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The Happiness Gap and the Future
Alex Steffen, 1 Nov 07

David Brooks wrote a column Tuesday on The Happiness Gap that ought to be required reading for every bright green advocate on the planet, for here, now that we have come to the end of the beginning, is what the opposition sounds like.

Brooks (who in 2002, you may remember, wrote an appalling pean to "Patio Man" in which he said that suburban sprawl was the highest manifestation of the American ideal, and a wholly good idea), makes the argument that American voters (by whom Brooks invariably means upper-middle class suburban voters) suffer from a "happiness gap," between their private success and their public gloom and fear for the future of the country and planet:

Their homes are bigger. They own more cars. They feel more affluent. In a segmented nation, they have built lifestyle niches for themselves where they feel optimistic and fulfilled.

But they also feel that their neighborhood happiness is threatened by global problems that are beyond their power to control: terrorism, rising health care costs, looming public debt, illegal immigration, global warming and the rise of China and India. They regard these looming problems the way people used to think about crime — as alien intrusions into their private tranquility. And government seems to be doing nothing about them...

If one were to advise a candidate about the happiness gap, you’d say: first, don’t try to be inspiring or rely on the pure power of authenticity. In these cynical days, voters are not interested in uplift.

Second, don’t propose any program that will interfere with the way voters are currently organizing their lives. They don’t want you there.

...In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt could launch the New Deal because voters wanted to change the country and their own lives. But today, people want the government to change so their own lives can stay the same. Voters don’t want to be transformed; they want to be defended.

Of course, the main substantive problem with this argument is that we cannot effectively address any of the problems he cites without changing our lives. Our lives are unsustainable, particularly in suburban America, and no government program or un-intrusive technofix will change that. What Brooks is saying is that the only way to represent us is to lie to us.

I think these are the rhetorical trenches to which the US conservative movement is retreating, after having witnessed the wholesale collapse of it's denialist environmental politics. We need to note the tactics (and the ostrich-with-a-hole appeal) of this rhetoric.

And we need to note our secret weapon here, which is that we offer a better future. The conservative future -- today's sprawl, with some non-intrusive government spending and some private responsibility -- is a recipe for a catastrophic collision with ecological reality. Perhaps as much to the point, today's sprawl is lousy at delivering the happiness, the meaning, the health and the security that most people seek.

A sustainable future, done right, will be much better at delivering the things most people want: real wealth, real security, community and connection, health and time to enjoy it. But we need to start imagining it, and iterating it, and demonstrating it and selling it.

The frame Brooks creates here (and you can expect to meet it again and again) is this: there is only one choice, and that's between doing nothing to upset the applecart and doing the wrong thing. We know better, and we need to show people that the choice, in reality, is quite different: a bright green future, or disaster. There is no defense without transformation.

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Last Thursday, Maureen Dowd was speaking at Harvard and I took the opportunity to ask her about runaway climate change and peak oil. Her response was that George W. Bush made America green - in reaction to his black or brown policies. Evidently, she was happy with that response as I heard she repeated it at the dinner after the public event.

The next day I took the opportunity to ask Dana Priest, a national security reporter for the Washington Post who broke the Walter Reed hospital and black prisons stories, whether anyone in the national security establishment is looking at climate change and peak oil. She responded by telling me to email the environmental reporter. I laughed.

None of these people have a clue. They are fat and happy and think that the gravy train has no caboose, will never end. When the crunch comes, they will be stampeding towards any possible technical solution they can pin their hopes on, a headlong rush to nukes and "clean coal" will be the result. Efficiency, conservation, sacrifice will be far down their list and solar will always be the technology of the future.

This is why I say that Solar IS Civil Defense. Start small with a solar LED flashlight like the BogoLight which also charges standard AA batteries. You can buy one for $25 and they'll send a second one to someone in the developing world as part of the deal. Security for you and your family in case of emergency and electric light for a family that may have never had it, a tiny action that may just be a blow against the impulse to terrorism. Solar as civil defense and an anti-terror tactic. That should be something reasonable people (which excludes Brooks and his ilk as they are not really reasonable people).

Posted by: gmoke on 1 Nov 07

Alex, don't waste your time or energy on reactionaries - especially from the Bloviator Class.

Posted by: David Foley on 1 Nov 07

Actually, Alex, despite the sensibilities of you and I, the polls Brooks is citing would seem to indicate that most voters are not unhappy at all with sprawl, and I'm afraid that railing specifically against sprawl will only play into the hands of the shameless liars and deniers.

The good news is that I think this is a generational thing, which will largely solve itself, given some time. I know we don't appear to have a lot of time, but might I suggest a slightly different approach, anyway?

1) Propose to halt sprawl, without trying to go so far as rolling it back, which I think people will be more comfortable with. Don't threaten to uproot older voters.

2) Make it clear that the price of maintaining the current level of sprawl will be some pretty substantial capital investments, either public or private or in some combination, in order to convert our transportation systems to sustainable energy. The older voters out in the suburbs actually do, to a very large extent, have the money to pay for that, if they can just be reassured that they will be getting their money's worth. And halting sprawl should help them recoup at least some of these capital costs through bolstered property values.

Posted by: sedicious on 2 Nov 07

David Brooks does not represent the future of conservativism. Blueprint for a Green Economy does.

Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 2 Nov 07

I reluctantly admit that my husband and I are among the class of folk who live (by choice) in the suburbs (referred to as 'sprawl'). Reluctantly, because although we live there, and chose to do so in order to raise a relatively happy family, we are not ignorant about the issues of climate change nor unwilling to address them.

