Wednesday, December 17, 2014

As a Nation, Are We Wired for Suburbia?

I recently came across a question and answer on the website Quora that set me thinking.  In response, I constructed a working hypothesis, but was unsure of its validity.  Nor did I know how to test the hypothesis.  So, I’ll offer it for your consideration.

(For those unfamiliar with Quora, it follows a simple but effective question and answer format.  A member of the public asks a question of broad interest, others write answers, and the most pertinent and insightful answer is shared with readers.  Many of answers are sufficiently astute and instructive that they deserve the wider audience they receive.

For those who fear that the Internet 2.0 is comprised solely of self-styled and self-important foodies dismissing fine restaurants for having the wrong style of oyster fork, Quora proves that the Internet 2.0 can work.)

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a link to the Quora question and answer that piqued my interest, so I’ll reconstruct from memory.  The question was “In what way do Americans think differently than the remainder of the world?”

 The selected answer was written by a former exchange student who finished his year in the U.S. by hitchhiking back and forth across the country and chatting with the American he encountered.  He wrote that, unlike the citizens of other countries, Americans believe that every problem has a solution.  They don’t become mired in a muddle of self-doubt over a problem that has lasted for centuries and seems likely to persist forever.  Instead, Americans are convinced that the perfect answer needs only a bit of cogitation.

My first thought was that the answer writer was correct.  The history of Americans, starting with their escape from foreign conditions they found intolerable to the startling ease with which they assembled the first constitutional democracy and then onward to the building of an industrial and creative juggernaut that dominated the world economy, may well have engrained the idea that every problem has a solution.

My second thought was that I was proud to be part of a citizenry that believed in the absolute existence of good and permanent solutions.

My third thought, as the euphoria faded, was that assumed infallibility might have a downside.

In mathematics, it’s often difficult to prove that a problem has a solution.  But even more difficult is to prove that a problem has one and only one solution.  Having found an answer, especially an answer that is complex and of dubious application, a mathematician might continue looking for another answer that is simpler and more useful.

Similarly, an innate and shared national belief that every problem has a solution might soon yield to a belief that every problem has multiple solutions, of which one is the simplest and least painful to implement, leading to a hubris that dismisses complexity.

At this point, I could offer examples of American foreign policy that would seem to support this hypothesis of American over-simplification.  But I’d soon be out of my depth.

So instead, I’ll offer a different question.  Is it possible that suburbia is the result of an American infatuation with simple answers?

Faced with the challenge of explosive post World War II growth, did we decide that any nation that could proceed seamlessly from a successful revolution against the leading military power in the world to an inspired and durable constitution (conveniently overlooking the failed Articles of Confederation) must be able to conceive a new land-use paradigm with little effort?   And was suburban sprawl the result?

Did we reject both our own land-use history and that of all other nations because we were convinced that our intellectual prowess justified discarding the lessons of the past?

I don’t know the answers.  I find the hypothesis beguiling and perhaps useful, but don’t know how to test it.

So I’ll offer it for your consideration.  As you stare at the endless ribbon of freeway on the way to Grandma’s, at the seat back in front of you, awaiting the delayed approval to take flight, or at the flickering flame of a Yule log after a long Christmas Eve of toy assembly, please ponder my hypothesis.  I’ll await your post-holiday feedback.

Next time, I’ll offer another hypothesis for your holiday consideration.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment