Notes from My Knapsack 1-19-12
An American dream. deconstructed
What is the American dream?
For some, it's just getting seats behind the dugout at a major league game, and having a hot dog. For others, it's a little more complicated. What do you call it?
If there's a consensus on this contentious subject, it's the hope your children will do better than you have. You were a tenant farmer, they owned their acreage. You lived in half a duplex, they will own their duplex and rent out half. You retired in a house whose mortgage got paid off about the time you stopped going to work, and they own a home with a nice lot and maybe a cottage up on the lake.
There's a little practical and philosophical problem here, which you don't have to be a scholar of Immanuel Kant to notice. Kant suggested something called the "categorical imperative," which gives us a moral yardstick roughly defined as "if you'd want everyone to do what you are considering, then it's probably moral."
What sustainability scholars have noted for decades now is that the world literally can't support everyone living the way most of us in America do, or even all future Americans. Some calculate we'd need about three Earths to support our current population (which they tell me is growing, actually) in the manner to which average Americans are accustomed. If everyone in the world lived as if they were resident in our little patch o' heaven, AKA the 43023 zip code, it might just be four (or five) Earths. Which is a neat trick, you know?
So the problem, magnified like a fun house mirror's reflection in the current political environment, is that if the American dream is that each generation does better than the one before in housing and comfort and wealth, there may just be an upper limit to that, and not just because one party or another is stupid (or venal, or traitorous, or even just wrong). That streak really has to stop somewhere, else we meansure failure as anything short of all our kids living like Trump – and who wants that?
The last big tech fest in Las Vegas was focused on "thin." Insanely thin TVs and other devices. My parents had a piece of carpentry in the living room corner, with wood inlays and charming fake brass knob fittings that just happened to have a cathode ray tube embedded in the middle of it; now I could have a vast swath of my living room wall a vivid, lifelike, even 3D screen whose controls are all in a small box next to my elbow across the room. Take that, American dream!
Yet you may have heard, or can search out on the internet last week's episode of NPR's "This American Life," titled "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory." You will not feel so delighted by "thin" and your tech devices after hearing this report from Chinese factories. What would a world look like where all the workers making our smart phones had smart phones, the quaint dream of Henry Ford when it came to making Model Ts?
To answer that question, you have to enter a dreamlike landscape, but it might be the start of an American dream worth advancing beyond the limits of our own fortunate zipcode.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your American dreams at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.