Music suggestion: All This and More, The Dead Boys
Drink suggestion: Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne
Fair warning: my grandfather was an Irish preacher and has been clearly channeled in this postcard. If you don’t want a sermon, skip it.
I am posting a short card this week, as I am on the road and spending time with family in San Francisco. It is eye opening to visit the US after months away. Stepping off a plane, the striking impression is one of dimension. We live at 4/3 scale. Large people driving big cars to huge homes. We shop in warehouses, drink in gallons (the 20 oz. Big Gulp has graduated to the 44 oz. Super Gulp, the 64 oz. Double Gulp, and now the truly staggering 128 oz. Team Gulp), and drive in urban tanks that evoke testosterone-driven power and adventure (Ram, Hummer, Excursion). For foreigners who shop at local farmers markets, sip 1 oz. espressos, and squeeze into tin cans with names reflecting small size and economy (Ecomotive, Smart, Mini) it can be overwhelming. To truly appreciate the heft of our culture, spend a few months elsewhere, anywhere.
I am no social anthropologist, but the desire to define ourselves through the things we acquire seems almost universal. We don’t have a monopoly on materialism in America, we just work harder at it, are prouder of it. In fact, we are the world’s pornographers of consumption, in my opinion, shameless of our accumulation of toys and accessories whose true redeemable value is self-aggrandizement. The grand monuments we build to ourselves, and curious we cram into them, validate the little lies we repeat about our self-importance.
I struggle to exorcise this fetish myself and am a hypocrite to preach otherwise. All things equal, I prefer bigger to smaller, more to less, faster to slower. I lived in a comfortable 2,000 sq. ft. home in San Francisco. Yet, every time I walked through the neighboring upscale community of St. Francis Woods, I imagined the beautiful life in one of those Mediterranean style mansions. I still miss my Mercedes sedan, and now carless look enviously at the new models gliding past. Our modest apartment in France has a compact fridge that holds perhaps a 2 days’ supply of groceries, a small clothes washer tucked under the kitchen counter, and no room for a dryer or dishwasher. Do I do miss my American comforts? Absolutely, but I also appreciate that the low-maintenance, nimble lifestyle for which I’ve traded these accumulations away is permitting a far richer experience. We do become slaves to our possessions, which limits our options and bounds the possibilities for what comes next.
Maslow famously portrayed the hierarchy of human needs in his pyramid, and we can witness its ascent now by the emerging middle classes in China and other high-growth economies. Regrettably, the attainment of self-actualization – of realizing one’s full potential – is most commonly viewed through the American lens of buying bigger, faster, more lavish stuff; an outward display of prosperity, not personal development. Heft is our most pervasive export, and our newly-prosperous neighbors who covet the American lifestyle are sucking up more oil, eating more beef, driving more cars, building bigger homes, and on and on, to live the image that we have so magnificently framed over the past 50 years. This ballooning demand is sending shivers down the backs of climate scientists and natural resource managers.
To believe that the pursuit of pleasure through materialism will diminish, that the tendency to establish one’s caste through the possession of bigger, faster stuff than can be attained by the lower castes who mow our lawns and wait our tables, is as foolish as imagining an end to pornography. But we don’t flaunt our indulgence in porno (Charlie Sheen excepted). Imagine a world in which giddy, gratuitous purchases of superfluous stuff, mostly done to show friends and neighbors that we are loaded enough (hence, deserving enough) to purchase this stuff, carried the same stigma as a download of Debbie Does Dallas. It might not stop us from doing it, but we certainly wouldn’t boast about it.
What about American exceptionalism? Are we still capable of great things? Could it extend to fresh thinking about global responsibility and how one flourishes in a new sustainable manner? In an era of rising temperatures, falling fish stocks, dwindling water resources, and the spread of the McWestern diet (and corresponding diabetes and heart disease, fat bottoms and big bellies), is it possible that we could once again lead by example? Churchill observed, “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” What do you think?