Archive for July, 2011

Extreme Makeover of YOUR Neighborhood

Old Normal: Carefree, car-dependent consumption as a way of life. What defines “the good life” is mindless consumption – having anything and everything we want. The suburbs are ideal units of consumption, retreat from a chaotic world, and the sense of playing the game successfully.

New Normal: Conservation, care, and cooperation as a way of life. Although suburbs at their best do offer a world of wonderful benefits, there are also many social, economic, and environmental impacts. Since we have finite supplies of energy, water, land, raw materials, and social stamina, we won’t be able to finance suburbia for much longer in its current form.  Simply put, the suburbs — where houses have on average doubled in size since the 1950s, and where driving per capita has tripled in the same time period – are the best possible invention for mindless consumption. They may well be the largest single environmental impact the world has ever known.

The existing suburbs need to be remodeled, and since they are already occupied, this effort needs to be resident-driven with the blessing and support of municipalities.  Even in the land of private, green-lawn luxury, we can rediscover our cooperative nature with a grassroots effort to find and establish strategic centers among the sprawl.

The problem is that few people fully perceive the costs of their flawless suburban kingdoms, and besides, they are too busy to consider making changes. A typical reaction to the idea of “extra” activities seems intimidating. But suburban makeover activities can be fun, and can ultimately give more than they take. Some of these actions can replace unproductive, current activities in our lifestyles – they are substitutes rather than “add-on” activities, so they won’t take up additional time.

Another typical reaction from suburban residents reflects the mythology of the American  Dream. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am,” goes the myth, “and it’s okay for me to do whatever I want.”  One of the primary reasons we wrote this book was to help establish an everyday ethic that challenges that myth. In the context of a family, when a rebellious teenager has the “whatever I want” attitude, isn’t he or she requested to think again? The care and feeding of a one-third-acre lawn, for example, typically costs $600 or more a year, requiring lawn equipment, 10 pounds of pesticides, 20 pounds of fertilizer, 170,000 gallons of water, and 40 hours of mowing labor. According to the Audubon Society, the pollution generated by an inefficient gas-powered lawn mower for that mowing is equivalent to driving a car 14,000 miles—more than halfway around the world.

The consumption of products also results in public environmental impacts, as resources are stripped to meet the demands of the Suburban Dream. But we don’t see the slash piles or mine tailings, and truthfully, they rarely occur to us. Private mobility cascades into public congestion and public expenditures for new highway lanes. The demand to live on large lots, closer to nature, often destroys the nature we hoped to be near. But we don’t notice when a chorus of cricket chirps is reduced to a sparse, desperate quartet.  A handful of species now dominates our backyards and parks—bluegrass, robins, English sparrows, nursery-grown trees and shrubs, squirrels, mice, sometimes a deer or fox—because insensitive development and uninspired landscaping smother diversity and wipe out natural vistas.

What, specifically, can be done to begin the Extreme Makeover of the suburbs described in depth in the book Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods? This massive grassroots effort begins with a very simple first step: saying hello to a neighbor you’ve never spoken to. Then a “what if?” dialog begins on sidewalks, decks, and living rooms across America. Said poet Carl Sandburg, “Nothing happens unless first a dream. ”  In this case the dream is a reshaping of the suburbs as well as formless, forgotten urban areas into a new American Dream.

Superbia! Checklist

Easy Steps

Sponsor community dinners.

Establish a community newsletter, bulletin board, and community roster.

Establish a neighborhood watch program.

Start neighborhood investment clubs, community sports activities and restoration projects.

Form weekly discussion groups.

Establish neighborhood baby-sitting coop.

Form an organic food co-op.

Create car or van pools for commuting to and from work.

Create a neighborhood work-share program.

Create a mission statement.

Create an asset inventory.

Bolder Steps

Tear down fences: opening back yards to create communal play space and a space for neighbors to mingle and a community garden.

Plant a community garden and orchard.

Establish a neighborhood composting and recycling facility.

Plant shade trees and windbreaks to create a more favorable microclimate.

Replace asphalt and concrete with porous pavers and greenery.

Establish a more edible landscape—incrementally remove grass in front lawns and replace with vegetables and fruit trees.

