Thursday, March 10, 2005

The American Dream

Time and time again you hear this expression in the news, in advertisements and in pop culture itself. It is also very much a part of the planning profession as well. Just this past week, it came up in a General Plan forum on a number of occasions. Most of those were made in reference to the common desire to own one’s very own 2,300 sq foot, two car (minimum) with a little yard and a little privacy from the hustle and bustle. There was a general sense of concern among the participants that continued development would consume too much land and price out too many individuals from attaining that dream. Others voiced concern with the rampant speculation and influx of “equity refugees” to our county. Some were concerned about potential limits to growth posed by water shortages and even endangered species act (by declaring certain lands of limits.
Excuse me? The prospect of too little land and too much speculation is causing worry? Consternation over the delays triggered an endangered species may lead to the torpedoing of the American dream? I think there are a lot bigger threats out there than an endangered fox. Try energy maybe? The next topic of discussion at the meeting was even more amusing: sustainable growth. At this point you may be aware of the UNplanning take on growth; it is unsustainable over the long term whenever you have limitations on the availability of the requisite inputs. So any promotion of growth, “sustainable” or not, is not a good idea. Whether or not people are willing to understand this message or not, it does pose one serious challenge: it goes against the “American Dream”
Well sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but our “American Dream” is not sustainable. It is not even maintainable. It was merely an aberration, brought to us by a spectacular raid on the most highly formed, energy-dense source of fuels this planet has ever known—oil, gas and coal. Without them we have no easy transportation that permits our two-car household and our ever-increasing VMT (vehicle-miles traveled) rates. It renders useless our current land use patterns that were built around the automobile that dictated the separation of non-residential lands from our residential lands and different types of residences from each other. Without access to an adequate supply of energy the residences themselves are left uninhabitable when they can no longer be heated, cooled or supplied water. Our “American dream” economy is greased by oil and fueled by it and natural gas and coal. Originally financed by the products we used to make it is increasingly funded by debt lent to us by other nations. Take away the energy and this engine of growth seizes up and fails.

The fact that we use a disproportionate share of the world’s energy supply to achieve the American Dream has bred feelings of hostility against the US and its reluctance to share—or negotiate—the American way of life. Hostility at least is manageable (via diplomatic and militaristic means). What is not manageable and ultimately threatens our global ecology is that our way of life has also bred emulation by others. In country after country, automobiles and mass-produced consumer goods proliferate almost exponentially. Diets shift from locally produced, indigenous crops to globally supplied processed groceries. This emulation great and small is taxing this planet’s ability to cope with the effects. It is also becoming painfully obvious that there isn’t enough energy to go around for everyone. Every country that bought into our “way of life” will soon realize they were sold a defective set of goods.

And what about us, the originators of the “good life?” Well, you know what they say, “the bigger they are, the harder the fall.”


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