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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Small is Beautiful

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Bonnie Auslander is trying to raise her daughter to be a responsible steward of the environment. But she’s having a hard time convincing the pre-teener to value the small things in life.


GELLERMAN: Well, each shipping container provides about 320 square feet of living space. Commentator Bonnie Auslander reckons that’s enough room for her to live in. But not her daughter.

AUSLANDER: My seven-year-old dreams big. I mean three stories big. “Oh, why can’t we live in a house with stairs?” she begs me. And it’s not just stairs: she wants a dining room, a laundry room, a playroom, oh yeah, and a sun porch. What we have is a 900-square-foot ranch. You can put more people in a MiniCooper than you can in our living room.

Actually, my daughter says our car’s a problem too: she wants an SUV, not our beat up old compact.

My husband and I are patient. We explain to her that big houses and big cars are bad for the earth. We describe greenhouse gases and tell her how all of us are responsible for the fate of the planet.

And sometimes the message gets through. When she saw confused flowers blooming back in January, she knew that meant that most of them would not be returning for her spring birthday four months later. “People should stop driving those big cars,” she told us, “They’re selfish! They don’t care if flowers are blooming when it’s my birthday!”

But other times she forgets the importance of protecting the environment, especially when she gets a lift home in a Suburban or a Commander. Then she comes in demanding we buy a bigger car with a built-in DVD-player and seats that go flat when you press the button. But being up high is the main appeal.

And hey, I can relate. The time I rented an SUV because we needed it to move, I loved looking down on all the other drivers. Well, on the few of them who were still driving compacts, that is.

So I give up on the environmental angle with her and try a different approach. I use my arms to block off half our 18 by 20 foot living room and remind her, “When we lived in Bangladesh, when you were a baby, this is how big Nisha, your babysitter’s, entire apartment was. And do you know who lived there with her? Her mother. Two people in that tiny space! So to her our house is huge!”

This was a tough sell. It’s hard to convince a child that the bigger your worldview is, the more you value small.

Most recently when my daughter complains, I just kept quiet and nod. Would getting what she thinks she wants really make her happy, I wonder?

Probably not, say the recent studies on happiness. Turns out we’re remarkably poor judges of what will make us content. We check out what we have and compare it to what the people we know have. If we have what they have, or more, then we’re happy – at least for a little while.

And it’s not just kids who do the comparing thing. That hit home last week when a new neighbor came by. He had just moved into an enormous McMansion up the street, one he had helped design, everything just the way he wanted it. He walked into our ranch and looked out the window to the back where our kids were playing together on the swing set. “Oooh, nice yard,” he said wistfully, “Ours is tiny.”

GELLERMAN: Commentator Bonnie Auslander lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and writes on a 13-inch laptop.



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