Start a community-supported agriculture program in which neighbors “subscribe” to local organic farm’s produce.

Create a car-share program–purchasing a van or truck for rent to community members.

Begin community-wide retrofitting of homes and yards for energy  and water efficiency.

Solarize residents’ homes.

Boldest Steps

Create a community energy system.

Establish alternative water and wastewater systems.

Establish a more environmentally friendly transportation strategy.

Create a common house.

Create a community-shared office.

Establish weekly entertainment for the community.

Narrow or eliminate streets, converting more space to park and edible landscape, walkways and picnic areas.

Retrofit garages and rooms in your homes into apartments or add granny flats to house students or others in need of housing.

Establish a mixed-use neighborhood by opening a coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market.

Promote a more diverse neighborhood with multi-family dwellings.


Investing in Living Wealth: The Bonds of Social Capital

It’s inevitable that our society will move back to an affordable, sustainable set point. We’ll give higher priority to belonging, and lower priority to belongings. The reason is simple: our current way of life often leaves us feeling used-up, and lonely. In that emotional state, it doesn’t matter what we own or don’t own – we’re not thriving. On the way to becoming world-class, gold medal consumers, many assumed that social connections were so basic they didn’t require much effort. After all, relationship challenges on TV usually resolve themselves in 23 minutes or less, and we expect the same in our own lives. We buy into a richly advertised paradigm that says products are socially advantageous — we smell sexier, or have that distinctive sparkle * of success.  But the sparkle is fading from a lifestyle that vacuums so much time and human energy out of our lives — leaving fewer opportunities for genuine connection and taking care of things. Now we see that many of the products we work so hard to buy actually isolate us from other people — for example, the iPhones, video games and Visa-funded fantasy vacations; houses so large we sometimes can’t find family members; and automobiles that carry us on solo journeys in which we can’t stop dialing numbers on our cell phones.

According to a study conducted by the National Science Foundation, summarized in American Sociological Review, one fourth of Americans say they have no one they can discuss personal problems with – more than twice the number in the lonely hearts club in 1985. The typical American has lost one of his closest friends, it seems, since even the average number of confidants has fallen from about three to about two.

A wealth of scientific evidence now supports what we’ve known in our hearts all along: without strong social and spiritual connections, we wither. We need to elevate love and connection to a higher priority even if that means we make less money and spend less time worrying about it. Researchers say it’s a matter of life and death. Dr. Dean Ornish, author of Love and Survival, says, “Study after study has shown that people who feel lonely, depressed and isolated are 3 to 7 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love, connection, and community in their lives.” (6) One study looked at men and women who were about to have open-heart surgery. “The researchers asked two questions: ‘Do you draw strength from your religious faith?’ and, “Are you a member of a group of people who get together on a regular basis?” Those who said no to both questions were dead within 6 months, compared to only 3 percent of those who said yes to both questions.

Our health is even boosted by the unconditional love of pets. In a study of heart attack victims who now had irregular heartbeats, six times as many people died if they didn’t have a pet. Many other studies show similar results. Says Dean Ornish, “If some new drug showed a six-fold decrease in deaths, you can be sure that just about every doctor in the country would be prescribing it. Yet when was the last time your doctor prescribed a pet or supportive friend for you?”

After many years of hands-on medical work, Ornish concludes that the real epidemic is not just physical heart disease but also emotional and spiritual heart disease. Social support makes us feel valued and loved, feelings that enhance our health; but conversely, “Anything that promotes a sense of isolation can lead to illness and suffering.” The reasons why are tangible: for one thing, isolation increases the likelihood we’ll smoke, overeat, or fail to exercise. Furthermore, says Ornish, “Bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms must penetrate through our immune, neuroendocrine and other defense systems, and these defenses are measurably enhanced by love and relationships.” Social connections also reduce stress, the universal Grim Reaper. For example, when you’re low on cash, one of the most stressful things going, it sure helps to have a friend throw you a lifeline. When you’re sick, maybe another friend will take care of your kids for a few days until you feel better. Ornish has observed an especially strong correlation between the love of parents and good health, in part because parental relationships have such a long span: nutrition before and after birth; coping styles developed when young — such as anxiety, anger, and optimism — spiritual values and practices, and parental support and love in one’s adult life.

