Archive for March, 2011

Taking the Lawn into Our Own Hands

Let's see... grass clippings or fresh strawberries?

What’s the opposite of a suicide bomber?  Maybe a community gardening activist – like a Green Guerilla — lobbing a benign grenade filled with seeds and fertilizer onto a vacant lot. The mission of the New York City-based Green Guerillas is to “help people turn vacant, rubble strewn lots into vibrant community gardens that serve as outdoor environmental, educational and cultural centers.” About 25 years ago I became a green guerilla in my own yard, and what I learned along the way changed my life.

Growing vegetables and fruits taught me the value of filling time with something that feels right. I’d spend Saturday planting vegetables and digging a new plot in the crazy quilt I called a garden, then Sunday morning, I’d just want to do more of the same. Getting so much exercise and good food taught me what it felt like to feel great, and I wanted more of that feeling. (My then-wife customized a T-shirt for me that read “Mr. Vigor,” which I wore proudly as I ate organic broccoli or battled slugs and hailstones.)

I learned what a passion is about – something you did whether or not it seemed like a good idea to others. I noticed, though, that people would tour my little garden and comment on how much work it must be; then next year, they’d call with questions about how to start their own gardens. It’s not that we gardeners are trying to be “old-fashioned” or unsocial with our time, more that we are reviving a skill we can take with us into the future – a pastime that doesn’t cost money, but saves it, also delivering wide-ranging health and environmental benefits. If I eat a sweet pepper or a handful of raspberries as I work, I can count on an energy boost that lasts hours, because that food is still charged with life as I’m eating it. Rather than traveling an average 2,000 miles to my mouth, it’s more like two feet. The fuel savings are huge. The food that comes from my garden also doesn’t require pesticides, but rather skill – again, a great energy-saver and environmental bonus. Gardens create habitats; absorb storm water to reduce flooding; and give us something to take care of – a basic, primordial human need.

When we take the risk of planting a seed or a tree, we step right into the flow of nature. We become part of a daring experiment in which the seed is hope and the tomato is joy – juicy, flavorful joy. Ironically, life’s mysteries become more manageable as the garden presents greater challenges. Between 2008 and 2009, the percentage of Americans who risk time and energy to grow fruits, herbs, and vegetables increased by 19 percent, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive. (And the previous year was also up by 10 percent.)  Picture 43 million households putting off mowing the lawn to instead hoe rows of bell peppers and strawberries. Why the increased interest?  58 percent of U.S. gardeners say they want better tasting food, and about half want to make sure it’s healthier, and safer. In today’s economy, 54 percent also want to save money on their grocery bills. One gardening family tallied up the value of last year’s yield, and subtracted expenses. “If we consider that our out-of-pocket costs were $282 and the total value generated was $2,431, that means we had a return on investment of 862 percent,” says Maine resident Roger Doiron.

Lawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland, and more than half of those herbicides and fertilizers are wasted, washing into our rivers, lakes, and streams. The luxurious power mowers that now dominate our neighborhoods emit more air pollution in an hour than a 1990s-vintage car emits in 8 hours or 350 miles – and as much noise as a jackhammer.  Deciding which lawnmower or herbicide to choose becomes irrelevant and unnecessary if you decide to un-plant your lawn and plant a garden instead.

From my own perspective, there are many benefits and few disadvantages in converting lawns – at least partially – into edible landscapes. For the past ten years, my front lawn has been a lush, fragrant groundcover of strawberry plants; I really haven’t noticed a downside to this variation on an American theme. Probably the greatest benefit is watching through my kitchen window as neighborhood kids sneak into my yard and steal strawberries, an adventure they may remember years from now. Whatever berries the kids overlook, the birds get, but there’s another boxed-in strawberry patch out in the garden, so who cares?  I feel great knowing I’ve taken one small square out of the 23 million-acre green quilt that blankets America. Americans pay $30 billion a year to maintain that quilt, an average per-lawn expense of about $500. As America’s largest single crop, the lawn consumes about 270 billion gallons of water each week, enough to instead water 81 million acres of organic vegetables.

Callout Title
In the garden, life’s struggles, snags and snafus decompose into rich, black earth.

I looked at economist Manfred Max-Neef’s list of human needs the other day, which reminded me that the “food-miles” of a given backyard vegetable can better be measured in feet; that the best way to know if your food is safe is to grow it yourself; and that gardening is a challenging sport you can eat. If what we truly value in life are subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom, gardening delivers about 100%. So when we take the lawn into our own hands, we don’t have to feel like we’re in a hurry, since just about everything we genuinely need is already provided, if we slow down and harvest both the food and the satisfaction. Gardening is not an add-on activity, but a possible replacement for trips to the mall, staying late at the office, watching one more TV crime show, or aimlessly surfing the web.

