It’s abundantly clear

Mark Morgenstein
Aug 29 · 3 min read
Getting gelato near Lido beach in Venice, from Mark Morgenstein

After landing in Italy for a recent vacation, as our train from the Milan airport to Lake Como chugged through the countryside, I noticed an obvious lack of SUVs and pickup trucks on the nearby roads. When we got to the hotel, I saw a gas-can-sized waste basket in our bathroom that wouldn’t contain a day’s worth of trash at home in Colorado. And the tiny scoops of gelato seemed like mere samples from an American ice cream parlor.

Before this trip, I’d left North America only three times — and not since 2003. I don’t remember whether everything overseas seemed so Lilliputian then. But I can tell you this: Things in the United States keep getting bigger and bigger, warping my perspective.

Several of the world’s largest automakers aren’t making many new passenger cars anymore for the U.S. market, as Americans increasingly pour their money and gasoline into SUVs and crossovers.

In the United States, we produce a disproportionately enormous amount of garbage. While only 4 percent of the world’s population lives here, we create 30 percent of the globe’s trash.

When buying ice cream in the States, without a doubt, a single scoop anywhere dwarfs the double scoops of gelato that our family regularly downed on this trip. And I usually get a double. That’s consistent with long-term trends throughout the fast food and junk food industries to redefine small, medium and large servings.

The concept — and promise — of “more” is what brought many of our ancestors to the United States in the first place. Many of them came from countries where only those born into nobility and/or wealth had what we now call “disposable income.” Very few believed they’d ever own property or get an education.

The American Dream was shaped by immigrants seeking a better life. For people who lived in deprivation in their countries of origin, this meant abundance — of land and its natural resources, of food and of opportunity.

All that land means more room for big houses and buildings (which require a lot of energy) and for big vehicles (driving on big roads). All those resources mean we can produce excess stuff we don’t really need and deposit the waste that doesn’t need to exist in ever-growing landfills. All that food means both consuming way too many calories and tossing out too many leftovers.

An old adage (often co-opted by health and wellness experts) says that “everything is better in moderation.” But if you grow up in a country with wide open spaces and the encouragement to think big, it’s hard to recalibrate your thinking to see that moderation can be beautiful.

In places as historic as Italy, with cities and streets designed centuries before automobiles, large vehicles aren’t just a waste of fuel, they can’t even fit in parking spaces or on many roads. When driving a large vehicle is an inconvenience, public transportation is a much more attractive and viable option. And in medieval city centers such as Venice’s that are inhospitable even to small Fiats, Renaults and Citroens, walking and bicycling become standard transportation modes (and, might I add, more conducive to quick gelato breaks).

The streets of Lucca, Italy, from Mark Morgenstein

With that in mind, it’s worth contemplating how we can incorporate some Old World norms into our day-to-day in the New World. The American Dream doesn’t have to include excess. We can live full and fulfilling lives with fewer and smaller material things and less adverse impact on the people and planet around us. Shifting public opinion to this mindset won’t be easy, but we can redefine what’s healthy, wealthy and wise.

We are adaptive creatures. Now that I’m home, the next time I bike to my local ice cream shop, I’ll just get the single scoop.

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done.

Mark Morgenstein

Written by

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done.

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