What sociologists call “social capital” is a renewable resource – the more we spend, the more we have.  Social capital is the glue that binds communities together, creating cultural norms, energetic networks, and reservoirs of trust. When freely and wisely spent, social capital lowers crime rates, makes schools more productive, and helps economies function better. Contracts, leases, and schedules operate more smoothly. In socially abundant communities and nations, individuals don’t have to earn as much money to be comfortable, because quality of life is partly provided by the strength of social bonds. For example, two farmers who share machinery with each other avoid having two combines on adjoining farms; credit union members and insurance carriers can share pools of financial capital; and jobseekers can find work more easily — substituting networking for possible bankruptcy. (More jobs are found by word of mouth than by reading the classifieds). The wealth of social capital also becomes apparent when we share information about resource efficiency in our houses; about which computers are more reliable; or which friend of a friend is looking for a partner.

Philosopher Martin Buber’s work distinguishes between two kinds of social connection.  In the I-You relationship, an unwavering, holistic bond of trust exists between and an individual and key aspects of his life, including other people, other living beings, and whatever a person perceives God to be. In Buber’s view, when we experience life from a perspective if I-You, we enter a sacred realm of authenticity and oneness. We make and keep commitments to “be there” without pretense or judgment, on a playing field of mutual caring, respect, and responsibility. In this way, we create the priceless relationships that make life worth living.

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In the I-You relationship, an unwavering, holistic bond of trust exists between and an individual and key aspects of his life.

On the other hand, in I-It relationships, people are misperceived as objects, valued only for what we can get from them. The ego is in the center, surrounded by things and people it tries to manipulate. Instead of being at one with the world, we become detached and isolated from it. If people or other living beings are no longer of use, we just throw them away. For example, when a huge school of fish is perceived as huge profits, it doesn’t matter if that particular species is an endangered species – the fish are just objects that exist for our benefit. We assume there are always more objects or more people  to exploit.

The analytic I-It approach to life makes us strangers in our own world, and is a primary reason why many feel a sense of emptiness. We strive to connect with a Higher Power we can sanctify rather than objectify — a being who won’t let us down, and to whom we are devoted. I believe we can and must bring sanctity to our everyday lives by creating I-You relationships; treating even the food we eat or a masterpiece painting with great respect, wonder, and connection, because the people who grew healthy food or created the painting “speak” through it.  By changing the way we regard the world, the “me” in each of us becomes a much wider we, and we feel interconnected and complete. Even in a world filled with contradiction and superficiality, we find True North.


How to Save a Million Dollars With a Sustainable Lifestyle

Some federal agencies refer to U.S. households as “consumer units,” an insult that should incite acts of consumer disobedience rather than bargain-day stampedes. Yet, sadly, the term is all too appropriate. Most American homes are codependent with a lifestyle-support-system of roads, wires, pipes, lines of credit, satellites, and a collective identity determined by the supply side. Yet just about any household budget offers continuing opportunities for creating a healthier, less expensive lifestyle that’s also easier on the environment.  Because changing circumstances will demand it, we have to re-think the values that shape our decisions and rearrange our priorities to match those values. In other words, reach a new agreement about what constitutes a life well lived. We can imagine a symbolic “flag” flying over millions of homes, signifying that people are assertively changing the patterns of their lives, not just the pieces.

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Most American homes are codependent with a lifestyle-support-system of roads, wires, pipes, and lines of credit.

Rather than consumer units, our homes can be units of creativity and productivity that provide a higher percentage of what we need. For example, we can produce rather than consume entertainment, with house concerts or poker games in our own living rooms and backyards.  We can be as bold as the current First Family, replacing a chunk of lawn with miniature fruit trees and rows of vegetables. The food we eat can supply both vitality and monetary savings from avoided drugs and expensive medical treatments.  (Forty percent of the most prevalent diseases are related to diet, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, allergies, and depression). Some of our transportation needs can be fueled by carbohydrates from the garden rather than by hydrocarbons from Middle East oil wells.  By making a few well-researched choices about energy and water efficiency, we can cut our utility bills by a third. With this new, more sensible way of thinking, we can easily imagine avoiding a million dollars of expenses per household over the course of a lifetime, and enjoying many more hours of leisure.