In the book, The Zen of Gardening, I wrote, “In the garden, life’s struggles, snags and snafus decompose into rich, black earth. I see and feel things happening – things that are real, not just white-knuckle policies and commercial blabber. As I plant seedlings or hoe a sturdy crop of basil, I don’t think about operators who are “currently busy helping other customers.”  I can touch, smell, see, and taste where I live; I know about Golden, Colorado partly by making horticultural deals with it.  I learn what it can provide and what I can coax from it, as my knowledge and skill continue to expand.  In the garden, life and death dance before my eyes every day, and I come to a better understanding of my own health and mortality. The garden literally brings me back to my senses.”

Share

How “Flow” Beats the Call of the Mall

Night of the Living Dead

One day, way back in my college years, I noticed I’d been working for a few hours on a whimsical essay and thought it was only a few minutes. As opposed to the schoolwork I was required to do, the writing was something I did because I loved it. It was a fascinating puzzle, and the more I focused, the faster the time flew by. I suspected back then that writing could be something I might do for a “living.”  I think my instincts were guiding me towards something that might be of use. (I’ll leave that up to you.)

I’ve had many similar experiences before and since then, and a few years ago, I found a clear explanation for what I often experience in writing, gardening, playing music, or hiking. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that name three times backwards) calls it “flow.” He describes this phenomenon as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Callout Title
“Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that the process of an activity can be far more important than the end product, and when we are fully in the process, fully focused on a task, we feel alive. The activity becomes its own reward. After a flow experience, we are not only refreshed, but we’ve increased our skills, sensitivity, and self-confidence. We are more “complex,” to use Csikszentmihalyi’s term. (It seems we are hard-wired to improve ourselves!)  He’s been researching “optimal experience” at the University of Chicago since the 1970s, and has compiled a large data set involving people from all walks of life. Basically his technique, the “experience sampling method,” (ESM) catches people in the middle of their daily activities and asks them to record what they are doing and how much they enjoy it.  When they are signaled at random a certain number of times during the day, participants record in a workbook if they are in a condition of flow, or something far less.

To be genuinely happy, observes Csikszentmihalyi, we need to actively create our experiences and our lives, rather than passively letting media and marketers create it for us. The pathway to greatest happiness goes beyond mindless consuming to the heightened, enlightened realm of mindful challenge, where we are engaged, connected, and alive. Csikszentmihalyi’s distinction between pleasure and enjoyment suggests that many of us are settling for Grade B happiness – a package of mind dulling pleasures – rather than reaching for more intrinsic flow experiences. His ESM research indicates that when we challenge ourselves to experience or produce something new; to see things in a different light; and in general, to become actively engaged in what we’re doing, true enjoyment transforms moments of our lives from the routine to the extraordinary.  The great news is that anyone can do it, with activities that are self-determined.

Conditions that Encourage and Define Flow*

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernable).
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time – our subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is not too easy or too difficult).
  7. A sense of control and mastery over the situation or activity, as when a golfer’s concentration results in a great shot.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

*Adapted from “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman also prefers a deeper, more resonant definition of the word “happy.” The author of Authentic Happiness divides the happiness continuum into pleasure (gratification, social compliance), engagement (depth of involvement with people, work, and hobbies) and meaning (such as using personal strengths for the good of society). Says Seligman, “Many Americans build their lives around pursuing pleasure, but it turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important.” While most psychological theories focus on an “end product,” such as the alleviation of anxiety, Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman come from a more positive perspective, asking, “What makes us feel glad to be alive?”

Optimal experiences make our doubts and hesitations disappear. We aren’t absorbed in ourselves and directed by our egos, but rather by spontaneity, a sense of challenge, and connection with others. Despite the greatest ad campaign in the history of the universe, many of us still have original thoughts, and memories of peak experiences in which consumption played no role: skating on a late afternoon in January, learning to skate backwards on a large pond at the edge of the neighborhood, hardly noticing that it’s almost pitch dark. Standing at an overlook of a trail in total silence except the occasional chirp of a wren; gazing out over a valley covered with vineyards. Standing small and amazed beneath a starry sky lit up with shooting stars. Slurping a sweet, blushing organic peach seconds after it was picked. Making love in a huge, cozy hammock in the heart of a rainforest. Many have realized that humans cherish moments when we are active participants in life. We’re becoming saturated by images that offer fantasies for sale, and we are realizing, at last, that we are such obedient consumers partly because we’re afraid to follow our instincts.

