Durable Growth

Are we happy yet?

140407001 Land Use SprawlI’m not good at book reviews.  A good reviewer should finish the book, cogitate upon the full extent of the thesis being argued, and then write about the complete book.

But I can’t finish a book before beginning my cogitation.  I come across a chapter, a paragraph, or even a single idea that captures my attention and I want to write about it and to expand upon it.  And if there are no chapters, paragraphs, or ideas that capture my attention, then I may never finish the book.

Perhaps this book review deficiency is a character flaw.  But I don’t care.  I like being excited by ideas.  And I like sharing that excitement.  And if that means that I share my thoughts about a thought-provoking land use book at a half-dozen different times and places, I’ll live with that.  I’d rather have enthusiasm than good form.

Earlier in the history of this blog, I wrote book reviews about entire books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Power Broker, Wrestling with Moses, Pocket Neighborhoods, and The Geography of Nowhere.   I think all were perfectly competent book reviews, but none had the passion of taking a single element from a Walkable City, such as pedestrian interest, and expounding upon it.  So that’s how I’ll write about books from here onward.

And that’s how I’ll write about Happy City by Charles Montgomery.  I first introduced Happy City a little more than a month ago.  Since then, I’ve read and reread much of it.  Today, I want to focus on a single argument that Montgomery makes particularly well and that’s key to the thesis that he puts forth.

Montgomery argues that our ideas of happiness are understandable from an evolutionary perspective, but nonetheless flawed in our contemporary world, undermining our happiness, our financial wealth, and even the health of our planet.

As Montgomery writes, there was an evolutionary benefit to acquisition.  The hunter who wasn’t happy with killing a saber-toothed tiger, but instead continued to hunt for a mastodon, was more likely to survive and to procreate.  Even if the hunter was goaded into further hunting by watching a nearby hunter stalk a mastodon, the evolutionary advantage was still secured.  So we’re born with “keeping up with the Joneses” hard-wired into us.

That hard-wiring presents itself as the sense that we’ll be “happy” with the next big acquisition, whether it’s a new luxury car or a bigger suburban house.  But the first problem is that our perception of happiness, to the extent that happiness is based on material possessions, is affected by what others around us possess.  So if we move into a new upscale neighborhood, thinking that we’ll be happy, all we’ve done is to put ourselves among people who own more things than we do, moving the threshold of “happiness” further away.

And so we chase better cars and bigger homes all the way to the urban fringe and beyond, pursuing a phantom dream.

Even worse, not only do we not find happiness in suburbia, we often find the reverse.  Personal happiness correlates adversely with length of commute.  And the children that we think will benefit from bigger bedrooms and backyards often find suburbia boring, turning to alcohol, drugs, and law-breaking for excitement.

A prevalent school of political thought is based on the concept of the “invisible hand” as first suggested by philosopher John Locke.  The argument is that our world is best served if we all seek our individual well-being, with the collective result representing the best possible set of rules.  The problem is that we, in our rush to suburbia, have been making poor decision regarding our happiness.  And if we can’t make good individual decisions, then the “invisible hand” is clumsy and ineffective.  Perhaps we can even say that it’s slapping us upside the head.

To add two final layers of misery to our false path, we struggle to maintain the infrastructure needed to maintain our far-flung world, putting further stress on our personal and government finances.  And the energy needed to sustain our sprawling places adds momentum to the growing spectre of climate change.

Our obsolete evolutionary path to happiness has led us to a perfect storm of discontent and pending despair.

Is it possible to turn around on the path?  Perhaps.  Certainly some communities and countries have shown paths to happiness that aren’t based on unbridled acquisition.  It’s where Montgomery goes next in Happy City,  and it’s where I’ll be following him in future posts.

Perhaps I’ll never provide a single, comprehensive review of Happy City.  But I can say unequivocally that it’s an important book which is worthy of your attention.

Schedule Note

If the above subject intrigues or excites you, you should participate in Petaluma Urban Chat.

As previously noted, Urban Chat will get together this week.  We’ll meet at the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma on Tuesday, April 8.  We’ll convene for conversation at 5:30, with the discussion beginning at 5:45.  The first five chapters of Happy City will be our topic of discussion.

Even if you haven’t yet read the book, you should find the conversation engaging.  Hopefully sufficiently engaging that you’ll findH a copy of the book and read along.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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