American Misanthrope?

This one’s kinda icky (and hopefully way off base), but I think it’s a question at least worth asking and exploring: is Americanism misanthropic? I’m not asking whether all Americans are misanthropes, but whether certain American values and lifestyles, the ones that distinguish the prevailing culture of the United States from that in other countries, suggest a dislike of other human beings. Digging that hole a bit deeper, aren’t I? Let me put this in context.

In my last post (Altstadt Reverie) I described a daydream I had of living in (an admittedly idealized version of) Freiburg’s old city district and asked how such a place might become the norm in the United States. A more appropriate question to begin the inquiry with, perhaps, is why doesn’t America instinctively build urban areas like Freiburg’s Altstadt in the first place? I know the usual suspects: our relative youth as a nation, the role of the auto and freeways, the physical vastness of our country, etc., etc. But we chose suburbia. We followed our instincts and they led us here. Why? A disturbing possibility that keeps popping up is that people who live in places like Freiburg simply like their fellow human beings more than people who live in places like America.

Yes, I know that ‘places like America’ is an enormous generalization. Forgive that for a moment and consider the characteristic attributes of the American built realm: large, detached, single-family homes on large lots surrounded by fences; an astonishing reliance on the automobile and the resulting stigmatization of transit and non-motorized transport; the isolation caused by Euclidean zoning; the frequent privileging of private space over public; extremely low-density settlement relative to the rest of the industrial world, even in most of our cities. Americans as a whole seem to prefer to live apart from one another, sharing as little and interacting as infrequently as they can manage.

Is this the American Dream: get yours? Make a fortune so you can retire from society and live out the rest of your days as the king of your castle? I hope not. The United States can be an incredible place for a person to live, so why doesn’t it tend to be as good for people. Our social services, from education to housing to healthcare, range from middling to wretched to nonexistent. Our personal goals rarely include others. The notion of community is often belittled as nostalgic and anachronistic. Our built environments (whether suburbia or skyscrapers – it’s easy to live anonymously in either) and prevailing lifestyles (endless work-weeks and long commutes alone in our cars) suggest the presence of mass social disorders.

For the record, and to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, I’m not advocating socialism, or any ism for that matter. Isms, in my opinion, are not good. I’m advocating for people. I’m advocating for communities of people who simultaneously consider their own needs and the needs of their neighbors, of the community-at-large. Of course, neither Freiburg nor any other European city is populated by smiling, singing, selfless members of the lollipop guild, nor do I think such a place would be very interesting if it did exist. But swing the pendulum the other way, take individuality to its extreme, where the me denies the we, and it begins to look an awful lot like misanthropy. Is this the essence of Americanism? Its distinguishing feature? The rule of me and the absence of we?

And, more importantly, will this strain of American misanthropy hinder or even prevent our ever achieving a sustainable way of life? Sustainable not only for ourselves but for the global ecosystem of which we are part?

Obviously, an ever expanding worldwide population is unsustainable, so let’s assume that somehow human population stabilizes. Zero population growth, zero loss. Now the question becomes one of organization: what patterns of settlement are sustainable? Compact, human-scale, urban environments more efficiently utilize energy and natural resources than do sub- or exurban settlements, and they are better suited to community-building and street life than skyscraper superblocks.

But life in compact, medium-density (around 15 people per acre), urban environments isn’t particularly attractive to people who don’t like other people. Compact urban living requires cooperation, cohabitation, concession. The we sometimes intrudes on the me, no doubt about it. Proponents say it is that very interplay of we and me that makes such living attractive and enjoyable. Opponents say they want their privacy, their space. They don’t want to share the road with other drivers, they don’t want to wait on trains or buses. They don’t want to wait in lines. They want complete, unfettered freedom of movement and authority over their space.

Progress has happened, is happening. Sprawl has become something of a four-letter word. People are moving back into the city, downtowns are revitalizing. Environmental stewardship is slowly catching on. Our definition of responsibility is broadening. So I should be encouraged, right?

Look, I think millions of Americans get it. They understand the issues we’re facing and are willing to be part of the solution. But I’m concerned that our country, our constitution, our government, our very infrastructure, has been shaped too much by me and not enough by we. Until a balance between them is achieved my Altstadt reverie will remain just that.

Am I completely off base with this? Is there a key component I’m missing? If not, how do we tackle the situation? How do we retain our identity as Americans and still embrace sustainable practices in the areas that matter most: global population, the built environment, transportation, and food production?

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