When the sun set last night, a gentle breeze started to blow. I went outside to enjoy the Phoenix weather and to listen to the sounds of early Autumn. Those sounds were made mostly by air conditioners kicking on and off.
A bit later, I picked up my teenage daughter and one of her friends. They both grunted hello and immediately reached for their cell phones and began texting each other. Both girls also wore headphones and were listening to music.
Before there were cars, iPads, cell phones, television or air conditioning, people sat on their porches or stoops and talked to their family, friends and neighbors. Most of life was lived locally, within walking distance of home. This sense of community provided a level of personal fulfillment that seems lacking in our highly individualistic society.
What does this technological trend towards alienation have to do with the environment?
Plenty, as it turns out. First, technology has allowed us to live, work and play far away from others. This suburban lifestyle is ecologically expensive, as its sustenance requires huge amounts of land, fuel, water and asphalt. Cities are far more friendly towards the environment, because products and services are delivered much more efficiently to a dense population than to a suburban one.
The concept of dense cities surrounded by greenery is essentially the European model, and it promotes a greater sense of both personal and environmental quality of life. After all, which would you rather do? Walk to a cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee with friends, or sit down by yourself in front of the TV and watch an old rerun of other people enjoying a cup of coffee on Friends?
Second, since we no longer spend much time with people, we look for personal fulfillment in other ways, primarily through the things we are able to purchase. Shopping has replaced talking as our method of social discourse and self-worth measurement.
While shopping may be good for the economy, it is a major contributor to a declining ecology. In fact, our environmental footprint is caused mainly by our consumption of material goods and energy and the waste that results from doing so.
If you really want to do something positive for yourself, your family, and the environment, take off the headphones. Turn off the TV and computer. Play with your kids. Invite your friends and neighbors over for coffee or a glass of wine.
That old AT&T commercial was right. The best thing we can do for people and the planet is to simply “reach out and touch someone.”