Glorifying material wealth destroys nature and makes people miserable.
“They call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin
Does the phrase ‘American Dream’ mean anything to you? Having changed many times since first used about 100 years ago, the American Dream now refers to an orgy of consumption, driving Americans to seek happiness in material goods, at great cost to themselves and the natural world. Why is the American Dream such a nightmare?
According to historian Sarah Churchill, “The original ‘American Dream’ was not a dream of individual wealth; it was a dream of equality, justice and democracy for the nation. The phrase was repurposed by each generation, until the Cold War, when it became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy.” Churchill writes that the Dream’s evolution froze in the 1950s, when it became identified as the material good life, which Merriam Webster describes as “the suburban home, good jobs, two cars, and plenty of money.”
In the 50s postwar boom, this materialist vision seemed to work. Even lower class, prefab suburbs like Levittowns represented a big step up from urban slums. People could watch other white people in TV sitcoms living in nice houses and imagine their own lives being so comfortable and rewarding.
But most suburbanites back then were not happy. They were using tranquilizers and alcohol to keep their heads above water, as I remember well from my parents’ lives. People felt compelled to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ competing to show the most success in material terms. They were also compelled to conform: to have lawns and houses that looked like everyone else’s. This conformity and consumption continue today and are often enforced by homeowners’ associations (HOAs) regulations.
Happiness through individual material consumption doesn’t work. It’s the opposite of a society based on community. Philosopher Charles Eisenstein contrasts a society based on materialism, in which “each of us lives sequestered in our own homes, never needing to interact with each other to procure food, water, play, child care, or entertainment,” with traditional societies where people relied on each other to get those things. The way of material wealth actually stands in direct opposition to the way of community. Which way gives more happiness and health? Which is more sustainable?
Suburbs erase extended families and communities. People not only live far from family, they may not know their neighbors and may rarely see them. There may be no nearby places to hang out with people and make friends. Free standing suburban houses are built for nuclear families: two parents, two kids, one dog, no grandparents or cousins. Living in those houses, people become isolated, and some go off the rails.
Suburbanites are also alienated from nature, though no worse than in the cities TBH. The endless freeways that connect and divide seekers of the American Dream also divide nature from itself, blocking creatures from their habitats and migration routes, running them over if they try to move freely or connect.
Suburbs vs. nature
The suburbs are the least sustainable way of living imaginable, and their ecological bill is coming due. Things in suburbs are far apart, so people rarely walk. Since there aren’t enough people to ride them, public transport systems are unreliable or nonexistent. Everybody drives everywhere, including long distance daily commutes, polluting the air, stressing themselves, missing exercise, and getting into auto accidents.
People living in individual houses need their own individual appliances. Everybody has to buy their own washer and dryer, their own microwaves and vacuums and twenty other machines. This is one reason suburbs were promoted in the first place, to get people to buy the stuff American factories were producing. But think of all the energy and materials that are wasted when 100 houses need 100 washing machines instead of a six-machine Laundromat where people can meet and share. It’s a capitalist dream and an environmental/sociological nightmare.
When I was a child, our new suburb wasn’t totally built out. There were little marshes where my brothers and I could go watch frogs, bugs, and wildflowers. By the time I graduated high school, those wetlands had been paved over for fast food parking lots. Suburbs are typically built on former agricultural land or bulldozed wild land. They cut the supply of fresh food, deny homes to animals and plants, contribute to mass extinction of species and climate change.
In the 21st century, suburban unsustainability manifests in collapsing infrastructure. Neighborhoods that were built cheaply and sold to less affluent people are now crumbling. We see this in the Bay Area in towns that were classy 40 years ago. Planners didn’t consider or didn’t acknowledge how much higher the costs of maintaining plumbing, roads, gas, electricity, and waste disposal would be with everything so far apart. Residents are unable or unwilling to pay the fees or taxes needed to maintain infrastructure, so things break down.
We are living in a nightmare. The American Dream is just part of the nightmare, and the suburban home is just part of the dream. A lot of cities, particularly in the American West, are also sprawling and paving over all nature in their path. We need to wake up from the American nightmare if we are ever to live peacefully on this Earth.
We can do this. We’ve just forgotten how. Traditional people typically live in groups. Native Americans, for example, often lived in long houses or group tents with several families living together. People in multi-family or extended family housing have more support, more help with children, less craziness.
Condos or apartments can be healthier than free-standing houses. Homeowners know the workload of maintenance, the stress of paying mortgage, the housework to keep a house clean. They know the difficulties of commuting long distances through traffic. They may have more material wealth, but does it make them happy?
If you live in a car-commuting suburb, you can move to the city and organize community, or move to the country and grow things. Or you could work to turn your suburb into a sustainable community. I think people will need to move in together, connect their extended or chosen families, turn neighboring individual homes into compounds, turn lawns into food gardens, create small systems of public transportation. An article in the Dallas News relates how some suburbs around the country are creating small economic zones with businesses and cultural center, cafes and laundries so people can live in their communities and connect with other people.
The American Dream is the same scam as American freedom. It’s a psy-op designed to get us buying more stuff, living lonely lives focused on material goods, and calling ourselves free. Instead, let’s build communities and reconnect with Nature. Let’s wake up to the beautiful world waiting for us outside dreamland.
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