American Ambivalence

I recently moved to Wales from the eastern United States. For years I have wanted to live in Europe. Many aspects of culture, politics, society, and lifestyle here appealed to me far more than the individualistic, rampant consumerism all too commonly associated with the ‘American Dream’ that I was fed growing up in a rural New York State community. Many aspects of quotidian existence felt palpably excessive in the US: the size of cars (and parking spaces), the use (waste) of electricity in businesses and homes, the frequent enormity of hotel rooms, the expansive ‘big box stores’, and the endless sprawl of suburbia — with countless stores into which I would never consider venturing. Of course, I must point out that I have a PhD in ‘natural resources’, consider myself an ‘environmentalist’, and research people’s perspectives on energy production and consumption for my career; this might explain some of my aversion to characteristic
American fulsomeness.

When I came to Europe, however, several of my reactions were unanticipated. Why are the parking spaces so ridiculously small as to prevent a man of less than 11 stones from even exiting his vehicle without hitting other cars? Why are the cars themselves so tiny that Icannot adequately fit luggage for two adults and one baby for a short vacation (‘holiday’)? Why are some hotel rooms in total smaller than what I would seek for a standard bathroom? What happened to the convenience of the ‘big box stores’? Why do the British under-heat their homes to such an extreme?

When I travelled back to the States recently, I experienced a severe cognitive/affective struggle when I drove through characteristic American sprawl with endless ‘chain’ stores lining the road on either side, with their expansive parking lots (excuse me, ‘car parks’), generous spacing and landscaping between them, and their modern façades. My cognitive reaction (and what I felt until I moved away from the States eight months ago) was that these represent repugnant examples of American consumerism and sprawl. My affective reaction, however, in December was that it was such a welcome breath of fresh air to return to these spacious shops and to predictably have available every chain store that you could plan to encounter in any such location of suburban sprawl elsewhere in the States.

I guess my story has become one of ambivalence, due to my transition from one culture to another. Whilst I abhorred American excess when I dwelt in that nation, I have grown to appreciate more the comfort (psychological and physical) that it offers now that I reside in Wales. My reaction has been to see American excess as slightly more acceptable and European frugality in terms of energy and consumption as less appealing. I would not go as far to say that I prefer the American way; my cognitive reservations fight too strongly against that claim — which would be absurd and incriminating for any environmentalist. Yet, I do not merely accept the rather strong energy-minimalist claims of my new colleagues and friends in Wales. For example, whilst I have understood well the effects of air travel on global climate change for years, I have never personally cared about my own air travel. This is actually a big matter of discussion amongst people I work with in Wales (which was never the case in the US, even though I taught in an Environmental Studies programme). People here feel, at a deep moral level, personal responsibility to limit their air travel. I cannot relate to this sentiment in the least (although I do, of course, understand the rationale for it). I wonder if this is an aspect of the small-town American that simply cannot be driven out of me. I do not even feel any need to justify my own air travel, I simply see personal air travel as a complete non-issue. I study, in part, ethics in relation to energy issues; I am sure I could compose great ethical rationales for needing to limit air travel, but I would not be able to convince myself that this issue really matters.

In summary, moving to Wales has made me more American. I still resist thinking that this is a positive outcome, but my distaste for American culture does not change the hard truth of the matter. Perhaps if/when I move back to the States, I will be made increasingly British/European, and my energy-relevant practices will have changed for the better.

Darrick Evensen, Wales/USA