Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Paradigm shift or incremental change?

One argument that has arisen among my co-workers and I lately addresses the issue of human behavior and how to get people to do things that are "good" for them. The resulting discussions have produced some rather daunting conclusions about our society, some which are controversial, others which have been long obvious but somewhat mind-bending when one tries to take a stab at how to change things. Namely, the inefficiency and waste of some modes of living, which is a large part of the problem with how we live today, as I see it, and will be the subject of my rant of the day, where I explore whether we should proceed to address our problems moderately with changes in zoning laws and regulations on greenhouse gas emissions or whether we should just start setting fire to McMansions (kidding, kidding!). What I mean to say is, does America need a cultural shift where our whole paradigm for success is redefined or at the very least moderated so that people don't feel they need to "live large"--which would involve some sort of attempt at trying to influence human behavior, or do we just need to chip away at the problems. Or both? How do "paradigm shifts" happen anyway?

I don't really know, so maybe I'll just rant for now about what went through my mind upon a recent visit through Farifax County. Some people use too many resources. The reason I hated Hollywood's collective global warming lecture at this year's Oscars is because the lifestyle of those privileged people of inconceivable wealth are much more consumptive than the rest of us. This culture is promoted to the rest of us by magazines, tabloids, and music videos that idealize big cars, fancy (though often gaudy) homes, and general profligate living. I don't know how to change that immediately unless some of what people value changes and some of what the media prioritizes changes. Daunting, right?

Furthermore, the ambitions of developers and automakers to ever-expand their business growth has hijacked policy making for many years. The resulting communities are by virtue of their design promoting wasteful habits, like driving to a nearby store that may only be a few blocks away because sidewalks don't exist and there are only arterial (not artillery) roads. Accompanying this sprawl is an aesthetic discordance, between the noise pollution of cars and trucks, the bland, gaudy excess of the homes, and that proliferation of one of the ugliest sights created by humanity--though today one of the most necessary: the parking lot.
A drive through parts of Fairfax County is case in point of the increasing decadence of many well-heeled people who build or buy sprawling mansions in gaudy Italianate, French Maison, or Georgian style. Not too far away at Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington, one can marvel at the (relatively) small domicile of one of Virginia's then-wealthiest men. How did we go from that to this:

I don't know, perhaps I'm being too aphoristic didactic and condescending. I guess I just don't feel like I need twin Sub Zs, vacation homes, elaborate sculptures in my front yard, and 30 feet ceilings. (P.S., through "researching" this article, I came across a pretty funny website called LA Curbed, which has a McMansions archive that details the real estate listings in that most ostentatious part of the country).


Ben said...

Welcome back elaine!!! Good article. By the way, don't you mean artery/arterial roads?

Elaine said...

Haha, "artillery"--whoops, you're totally right, Ben. I actually don't think when I write. Thanks :-) And thanks for weathering my writers block.

Chris said...

Great post Elaine. Towns are more than happy to allow such zoning because it increases the tax base. The city of Lakewood, OH in 2002, in the hopes of turning a middle-class neighborhood into a commercial district with luxury condos changed their statutes so that any house without 3 bedrooms, an attached 2-car garage, and 2 bathrooms could be declared "blighted" and thus eligible for eminent domain takings. The city lost a referendum on the project by 39 votes. Changing the culture has to come from the bottom-up because the government will not effect such change.

Elaine said...

Thanks Chris, and lucky me to have a newly-minted eminent domain expert as a friend.

Chris said...

Heh...I also just hate the tackiness of modern developments. I went to go see an apartment in "garden-style" complex in Arlington last week that was built in 2001 and it looked like crap - after 6 six years!!

I think a lot of the people who own those McMansions though are going to go through a world of hurt with the real estate market beginning to plummet - think dotcom bust - and then we'll await the next fad...perhaps it'll be carbon offsets.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I too was wondering when some of these huge mansions will be subdivided into apartments, as happened in earlier eras.

Cities are surprisingly green! See "Green Manhattan" by David Owen, http://www.walkablestreets.com/manhattan.htm

I also read recently, in an article on small homes, that developers build larger because it's a way of maximizing profit with minimal input (into quality features).

Elaine said...

Wow, I never thought of that--McMansions divided into apartments. Well, the housing bust may just bear that out, though it looks like the wealthy are not being touched by it so far so I guess the McMansions in those outer burbs will be the ones most touched by the subprime troubles.

That David Owen article is fascinating yet believable. Cars are such energy wasters yet such necessities in so many parts of this country. The book Crabgrass Frontier provides a great explication of why this didn't have to be so, why the assumption that the United States was destined to be sprawlland simply because we had a "frontier" was little related to the push for a car culture with roads everywhere. Instead, that was all attributable to the influence of the auto industry and suburban developers. Thanks guys!