Monday, June 25, 2007

"Affluenza" and My Red State Adventure

"Dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of affluence develops the capacity to process boredom." Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

This Friday I drive down to Virginia for an eight-day visit with the parents and other family members, the first time I've been South since last Thanksgiving. Living in the petri dish that is New York City, I'm always struck by the rapidity of change in the landscape once one enters suburbia.

Sure, New York City changes quickly too: Business start and fail in rapid fire order and slowly but surely some of the institutions most often associated with the exurban milieu creep into the Manhattan landscape. We finally have Olive Garden, Hooters, Red Lobster, Outback and, I believe, Applebee's. Mind you, Manhattanites don't actually patronize these establishments; they were imported for the tourist trade. When scores of waddling visitors from Ohio or Texas are disgorged from their air-conditioned buses, they want to be pleasantly surprised by the realization that there will be no surprises. Rather than take a chance on New York's innumerable non-chain restaurants, tourists prefer the predictable. And after a full day of wandering around no more than a 10-block area from Times Square to Rockefeller Center, taking in the Empire State Building and Madame Tussuad's Wax Museum, they crave the homogeneity that defines their non-vacation lives.

Frankly, it's this homogeneity that scares me a little when I leave New York. Between the cretinization of the media and the paralyzing sameness of our consumer culture, it's not surprising that so many Americans, experiencing something of an existential meltdown, have either run shrieking into the arms of the religious right or immersed themselves fully in the orgiastic worship of the commodity.

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic defines the condition of "affluenza" in almost medical terms, as "a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." And 99.99% of Americans, myself included, suffer from this disease. My weird perspective on this problem is doubtless skewed by the often surreal nature of living in New York City. But when I drive into Virginia - indeed, when I confront the prospect of having to drive everywhere for everything - I just find the obsession with material gain altogether more tangible.

And this brings me back to that theme of rapid change, because I'm invariably shocked at the degree to which our farms, forests, and wetlands are bulldozed to make way for yet more "big box" retailers and strip malls. At least in New York City developers largely recycle and reuse the extant building stock. All too often in suburbia, this is not the case. For example, near my parents' home, there's a vacant Lowe's sitting not more than a mile from a brand new Lowe's, the newer site having been secured because it promised a bigger parking lot and greater square footage. The vacant Lowe's has been sitting for at least three years, and it's just one example among many in that area.

I love visiting my family . . . but I don't think I could live in that landscape of exit ramps, feeder roads and vast parking lots again. Conversely, my family - and most Americans - would never consent to live in Manhattan. Nevertheless, New York City has been cited as one of the "greenest" cities in the U.S., in part because of the "mixed use" of land by retail and residential entities and the propensity of residents to walk or take public transportation.

One of my plans for this visit to Virginia is a day of snapping photos of the worst examples of sprawl. Given the economic growth around my parents' home, examples will not be hard to find. I'll share the results here!

"The loudest sound in the land was the oink and grunt of private hoggishness;
this was the age of the slob." William V. Shannon, on life in the Eisenhower years

No comments: