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April 16, 2009

This Wonderful Life

Smaller car, larger lives

Last week, National Public Radio interviewed several of those experts of the variety who like to think about the ways economic trends effect the way people live and vice versa.

Reporter Robert Siegel interviewed people like urbanist Richard Florida and historian David Kennedy and author William Greider about how they thought the current recession will change lifestyles in the future.

Florida, who is the author of several books on the ``Creative Class,’’ including ``Rise of the Creative Class’’ and ``Flight of the Creative Class,’’ also addressed the post-recession future in a piece in The Atlantic magazine.

He points to the late 1800s when America’s economic, cultural and literal landscape was dotted by small mercantile towns pieced together by a patchwork of productive farmland.

That was at the beginning of the Long Depression, which began in the 1870s and ended near the turn of the 20th century, when the America landscape was less about small mill towns, and more about industrial powerhouses like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

He also describes the way the Great Depression of the 1930s put into motion the rise of suburbs.

On NPR, he repeated his theory that home ownership will no longer figure to heavily into the American dream. At the same time, the rental experience will change substantially for the better.

My favorite theory came from Greider, the author of ``Come Home America.’’ He told NPR that, after the recession, people will ``drive smaller cars and live larger lives.’’

How lovely. How simply optimistic. And how mottoworthy. Driving a smaller car can mean literally driving a smaller, more fuel-efficient car, of course. But it can also be a metaphor for reining in all types of excessive and even destructive consumption and consumerism, especially when you pair it with the goal of living a larger life.

For as long as I can remember, the idea of a larger life was about reaching for something (literally some thing) bigger and better. Bigger house, bigger car, zippier car, even bigger house, new furniture, newer furniture. Living life to its fullest could be quantified by how much you spent, even if you had to dip way, way, way into the plastic to do it.

This ``new normal’’ probably won’t look like that. Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff told NPR that the current crisis is not unlike an economic heart attack.

It’s not a bad analogy, I suppose, except that most of us committed sins akin to eating the odd French fry or spending a little too much time in front of the tube. The real cause was the years and years of cocaine- crack-and-Red-Bullfueled cash feeding frenzy called credit default swaps, toxic assets and mortgagebacked securities. In this analogy, I guess the world is a conjoined twin, one of whom eats a little too much fast food, while the other one parties like Lindsay Lohan.

No matter. We’ve had our wake-up call, and we get to decide what the new normal looks like. Are we going to party to the bitter end? Are we going to snap like a rubber band in the opposite direction and become a nation of ascetics?

Or are we going to be like the person whose heart attack sends us to yoga class, teaches us to reevaluate where we spend both our money and our time, and turns out to be the best thing that ever happened? For all our sakes, I hope we’re the latter.

I hope we all find smaller cars and larger lives.

Elizabeth Trever Buchinger is planting a victory garden as soon as the ground thaws.

You can connect with her at www.moremindfulfamily. or by email at Villagewordsmith@gmail. com.