Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book, The Place You Love Is Gone, says modern culture destroys the things we cherish and value, that give life meaning. Pessimists condemn “our sick modern society.” That viewpoint is epitomized too by Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, saying we have made a “false world of plastic flowers and Astroturf, air conditioning and fluorescent lights,” and so on, a “dysfunctional civilization,” that keeps us from “direct experience with real life.”
Happily for Mr. Gore, he never directly experienced the real life endured by pre-industrial peoples, which probably would have killed him before he could write his book. And Bjorn Lomborg (in The Skeptical Environmentalist) responds: “We have more leisure time, greater security and fewer accidents, more education, more amenities, higher incomes, fewer starving, more food and a healthier and longer life. This is the fantastic story of mankind, and to call such a civilization ‘dysfunctional’ is quite simply immoral.” Lomborg characterizes Gore’s view as a supercilious attitude that devalues all the human suffering we have overcome, and ultimately denies people’s basic right to live as they choose.
Air conditioning and fluorescent lights are certainly artificial, but have improved life in seriously meaningful ways. Air conditioning for example has been a key factor propelling economic development in places like the American South, relieving much poverty (not to mention discomfort). So what is Gore’s criterion for goodness? What interest should be served? Yes, much in modern life is artificial—vaccines, hearing aids, electrocardiographs, and Gore-tex (no relation) do not occur in nature, but keep us from direct experience with disease, deafness, heart failure, and frostbite. And my mother gets real pleasure from her plastic flowers, that bloom all year—without using any water, too.
Pierson’s book is caustic about developers “desecrating” cherished old sites, just for—the horror!—money. But she doesn’t stop to consider where that money comes from. It comes, obviously, from paying customers—when their needs and desires are better served by the new than by the old. Spending their money is one way people vote for what they want. Ms. Pierson might not agree with what they want, but that’s what happens in a democracy.
Modern society is not sick; it’s healthier than ever. And the place I love is here and now.