For the philosophers like Aristotle,  happiness was a function of rational development – a reward for leading a virtuous, balanced life.  He believed that happiness must be evaluated over a long period of time (not just in the lick of an ice cream cone, as in our world of instant gratification). Happiness, he wrote, consists of a blend of moderation, gentleness, modesty, friendliness, and self-expression. Happiness is harmony and balance in which desire is tempered through rational restraint. His words sound very much like something an enlightened Zen master might say; and like directions to the sunnier shores that may lie ahead, if we choose moderation and balance.

Share

Intelligent Design – By Humans

In the old-normal way of thinking and doing business, the design profession’s marching orders were defined by convenience, stylishness, speed, and most of all, profit. And we literally bought into the wayward direction of these products, because they expressed our codependent, rather unhealthy way of life. But design has a higher purpose, now.  Driven by regulations, changes in consumer demand, fear of future lawsuits, and a green-tinged business environment, design has suddenly increased its IQ. As opposed to passive, accidental design that doesn’t ‘know’ where it’s going or who will use it, next-generation design is analytical, and ergonomic -  packed with synergistic information and “biologic.”

Callout Title
next-generation design is analytical, and ergonomic -  packed with synergistic information and “biologic.”

For example, when Procter & Gamble examined the energy impact of its detergents, it discovered that washing machines were the largest single energy user in the whole laundry system. Since most detergents only work effectively in warm water, a lot of energy is used to heat the water, so P&G researchers went back to the lab and invented a detergent, Ariel Cool Clean, which works in cold water, saving energy without any loss in performance. Says P&G’s sustainability website: “We combine two key strengths – consumer understanding and science – to deliver sustainable innovations that don’t require tradeoffs in performance or value.” Is this mission statement ‘green wash’? Partly, but it’s also an ethical direction, and possibly, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These kinds of opportunities exist in all types of design – we just need cultural instructions to look for them. The challenges we face require radically redesigned production systems, landscapes and structures – all sensitive to changing variables like energy, health, climate and resource availability. We need an inspired new generation of whole-systems designers to express changing values in their creations. Society should grant the design profession the social stature of doctors and lawyers – calling for pride, skill, and integrity in the design field. As with the age-old physician’s oath to “do no harm”, we need a designers’ oath to “design nothing harmful.” Designers reflect cultural direction, and their designs in turn are responses to directions they receive from the culture, often intuitively.

In this moment of massive change, we need democratic, values-driven design. In this precarious moment, we are designing not just gadgets and packaging but we’re also redesigning the civilization that contains them.  In the Renaissance, the highest mission of a designer was to glorify God; in our time, the highest mission is to fit the natural world like a glove fits a hand.  If we integrate values such as efficiency, moderation, and fairness into our designs, using tools such as precision, prevention and participation, we stand a chance of creating a realistic, affordable civilization. However, if we integrate the spoiled assumptions of our current era into our products, buildings and landscapes, we’ll lock ourselves into a future that is literally designed to fail.

Callout Title
our designs will be so well conceived that fewer regulations will be necessary.
Ideally, our designs will be so well conceived that fewer regulations will be necessary. For example, if we design products that are fully recyclable and a collection system that makes recycling effortless, it will become almost impossible not to recycle. If we use eco-intelligent ingredients and procedures throughout the industrial sector, we will radically reduce many environmental and health impacts that have plagued us for centuries. In effect, we will integrate the law right into the product.

Just as an architect needs to know the characteristics and constraints of a building site before designing a house, designers of all types need to work with biologists and sociologists to make sure their designs are in synch with natural and cultural constraints. “We can’t practice architecture without knowledge of forestry and energy issues,” wrote Paul Hawken in the foreword to my book, Deep Design: Pathways to a Livable Future. “Chemical Engineering without epidemiology and biology is inexact and lacking, and transportation systems that don’t take into account community, family and climate are not systems at all.”

Like scientific papers, designs and technologies should be peer-reviewed. Experts as well as everyday users should be able to choose what enters our world, and what doesn’t.  Products that prove harmful – whether physically, environmentally, or socially, should get very low grades, even if heavy, misleading advertising made them popular initially.

