This Crowded World

Today is the entertaining tips edition of Works-for-Me Wednesday, but I don’t feel very well equipped to give advice on entertaining since we don’t have guests nearly as often as I’d like; I’m one of the people who needs to read the host’s article “Entertaining Even When You’re Reluctant” and possibly the book she mentioned, since its Commandment 7 really speaks to me!  I expect that many of this week’s WFMW posts will be about how to entertain beautifully in your home and the wonderful virtue of hospitality, and I certainly agree that this is an important thing and look forward to picking up some tips.  (Actually, a quick glance at the links shows me that a lot of people chose to write about other topics despite the theme.  Oh well, those are probably good tips, too!)

But the idea of hospitality has connected with something else I’ve been thinking about recently, so I’m going to write about hospitality as treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way outside our homes, and about how sharing public space has reduced the amount of private space I feel I truly need. This is a crowded world.  I might think there are a lot of people eating at Panera, filling all the tables so that I have to sit on a windowsill to eat my lunch, but that’s just peanuts to the 6,873,374,270 people living on Earth when I checked the clock just now.  Many of them have never eaten at Panera, will not get any lunch today, and do not even have clean water to drink.  We all need to share stuff a little more so that everyone can have what they need.  It’s hard!  I like having stuff!  My bathroom is being renovated right now, and just a few days of having to clean myself in a cold, drafty room using a washcloth or the tub faucet is reminding me how much I take hot showers for granted.  I have a lot of things–facilities, space, food, clothing, books, furniture–that are more than my share, more than 1/6,873,374,270th of what’s available.  But I have less than many Americans and less than I used to take for granted, and I think that putting myself in crowded situations in my everyday life has helped me learn to make room for others.

Many environmentalists believe that human population growth is one of the biggest threats to Earth’s environment and also to human well-being.  It’s certainly true that, whatever is the amount of stuff the average person uses, each additional person on the planet makes an additional demand for stuff, and there’s only so much stuff, so there is a point at which there are too many people for everyone to get enough stuff.

The thing is, only a small fraction of people’s demand for stuff represents genuine need for a minimum amount of something–for example, each person needs to breathe enough oxygen to remain alive; while our lungs may be able to glean that oxygen out of polluted air, the number of oxygen molecules in the Earth’s entire ecosystem is finite, so if we actually reached a point where there were so many people that every oxygen molecule was in somebody’s body at the moment, the next baby born would not have anything to breathe.

Many of the other things we use, though, some of us use more than we need, and complicated production systems prevent stuff from getting to people who need it.  As the United Nations says [sorry, I had a link for this, but it expired], “At any level of development, human impact (I) on the environment is a function of population size (P), per capita consumption (C) and the environmental damage caused by the technology (T) used to produce what is consumed. This relationship is often described as a formula: I = P x C x T.”  Population size is only one variable. And that equation leaves out the selfishness (S) that causes some people or corporations to hoard or throw away things they aren’t consuming just because they can’t be bothered to find people who need them or because they won’t sell unless they can make a large profit.

Population is a very complicated issue!  The point I’m trying to make is that any one of us is much less able to control world population growth than we are able to control our experiences of and our response to this crowded world. There are two important things about my childhood that shaped my earliest views on this issue:

  1. I was taught by my family and Unitarian Sunday School that responsible people have no more than two children per couple because there are too many people already, the world is damaged because of it, and more people inevitably will cause more damage.
  2. I was raised in a spread-out town where it is very normal to live in a large house on a large lot, drive everywhere, have every type of appliance for your family’s (if not your individual) private use, take out the trash every night, and make so much trash that it’s collected twice a week.

The first idea went unquestioned in my mind until just a few years ago, but the second one always felt funny.  Partly this was because my parents were conscious of environmental issues even in the 1970s and also were thrifty, so we didn’t buy as much new stuff or use things as wastefully as the neighbors, we walked on some of our errands, and we did some recycling and growing our own vegetables and other things that were “weird” by local standards but felt so reasonable.  Also, something deep in my nature said that our neighborhood was not a normal, healthy way to live: The world I saw on “Sesame Street” and when I visited my relatives in cities felt much more right because there were people around and things happening everywhere instead of all those empty streets and empty lawns and lonely days that had to be filled by arranged playdates.  By adolescence I was feeling a strong unease about cars, resisted learning to drive, and often walked many miles in places inhospitable to pedestrians because despite the inconvenience it was better than riding in the car.

I didn’t realize, though, how much going to college in a city and living in a high-rise dorm would affect my perception of normality and basic comfort.  I mean, much as I craved a more vibrant public life and more pleasant ways of getting places, I had felt satisfied with the living space in my family home.  When I sketched house plans (I wanted to be an architect) I assumed that people needed approximately what I had: a 12’x14′ room to myself, 15 feet of closet hanging space, 3 feet of bathroom countertop for my personal use, a kitchen sink and a bathroom sink and a bathtub and a shower and a washing machine, a stove and an oven and a toaster and a microwave, a living room and a family room (Don’t even get me started on that terminology!), a yard with a patio and a climbing tree and a large open lawn and a garden and a driveway.  Living in a smaller space, closer to other people, showed me how little of that stuff I really needed to myself (or for my 4-person family) and how sharing space and facilities makes life less lonely.  In my dorm, 52 women shared a bathroom and a laundry room and a TV lounge, and that worked out to at least 8 people per fixture or appliance, but it worked!  I rarely had to wait to use anything, and when I did I could pass those few minutes talking with a neighbor; there was always someone around.  By the end of my 3 years of dorm life, I’d learned how to make 2 meals a day in a hot-pot with ingredients that didn’t need refrigeration, wash dishes in a shower, line-dry my laundry (which saves money and is better for the clothes but also has the advantage of getting me out of the way of other people wanting to use the dryer), and use a 7’x13′ room with no closet as my living room, kitchen, dining room, bedroom, study, and laundry-drying area!

