The Ecological Patriarch: A View of a Dysfunctional Male Household Economy

Summer in the Big Bend of Florida is a theatre of extremes. The sun, relentless but still, casts about its hot rays while the humidity coats the skin with a dripping tropical sweat. As day evaporates into night, rarely does the humidity abate; and when you decide to take in a symphony of aluminum bats and cold brew at a local baseball park, ants will nibble on your feet especially if you have unknowingly plopped your flip-flops on a trail, or at worst, a mound.1 Other pests include mosquitoes that still seem to thrive throughout dry spells and wildfires that are common here.

As a former Bostonian, I am thankful for the short, mild winters in Florida, and the warmer seasons here conjure a cornucopia of wildlife with some interesting yet fabled contrasts. Just last week, I encountered a hare and a turtle crossing one of the main roads that wind and swivel through my hilly neighborhood. Luckily for the turtle, a conscientious driver stopped her Prius, exited it, and carried the animal to safety (off of the road). That scenario was one of the few fortunate moments I have noticed for road faring animals because not a day passes, as I cycle here and there, in which I fail to see an animal pancaked to the road. The usual victims are squirrels and opossums, although recently I have seen armadillos. You might think that when human beings and nature meet, nature should wave the white flag, shouldn’t it? Well what about when humans intervene on nature’s behalf? Are we any better off? Is nature better off? The driver who placed the turtle off road could have merely facilitated the animal’s destruction by placing it in an area teeming with predators. While it is prudent to cleanup human created environmental disasters, we perhaps should be wary of allowing nature to over flourish. Like untamed forest flora, such an idea–to allow nature to be left alone to its own whims–is incendiary.

Sage the Environmental Ecologist

In January I moved into a house where three other men reside, which includes the landlord. I’ve known the landlord for several years now as a recurring campus specter of the night.2 A fiftyish graybeard with a waist length ponytail, Sage, a Harvard graduate, was once a Greenpeace activist but now works for university security. Late at night he ambles from building to building to check technology enhanced classrooms and secures the equipment; he also makes sure that no unauthorized individuals are in the classrooms. Recently he told me that he surprised two coeds who were having sex in one of the classrooms but instead of reporting them or calling the university police, he made them get dressed and leave.

As household patriarch, Sage espouses what he calls a “free growth” philosophy about the yard. The lawn is not to be cut, and he permits the trees and shrubs to grow without impediment. He claims that arboreal overgrowth cools the house during the late spring and summers.

As I hinted at earlier, such seasons introduce us to insect pests. Sage does not believe in chemical remedies for insect intruders; his “solution” involves kitchen management. He does not permit trashcans or trash bags inside the house to hold refuse until they become full: trash must be either discarded immediately in the city owned trash bin outside or temporarily placed in the refrigerator. No empty food wrappers or packaging are to be left in the common areas.

While the rent at this house is far below the market average for this part of Florida, I still seem to find such rules a bit rigid. While I like the fact the household reduces its contribution of plastic garbage bags to the environment, plastic waste is still unavoidable as most of our foods and beverages are packaged in plastics. But as far as reducing insect infestations by putting food wrapping in the refrigerator or directly outside in the trash bin, I’m not sure that this stops all insect invasions since Sage has not patched or repaired his window screens. Additionally, there is a question of sanitation concerning putting refuse in the refrigerator. Just because trash is put in an artificially cool environment does not imply that such an environment impedes the growth of bacteria or molds.[3]

That arboreal growth cools the house during the late spring and summer months seems a dubious claim. While the oaks and pines do shield the house from the sun, the thick overgrowth does not permit wind to enter the windows so the air inside the house must be excited by fans. Another problem down the road is that once the rains and heavy winds of hurricane season come, waterlogged branches can fall off onto the roof and cause damage.

Autonomous, Solitary, Male Tenants

As each individual in the household has his own room, cooperative living is not encouraged as much I would think Sage would himself admit. In the heat of late spring, I’ve noticed that each tenant runs a fan behind closed doors. This seems to me to be wasteful and our electric bill has begun to show this. Because we all close our doors to possess a very fuzzy, intangible thing called “privacy”, there is no multi-directional airflow throughout the house so the hot air that is inside stagnates. Four fans running on high with all the doors closed is more wasteful energy-wise than by having all of the bedroom doors and windows open to allow external, natural cross breezes. While I mentioned above that little moving air gets through the windows because of all of the arboreal overgrowth, the closed room doors shut off whatever natural airflow there is to the remainder of the house: thereby heating the entire house. One tenant, Mashif, has decided to install an air conditioner in his room and Sage is about to allow this because the tenant is renting his own room and can therefore run an air conditioner if he pleases.

