Time for a New American Dream

by Carolyn Chase


he local Sierra Club is being asked to endorse subdivisions in the "North City Future Urbanizing Area" between I-5/Carmel Valley Road and going east to I-15. Developers, landowners, environmentalists and neighbors have fought over plans for these areas for years. A citywide vote is required to approve much of the development in this specially designated area.

I had the chance to tour and view first-hand the open spaces proposed to become urbanized. I consider it a moral duty to personally witness the plants and habitats we are condemning and attempting to save. Our purpose was to review the latest proposed encroachments into carefully negotiated open space areas. These areas will stay open space in an attempt to provide enough habitat and movement corridors for the remaining native plants and animals. If you don't leave enough habitat, and the right layout of space, then it risks becoming just an "urban amenity" which increases property values, but does little for wildlife.

The end of the tour was a visit to Carmel Mountain, the largest remaining stand of coastal maritime chaparral, and the only one actually left on the top of a mesa. The linchpin to this deal for environmentalists is saving this. Compared with the pending destruction, it looked pitifully small. It is also utterly unique.

Knowing that the mesa top was home to some terribly endangered species, and with a professional botanist along, I requested to be shown one of the most endangered plants in San Diego County: dudleya brevifolia, or "short-leaved dudleya." I had heard of this plant, but actually wanted to come face-to-face with a live example of what we were trying to save.

We drove along a dirt road cut out of the chaparral. We stopped to look in an area where it had been seen in the past. As we got out, those who knew what to look for started scanning the ground. "Look very carefully they said. It's hard to see it because it looks just like the little rocks in the road." And there it was - a low-growing succulent on both sides of the car and now underneath! We had parked our sport utility vehicles right on top of one of the last remaining patches of one of the most endangered plants in the world. The irony was not lost on me.

We are being consumed by growth. It used to be called colonization. But colonialism went "out of fashion" as the British empire faded. Now we call it development. But it's fundamentally the same process: destruction of one thing and replacement with another. Locally and globally, the replacement culture is becoming overwhelmingly consumption-oriented at the expense of both the environment and our long term sustainability, both economically and socially.

We need to build a new American Dream. Not because the old one is bad per se, but because the scale of it is becoming a threat to our future. We're literally consuming the earth on which we all depend. It was never more apparent to me than seeing the bulldozers roll on that tour making room for more growth locally. Our attempts to save a few pieces here and there are dwarfed in comparison.

Our systems are designed to roll over things and replace them, whether land or people, and we are good at it. We even convince the people in the way that it will be good for them, and it is good for some of them. But it's slowly emerging as a disaster for many others and folly for the both the local and the global environment.

Now I'm basically not much of a doomsayer kind of person. But the list of scientifically identified problems with the global environment is formidable even for the most optimistic: unprecedented species extinctions, fisheries crashing, forests declining, pollution of water and air, ozone holes, climate change and persistent population growth which underlies them all.

But we go along embedded, if not trapped, in the service of a "more is better" consumer culture. More consumption, more development, more growth. Does this really lead to more happiness? When will we learn that more is not always better, just always more?

Polls show that Americans are less happy today than they were in 1970. These findings state that the relentless drive for consumption and material wealth may actually be decreasing our well-being at the same time it is surely degrading the environment.

How can we respond? Many are beginning to call for a prosperity based on simplification -- of consumption, work patterns, and relationships -- leading to a higher quality of life and reduced impacts on the environment. "Voluntary simplicity" has been identified as one of the fastest-growing trends in the country as more and more Americans downshift to less hectic and consumptive habits into more rewarding lives. "Downshifters" are spending more time doing the things they find meaningful and less time running to "keep up with the Joneses."

Focusing on the quality of our lives and the real sources of that quality can help us change our relationship with money, work and community and foster a greater sense of satisfaction with who we are and what we have. Voluntary simplicity helps us take steps to change our lifestyles to need and want less and start to bring our consumption habits in line with environmental constraints.

VS discussion groups meet once a week for seven sessions. If you are interested in organizing a group at your office, church or home, or simply taking a VS course, contact me via email or call me at (619) 272-7423.