Sarah Zoe Wexler has spent the past five years exploring the American dream, as it grows bigger, wider — supersized. While researching her new book “Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn't Going Better,” she got a consultation for a breast enlargement, test drove an H3, shopped her way around the Mall of America, and ended up in California amidst the wreckage of our mass consumption: our largest garbage dump, a 1,365-acre swirling mountain of garbage near Los Angeles. I spoke with Wexler about her inspiration for the project, her own transformation as a narrator, and her thoughts on how to tone back our lifestyles.
MNN: What inspired you to write the book?
Wexler: Basically, my parents are former hippies. They were very into the idea of living small. Long before it was a trend, we were members of a CSA and used that Dr. Bronner’s soap for everything. We’d even take family trips to the recycling center every weekend and didn’t eat beef at my house because it consumes more resources in terms of land, water and pollution. Then, I basically looked around one day. I had a two-bedroom townhouse by myself. I had an SUV that I never took off road, ever. I stopped being a vegetarian, shopped mainly at box stores … I looked at my life and thought how did it get so big? I think it’s because I had let myself default. I thought if this could happen to me, who had been raised to be so aware of the impact of living small and the impact of living large, then really it could happen to anyone.
The more I looked around my life, at small businesses replaced by strip malls, perfectly nice houses in my old neighborhood bull-dozed for McMansions, I became more interested in exploring this norm, to see why large was the default in America.
How did you change as you researched the book?
Some aspects of my research absolutely shocked me. For instance, I was surprised learning about the impact Wal-Mart has on communities. After going to that landfill and seeing what happens when we throw things "away" I was horrified. But I am a real person, and I was totally seduced by many of the things in my book. I loved trying on the two karat diamonds at Tiffany's! So I understand the allure of it all, but I still work as a writer at Allure magazine and bought a new couch from Crate & Barrel. After researching the book, I rethought a few things. I got rid of my SUV and only take public transportation. I'm also living small in other ways, like I gave up eating my very favorite kind of Kirby cucumbers, because they came individually wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray.
How do you feel your book fits into the green movement?
Well, I didn’t start out thinking it would be an argument for going green. But in the end, I think it kind of is. Or at least about living smaller. It's about rethinking what living well means. For a lot of people, I think in American mythology, the way to show you’ve made it is to have the biggest house and the biggest car and to live large like that. But studies have shown that those things don’t make us happier and really contribute to hurting the environment. McMansions are built in ways that aren’t green or sustainable. The wood continues emitting greenhouse gases for 20 years from these new-construction houses, for instance. So my book is about reconceptualizing what living well means. Maybe that means riding your bike sometimes. Maybe that means buying groceries at the farmers market instead of Walmart because by living smaller and supporting things that come from closer to you, you make a big difference. My argument is that you can live smaller and feel happier and have less of a carbon footprint. That’s kind of the new way to show you’ve made it.
You use the term "right sizing" a lot — what does this mean?
Right sizing is a corporate jargon word that I think we should reclaim and take back. When most people hear the word downsize, that has horrible connotations. That equals bad. People don't want to downsize, but they might be willing to right-size. Nobody wants to buy a smaller house or car or those things. But obviously, doing so really benefits the environment and improves our quality of life. We need to think more about the size car or house we need and recalibrate that way. Think of it as a choice we make to feel better, happier, improve our community and help the environment. Don’t just default to the biggest size.
What's the takeaway lesson for your audience?
Unless you are living really, really contrary to most Americans, we are all living large. All of us. When I was writing the book, I thought if we keep going down this road, where does that take us? What does that lead to? It’s not good. Let me tell you, after seeing the landfill, it ain’t good. So I think we need to wake up to the idea that there are impacts to our actions and make actual thought-out decisions versus just defaulting to big because that's what our neighbors are doing or that's what we see on “Real Housewives.” If we think about the smallest size [of everything] that we can be happy with, instead of making easy, non-choices about our bodies, houses, food, etc., that's huge.
"Living Large" became available on Oct. 26. The hard copy retails for $23.99 — but think about purchasing the electronic copy for $10.99 and save a few trees from the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.