How a Sustainable Lifestyle Generates More Than a Million Dollars of Value

* Thousands of dollars a year avoided for purchases, maintenance costs, and loan interest payments for new cars, gadgets, and clothes you no longer covet because you’ve found other values to be passionate about;

* Thousands avoided in interest payments because you have very little debt;

*  Energy, water, and resource bills cut in half because your car is more efficient; you live in a more compact, resource-efficient house; and the things you need are close by;

* Expensive, resort-style vacations you don’t need because you’ve learned it’s cheaper to create your own, culturally rich vacations; and also because you’re more content being home than you were before you changed your life;

* Reduced food costs by cutting restaurant dining in half, since the food is usually pre-cooked and served in huge portions that make us feel bloated; and by preparing food at home that is higher in nutritional value (and flavor) so less food is needed.

* Reduced lawn care, day care, wrinkle care because you convert your lawn to a vegetable garden; you and your spouse alternate staying home with the kids, and a less stressful lifestyle results in fewer wrinkles (and less concern about them).

* Entertainment costs you don’t spend for spectator sports and home movie theaters because active entertainment (playing sports, talking with neighbors, practicing a craft, playing an instrument) is really far more engaging and stimulating.

* Diet programs, equipment, books, tapes, classes, psychiatrists, hypnotists and over the counter drugs not necessary because you’re not overweight;

*  No dental problems from chronic soda, candy and cigarette consumption. Foods like yogurt and frequent exercise have been proven to prevent gum disease that can cost five or ten thousand dollars to treat;

* Lower mortgage payments and less consumer spending after selling a house larger than you need. All remaining debt erased with the profit from selling the house).


Though a million dollars in savings might seem far-fetched to some readers, blogger and self-made millionaire Jen Smith can easily substantiate that estimate with transportation savings alone. She writes a blog called Millionaire Mommy Next Door and speaks on national TV about financial independence. In a recent post she asked her readers, “Would You Ditch a Car for $1,000,000?”  She begins by telling her own story. “22 years ago, my husband and I sold one of our cars to pay for our wedding and honeymoon. We intended to replace the sold vehicle eventually — after we built up our credit score so we could get a car loan — but as time went by, we discovered that sharing one car between the two of us was no big deal. We learned to carpool, drop one another off, take turns, group errands, walk, bike, take the bus, work from an in-home office, go places together. Surprisingly, 22 years later, we still share just one car.”

Then Jen does the math: the average American spends $9,369, excluding loan payments, to drive 15,000 miles, according to the American Automobile Association. (This sum includes fuel, routine maintenance, tires, insurance, license and registration, loan finance charges and depreciation costs). Jen asserts that by choosing alternatives to the standard 2.28 vehicles per household, her family has already saved a small fortune. And if the family continues to share one car instead of owning two for the next 29 years, invests their compounded annual savings at 8 percent return per year, they’ll save an additional one million dollars. The point is not to “give up” the good life to save money, but rather to redefine the meaning of the good life, in terms of overall value rather than just symbolic stuff.


How Does a Culture Shift?

Massive change occurs when our security is threatened, when resources are scarce, or social structures are unfair. When factors like these converge, people not only see the light but also feel the heat. As a reformed addict does, an entire society creates a new identity – a new normal – and ours will inevitably become more conscious of what’s best for the general good. We’ll pull together or else circumstances will pull us ever further apart. Take the price of gasoline. Although there are tangible benefits to high-priced gasoline, we can only perceive them with a viewpoint that is less self-centered; more focused on what we need collectively.

Gasoline prices high enough to make people rethink household budgets and personal habits also reduce fatal collisions because there are fewer cars are on the road.  Scholars estimate that traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon. That’s 1,000 lives spared every month, and one of those lives might be your spouse or child. Decreased levels of air pollution will spare another 2,000 lives a year. Insurance premiums will fall when those who are driving less qualify for lower car-insurance rates. traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon.

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“traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon.”

Obesity will fall by 10 percent, saving billions of dollars a year in health costs as people walk and bike more and eat out less. Environmental and social costs of sprawl will decline, and the sales of super-efficient cars that make life more affordable for all of us will continue to climb, helping prevent climatic meltdown. With more police officers on foot patrols and bicycles, the quality of life will improve in our neighborhoods. Many overseas jobs will come back home because of higher transportation costs– a very attractive benefit in times of rampant unemployment.

Higher gas prices are helping us redefine the meaning of “the good life.” Our culture is shifting, just in time, back to its anthropological set point: a species that works together toward common goals. In the last generation, we drifted away from the set point as responsible citizens morphed into mindless consumers, but the scope of that shift shows how quickly a nation can change its identity. Before World War II, only 44 percent of American homes were owned by their residents, and fewer than half of the country’s households had cars. However, in post-War years, cars, houses, and discount stores became organizing features of our shared identity, and the face of the American landscape and mindscape was radically different.

Like the transformation that’s now taking place, the culture shift of the 1940s and 1950s was stimulated in part by crisis: following the war, 14 million military personnel returned home and began to play a frantic game of musical chairs, living with extended family and friends or whatever else they could find:  converted boxcars, chicken coops, and garages. Crowds lined up at funeral parlors to get the addresses of newly vacant apartments. In response to the emergency, the U.S. government shifted gears and came up with a new plan of attack.  In a manner of speaking, we declared war on American soil, deploying bulldozers instead of tanks to level hills, fill creeks and yank trees out like weeds to build one lucrative subdivision after another.

Economists loved what the new Dream did for the Gross National Product, and the media loved the storyline, too: GI FAMILIES OCCUPY SUBURBIA. How could we question this energetic, giddy, sexy Dream? The ideal of the suburb was country homes for city people – nature without the mud.   In the suburbs, a family could have it all: community, fresh air, proximity to the city, and convenience.   

Seventy years later, many question the wisdom of an identity that requires a lifestyle support system that eats up our time, health, and connections – with nature and each other.  The “cultural creative” sector of the U.S. population (at least 60 million strong) insists on human rights, non-violent conflict resolution, and environmental restoration. They are helping create an energetic new identity in which whole new industries will be recycled, and others will flourish, such as suburban remodelers; vanpool operators; technical consultants who maintain residential solar, wind, and recycling systems. Renewable energy now supplies as much electricity as the world’s 400 nuclear power plants, providing more jobs per watt. Energetic gardeners are once again planting fruits and vegetables in their back and even front yards; devices are being installed to slow traffic, restaurants are appearing on even the cul-de-sacs and curvilinear streets of suburbia, and neighborhoods are re-energized by all the people who now work at home.

Cities are rezoning to allow single family McMansions to become multi-family homes; The City of Baltimore has made a special project out of making alleyways more beautiful and more useful – creating gathering places for neighbors and gardens where there were once only trash containers. In Detroit, an 80-acre urban farm is being created in the hollowed-out part of the city that is now vacant lots, with full city approval and encouragement. Chicago is piloting the installation of rooftop gardens and green spaces as part of its quest to acknowledge and prepare for climate change. One classic neighborhood in Seattle has re-imagined itself as a cooperative ecovillage, while in Boulder, a neighborhood is working to make the car an alternative form of transportation, replaced by pedestrian paths, bicycling, solar-powered vehicles, and public transit innovations. America’s small cities, once hubs of manufacturing and still blessed with town centers, are ready to be put back into service as regional centers of culture and industry.

It doesn’t make sense to remain in denial. It’s time for a cultural revolution, a social tsunami. We’ll create a more sensible way of living – a new identity – 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 to demand quality over quantity, localization over globalization, time affluence rather than the poverty of constant, stressful deadlines. We need a new identity characterized by less aggression and more teamwork; more respect for public places, including the environment; and less obsession with individual acquisition.

The future is waiting, impatiently, for yet another shift in our way of life. It’s well past time for us to stop seeing the world as it is, and re-envision it as it should be.