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Whither Paradise?

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Lord help this world--everyone in it wants to live like Americans.

That's the conclusion I'm drawing from living in the south of France. That's right, France, the nation we believe quintessentially anti-American, where people riot when a McDonald's opens and cultural taste-makers deliberately steer a course 180 degrees from ours. Here my family and I are getting a close-up view of how consumerism, America's leading export, is creeping its way into the habits of a people. It's giving us new insights into how much we have lost in the Triangle already.

Five years ago, my wife and I took a two-week honeymoon in Provence, soaking in the local markets, fresh food, exhilarating hikes, rich wines and sunny people. People here know how to live and the pace of life is palpably different. Working the earth remains an admired profession, and work in general is relegated to its proper place as a part of a full life, not the perigee around which a life orbits. The ancient buildings in which people still make their homes, work, and worship convey a sense of place and history unlike anything in our suburban upbringings. We were so enchanted with the place that this past January we returned, a 4-year-old boy in tow, and pregnant (our daughter was born here two months ago).

Imagine our surprise upon arrival when we came to the familiar turn into our little corner of the same village where we lived before and saw the golden arches in all their McGlory. Our son is in preschool here, and he has had playdates at the McPlayland--while they swear they don't like the food, the parents relent to their kids' love of the sundaes, fries and playground. They don't know they are imprinting their kids with brand awareness, and my French isn't good enough to explain it to them.

In five years, this area has become a burgeoning boom land. We find many parallels with our home in Chatham County: local government leaders pushing "growth" as an economic panacea; land-rich, money-poor farm families selling out their patrimonies; formerly rural vistas pock-marked with cookie-cut homes; Big Box retail malls wrapping urban zones with concentric circles of consumer excess; an educational and public works infrastructure that is not keeping pace with the influx of new homes; exploding property values--and property taxes. Chatham is not the only paradise under the assault of bulldozers.

Just as in Chatham five years ago, these trends were already under way in Provence when we visited before. They have simply picked up steam thanks to the cooperation of friendly government officials and a growing envy for things among the citizens. In our conversations with our neighbors, we hear laments that the French economy is uncompetitive because of its 35-hour work week and universal health care system. We hear that people are not content with the possessions their 35 hours earn them. We hear calls for "regulatory reform." We see the cars have gotten bigger. We see 12-year-olds with cell phones.

Not to say that this country is in danger of becoming Cary tomorrow. Everyone agrees that enjoyment of Provence's natural beauty is la plus belle vie. Yet the trend of materialism is growing, and no one seems to be aware of it. Like Americans, the French want it all, but their definition of "all" is expanding. If it continues, the French, like us, will be in for a rude awakening when the Earth finally cries out "ENOUGH!" and la belle vie is lost.

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