Since cheap supplies of energy and materials are no longer a sure thing, designers need to be socially as well as technically competent. For example, state-of-the-art batteries for electric vehicles and elsewhere contain lithium, an element that is most abundant in Bolivia — a country the U.S. is currently not on great terms with. And heavy rare earth metals like dysprosium, which make electric motors up to 90 per cent more efficient, are also geographically perplexing: 99 per cent of all dysprosium comes from 200 mines in China.

In the near future, enlightened designers won’t just say, Here’s what you can have; instead they will wisely ask, What do we need?  How can design make your life better, not just busier and more expensive?

Designing Like Our Lives Depend on It - and They Do

A civilization on the cusp of mega change needs to prioritize its design goals, and channel public, private, and non-profit resources toward those goals. At the top of the list are systems that:

  • Prevent climate change
  • Preserve, conserve, and restore water supplies
  • Minimize pollution and health impacts
  • Effectively and humanely prevent unwanted birth
  • Make recycling automatic
  • Restore farmland and forested land
  • Optimize social capabilities as well as needs

This is not a trivial to-do list, is it? Some of the heavy-hitting human activities that are especially in need of redesign are energy production, wastewater treatment, and the manufacture of automobiles, cement and plastic. Fortunately, designers all over the world are immersed in research that is yielding major breakthroughs. Consider the following examples.

Cement making has always been an environmental challenge

The cement industry accounts for six per cent of global CO2 emissions (twice as much as the aviation industry), and that figure will rise as Asia and Eastern Europe continue to build infrastructure. Some analysts predict that the cement industry could become a larger contributor to climate change than the entire European Union by 2030.

Calera Corporation in California is challenging a cement-making paradigm that has remained constant for more than 2,300 years with a process that’s similar to the way coral reefs self-assemble.

Calera injects carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into seawater, which creates a chalky carbonate that is added to gravel and water to make concrete. This process avoids the need for the high temperatures typically supplied by coal-fired kilns, creating a cement that is 40 percent solidified carbonate by weight.

Algae has a higher "power density" than corn

The industrial production of algae for fuel is being assessed as a way to scrub CO2 emissions from power plants. Algae may prove to be the most efficient way to produce biofuels, so why not create a partnership between power plants and biofuel factories? Raytheon Company and others are currently running pilot programs to see if algae can efficiently absorb carbon dioxide, then be made into a biofuel. Though ethanol from corn was originally thought to be a serendipitous substitute for gasoline, it doesn’t significantly reduce greenhouse gases; too much gas-emitting energy is used when the corn is fertilized, harvested, and processed. Many scientists rank the power density of algae far higher than corn and other prospects like cellulose-rich switchgrass. Other advantages of algae are that its production doesn’t compete with food and feed crops for prime farmland, and that it can be grown wherever there’s sunlight and water, even in deserts, where land is cheap, or at wastewater treatment plants, where algae growth and harvest could help purify the water as well as power the plant.

A company in Venice, Italy is using synthetic natural gas made from algae to power electricity-producing turbines. The carbon dioxide released by the combustion goes back into the process, to stimulate the next generation of algae. A San Diego start-up company, Sapphire Energy, proposes to use existing infrastructure – pipelines, refineries, and vehicles – to produce a fuel that has the same molecules as conventional fossil fuels. Their product has already been flight-tested by various airlines and given good grades: it combusts at lower temperatures than conventional jet fuel and has 4 percent better mileage in the tests.

However, as an industry, algae-based biofuel faces stiff political competition. So far, the 18 senators from nine corn-growing U.S. states have consistently voted to subsidize corn-based ethanol. However, the current federal mandate for biofuels is 1 billion gallons by 2020, and it’s quite possible that algae can become part of that equation.

A third technological innovation that meets high-priority needs is plastic that incorporates CO2 right into the product. Currently, 10 per cent of oil consumed  is used for plastics manufacturing and packaging. The plastics industry is also responsible for heavy emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic substances found in products like baby bottles and coatings in tin cans; vinyl toys, and flame-retardants. Novomer Company, in upstate New York, may have a new kind of plastic that could radically transform the industry. According to CEO Jim Mahoney, the manufacture of polypropylene carbonate (PPC) reduces petroleum usage per unit by at least 50 per cent while also converting CO2 from pollution into valuable materials. As in the biofuel and cement processes mentioned above, the CO2 could come from power plant or industrial scrubbers.

Looking ahead, it’s not hard to imagine an ‘industrial ecology’ facility at which these four industries would share and optimize resources like CO2, waste heat, electricity, and distribution pipelines.

