Magazine | March 25, 2019, Issue

The Hypocrisy of Selling Sustainable Design as the American Dream

Outside the New York Times building in Manhattan (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
From its huge office tower, the New York Times finds our houses too big

Allison Arieff, who writes about architecture and design for the New York Times, doesn’t think much of your dream house.

“The New ‘Dream Home’ Should Be a Condo” was the headline on her March 1 essay about the National Association of Home Builders’ annual “New American Home” exhibition, in which the people who make their money building homes demonstrate new ways to spend money building homes. Arieff is full of contempt for what NAHB put on display: too many square feet, too many doodads and conveniences, etc. Her complaints are notionally about efficiency. “Many builders will tell you that though these houses are large, they are more efficient,” she writes, “even that they have a small carbon footprint. But this is like bragging about the good gas mileage of an S.U.V. While a 10,000-square-foot house built today uses less energy than a 10,000-square-foot house built a decade ago, a home of this size requires a phenomenal amount of energy to run.” On top of that, she continues — and this is the illuminating part — such a house “most likely has an S.U.V. or two in the garage.”

Which is to say, efficiency is the sizzle but snobbery is the steak. Arieff, who formerly served as the editor of Dwell, possesses snobbery of the most predictable kind: She sneers about faux-Tuscan “McMansions” being built in déclassé locations — Orlando, in one case, and a site with a “view of the Vegas strip” in another — and scoffs at the multiplicity of bathrooms and at overdone garages, automobiles (and, especially, those awful SUVs) being emblematic of life as it is lived outside of the parts of New York City and the Bay Area where the rich white people are. Arieff herself resides in San Francisco, where the median price of a house is $1.6 million and from which two-thirds of the African-American population effectively has been evicted in recent years by public-policy decisions that prioritize the interests of wealthy homeowners over those of less wealthy (and less politically sensitive) would-be home-buyers.

From her perch in San Francisco, it may be difficult for Arieff to see the headquarters of the newspaper for which she writes: The New York Times Building is a Renzo Piano creation of glass and steel, one that incorporates many purportedly “green” features. But the greenest thing you can do with a glass-and-steel design like that of the Times Building is to build something else — as prominent critics such as famed British architect Ken Shuttleworth have pointed out, glass goes along with “energy guzzling” designs. About 40 percent of the world’s energy consumption — and some 70 percent of its electricity consumption — is related to the construction and operation of buildings, with the latter accounting for the great share of energy use over a 50-year building lifespan. It may be that the Times Building is more efficient than other glass-and-steel towers, even that it has a smaller carbon footprint — but is this not like bragging about the relatively good fuel efficiency of whatever private jet is flying Al Gore around these days?

The shopping-list approach to sustainable design — green roofs! smart thermostats! — performs much the same function as a medieval indulgence, a little like Leonardo DiCaprio planting a few trees to make up for going around in that cruise ship he calls a yacht. One of the problems with such indulgences is that it isn’t even clear that they perform as advertised: For example, research suggests that buildings employing the popular (and often mandatory) LEED standards are no more energy-efficient than non-LEED buildings; some runs of the numbers have found that they use more energy, on average.

But the main problem is the related set of political assumptions. You peons with your big, expensive garages are, in Arieff’s estimate, an affront to taste and to the Earth itself. Community, too: Arieff laments that one of these dream houses “is entirely self-contained, with no regard for neighbors or neighborhood”; “it might as well have a moat.” There are moats and there are moats: San Francisco’s moat is a financial chasm over which the undesirable are unable to cross.

If you are familiar with this genre of nomenklatura condescension and self-justification, you’ll foresee the usual predictable questions, which Arieff expresses in the usual predictable ways: “Does anyone need 10,000 square feet to live in?” “What if the next New American Home was [sic] a condo? And what if there was a new American dream, not of auto-dependent suburbia, but walkable urbanism?”

Given the walkable urbanism of Manhattan, the relevant editors of the New York Times could, if they were so inclined, walk down to the offices of the Wall Street Journal, where they might learn a few interesting things, e.g., that Henderson, Nev. — the place you build a house if you want a view of the Las Vegas strip — is growing so fast that it is now the second-largest city in the state, having surpassed Reno. The majority — not a disproportionate share, but a majority — of new residents there have come from California; in some of the nicer parts of Henderson, California refugees account for 70 percent of them. Some years ago, I left New York City with the intention of relocating to Southern California and ended up in Henderson for the same reason as many of those Californians — a disinclination toward confiscatory taxes, extremely expensive housing, and condescension from halfwits who somehow always manage to conclude after careful review of the evidence that the ideal mode of life is the one they themselves already have chosen.

