The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream is a timely book that analyzes the origins and eventual failure of what has been known as the "American Dream." John F. Wasik, the author of this very well researched and written book is a finance columnist for Bloomberg News, so he has his finger on the pulse of American finance and folly. Published in 2009, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome is full of insight about how the dream has become a nightmare and ways that we need to proceed so that we may sleep contentedly again.
Europeans began settling in the Americas with the dream of establishing private domains that would provide wealth and security. Thomas Jefferson popularized and manifested the "pursuit of happiness" through land ownership with establishing his grand Monticello in Virginia. He believed that all free men should have the opportunity to follow his lead and he imagined a huge grid of towns and farms extending across the continent. There would be lots of open space between individual homesteads, and each domain would be more or less autonomous
If you fast forward to the twentieth century, you can see how Jefferson's dream became manifest in the movement of people out of cities' central districts to establish their own little Monticellos in the suburbs. Homeownership became a way of building and preserving wealth. Everybody could have, and was entitled to, his own little kingdom. The cul-de-sac syndrome was born.
Wasik outlines the history of how this simple impulse for a better life became a real estate mania, where leveraged debt became a tool for creating wealth through homeownership. The belief that real estate values only appreciate fueled a speculative frenzy that created one of the largest bubbles of overvalued commodities ever: homes. Tempted by mortgage companies with easily accessible loans, even people who obviously could not afford homes jumped on the bandwagon.
As we are so painfully aware now, the bubble suddenly burst in 2008, and the fallout from this will be felt for years. The author uses case histories of real people to demonstrate just how difficult these post-bubble times have been.
John Wasik doesn't stop the narrative with his description of how unsustainable the real estate bubble was. He discusses what is probably even more important: how unsustainable the homes themselves are in terms of design, placement within the infrastructure, and energy consumption. He shows how these factors are adding to the misery of homeowners who cannot afford to pay to heat and cool their mini mansions, nor can they afford the necessary commute to work. The cost of these energy inputs (largely from fossil fuels) is stifling both the consumer and the earth's biosphere.
In general the infrastructure that supports suburban development is not borne directly by the inhabitants or the contractors who built them; these costs are passed on to government agencies. So this is another way that such sprawl is economically unsustainable.
The cul-de-sac syndrome is negatively affecting our health, productivity, and family life. All of those hours spent driving is lost time that could have been spent walking or getting exercise, doing productive work, or having a good time with the family.
As an antidote to all of this malaise, the author outlines a variety of strategies. He describes how houses can be built to heat and cool themselves through passive solar design and how they can even produce their own electricity. Water can be conserved in many ways. And often these greener homes are healthier to live in because attention is given to possibly toxic materials.
Wasik sees green manufactured housing as a strong component of sustainable development, and he gives examples of these. He points out that factory-built homes generally waste less material, can be constructed faster, and are designed with proven efficiency.
One aspect of home building that I feel is largely neglected in this book, and in much of the "green" building trade, is any discussion of the embodied energy inherent in both conventional and manufactured housing. From an environmental standpoint this is a significant factor, in that all of the energy that goes into manufacturing industrial products for home construction, and transporting them to the site is a form of pollution. I would like to see greater recognition that natural building techniques and materials, such as adobe, rammed earth, cordwood, strawbale, and earthbag building have an important place in designing a sustainable future.
A major thrust of any movement toward a sustainable residential complex is the recognition that inner city, urban dwelling is considerably greener than living in the suburbs outside the city's core. Wasik shows that not only are people finding that they save money by being able to walk or take mass transit, but they are healthier and more productive because they are not spending that time commuting. It is a high priority for cities to examine their zoning and building codes to accommodate more dense urban and greener residential development.
So the new American Dream may take awhile to realize, but once we begin to attain it we will become more secure with a smaller carbon footprint, we will become healthier, and we will lead happier, more fulfilling lives. This new dream is less about each person having his own fiefdom and more about all of us coming together to realize a common dream of living in balance with nature on earth.
John Wasik has a blog where he explores many of the issues touched on in this article: dailywombat.blogspot.com and he also has a Web site: www.johnwasik.com
You can find his book, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome listed at Amazon.com.