Driving us back to the way we were

September 25, 2005

Livin’ large. It’s the American way. And the American crisis.

Consider: Since 1950 the American family has shrunk — but the National Association of Home Builders says the average size of a new house in the United States has more than doubled, from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,330 square feet today. Although 119 years old, the car remains very inefficient, with only 13 percent of its fuel energy reaching the wheels. And the average fuel economy of a new American car has actually fallen slightly from 1987 (22.1 miles per gallon) to today (21).

Oil is the great example of how Americans chafe at limits. We use 18 percent more oil than we did in 1973, the year of the first oil crunch. Yet new discoveries of oil are not growing as fast as our appetite. Waste much, want more.

Where’d this heedless appetite come from? From our roots. We’re a country suckled on 18th-century Enlightenment and mercantilist values. Our forebears saw the New World as a bottomless warehouse with infinite resources. That worldview, fresh when our founding documents were inked, has been branded in our collective identities ever since.

Somewhere, somehow, we simply don’t believe that our resources can ever run out. And the trouble is that we’ve built much of our country, our lifestyles and our sense of self around the notion of infinite supply. Your family lives in New York but you want to pursue the California Dream? No problem. Move and just jump on a plane a couple of times a year. We in America don’t have to make choices. Cheap oil fueled not just our coast-to-coast expansion but also our worship of individual choice.

Will Katrina-inspired pump prices last forever? Who knows? Experts disagree about how many “years of oil” we have left. But no matter how much oil we find, the fact remains: Our livin’ large will hasten the day we have to live smaller.

Oil may be the first resource to bring us face to face with finitude. And unless we can invent a way around our dependence on oil, we, with our SUV souls and Hummer hearts, idling with all windows up and the AC on, we (or if not we, our children) are going to have to change the way we live.

The big question is: Will we change not only how we live, but also who we are? One or more of the following could be in our future:

Smaller house and car

I won’t bore you with this one. You’ve heard it.

Transit goes public

All across the nation, we’ll have to get a lot better at this. And a lot better at using it. Think Tokyo, London.

Closer to work

The average American daily commute is between 17 and 25 miles between work and home. We have built our days, our roads, our very towns around the assumption that we can live far from where we work.

Someday soon, we won’t be able to do that. Someday soon, what once flung us apart will impel us closer.

Closer to one another

What, move away from the suburbs? Could be. Burbs are predicated on the perpetual availability of the car. Some of the founders of the suburbs, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, hailed the car as the great decentralizer of cities.

But if cars become sometime rather than all the time, centrifugal may become centripetal. We might move back to the centralized city, where goods and services — and work — are closer at hand. Burbs might redesign themselves to be more like cities: better public transit, greater density, better planning. Think of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s notion of “elegant density” — concentrating goods, services, and high-quality life in formerly neglected downtowns.

Our 20th-century move from cities to suburbs nourished a new social outlook. We liked living farther from our neighbors, a choice that has shadowed our politics, our landscape, everything about American life. If we move back closer, will the American spirit change again? The neighborly, white-picket-fence America of yore — which existed only for a scant couple of decades at the beginning of the 20th century — is gone forever, but a closer union might foster more personal and civic engagement. We might not bowl alone so much. Might not be a bad thing.

A family renaissance?

Many of us have grown up in families that disperse as time passes, all over the place. So we have relied on cheap travel to maintain family cohesion. Mom and Dad on one coast, sister on another, brother in Hawaii? It’s easy (right now) to see them wherever they are: Just get on a plane. Easy communication allows us to complete the illusion that our family members are “always there.”

That illusion will go away if gasoline becomes a gem. Families may change their patterns. As folks find it more and more expensive to travel far, they may reel in those distances. (That is, if they like one another.) If we know we won’t get to see our aging parents or our cousins or sibs very often, we may more frequently choose to live nearer. The virtual cohesion of cell phone and computer may not satisfy; we may seek physical cohesion.

Will a New American Tribalism result? Will resident families come to dominate certain regions? Or will the effect be more benign? Will the family make a comeback?

The temperate migration

Let’s say oil prices go Himalayan. That will affect the cost of all energy. We’ll start making different choices about how we shell out for power. We’ll have to.

Conventional heating and air-conditioning systems are by far the greediest of all power pigs. They account for more than half of the energy slurped up in an average U.S. house. So what if climate control, or “engineered air,” were less a part of our lives? What if we had to go back to letting the climate control us somewhat more?

You might see a migration away from extremes of heat and cold toward more temperate locales. And that could really change the way population is distributed.

The great U.S. migration to the Southwest and South — under way since 1960 — was greatly enabled by AC. In pre-AC days, Washington was a ghost town from June to September; today it bustles year-round with bipartisan incompetence. Houston and Atlanta would not have grown as rapidly as they have without AC. The Phoenix megalopolis would not have risen from Arizona.

With air engineering, climate hasn’t mattered so much — you could live pretty much where you wanted to live, heat up when cold, cool down when hot. What if that changes? Might we migrate in new directions, toward the most temperate cities? San Diego instead of Phoenix? Philadelphia instead of Boston or Houston? Charlotte, N.C., over Miami?

In these towns, the American skyline could well change. Many of the buildings that now define our horizons — the tract home, the glass skyscraper — were made possible by engineered air. Post- (or less)-AC, we may see different architectural forms — smaller, with thicker walls, much more natural ventilation, much less sealed-in glass.

Telecommuting goes legit.

Localization might be aided by the computer — all the technologies that allow people to stay at home and work. Somewhere between 34 million and 44 million of us already telecommute part of the time, of whom about 10 million to 11 million work formally from home full time. Work hours might change. In the hotter United States, we may well see a new institution: the American siesta. In extreme climes, both cold and hot, we may have to reshape school, work and vacation schedules around the seasons. Regional differences may grow.

And that’s where all this may be leading us: back to a more localized existence. If life ranges less far afield, might we not see more local food production? As trucking costs get closer to limousine costs, might local manufacturing return? The tomato from right down the block; the locally grown sneaker.

American identity often has assumed limitless horizons, wide-open futures. If gas becomes a gem, if centrifugal becomes centripetal, we’ll have to live with different assumptions — not less wonderful, but different. Fewer glass skyscrapers; fewer polyester clothes; less plastic everywhere. Instead of the cube farm, the home office. Instead of the big, dumb house, the modest, smart house. Instead of the world vacation, the family reunion. Instead of the car, the bike.

I don’t know whether “different” will always mean “better.” But it could still mean “good.” Robert Lowell once wrote of American life as a “savage servility” that “slides by on grease.” Perhaps, with less grease around, we may become a little less servile, a little less savage.

JOHN TIMPANE (jt@phillynews.com) is the commentary-page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote this article for Perspective.

Tags: Consumption & Demand, Culture & Behavior, Education, Fossil Fuels, Oil