Downsize Nation: Welcome to the New, Smaller American Dream
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Editor's Note: Vision Quest: In these trying times of frustration and confusion, of Tea Party Right Wing ascendance, and too much Obama and Democratic party impotence and failure of the imagination, let's pause. It is again the moment to step back, stimulate the imagination, rethink, and bring together the best ideas, models, and blueprints for change, especially the ones that can work. The world many of us aspire to, which seemed much closer just two short years ago, is again rapidly disappearing from view. But let's not let it. Let's keep the ideas, vision, and alternatives in play, and in discussion. Because it seems clear we need some fresh thinking. Most of those folks inside the Beltway, along with the tens of thousands of lobbyists all with their special agendas, which have almost nothing to do with what is good for us, seem to have a hard time imagining things much different than they are used to day after day. After all, they all do quite well that way. But for the rest of us, that won't work. AlterNet is resurfacing this excellent article by Enviro editor Tara Lohan for the new year.
It's been two years since 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by a frenzied crowd of Black Friday shoppers at a Long Island Walmart. The stampede is a twisted symbol of what's become of the American Dream: We'll apparently stop at nothing in the quest for more stuff.
But that wasn't the holy grail that James Truslow Adams had in mind when he first coined the phrase "American Dream" in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. Instead he believed in "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone ... It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
Adams wrote that as the Great Depression was beginning to swallow many Americans' dreams -- and their fortunes. Perhaps that time of financial instability helped him to see something beyond just the grasping for wealth. As Americans today are trying to claw their way out of our worst economic rout since the days of Adams, have we gained any similar insight?
The end of the second World War ignited the spark of our consumer culture -- one that reached a conflagration by the 1980s as spending outpaced the median income and has ended, for many, in catastrophe in recent years. As heartbreaking as the job losses and foreclosures are, there is also a bright side to the downward economy -- Americans are beginning to see some value in the "less is more" adage.
The era of "bigger is better" has brought us the infamous McMansion, which Wikipedia defines as, "a pejorative term for large new houses which are judged as pretentious, tasteless, or badly designed for their neighborhood." They could otherwise be likened to the all-you-can-eat buffets of the building world. Or as Kim Derby writes for EcoSalon, they are "Poorly built and inauthentic, most look like they belong on a movie set because their facades are just that, a facade."
Once ubiquitous on the suburban skyline, the days for McMansions may now be numbered, much like the way the mammoth Hummer has been pushed toward extinction.
Cindy Perman writes that the median home size has shrunk from 2,300 square feet in 2007 to 2,100 today. That may not seem like a huge jump, especially considering the average home size in the U.S. in the 1950s was 983 square feet, but the downward decline is a first in modern times and compared to the building frenzy that produced 10,000 square foot McMansions, it's definitely a step in the right direction. After all, the average family size has actually shrunk from 3.8 people in the '50s to 2.6 people today.