::Literate Blather::
Friday, April 25, 2008
Essay: Addicted to Convenience
My neighbor rarely ventures outside of her house. There really is no reason to. Her groceries – peanut butter, toilet paper, Oreos, et al – are delivered each week. Her dry cleaner provides door-to-door service. Landscapers roll up in pick-up trucks like clockwork every time her lawn needs to be mowed or raked. DVDs come in the mail – along with her books.

Pizza and Chinese food deliveries occur a few times a week. And, of course, she has Internet access and cable TV.

Her house is beginning to look a lot like a cocoon.

It’s time to admit that as Americans we’re addicted to shortcuts. We want things to be fast, easy, and cheap. And that spells: convenience. Americans aren’t lazy. Our work productivity is the highest in the world. We work longer hours and take less vacation than other developed nations. But we’re obsessed with saving time (what we’re saving it for is unclear).

Take these rather alarming statistics pointing to our addiction to convenience:

  • The staggering increase in the popularity of disposal cameras – even disposable digital cameras. Analyst firm IDC said disposal camera sales reached a high of 460 million units in 2004.

  • About 30 percent of all households across the United States (about 34 million homes) use landscaping companies to maintain their lawns and yards. Consumers in the U.S. spent more than $44.7 billion on landscaping, according to the National Gardening Association. The growth of landscaping services increases about 10 percent each year.
  • The market for grocery delivery is expected to reach a high of $7.5 billion in 2008. The average time it takes to order groceries is about 10 minutes, according to a report in the Canadian Press. Why go to the supermarket?
  • 2007 marked the sixth consecutive year that online sales increased at a double-digit rate. Last year, online sales hit an all-time high of about $62.7 billion.
  • Going out to eat – even at fast food and casual restaurants is declining in favor of “prepared foods” consumers can buy at supermarkets (or have delivered by supermarkets) and pop into the microwave oven at home, according to a study by Technomic.

Americans view these everyday tasks as chores – unnecessary inconveniences and time wasters better delegated to another. But it’s a mistake to think of these things as chores – they’re responsibilities. They’re the cost of self-sufficiency (and, quite frankly, help build character). Isn’t the child who does their own homework better off than the child who pays someone else to do it?

There is, of course, an enormous price for all of this convenience: pollution, climate change, and energy consumption. But the high social and cultural costs may be the most damaging. All this convenience – and buck passing – is isolating individuals and eroding the social fabric of our neighborhoods and communities.

This disconnect may be this is why Americans continue to believe our society is at its most dangerous point in history despite a long-time trend in declining violent crime rates (the homicide rate in 2005, for example, was at its lowest point since 1965. But good lucking trying to convince people of that).

My parents knew all of their neighbors intimately. The women all stayed home with their children – set up play dates, babysat for each other, visited each other for lunch and tea. My father knew the men because every weekend they were outside cutting their lawns, trimming their hedges, painting their houses and garages, washing their cars, and performing other regular maintenance on their homes. They took breaks together, borrowed tools from each other, and shared beers at the end of the day.

That forged friendships which lead to family barbeques, joint vacations, dinner and movie dates, dinner parties, etc. When I was growing up, I was intimate with the insides of every neighbor’s house, played with their children, knew their relatives, and thought of neighbors as surrogate parents.

Now as an adult, I’ve never been inside any of my neighbors’ houses, except for one. Only four people out of 10 houses on my section of street even cut their own lawns (and this includes a 75-year-old widow).

Our thirst for convenience undermines our communities. Ordering DVDs over the Internet has closed down one of the two video stores in town. Amazon.com and other online book retailers shuttered the two bookstores many years ago. Home theater will eventually eradicate movie houses. Can gourmet “prepared meals” soon replace restaurants?

We even let convenience erode services we used to get for free. That’s why we now pump our own gas and why we’re starting to check-out and bag our own groceries at the supermarket. Because doing it alone is faster.

Convenience has become an addiction. One all responsible adults should try and break. Mow your own lawn. Rake rather than use a gas-powered blower. Paint your house. Go food shopping. These tasks? These chores?

It’s called life.

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Blogger SQT said...
This is so so true.

I am too cheap to hire a gardener or a housekeeper however and I stay home with the kids. Unfortunately this has not helped me get to know the neighbors because they are never outside.

Cocoon indeed.

There is, of course, an enormous price for all of this convenience: pollution, climate change, and energy consumption.

This can be an overgeneralization. If you have one guy who brings his lawnmower and mows four lawns on the street in one morning, that's only one lawnmower that needs to get serviced, get its oil changed, etc. each Spring. And oddly, the guy who brings his lawnmower around here, and his wife, are actually a part of people coming out of their cocoons. They're so outgoing and sweet that it tends to encourage folks to come out and chat for a while.

I prefer to get my own groceries because my husband and I adore cooking from scratch. I love looking over the produce bins and seeing what's in season that we could cook with. That said, if you have one truck delivering groceries to 20 people in one trip, isn't that more efficient in terms of pollution and gas use than having 20 families truck to the store individually?

I agree with your premise in general---we're certainly much more isolated as a general rule than we used to be, and I don't think that's a good thing. We're also becoming less self-sufficient in the name of efficiency, I agree. But sometimes that can lead us to over-generalizations in the other direction, too.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Hi Heather:
The pollution, climate change, and energy consumption comments I made were in reference to more global concerns rather than local (the environmental impact of say industrial farming for fast and frozen foods, for example).

However, I'm not sure I agree with your premise on the one lawnmower. It will use just as much gas as four lawnmowers and the landscaper needs to drive to each of the homes.

Now if you're advocating that neighbors collectively buy and use one lawnmower (electric is cleaner) then I'm all for it.

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