Designing With Nature

A new movement in the world of design, called biomimicry, is destined to change the way our world functions. By developing a genuine understanding of how the world’s species meet their needs, designers can draw on a living catalog of inventions. Says Biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus: “You take an Engineering problem like how to lubricate or adhere to something, and you find examples of how nature has solved that problem. If you look carefully, you can always find technologies shaped by natural selection that hold the answers.” Dietar Gurtler, an engineer with DaimlerChrysler, used that very approach, studying the shapes of fish to design an aerodynamic compact car. Says Gurtler, “Evolution has formed creatures that are very economical with energy.”

Similarly, Oregon State University Professor Kaichang Li studied the way mussels cling to surf-battered shoreline rocks, discovering that they exude threads of protein as an adhesive. He had a flash of insight: why not add amino acids to soybeans to create a water-resistant, non-toxic adhesive? Several years later, many homes and buildings became less toxic when one of the country’s largest plywood manufacturers replaced cancer-causing formaldehyde in its adhesive resins with soybeans.  Elsewhere, paint companies have mimicked the self-cleaning technique of the lotus leaf, which maintains its solar exposure even in swampy conditions; the microscopic structure of its top layer makes dust particles stick to raindrops, which then drip off the leaf.

One thing the world desperately needs is an alternative for the flush toilet, another of humanity’s biggest blunders. What do you have when you put a drop of clean water into a gallon of sewage? Sewage. What do you have when you put a drop of sewage into a gallon of water? Sewage. Now for the critical question: What do you have when you put billions of gallons of industrial wastes into sewage, every day? A system that prevents the recycling of nutrients back into agriculture.

The state of Indiana permits wastewater to be treated with aquaculture

However, the bio-inspired Living Machine, perfected by bioneer John Todd, is a solar aquaculture system that looks like a greenhouse. A succession of organisms like snails, cattails, microbes, fish and even roses purifies wastewater as well or better than conventional wastewater treatment plants; the state of Indiana has already certified this technology as legal treatment. The synergies between this naturalized system create a technology with no noticeable odor (I’ve toured a few);  apartment buildings, office buildings and neighborhoods could, with start-up subsidies, make our way of life far more affordable overall, providing jobs and a very important balance between what we consume and what we grow. The missing link in this open loop may be more perceptual than actual: health concerns. Surely, microbiology, vermiculture and compost science are sufficiently advanced to change the wastewater paradigm, too.

Designing for a New Normal

In the end, we will get to a more sensible way of living by telling and retelling a story that promotes a joyfully moderate, less stressful, sustainable lifestyle. We’ll build a new civilization the way we built the current one: with incentives, social rewards, changing styles and designs, new kinds of technologies and new ways of meeting our needs.

It’s time for us to stop seeing the world as it is, and begin to see it as it could be.  Design should take its marching orders from cultural consensus: if our society demands that only nature-compatible design is acceptable, future generations will regard ours as an era that designed its way out of a blind alley.

Share

Do We Really Have a Choice?

Beyond the Assumption of Consumption

Thomas Jefferson warned more than two centuries ago that change is inevitable: “As new discoveries are made, and manners and opinions change, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”  Policy analyst Charles Siegel of the Preservation Institute is doing his best to oblige.  Siegel researches and writes about the ‘compulsory consumption’ that’s built into government and corporate policies for work/time choices, housing and parking choices, medical choices, child-care choices, and many other American standard operating procedures. “We should focus on policies that let middle-class Americans choose whether they want to consume more or have more time for their families, communities, and personal interests,” says Siegel. He points out that most Americans work full-time because they must. Part-time jobs typically have lower hourly pay and no benefits. Instead of using higher productivity at the national level to increase consumption, why not use it to reduce work hours?

In 1933, when jobs were scarce, Americans almost had a 30-hour workweek that would have shared the work and nurtured a more productive, healthier workforce. This might have resulted in extra time for all Americans, as Kellogg Company employees enjoyed with a six-hour workday that lasted from 1930 to 1985. With two hours added to each weekday, there were more “room mothers” in classrooms. City parks, community centers, skating rinks, churches, libraries, and YMCAs became centers of activity.  Kellogg workers recall that the balance of their lives shifted from working to living.  What to do with their time became more important than what to buy with their money.