I don't feel that we can just rid ourselves of our large suburban home and move to the city, as we are nearing retirement and a small city home would cost more than we could get for our large one 20 miles from Seattle. And I like my garden, and the forest trees visible all around use...and the beauty of Mt. Rainier nearby. These are beautiful things.

Instead, we are trying to make nearly every other aspect of our lives as green as possible. They are small things, but hopefully will add up to something that counts.

I bought 10 copies of Al Gore's movie, and distributed to friends and family who are not green-minded.

We have installed all dual-flush low capacity toilets and low flow showerheads throughout the home.

We have exchanged every incandescent light bulb in our home with CFL bulbs.

We have caulked our windows to reduce heat loss.

We will soon install a hot water recirculating pump to reduce the amount of cold water that goes down the drain while waiting for the hot water.

We are exploring solar energy panels for our home.

We are about to buy a Smart car (or some other efficient vehicle) to reduce our emissions.

We've been commuting to our jobs in Tacoma (10 miles from home) together for years -- no single person trips for us!

We are as concerned as everyone else is by the specter of the changes coming, but we are trying to do our part. Perhaps one of our best contributions is the fact that our children are extremely green-minded, and willing to do whatever it takes themselves to make societal change possible.

We suburbanites are not all close-minded, insulated, unconcerned troglodytes with no social conscience. Some of us just don't want to move into city condos at twice the price -- we'd rather try to adapt our current homes to the issues of climate crisis.

Posted by: Sharon Hultman on 2 Nov 07

The quoted article makes a pretty disgraceful simplification of two already reductive pieces of information. Essentially he counters the 65% overall satisfaction of people with their personal lives with their dissatisfaction with the state of the union and concludes:

"On the one hand, it means voters are desperate for change. On the other hand, they don’t want a change that will upset the lives they have built for themselves."

He then conjures wild-eyed assumptions which he proceeds to throw into the inscrutable void between these two statistics, and wrongfully characterises voters with statements such as:

"They want a federal government that will focus on a few macro threats — terrorism, health care costs, energy, entitlement debt and immigration — and stay out of the intimate realms of life."

Before concluding:

"... don’t propose any program that will interfere with the way voters are currently organizing their lives. They don’t want you there."

There are a few things that bother me about this article (Brooks', not the one I'm commenting on). Summarily, he could be accused of both lacking imagination in some respects and imagining too pessimistically in others. Firstly, in his conclusion that voters will tolerate no intrusion on their personal lives, he ignores the possibility that people will accept change if it can be demonstrated that these changes will improve the overall state of the union. Like Alex says, the 'personal lives' of a nation's people are essentially inseparable from the state of the nation itself; to conclude that politicians should resolve to alleviate a nation's threats without asking people to change their personal lives is to promote a false dichotomy, while promoting the kind of duplicity that has led to voter distrust in the first place.

How does this crap get published, in a reputable newspaper no less? I'm disturbed by the idea that people might read what he wrote and swallow it wholesale, and the possibility that his ideas may self-perpetuate through his readership.

Posted by: Charlie Yonder on 2 Nov 07

I certainly recognize unsustainable practices all around us, but I deplore effigy-building, even when that effigy is "imagine your worst suburban nightmare."

Too often that sort of thing caters to the irrational, and the emotional. I mean, we know that an urban sushi eater does more to destroy the planet than a suburban gardener / locovore.

So why then does the environmental community waste so much time hating the place and not the practice? I think it has to be an in-group value and an identity token at this point. Suburbs are bad because (a) everyone knows they are bad, (b) we can easily visualize unsustainable practices there, where they might be hidden in a city lifestyle, and (c) "we" don't live there.

I think, to be positive, that WorldChanging could do a good bit on what suburbs could become (and probably are becoming even now). What's wrong with a mesh-village concept? The suburban street of my youth had more avocados and vegetables than anyone could eat. I know now that some people keep chickens. Is this our effigy?

All you need to do is green the commute, and WorldChanging should certainly know how to do that.

Posted by: odograph on 3 Nov 07

"Too often that sort of thing caters to the irrational, and the emotional. I mean, we know that an urban sushi eater does more to destroy the planet than a suburban gardener / locovore.

So why then does the environmental community waste so much time hating the place and not the practice?"

You make a valid point, but the fact is that suburbs have more built-in energy use per capita than cities--with a few exceptions. They are more spread out and people live in larger homes, meaning more energy must be spent to get goods and services out to them or to transport people to and from them. Someone who eats sushi in a city has less of an impact than someone who eats sushi in a suburb. It's a question of changing the built environment vs. changing people themselves. The built environment is easier to start with.

"I think, to be positive, that WorldChanging could do a good bit on what suburbs could become (and probably are becoming even now). What's wrong with a mesh-village concept?"

Suburbs are innovation dead zones--they import innovations but rarely ever create them. New types of work are usually originated in cities and then exported out to suburbs and rural areas. If we're going to be radically changing the way we live over the next few generations, cities must be the center of that change. This, imo, is why suburbs should not be given much consideration right now. They are not the source of our solutions. However, once those solutions begin developing more fully, the suburbs will certainly play a role.

Posted by: Bolo on 5 Nov 07

Heh, thanks for the reply Bolo, but I'm not sure how far you researched that "dead zone" thing.

Pasadena, California, is in my book a suburb. It is part of the sprawl, with single-family lot homes.

I notice that Path to Freedom calls themselves "urban", "sandwiched between two freeways" ... but 1/5 of an acre it is within the scope of many a suburban gardener.

And jeez, what about gardeners the suburbs? So easy to sneer from an apartment in the (real) urban.

Posted by: odograph on 5 Nov 07



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