Massive change occurs when our security is threatened, when resources are scarce, or social structures are unfair. When factors like these converge, people not only see the light but also feel the heat. As a reformed addict does, an entire society creates a new identity – a new normal – and ours will inevitably become more conscious of what’s best for the general good. We’ll pull together or else circumstances will pull us ever further apart. Take the price of gasoline. Although there are tangible benefits to high-priced gasoline, we can only perceive them with a viewpoint that is less self-centered; more focused on what we need collectively.


Gasoline prices high enough to make people rethink household budgets and personal habits also reduce fatal collisions because there are fewer cars are on the road. Scholars estimate that traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon. That’s 1,000 lives spared every month, and one of those lives might be your spouse or child. Decreased levels of air pollution will spare another 2,000 lives a year. Insurance premiums will fall when those who are driving less qualify for lower car-insurance rates. traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon.

“traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon.”


Obesity will fall by 10 percent, saving billions of dollars a year in health costs as people walk and bike more and eat out less. Environmental and social costs of sprawl will decline, and the sales of super-efficient cars that make life more affordable for all of us will continue to climb, helping prevent climatic meltdown. With more police officers on foot patrols and bicycles, the quality of life will improve in our neighborhoods. Many overseas jobs will come back home because of higher transportation costs– a very attractive benefit in times of rampant unemployment.


Higher gas prices are helping us redefine the meaning of “the good life.” Our culture is shifting, just in time, back to its anthropological set point: a species that works together toward common goals. In the last generation, we drifted away from the set point as responsible citizens morphed into mindless consumers, but the scope of that shift shows how quickly a nation can change its identity. Before World War II, only 44 percent of American homes were owned by their residents, and fewer than half of the country’s households had cars. However, in post-War years, cars, houses, and discount stores became organizing features of our shared identity, and the face of the American landscape and mindscape was radically different.


Like the transformation that’s now taking place, the culture shift of the 1940s and 1950s was stimulated in part by crisis: following the war, 14 million military personnel returned home and began to play a frantic game of musical chairs, living with extended family and friends or whatever else they could find: converted boxcars, chicken coops, and garages. Crowds lined up at funeral parlors to get the addresses of newly vacant apartments. In response to the emergency, the U.S. government shifted gears and came up with a new plan of attack. In a manner of speaking, we declared war on American soil, deploying bulldozers instead of tanks to level hills, fill creeks and yank trees out like weeds to build one lucrative subdivision after another.


Economists loved what the new Dream did for the Gross National Product, and the media loved the storyline, too: GI FAMILIES OCCUPY SUBURBIA. How could we question this energetic, giddy, sexy Dream? The ideal of the suburb was country homes for city people – nature without the mud. In the suburbs, a family could have it all: community, fresh air, proximity to the city, and convenience.




Seventy years later, many question the wisdom of an identity that requires a lifestyle support system that eats up our time, health, and connections – with nature and each other. The “cultural creative” sector of the U.S. population (at least 60 million strong) insists on human rights, non-violent conflict resolution, and environmental restoration. They are helping create an energetic new identity in which whole new industries will be recycled, and others will flourish, such as suburban remodelers; vanpool operators; technical consultants who maintain residential solar, wind, and recycling systems. Renewable energy now supplies as much electricity as the world’s 400 nuclear power plants, providing more jobs per watt. Energetic gardeners are once again planting fruits and vegetables in their back and even front yards; devices are being installed to slow traffic, restaurants are appearing on even the cul-de-sacs and curvilinear streets of suburbia, and neighborhoods are re-energized by all the people who now work at home.


Cities are rezoning to allow single family McMansions to become multi-family homes; The City of Baltimore has made a special project out of making alleyways more beautiful and more useful – creating gathering places for neighbors and gardens where there were once only trash containers. In Detroit, an 80-acre urban farm is being created in the hollowed-out part of the city that is now vacant lots, with full city approval and encouragement. Chicago is piloting the installation of rooftop gardens and green spaces as part of its quest to acknowledge and prepare for climate change. One classic neighborhood in Seattle has re-imagined itself as a cooperative ecovillage, while in Boulder, a neighborhood is working to make the car an alternative form of transportation, replaced by pedestrian paths, bicycling, solar-powered vehicles, and public transit innovations. America’s small cities, once hubs of manufacturing and still blessed with town centers, are ready to be put back into service as regional centers of culture and industry.


It doesn’t make sense to remain in denial. It’s time for a cultural revolution, a social tsunami. We’ll create a more sensible way of living – a new identity – by telling and retelling a story that promotes a joyfully moderate, less stressful, sustainable lifestyle. We’ll build a new civilization the way we built the current one: with incentives, social rewards, changing styles and designs, new kinds of technologies and new ways of meeting our needs. It’s time to demand quality over quantity, localization over globalization, time affluence rather than the poverty of constant, stressful deadlines. We need a new identity characterized by less aggression and more teamwork; more respect for public places, including the environment; and less obsession with individual acquisition.


The future is waiting, impatiently, for yet another shift in our way of life. It’s well past time for us to stop seeing the world as it is, and re-envision it as it should be.