There is an ad I saw at the movies. A man wakes up, presses the snooze button, gets up late and arrives at a work meeting disheveled and disorganized. All his colleagues frown.
Cut to the scene replayed. The alarm goes off. The man scoffs down a Pepsi. He jumps out of bed, puts on a great suit, runs to the office, and makes a stellar presentation. All his colleagues clap and slap on the back and tell him how great he is.
What is Pepsi selling?
At first, it look like success, and that's part of it. But the real thing getting sold is social approval. Friends. Companionship. Love. Drink a Pepsi, you'll be successful, you'll get friends.
You see, even Pepsi knows what we really want. And it ain't sugar water in an aluminum can. That's the con. That we can buy it from a corporation and put it in our fridge. Connection. Friendship.
So here's the bad news. As our society is structured, buying Pepsi will not buy us friendship, but neither will not buying Pepsi. Watching too much TV, the science shows, stands in the way of friendship, but turning the TV off will not instantly attract a hundred pals.
I certainly don't advocate forcing people's clenched fingers from around their Pepsi cans and TV remotes. I'm certainly not saying that what meaning and satisfaction people are able to eke out of their existence should be taken away.
But I do believe this: we could structure our society in such a way that we are less dependent on our meaning-imbued Pepsi and TV for happiness. If we planned our cities and communities in ways that people could more easily interact and form meaningful bonds, people may put down their remotes and their Pepsi cans because they've found something better.
I want something better. For myself as much as anyone else. I don't want more. I want better. I don't want a life of snacks, I want hearty meals. I am simply saying that we can change things in a way that will allow our spirits to feast on great food instead of corn syrup substitutes.
The reason Pepsi can perpetrate a con like that commercial, the reason we turn to the TV is because products with social meaning attached and television with people walking around on the screen are surrogates for connectedness to actual people. And yes, sometimes a surrogate is better than nothing.
That Americans are alienated and lonely is incontrovertible. Pepsi counts on it in that commercial. That's, in part, why we watch 4.5 hours of TV a day on average. Meanwhile, that suburban sprawl is largely responsible for the loneliness is also incontrovertible.
And that the sprawl means that we can't share resources like transportation and heating is a major contributor to our resource use.
Europeans who live closer together in villages instead of suburbs and who travel together on public transit instead of alone in cars emit half the per capita greenhouse gas of Americans. Happiness indexes also show that they are more content with their lives.
So how about this? How about we plan our communities to be social and business hubs that people can walk to and from--cars unrequired--and participate in in meaningful way? How about we attach these hubs by public transportation? How about we build our communities in ways that both help people feel less alienated and let them lead less resource intensive lives?
It's not as pie in the sky as it sounds. Here, by the way, is a Natural Resources Defense Council action plan for achieving this kind of "smart growth:"
- Require Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to offer Location Efficient Mortgages throughout the country to reward those who build and buy homes located near public transit, and to offer dollar-for-dollar trade-offs between lower transportation costs and higher housing costs.
- Promote commuter choice with a tax-free benefit for employees who carpool, use transit, bike to work, or telecommute comparable to that provided in the form of free parking.
- Cut the red tape and streamline financing for public transportation projects that significantly increase mobility of commuters and other public-transportation-dependent populations and promote economic development in urban "transit-oriented development zones."
- Promote economic development in areas with existing access to mass transit through urban "transit-oriented development zones."
- Direct federal agencies to revise their planning models so that they account for the financial and air quality benefits of smart growth.