But, of course, there is no escape from domineering nitwittery.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected socialist who represents part of New York City in the House, cites “science” when insisting that the specter of climate change raises the question: “Is it okay to still have children?”

Representative Ocasio-Cortez did not consider the related and perhaps more important question: “Okay with whom?”

Utopians are always authoritarians and totalitarians at heart, be they urbanist utopians of the Allison Arieff kind or socialist utopians on the model of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Whatever rhetoric of democracy or inclusiveness they employ, they reliably end up embracing a top-down and absolutist mode of social engineering, which is inevitable inasmuch as one cannot have social engineering without social engineers. Representative Ocasio-Cortez, who has been in office about twelve minutes, has taken to referring to herself as “the boss” and insisting that she is “in charge,” suggesting that she remains as bone-ignorant about the role of representatives in representative democracy as she is about so many other things, such as how a bill becomes a law and how taxes work. That the schemers and planners believe they should be the bosses is predictable enough, but the more interesting and corrosive underlying assumption is that bosses of the sort they imagine are needed at all.

There is a different way of understanding government — that it is not a ruler but an instrument, a thing constructed for the use of the people: not rex but res publicus. Arieff assumes that it is her job — and that of her class — to tell the lesser classes and their representatives what the American dream should be. What it actually is must be considered, from this point of view, either immaterial or an obstacle to be removed. The progressive view is that the organs of government (and by extension the class of people who dominate them) must set as their task the promulgation of rules about how we should live and how we should desire to live, and that these rules can be tailored or revised in practically any way that is dictated by pragmatism. Setting aside that what they call pragmatism is always and everywhere a mask for ideology, note that this position assumes an almost infinitely plastic social order and moral framework, not to mention an infinitely plastic human nature — hence the progressive rhetorical insistence that inconvenient realities are “social constructs,” as if the fact that an idea has a history rendered it arbitrary. This way of looking at the world is incompatible with the American proposition, which is, despite the lamentations of the so-called secularists, a moral and theological proposition: that the moral order is prior to the political order, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that these truths limit what government (and men at large) may do.

“The pursuit of happiness” is not a mere rhetorical flourish providing a sentimental stand-in for the “life, liberty, and property” of the Lockean trinity. Rather, it partly defines the nature of the relationship between citizen and state: We seek out our own paths to happiness — government just paves the roads where necessary. Arieff’s contempt for the automobile and the progressive mania for trains show in miniature the entire conflict: You tell a car where to go, a train tells you where to go.

Bosses love trains.

And if we are to have bosses, we know what they’ll be like: They’ll be like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been a little bit less than honest in her account of her hardscrabble life, who is driven around in a gas-guzzling minivan when she’s only steps away from a subway station, who argues that bovine flatulence is an existential threat to human life but sneaks a tasty burger from time to time. The hypocrisy of it is obvious enough, and we could fill many pages of this magazine with a catalogue of the million-dollar-and-up residences of our progressive class warriors, who simply cannot be expected to live in the same low manner as the proles over whom they propose to rule. The apparatchiks are entitled to their privileges, after all, whether they be something close to a literal dacha in the case of Senator Bernie Sanders’s lakeside vacation home (his third residence) or the granting of presumptive absolution for offenses against the Earth in the form of all those private jets flying into Davos every year.

But the hypocrisy, though vexing, is properly a minor concern. What is most useful to understand is the sincere moral foundation upon which it sits: Of course the New York Times must have an impressive headquarters, one that elevates beauty and prestige over such plebeian concerns as energy efficiency: The New York Times is important! You peons raising 2.5 children out there in the splendid sunshine of Henderson? You are not. Occasionally, one of these would-be middle managers of the soul will register a protest: “A $2 million apartment in Manhattan isn’t really that impressive — it’s expensive to live here!” The unspoken assumption in that line of argument — that those who would rule over us simply must live in the most desirable, and hence most expensive, areas — says practically all that needs saying on the subject.

Perhaps Representative Ocasio-Cortez will commission an environmental-impact study before having a child, if she should be inclined to have one. But her precedent behavior does not suggest that she is exactly scrupulous about living up to her own purported standards. She’s already having to explain how it is that a firm she was paying with campaign money maintained a PAC that paid thousands of dollars to her boyfriend in what certainly looks for all the world like a classic case of Washington log-rolling. We can anticipate the apology for that, too, having heard it so many times before: “Never mind these petty, apple-stealing offenses! The important people have important things to do — move on! It’s the People’s business!”

But the damned thing about the People is that they mulishly insist on acting as though they had minds of their own, dreams of their own, and preferences of their own in matters ranging from residential real estate to family size. That fact — not climate change, not theocracy, not Charles and David Koch — is what progressives are actually at war with, in matters great and small.

This article appears as “The Regulation of Happiness” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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