I've just spent a week in Florida and the trip involved quite a lot of driving - nearly 1000 miles in total. As ever, I was amazed at how huge the place is compared to England. When I got home, I did a little research and discovered that the Sunshine State is even bigger than I thought. Way bigger in fact. England has just 50,337 square miles of land. By comparison, Florida is thirty per cent larger with a land mass of 65,755 square miles. And that's just one state in the US. Texas is more than five times bigger!
Not only that, but Florida has just a third of England's population, which for the States is quite large. Only New York, Texas and California are more populous. If you look at the population density for every country in the world, the UK is the 22nd most densely populated. Given our population size versus land mass, there are 660 of us per square mile. Now compare that with the States where there are just 83 Americans per square mile: it's nearly a factor of eight less!
All that space does something to a person.
The wide expanses of the North American continent are bound to affect people. When you're used to the West coast being over 3,000 miles and four time zones from the East, you assume a different outlook on a number of things. It's partly because of the physical distance between things, but it's also more than that. All that space means you are less inhibited and you think more expansively. There is nothing to hold you back. As a consequence everything is bigger: from the cars and the buildings, to the houses and the roads...
Now combine all that with the cult of individualism - a defining American quality - and things can start to get very large indeed. There are houses on the US market that top 50,000 square feet, while the average home is 2,300 square feet. Compare this to England where our average house size is just 818 square feet.
Thinking big has consequences.
Of course, thinking big has many consequences. And one of them is energy consumption. Greater land mass and distances require more fuel to cross. A bigger home requires increased heating or, conversely in Florida, more cooling.
When you walk into one of the huge retail outlets or hotels that have sprouted from the state's humid swampland you are immediately hit with a wall of cool air. It's very pleasant, but at the same time hugely wasteful. And it's the same with the houses. In 100 degree weather you need cool air but there is no concession to shade. All the trees have gone to make way for thousands of prefabricated homes that bake in the heat. No wonder America consumes 25% of all energy but only possess 4.5% of the global population.
I really can't see the situation changing. It's partly the mindset, partly the size of the place and partly the culture of choice and freedom, which prioritises the rights of any individual to live out their version of the American Dream.
Those values are so deeply engrained in American values and the nation's history, that it seems unlikely that we will witness a sea change in the USA's approach to consumption.
But you never know - if some of its brightest minds can think big about the environment we could yet see the kind of significant change required.
Some signs are positive, with America already thinking big on renewable energy and six of the world's top ten largest photovoltaic power stations to be built there in the next five years.
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