Multigenerational family households rarely form out of environmental concern -
or an intentional desire to be 'green'. More typically, they form because of financial
pressures, caring responsibi1ities or to accommodate disruptions in extended
families such as divorce or unemployment. Yet, they offer
important, innate opportunities to reduce resource consumption. On a per capita
basis, household size is inversely related to resource consumption and waste
production. By housing more family members under one roof,
multigenerational family living presents unheralded opportunities to save energy,
water, building materials and land. Our ethnographic research with multigenerational
family households in Wollongong, in the Illawarra region of southeastern
Australia, explored the ways in which resources are consumed and shared in their
rhythms of everyday life. These families inadvertently reduced their consumption
of material resources by sharing space and everyday objects: white goods,
furniture, cooking equipment, electronics, clothing, books, food, swimming pools
and more. Although these sharing practices were not intentionally ‘green', they
nonetheless obviated the need for additional purchases to be made.
At the same time, these households were sites of environmental debate and intergenerational leaming.
01der generations - while not identifying as environmentalists
- sought to instil values of thrift among their younger relatives. They wanted
to pass their inadvertent - or unintentional - sustainabilities onto their children
and grandchildren. The term 'inadvertent sustainabilities' refers to practices not
conceived with sustainability in mind, but which are environmentally beneficial
nonetheless. Some younger
household members, for their part, made persistent attempts to counter their parents' and grandparents' climate change skepticism, and to promote intentionally
sustainable practices and purchases. Multigenerational family households thus
provide fertile ground for the frugal (inadvertently 'green') practices and skills of
older generations, and the intentional environmentalism of younger generations,
to collide and coalesce - with profound implications for everyday domestic life.
Throughout this chapter, we follow Blunt (2005) and Reid et al. (2010) in defining
a household as a social unit occupying a single place or space of residence (the
dwelling). Our definition of multigenerational family households is expansive. It
includes adult children who have remained in - or returned to -the parental home
(with or without their own spouse and children), and elderly parents living with
one or more adult children. Additional relatives (whether aunts, uncles, grandparents
or cousins) may be‘added on' to an existing nuclear family unit. Each of
these household configurations brings together related individuals in a manner
distinct from single-parent or nuclear family living arrangements that involve one
or more parents and their dependent child(ren).
In so doing, they decrease the overall number of dwellings required to house an
equivalent number of people.
In the remainder of this chapter, we provide detail around the innate environmental
benefits of larger households, before positioning our study within a broad
body of cultural environmental research at the household scale. After outlining
our research methods, we present empirical evidence of two types of sharing that
take place in multigenerational family households - of space and material objects
and more important, of ideas, skills and knowledge. Multigenerational family
households engender opportunities to be inadvertently and deliberately ‘green'.
We conclude by taking our research findings to a further, speculative, step: in a
climate-changing world, these households also hold important and unexplored
potential for coping with environmental calamities.