American Mania: When More Is Not Enough by Peter C. Whybrow

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Places Discussed

People PlacesBook Notes

This book dissects the American character of drive and consumption in terms of human brain chemistry and reveals the modern paradox of anxiety in the face of abundance.

I include this book in the People Places section because it reveals underlying human physiology and psychology that go into creating cities as well as daily activity. Given that the city is a machine for satisfying human desire, and American desire is for immediate gratification, the form of cities becomes more and more attuned to satisfing individual, immediate gratification sometimes at the expense of the long-term stability for the society as a whole.

The principal point of this book is its connection of brain chemistry to human behavior (the author is an M.D.). Human brain chemistry involves a serotonin system of neurons that act as a calming restraint and a dopamine system that, through reward pathways, stimulates curiousity and novelty seeking (p. 63). Migrants, which comprise a great proportion of American society, exhibit the dopamine system to a high degree. The result is that "the healthy instincts for self-preservation--self-interest, curiousity, and ambition--when consistenly and excessively rewarded by affulent circumstance and a plethora of choice will run away to greed" (p. 128). Technology greases this system with faster communication and travel, the celebrity model of culture, marketing techniques, and debt as a means for even greater short-term consumption, to produce an "addictive culture of covetous desire" (p. 128). Thus, while Adam Smith's vision of self-interest supporting healthy competition worked well for 18th or 19th century contexts, Whybrow claims we now have a frenetic "Fast New World" where people struggle in a "treadmill existence" of debt and time scarcity. (He points later in the book to voluntary simplicity as a partial remedy. (See, for example, my site Live Simple.))

Whybrow questions economic systems of mass production at the expense of individual creativity and local commerce. He uses example of vandalism of a McDonald's restaurant in France to reflect the frustration of French people with Americanization. Indeed, he criticises all the usual suspects while at the same time admitting that the crux of the problem is that "humans find the goods being sold attractive" [McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Disney, Wal-Mart, etc.] (p. 198).

The principal benefit of this book related to the theme of People Places is that it points to the terrible conundrum of modernity: in a global, technological, and market-driven consumer society, people get what they want, but by doing so they may be damaging themselves or others, even when the immediate result seems good and the consequences far-off and not known immediately. For example, this book makes the point that people have high-fat fast food available in combination with a low need to exercise even for mundane tasks such as walking (p. 135). The short term result is great-tasting, inexpensive fast food obtained with little effort (driving in a car), but the long-term result, of course, is obesity and an urban form that discourages walking.

My observation is that reworking cities to enable routine exercise in the form of walking is not only difficult from the point of view of creating the physical infrastructure, but also from the point of view human brain chemistry. Indeed, how could it even be possible to encourage people to walk when their body would rather have the short-term benefit of not expending energy to walk? And, moreover, competitive psychology may influence people to show off their social position with an ostentatious car. Why would they want to even be seen on foot?

On reading this book and thinking about the issues it brings up, I realize that encouraging people-oriented places involves more than just providing the infrastructure. People need to see that there is some gratification in walking, and that the long-term benefit of walking can be great and perhaps can overcome the short-term physical exertion and shift in social perception it requires.

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