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A friend recently posted a quote from Matthew Crawford’s book Why We Drive, which sparked a little conversation on the topic, and the virtue-or-lack-thereof, of “eyesore yards.”

Not that I disagree entirely with anything that was said, but as someone who buys it a bit more, I’d like to chyme in and attempt to steelman Crawford’s argument a bit.

Since this might be longer than a comment, and since it’s a topic I’m down with, I decided to post here instead of blowing up the thread.

Here’s the quote that was shared:

Nobody wants to live next to a Superfund site; I get that. My point is that our judgments of “responsibility” get clouded with aesthetic considerations that are in turn wrapped up with class-based forms of self-regard and virtue signaling. Zoning laws, as well as the informal norms of bourgeois environmentalism, serve to maintain social demarcations (and with them, wildly divergent property values). They also enforce the planned obsolescence that our economy is based on.

People who work on old cars, whether as enthusiasts or out of necessity, are out of step with this regime.

I may have forgotten things from the book, but I don’t think that Crawford wants to have an eyesore yard himself, nor do I think he wants his neighbors to have eyesore yards. It’s certainly not a question of admiration for anything called an eyesore. What Crawford is relentless about is the nearly culturally enforced assumption that aesthetically pleasing yards are concomitant with responsible environmental care. This is very much tied up with his argument about the various forms of the Cash For Clunkers business, going as far back as the 70s, which not only failed to live up to their stated goals, but it is not even clear that their stated goals were worthy, or transparent, in the first place.

As he puts it:

Superficially, litter and the rusting carcasses of salvaged cars are both an affront to the eye. But while litter exemplifies that lack of stewardship that is the ethical core of a throwaway society, the visible presence of old cars represents quite the opposite. Yet these are easily conflated under the environmentalist aesthetic, and the result has been to impart a heightened moral status to Americans’ prejudice against the old, now dignified as an expression of civic responsibility.

Civic responsibility qua dignified aesthetic expression. Nail on head, I say. He takes this argument further into the green movement, the main critique being against a culture that seems more than content with the show of environmental care over the act of environmental care.

So the point is not to praise eyesore junk yards or lazy neighbors but to force an admission: What the culture views as dirty can and might be in reality cleaner than what the culture views as clean. It is quite possible, even likely, that the redneck real-life Red Green, with the washing machine, rusted pickup, and 1400 hub caps in his yard, who never travels more than 50 miles from his home, refuses to buy a smart phone, and absolutely denies that anthropogenic global warming is real, is a more environmentally friendly human being (in real terms, not intentional or signaled terms) than the globe-trotting e-car-driving Apple jockey, whose neither phone nor car is ever more than 2 years old, whose yard is as free of weeds as it is of anything that rusts or rots, and who considers the reduction of greenhouse gases the number one priority for humans today. (And, let’s be honest, who probably spends a great deal of time congratulating his ego for his environmental conscientiousness.)

The details of any of these stereotypes can be extended or played with, and they all break down at some point. But the point about the clean green zeitgeist, the aesthetically and superficially driven morality, is, to me, beyond valid. And if nothing else, Crawford’s soapbox about it represents a needed version of humility towards those nasty, dirty RCOs 🤓