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Review of The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream

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3 comments, last: Jul-18-2009   Add a comment   Contributor:  GreenHomeBldg (Jul-15-2009)
Categories: Economic/Financial, Pollution, Renewable Energy Sources, Sustainable Living

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: and he also has a Web site:


You can find his book, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome listed at

 *** No related readings were found for tag "suburb" *** 
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Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Jul-18-2009)
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jul-17-2009)   Web site

The book sounds like a valuable re-visiting of the topic of houses and land ownership.

The reader may also like to look back at a PlanetThought I wrote here in March, What is the American Dream? Is It What You Read in Today's Newspapers? It is good to be careful what you wish for -- you might get it!
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Jul-15-2009)   Web site

Sounds like a good book, and this is certainly a helpful review. Thank you Kelly.

Expansion to fill a continent may have made sense in Thomas Jefferson's day (although not, I suspect, to the native Americans that were forced out). It makes no sense now, and as oil prices rise the suburbs and exurbs may become obsolete. The film The End of Suburbia is good on this topic, which probably affects Australia, Canada and other countries about as much as it does the USA.

I take your point on adobe building. It used to be popular in Mexico, but just as the car companies and oil companies destroyed the railways and tramways, powerful cement companies here have sidelined adobe.

As land becomes necessary for growing food or capturing CO2, as oil wells run dry, and as global markets become saturated, we will all need to be mentally prepared to find a different, less expansive way of living. Whether we like it or not, the growth that our economic system relies upon is coming to an end and - whether through evolution or revolution - we will need to find a new way of living.

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About contributor Member: GreenHomeBldg (Kelly Hart) GreenHomeBldg (Kelly Hart)
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Member: GreenHomeBldg (Kelly Hart) Kelly Hart is the host of, and has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. He spent many years as a professional remodeler, during which time he became acquainted with many of the pitfalls of conventional construction. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation (he has a patent for a process for making animated films), video production and now website development. One of the more recent DVD programs that he produced is A Sampler of Alternative Homes: Approaching Sustainable Architecture, which explores a whole range of building concepts that are earth friendly. Kelly is knowledgeable about both simple design concepts and more complex technological aspects of home building that enhance sustainable living. He designed and built a solar-electric car that he drove around his neighborhood. Kelly, and his wife Rosana, lived in an earthbag/papaercrete home that they designed and built in Colorado, and are now living in Mexico.

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