves. There is a pretty extensive counter culture and even mainstream literature on low cost ideas for living. A little mucking around in the library will turn up a bundle, so if what we have discussed here still makes it hard for you to get under the WEB, expand your options by using a library the best things in life are still free!
  This is an extract from "Towards a Non-Violent Economics"(1989). The publication is out of print and no longer available.

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