I now live in a 3-person family in a 3-bedroom house, so we have more square footage than we really need, I must admit.  [UPDATE: When we had our second child, we did not buy a larger house.]  But we chose a rowhouse with a small yard in a densely populated urban neighborhood–our block is a little smaller than the block where I grew up, which contained 11 single-family houses, but our block contains 62 dwellings (mostly in rowhouses and small apartment buildings), a synagogue, an office building, a gas station, an automotive garage, and 10 small businesses like a coffee shop and a karate school and a hair salon.  Only between midnight and 5am can we walk around the block and have a chance of not seeing another person outdoors.  We don’t need a big yard because we live within five blocks of a huge park and two other playgrounds.  We don’t need a driveway or garage; we just park our car in the street.  One car is more than enough for us two adults because we live within walking distance of a supermarket, library, post office, many other useful businesses, our church, and public transit.

Speaking of public transit, it’s one of my best everyday opportunities to experience this crowded world and to think about all of these things:

  • Gee, there sure are a lot of people all needing stuff!  (On the bus, what we need is to get places and to bring some things with us.  Some people need to bring a suitcase or an umbrella or a cello–more crowding!)  Having the population rubbed in my face (sometimes literally) reminds me of our growing number and the need to account for so many people in whatever plans we make for our future.
  • Check out all these interesting people!  If they all were in cars, I’d barely see them.  In the bus, I can look at them, overhear their conversations, read over their shoulders, even talk with them.  Sometimes I see friends.  Sometimes I strike up conversations with strangers. Sometimes I’m on a bus where every single person is traveling solo and everyone is silent except for “excuse me,” but still, I’m not alone and I get to see some of the great variety of our species.
  • We’re all in this together.  Cars encourage us to see other people–in cars, on foot, and on bikes–as objects in our way.  Bus riders tend to commiserate about crowding, bad weather, and other hardships; even though we’re complaining, we’re sharing the discomfort rather than blaming each other for it.
  • I’m practicing being small.  A lot of my thoughts on the bus go toward minimizing inconvenience to other people, sitting or standing and holding my stuff in the most compact way possible.  That is hospitality: “Welcome to our bus.  There’s room for one more!  Would you like this seat?  How about I move my bag over here; is that comfortable?”
  • All the people around me also are practicing being small–with varying degrees of awareness and success.  Sure, there are times when I’m spitting mad over someone’s rudeness, but those are far outweighed by the many days when I am grateful for my fellow passengers’ consideration.  It’s helped a lot to realize that people who bump me often are unaware they’re doing it, so saying something like, “Your backpack is bigger than you think it is,” or, “Ow, I don’t bend this way!” tends to get a very apologetic reaction and considerate follow-through, whereas snapping criticism at people only puts them on the defensive.

Many politicians these days are arguing that we can’t afford to fund public transit because we need tax cuts so that families can afford gas for their cars, can afford insurance for their cars, can afford to buy new cars to support our struggling automotive industry, can afford to choose more fuel-efficient cars so that air pollution may be reduced.  It seems to me that the real issue is that we can’t afford cars, at least not so many cars being driven so much.  We need to diversify and use other forms of transportation where possible.  If public transit systems were eliminated, 10.2 billion trips per year would have to be taken a different way; that’s 27,945,507 people per day, so even if they rode 4 to a car, imagine how much that would increase annoying traffic congestion and air pollution!  And we’d need another 4.2 billion gallons of gas every year–where would that come from, and how would we pay for it?  I think we can’t afford not to have public transit!

Loving your neighbor as yourself is a much different experience when your neighbor is right next to you, shoulder to shoulder, and a sharp curve or sudden stop could send one of you toppling into the other’s lap, than when your neighbor is encased in a separate steel pod twenty feet away with his own climate control and sound system.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is a much different experience when you and your neighbor push your kids on the same swings, take turns with the washing machine, and share the weeding of one little flowerbed, than when your neighbor has all his own stuff and you have yours.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is a much different experience when you routinely see your neighbor within speaking distance as you unlock your side-by-side doors, walk on your errands, stand at the bus stop, and go to the park, than when you drive into your garage, close the door, and go directly into your house or your privacy-fenced yard.

The kind of hospitality in which we open our own homes to people we know is one way of sharing our space, our resources, and our time.  Being hospitable by sharing this crowded world is another way.  Both are important.  I think that the root of anxiety about entertaining people at home is the idea that our home reflects who we are, so if it looks shabby or is small or doesn’t have every comfort then we must be failing as hosts, maybe even as people.  This is an example of having a too-big self so that you feel everyone is looking at you.  As I spend more time in this crowded world, I feel less self-conscious, more accustomed to being seen and unnoticed and acceptable, and that helps me to worry less about whether people are judging me.

All this time in public also helps me realize how crucial it is for us to make our public spaces comfortable for all of us by sharing well and by caring about places beyond our own turf.  Instead I see trends toward keeping to ourselves more and having individual things–there are many family households whose members all have separate telephone numbers now, for heaven’s sake!–and cutting off support to public amenities.

Whether you are a person who opposes all contraception and thinks huge families are a wonderful idea, a person who favors freedom of choice and has personally chosen not to reproduce, or anywhere in between, you have to live in this crowded world with the rest of us.  Whether you think all these people should have been born or not, here they are, and each one is a unique human being who might be your next best friend, so why not move over and help to make this world a better place?  It works for me!

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