Is the American Dream Ruining America?

Owning bigger and better homes, buying cars to fill three-car garages, leaving the air conditioning and heating on whenever we please, these are things we are told we deserve in the United States. We are raised with a sense of entitlement to the stuff of the American Dream, regardless of how sustainable it is—or isn’t.

The problem with the American Dream is that the push towards bigger and better, facilitated by the evolution of the freeway system, has generated wastefully large houses and an automobile industry fraught with problems that far surpass the “simple” matter of individual car pollution.

For Char Miller, an environmental studies professor at Pomona College, the biggest environmental culprit in large, McMansion-style homes is HVAC, or heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems. The vast majority of U.S. homes use air conditioning, and until relatively recently, it’s been mostly a uniquely American and Western trend.

Current air conditioning technology, while environmentally superior to its former iterations, still emits ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). According to Miller, the larger concern is the amount of energy wasted to cool large suburban homes.

“American homes are generally built to be incredibly inefficient,” he tells BTRtoday. Even in homes with multiple systems, you end up continuously heating and cooling large spaces where people are not. So even with more environmentally friendly systems, the net benefit is harmful. That’s decidedly problematic and an utter waste of resources.”

Eric Pallant, an environmental science professor at Allegheny College, points at the ever-expanding refrigerators that chew up enormous amounts of electricity. In many ways, refrigerators are just huge, constant streams of air conditioning, and in keeping with the ultimate patriotism of bigger and better, refrigerators average about three more cubic feet than they did in 1980.

Pallant wryly sums up his opinion on such wasteful energy usage, saying, “When I think about the big solutions I think, ‘shoot your refrigerator and shoot television because it’s telling you to buy a big refrigerator.’”

Cars constitute another enormous part of the dream America believes in, with over 200 million cars running the roads of the United States alone.

Miller tells BTRtoday that the automobile’s existence has necessarily led to non-walkable cities and highway systems engineered around commutes between cities and suburbs.

“We’ve created a modern physical form that is defined by the automobile and the fact that we breathe pretty dirty air is a reflection of its damage,” he summarizes. Yet his greater concern is that “the car has a set of consequences that far surpass the automobile’s sole impact on our lives.”

The lack of public transit stems directly as a consequence of the crippling automobile/freeway system on which we rely. “Divided Highways” author Tom Lewis finds it “vexing and frightening” that the stop-and-go traffic in and out of New York City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and all over the country has turned the highway system into a series of “permanent parking lots that are spewing enormous amounts of pollution.”

Lewis blames American shortsightedness as well as “selfishness” for the 20th century precedence of the freeway system over public investment in mass transit.

“Everyone immediately goes to the costs of these things,” he opines to BTRtoday. But prioritizing the cost of a train system, for example, over the systematic costs of the current automobile framework is, as Lewis so frankly puts it, “a really foolish thought.”

“Of course it’s going to have a cost,” he scoffs. “I would rather spend my money on that than on putting my house on stilts because of sea level rise,” he says, invoking the effect car pollution has on climate change.

Furthermore, the American automobile paradigm facilitates a cycle of bigger and bigger suburban tracts with obscenely large houses.

When the 1956 Interstate Highway Bill was passed, according to Lewis, you suddenly didn’t have to shape your living situation around proximity to train or bus stations. You could buy a subsidized suburban home of roughly 1,200 or 1,300 square feet and commute to the city.

The problem is, according to Lewis, that the American Dream exploded that square footage in the name of progress. 1,300 square feet became several thousand. “Which is, of course, preposterous,” Lewis assures us, saying that such size is unnecessary and “enormously wasteful in terms of energy.”

His ire comes not only from the size itself but also from the wasted space. “They have three bays for garages,” he laments.

“It’s incredible the amount of demands we make,” he says in disbelief. “We can’t have two cars, that’s not enough. A couple living together has to have two cars and then they have to have a recreational vehicle or some other kind of stupid vehicle that wastes energy and costs an enormous amount.”

So what now? “Bigger and better” is the American way of life. The American Dream teaches us that we are owed a three-car garage with an extra “stupid vehicle” on the side.

One solution that comes to mind is to move into the country and live closer to nature, cutting down on energy usage and car pollution. All three environmentalists, however, firmly disapprove of this plan on the basis that living in nature often comes at the detriment of nature, and it actually increases automobile usage.

Instead, the consensus is that the best version of the American Dream is one in which people live in small apartments in dense, urban environments and take public transportation. The opposite, in other words, of what we are currently taught to strive for.

“In a properly planned community,” Lewis imagines, “I’d be able to walk to a store. If I needed my dry cleaning done, I would not drive three or five miles to do it. That would mean that you wouldn’t be using your car. You wouldn’t be using your resources in ways that are ultimately terribly harmful for the environment.”

Though Pallant, Miller, and Lewis have very similar New Urbanist visions, they maintain starkly different degrees of optimism.

Pallant and Miller both have hope for current trends of urban growth, signaling a new kind of dream. They remind us that the droves of city-bound Millennials taking over places like Portland, Seattle, and New York, indicates that young people are increasingly fed up with suburban living and the promises it makes.

As Pallant puts it: “I think your generation is starting to figure this out because you’re all going, ‘Fuck the suburbs, where’s the life?’”

Lewis’ expectation, on the other hand, is far less rosy. “My American Dream,” he says, “would be for an America that had lived up to its responsibilities, engaged its space responsibly, and ultimately did not build enormous wasteful houses and communities.”

A lovely notion, sure, but he also believes that the DNA of the American Dream is so powerful that such a vision will never come to fruition.

“We’re screwed, is what I’m trying to say,” he concludes.