We find ourselves at a turning point: after swelling for decades, the size of the average home has stopped growing; gas prices led to a 30 percent drop in SUV sales in the month of October, and this winter, an anticipated 40 percent increase in the cost of natural gas will force even greater austerity. There have been such shocks to the American consumer before (the energy crisis, recessions now and then), but the tightening of the global oil market, the government’s increasingly hopeless debt, and the deflation of the housing bubble lend an air of permanence to the change. America is about to start getting smaller.
After years of reflexive gigantism and extravagance, it’s sure to be a painful transition for a proud people. Nothing is more gratifying than buying a larger vehicle, adding another bedroom, replacing your brass doorknob with a shinier silver. The average new American home is 2,400 square feet. In 1950, it was 983. For years, and particularly during the late 90s, every new subdivision rose higher, wider, spawned a more intricate range of multi-peaked houses, whose gables seemed to number in the double-digits. But the era of out-gabling your neighbor is over.
What to do? With energy costs pinching your discretionary income, you now face some hard choices. Suddenly, you can build a new deck, or re-landscape the yard, but not both. You can buy a gas-hungry HUMV, or add on to the garage, but not both. Perhaps, in these increasingly apocalyptic times, it will be neither.
Fortunately, there exists a science to resolve these hard choices. In times of old, it was simply called taste; professors prefer to obscure its potency with an ancient term: aesthetics; but for our purposes, in our everyday lives where judgments must rain fast and furious, we’ll be direct and call it snobbery.
Snobbery. You are used to attributing to it a pejorative cast, to disavowing it if so accused. It seems a horrible thing to be judgmental in this land of plenty, where even your lessers have much to comfort them. No longer. As your assets dwindle, so must your judgment rise; given the uncertainty of the future, it may just be that your only chance of ever counting yourself rich again is to attain snobbery, that luxury of judgment.
Opinions have the virtue of being free, and one need only work a little to elevate them. To begin, it’s essential to lay the ground rule: tremendous size, long an assumed good, must now trigger suspicion. How? Proportion, the obsession of yesterday’s architects, is a useful principle here, as well as considering the utility of spaces. Ask yourself: What would Palladio think of that bloated, quadrisected asymmetrical five-bedroom home with as many different materials on the façade? Could he even see through his tears? Consider whether a house’s living room ought to serve better to host a small gathering or a spirited game of racquetball. You’d go broke from the heating costs, but you can always afford scorn for such philistine grandiosity. Continue on, looking all around you through your new lens, and your judgment will strengthen little by little.
Once you’ve assimilated the principles of proportion and utility, cultivating a distaste for wastefulness can be downright steroidal for snobbery. Look about, and waste (of fuel, space, nature, time, etc.) is everywhere, hidden in the guise of an American extravagance that’s become natural. To exercise your aversion to waste, simple Christian selflessness, or concerns about the environment and national security (the dependence on foreign oil) are all great tools. Pretty soon, if you tend your judgments with care, you’ll find yourself transformed from an anxious consumer into a robust snob; just about every aspect of your surroundings will gall you.
Look around with your new eyes. You drive 50 miles roundtrip to work every day, much of that in heavy traffic, with nothing but strip malls, office parks, and retail fortresses for scenery — all of them built as quickly and cheaply as possible, all concrete and steel cages painted over with beige stucco or a half inch of earthy brick and named This Centre, That Village, or The Other Shoppes to seem minimally pleasant. You drive past subdivision after subdivision (This Plantation, That Valley, or The Other Grove), each of them filled with “houses,” the work of unscrupulous developers who blight the earth with neatly twisting rows of their focus-grouped hybrids. Every acre of this environment, the supposed kingdom of domestic integrity, you now recognize as the work of base private interest, without a thought for tomorrow, for others, or (most importantly) good taste.
In suburbia, the snob can discover a kingdom’s wealth of judgment. And even if you should find yourself with a smaller home, a smaller car, and buying less than you want, it is no less a kingdom, the affronts to snobbery being everywhere in great supply. With such certainty in uncertain times, our nation might securely ride our difficulties through and emerge tomorrow a richer land.