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David Brooks wrote today in the Times about the American Dream, as he often does. He was summarizing the results from a Pew survey asking “where Americans would like to live and what sort of lifestyle they would like to have.”

The first thing they found is that even in dark times, Americans are still looking over the next horizon. Nearly half of those surveyed said they would rather live in a different type of community from the one they are living in at present.

In short, Americans may indeed be gloomy and hunkered down. But they’re still Americans. They are still drawn to virgin ground, still restless against limits.

Interested choice of words by Brooks. I doubt the report used “hunkered down, maybe “restless.” I don’t know how far back or deep the unwillingness to recognize limits goes, but it is a major contributor to present unsustainability. The recent election of a black President is often invoked as evidence that anything can happen in the United States. This may be true in the social or political world, but it is certainly not in the physical world. We are bumping up against limits that cannot be supervened by hard work, will power, or choice. There is only so much space on Earth for growing food and only so much atmospheric capacity for absorbing our greenhouse gases and so on. Restlessness is a sure sign of denial in this sense.
He continues further down in his column:

If you jumble together the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009. These are places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage — filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle.

These are places (except for Orlando) where spectacular natural scenery is visible from medium-density residential neighborhoods, where the boundary between suburb and city is hard to detect. These are places with loose social structures and relative social equality, without the Ivy League status system of the Northeast or the star structure of L.A. These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places. They offer at least the promise of friendlier neighborhoods, slower lifestyles and service-sector employment. They are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl. They are not, except for Seattle, especially ideological, blue or red.

They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.

Somehow this picture of natural beauty does not produce the expected image of a world where sustainability has much of a chance to appear. This is the kind of life style that is ephemeral and empty, and is the heart and soul of consumerism. Sporting friendlier neighborhoods and slower lifestyles (than what is not offered in the piece; I presume crowed urban centers), but noting dependence on cars raises for me the question, “how friendlier are these cities?” And does the survey represent all of America? The closing comments left me with a completely opposite sense to what I read into Brooks’ words.

The folks at Pew asked one other interesting question: Would you rather live in a community with a McDonald’s or a Starbucks? McDonald’s won, of course, but by a surprisingly small margin: 43 percent to 35 percent. And that, too, captures the incorrigible nature of American culture, a culture slowly refining itself through espresso but still in love with the drive-thru.

The results may not satisfy those who dream of Holland, but there’s one other impressive result from the Pew survey. Americans may be gloomy and afraid, but they still have a clear vision of the good life. That’s one commodity never in short supply.

I do not find the question about preferring MacDonald’s or Starbucks the least bit interesting. To associate this finding with the “good life” in the next paragraph is the essence of banality. How can any culture that is “refining itself through espresso” ever rediscover what is means to truly flourish? Maybe Brooks had his journalistic tongue in his cheek, but I don’t think so. This verse from a poem by Rebecca Campbell, angrier than this column merits, nonetheless asks a critical question left unwritten in this column.

Who will tell the people
That the culture they import
Of fast food chains and fighter planes
Fertile customs will abort.
The glamor that they clamor for
Is the habit of the whores
Who sell their souls to meet sales goals
On a binge for ever more.

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