Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The population clock

For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder. —Paul McCartney

When my dad was born in 1913, there were about 97,225,000 Americans. In 1927, when he was 14, the world population reached 2 billion. Now, in 2005, the U.S. population is about 297,871,654; the world census is about 6,484,942,703. These population clocks will show you how fast these numbers are rising now. We had to invent computers, satellites, and the Internet simply to stay connected and to communicate.

To me, the world feels smaller and more crowded. Every weekday, someone looking out my north windows would see a long line of traffic, moving only in bits and spurts, between about 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. More people, more crowding, more strain on resources and infrastructure.

What affects me most on an emotional level, however, is the increasing scale of our endeavors—increasing in size, not in vision. Cities and suburbs sprawl further and further outward, taking over farmland like an out-of-control slime mold takes over a lawn. There are more towering skyscrapers, more massive office parks. High school buildings without windows that look more like prisons than like places that inspire curiosity and learning. Soulless McMansions, with spacious living rooms no one uses and entire bedrooms used as closets. Urban streets congested with so-called "mini"-vans and hulking SUVs.

Stores have become bigger and bigger, offering more and more stuff that is is both unnecessary and cheap. Walgreens, once a small local pharmacy, is a burgeoning chain. Walmart has achieved world domination not only of consumers (of the unnecessary and cheap) but of suppliers, too, not to mention the Chinese labor market. At the cold, uninviting, gray Sam's Club and its warehouse clones, you can buy copious quantities of toilet paper, huge chunks of cheese, and olive oil by the gallon.

Corporations are out of control. Friendly, familiar-sounding local brands like Marshall Field's have been sold off to conglomerates with generic names like Federated, General, Retail Brand Alliance, etc. Local bookstores, once small, cozy havens for bookish introverts, have been replaced by Borders and other national chains, as well as Amazon.com.

All this bulk is emphasized even in the materials with which we build. Warm brick and wood have been replaced by concrete, steel, and glass. Even stone and marble, hard but warm in color, have lost their cachet with modern sensibilities.

I saw part of an interior design program in which burnished steel kitchen cabinets had been finished in an icy blue. The kitchen, which should be one of the coziest, warmest rooms in the house, resembled a luxury morgue for the wealthy. Yet this appears to be the latest and greatest in design—dehumanized scale and dehumanized appearance. This room looked more appropriate for conducting lab experiments than for sharing a cup of coffee or tea with a friend.

Clearly, a scale that is larger than life and a design that is colder than death are very popular for the moment. People are buying these buildings, homes, and cars; they're shopping at these stores. And they're admiring the newest designs. A man on the street was quoted as saying he was glad to see new concrete, steel, and glass towers; he disliked the traditional brick and wood. Other comments were similar.

There's nothing inherent in our natures that makes us gravitate toward the stupendous and cold, but what does? I wonder if all this ostentation in size, all this pretentious modernity and mass, is simply our effort to stand out, to raise ourselves above our 6+ billion fellow travelers, to be "bigger and better." With every new tower higher than its neighbors, with every new store more comprehensive than its fellows, with every new car larger and meaner looking than its highway companions, with every house more spacious than the ones around it, the result is a weird uniformity and blending in. All the rows of McMansions with SUVs parked in their driveways and garages, all the steel-and-glass office towers, and all the warehouse stores, all the 12-lane expressways inspire little more than a dull sensation of "standing out by fitting in." It's all a mass of cold gray.

As the population grows, shouldn't we preserve our individuality and the significance of the individual by returning to a human scale, a personal style?

Think big—think small. Most of all, think for yourself. Is that monotonous gray wall of office tower really "beautiful"?

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