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Rationing the American Dream

Treating the symptoms of overshoot like a lack of affordable housing, whether with subsidies, cost controls or greater development may temporarily lessen the pain, but eventually the problems will resurface or metastasize to new places.

I want a future for my children that includes the same opportunities I had: a good education and job, good health, and a nice home surrounded by an abundance and diversity of plants and animals.

Over the past three decades, I have watched the character and best qualities of my hometown and other treasured places drain away. I fear they will continue to degrade and devolve until they are just another casualty of our human impact crisis.  The opportunities I have had will be harder to achieve, and may even be unattainable, for my children in the not too distant future. 

When I was growing up, Lower Merion Township outside of Philadelphia had a charming small town feel with mom-and-pop stores, quiet neighborhood streets and modest single family homes. Today, that has been replaced by a growing sense of anonymity driven by its development as an extension of the city center, characterized by new towering higher-rise apartment buildings, chain store shopping complexes, parking garages and traffic congestion. 

As a child, our family vacations were spent on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Today,  the seafaring nature of the Island is largely gone, due to the simultaneous cratering of its  fisheries and the skyrocketing demand for vacation housing from tourists.  True “Mainers” are being forced off-island, and what once was a place where one could appreciate the simple qualities of nature and hard work, is now becoming a seasonal playground for the most fortunate.  In the Upper Valley of New Hampshire, where my partner and I relocated last year, we are confronted weekly with front-page headlines about the alarming lack of affordable housing for residents, largely due to people like us having migrated from higher cost, less appealing regions.

These personal experiences are mirrored across the country in countless other communities.  A recent news story about Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which has attracted an increasing number of tourists and second-home owners for its natural beauty and outdoor recreation, reported that the average single-family home price reached $5,000,000 this year. For the workers who are the backbone of the community, and provide the necessary services to allow Jackson Hole to function, there is no affordable housing and many commute from far over the mountain pass in Idaho, which is experiencing its own price spikes from the reverberating effect. It is highly likely your own community is experiencing these and other forces challenging its character and quality of life. 

Well then, what’s the solution? 

The answers usually supplied by community activists and governments are widening roads, building more schools, retraining workers, prohibiting vacation rentals, offering housing subsidies, implementing rent controls, and changing zoning laws to allow for more density and development. Yet, these actions only provide short-term relief and fail to serve as a permanent bulwark against the forces that undermine the character and quality of life we desire for ourselves and our communities.  Psychologists call this line of thinking “reductionist” because it attempts to solve a big picture problem with solutions that merely address the symptoms. 

What Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Wyoming and many other states and countries have in common is not a traffic problem or a housing emergency, but an overfishing, overconsumption, overtourism, overpopulation, overshoot crisis.  

Some leaders are starting to connect these dots, recognizing that more development, more housing, more roads, more schools and more buildings will not ultimately save their communities, and will actually make them worse. Leaders like Arizona’s Governor Katie Hobbs have no choice but to face this overshoot crisis and speak the truth. Arizona and the entire Southwest region of the US has experienced mindblowing population growth since the 1950s, expanding twice as fast as the rest of the country. Accommodating that growth using reductionist thinking has depleted aquifers and rivers, leaving them incapable of sustaining the increasing agricultural, residential and commercial needs of residents. Without water, the future looks grim for residents of the Southwest region and people will be forced to migrate. But where and with what consequences? Like Arizona, the United States, as a whole, is being overwhelmed by humanity’s impact and there is virtually no city, region or state that is not experiencing the economic, social and environmental challenges brought by this growth. 

Treating the symptoms of overshoot like high housing costs, whether with subsidies, cost controls or greater development may temporarily lessen the pain, but eventually the problems will resurface or metastasize to new places. If we hope for a future that can provide us and future generations with abundant resources, affordable housing, a thriving environment and robust human health, then we must call upon our leaders at every level of government to take a holistic, not reductionist, approach – one that slows population growth, stabilizes it and ultimately reduces it. That means enacting policies that empower women with widespread access to quality reproductive health services; providing financial incentives that encourage small families and discourage large ones; and embracing a culture that celebrates small families and child-free living as healthy and responsible choices toward a more peaceful, just and sustainable future for every community here and abroad. Until we address the root cause of our housing crises, I fear we will continue to witness the steady erosion of our communities and our quality of life.