The nationally mandated 30-hour workweek was a near miss: the Black-Connery bill week passed in the Senate but vigorously opposed by business leaders. Instead of promoting shorter hours to fight unemployment and keep employees healthier, business leaders pitched “a new gospel of consumption,” and the bill was defeated in the House by just a few votes. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the 40-hour workweek in stone, and the work-and-spend culture went into high gear, propelled by World War II, which geared up production to levels history had never seen before.  In 1950, marketing analyst Victor Lebow wrote, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” Did Americans choose this consumptive way of life, or were we corralled into it with drumbeats of patriotism, social engineering, and economic fundamentalism?

Siegel believes that by law, part-time employees who do the same work should get the same hourly pay as full-time employees, and that they should also have the same seniority – based on the number of hours worked – and the same chance of promotion and pro-rated benefits as full-time workers. Does this sound impossible to implement?  Not really: the entire European Union has already adopted agreements like these to end discrimination against part-time workers.   As a result, employee-chosen part-time work is becoming quite normal in the EU, with Holland leading the charge. In 2005, for example, nearly half of all Dutch employees worked less than 35 hours a week, including 75 percent of all women and 23 percent of all men.

A similar logic applies to auto-centric policies that dictate what American towns and cities look like. Sprawl is essentially a government program that began right after WW II when the federal government subsidized mortgage deductions, highways, and cheap gasoline to encourage suburban growth. Those subsidies are still in place, forcing Americans to pay for a car-centered transportation system whether or not they drive.

Since streets and traffic signals are paid for out of cities’ general funds,

Most cars sit idle 22 hours a day

residents pay for them through sales taxes and property taxes – even if they bicycle or take public transit and use only one-tenth as much street space. It’s the same theme with “free” parking.  Even if we don’t drive because we are too young, too old, too poor, or disabled, we get charged for parking by employers, property sellers and businesses, who build the costs of parking into wages, mortgages, and price tags. Recently, parking policies are being re-thought. In Washington, D.C., planners have rewritten 50-year-old codes that now require fewer parking spaces for commercial and residential buildings. (Earlier mandates required four spaces per 1,000 square feet; the new law requires only one.)

We're rewarded for driving but not for biking or public transit.

Child-care is a third example of compulsory consumption. The average American child now spends ten hours per week less with parents than in 1970. “Fifty years ago, one parent working 40 hours a week supported the typical family,” says Siegel. “Today, the typical family is supported by two parents working 80 hours a week.”  The economy takes up too much of our time.

Flaws in the daycare system are in plain sight yet disregarded because we assume – and want to believe – that our present lifestyle is working. The current tax credit for day care gives parents an incentive to work longer hours and spend less time with their children because it pays for day care. However, parents and caretakers who work less and care for their own children get nothing. Siegel suggests that non-discriminatory tax credits could be given to low and middle-income families – he estimates about $7,000 a year per child. Households that need day care, such as those with single parents, would be covered, and other families could also choose whether the tax credit should cover day care or help them work shorter hours and have more time with their kids.

Obviously, policy and design modifications can help give Americans a wider palette of choices.  The most sweeping – and critical – choice of all might be the choice between “your money or your life.” When the culture’s policy-makers unlocked the door marked “money,” they in effect barricaded the door marked “life.”

POLICIES THAT REWARD SENSIBLE LIFESTYLES

1.     U.S. Income Tax policy discourages saving and investing by taking a bite out of income. Solution: Lower income taxes and instead tax carbon-heavy fuels and technologies, as more than twenty EU countries already have.

2.     Mandatory 40-hour workweeks don’t offer workers the choice of trading less income for more time. Solution: Enact laws that guarantee equal pay for part-time workers, as many EU countries already have.

3.     Free parking at workplaces rewards driving but offers no incentives for alternatives such as walking, bicycling, and carpooling. Solution: give a stipend to all employees, rewarding non-drivers and letting drivers pay for parking.

4     Daycare tax credits assume that employees would rather pay for daycare than work less and care for their own children. Solution: Credit a fixed amount per U.S. child; let parents choose how to spend it.

5.     Flat-rate trash policies discourage recycling. Solution: Implement “pay as you throw” policies that charge by the volume of un-recycled trash, while pick-up of recycled goods is free.

6.     Current beverage container policies don’t reward recycling. Solution: Enact a federal “bottle bill” law, as eleven states already have.

7.     Suburban sprawl wastes time, money, land, and energy. Solution: Enact local, state, and federal policies that encourage public transit, compact development, and mixed-use zoning.

Sources: Charles Siegel, The Politics of Simple Living: A New Direction for Liberalism; David Wann, Simple Prosperity

Share