This view, that what an individual chooses to do with his own property is unassailably right, is incorrect: for it does not look at how interconnected we are. Mashif’s use of the air conditioner will undoubtedly raise the electric bill more and if we are to divide the bill equally, as Sage demands that we do, we will all end up paying for Mashif’s use of his air conditioner without enjoying any of the benefits. Sage apparently believes that Mashif’s use of the air conditioner in his room cannot be quantified in any exact way. But when I pressed Sage about how he could make such a claim, I endured some unrelated remarks from him about the superiority of his Ivy education: sadly, this was a common retort used by folks I knew in Boston who were lazy about defending their ideas. It would seem to me that Mashif’s use could be easily quantified in the following way.

Suppose that average usage per month before the air conditioner is installed is 1200 kW divided by the number of tenants: in the current case, 4. Hence, the average per person would be 1200/4= 300 kW per person. Suppose that the month after the air conditioner is installed, the average usage is 1500kW divided by the number of tenants. Everyone’s average would be 1500kW/4=375 kW per person. Yet by keeping the tenants who do not have air conditioners at the previous month’s rates (i.e., 300 kW), the excess kW (i.e., 75 kW per person or times 4) could be added to the average of the tenant who uses an air conditioner (i.e., 300kW+75(4) =600kW). Or an even simpler method would be to determine the percentage increase in electricity use, and make Mashif pay that percentage in addition to his average rate.

Male Dysfunction

As a nomad who has lived in male households for most of my adult life, it seems that the insistence upon a compartmentalized household of private individual selves is an aspect that seems to characterize male households far too often and leads to occurrences such as sloppy common areas such as the bathroom or kitchen: there is usually no shared system of labor that keeps these nuisances from happening. The only socialism in male households is of the bill: the sharing of household chores seems to be absolutely alien to male households. While Sage insists on tossing trash outdoors and leaving no food in common areas, the house is still mostly unkempt because the residents generally believe in being only responsible for their own rooms.?

I found Sage’s ecology intriguing (almost admirable) but I think that it is somewhat arrogant to think that we can “allow” nature to flourish in human society without repercussions. While I had mentioned above that the arboreal overgrowth impedes some natural airflow into the house, Sage also allows rainwater to settle in the bowed driveway which is shaded by the roof. Because it takes days for the water in the driveway to evaporate, mosquitoes are able to breed there. A few scoops of sand on top of the water would solve this problem and would allow Sage to abstain from using chemical remedies to solve this particular insect problem but he thinks that we need not worry about insect pests that breed outside of the house.

The Future

I’m about to move out of Sage’s house next week. It was a wild ride on 2211 Myrtlethorn Road but I think that it is time for me to return to solitary living in my own abode. The one thing that I learned (sometimes, repetition can be humorous) is that male households seem to remain generally every man for himself, solitary, autonomous affairs where there is little emphasis upon sharing household responsibilities. The fact that the house is supposedly an “ecological” household seems to have made the whole situation even more bizarre, because the promotion of natural growth on the outside would naturally increase insect populations and germs no matter how “careful” we humans could be with waste disposal. Additionally, while the household “promoted” nature, it did so at the expense of higher energy costs.

Speaking of energy costs, I discovered that the house had been running overdue utility balances months before I arrived and had merely been pushing them forward: until the next roommate moved in. The new roommate would then be told that his share of the bill was a certain amount, yet the new roommate was really paying a percentage of an overdue balance that the existing residents had not paid off. Of course when I discovered this, my tenure in the house was to be short-lived.

Well, onward to home from the campus library. Night has fallen here on Tallahassee and a lazy bike ride through the hills awaits. The rains fell today and the waters swept away the heat and cracked soil of the past few weeks. At this time of night off of the roadways after a rainstorm, the newly filled drainage ditches and ponds jabber with life: usually anxious male amphibians eager to join the mating dance. It is fascinating, in all of that noise, how the males all seem to coexist, although none of them is cooperative in any intentionally mutual beneficial sense. But are cohabiting males of any species naturally cooperative in mutually beneficial ways? I have perhaps found one example of this, and perhaps such may demonstrate that there is still hope for male human households.

  1. This species is Solenopsis invicta or the red imported fire ant. []
  2. Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. []
H.E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. He can be reached at: hewjrtaken@yahoo.com. Read other articles by H.E., or visit H.E.'s website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Deadbeat said on July 11th, 2010 at 7:18pm #

    Clearly for the birds.

  2. foakla said on July 12th, 2010 at 5:24am #

    Actually, it is interesting since it explores the relationship between conservation and preservation, and how preservation, without respect to human needs, can undermine them. This is an old battle in environmental history, no doubt. But what is really interesting here is the way in which gender codes are twisted in relation to both the environment and community. The patriarch figure essentially prohibits environmental degradation by allowing free growth but this is really counterproductive since it seems to increase utilities costs. You pay more for organic food at the grocery store. Where is the value of being environmentally responsible when it costs you? I think this is the main point of the article as well as the suggestion that male households operate fundamentally differently than female households. It’s no secret that males tend to be slobs: the article at least points that out. But males are generally not raised to be cooperative individuals. Yet is the shunning of cooperation evolutionarily advantageous? Something to think about.