When I go on about how we, as a nation, expend too much time, money and energy (not just human energy) on housing, transportation, unhealthy food and just stuff in general, one or more students often object that I'm attacking The American Dream. I don't think I am, because I don't think the "dream" they have in mind is the dream which served as the founding ethos of this country. Living in a McMansion with a three-car garage, commuting an hour or more each day, subsisting on food that doesn't require attentive preparation but contains multiple ingredients we can't pronounce, thinking that "family time" is when we're all on Facebook simultaneously, truly believing that buying the latest widget will somehow provide us with an abiding sense of fulfillment even though no other widget we've ever purchased has managed to do that for more than 10 hours . . . I don't remember reading about any of those practices in 8th grade American History. Those behaviors do have to end, because they're unsustainable. But that doesn't mean that the dream is under attack, because they're not really part of the dream (no matter how much advertisers would like you to believe they are.)
So what is (or was) the real dream? It's hard to speak authoritatively on that question, but the most frequently cited source seems to be James Truslow Adams. In his book The Epic of America (1931), he stated that the American dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." (p.214-215)
It's ironic, then, that the dream Adams described has been overtaken by one of "motor cars and high wages merely", and that social mobility (one measure, at least, of "opportunity for each according to ability or achievement") is now greater in many European countries than in the USA. More than ironic, the shift has proven hurtful to us both as individuals and as a society. And by encouraging rampant consumption in the name of The Consumer Economy, it's proven hurtful to the planet as well.
The good news is that Adams's dream, or any reasonable facsimile thereof that you happen to prefer, is entirely compatible with the needs of a sustainable society and a habitable planet. Once we realize that fulfillment -- life that's "better and richer and fuller for everyone" -- isn't a matter of material possessions and suburban sprawl, the dream can readily fit within a constrained and reactive planetary environment.
As the Fourth of July approaches, I find that knowledge at least potentially comforting.
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