Among the many losses resulting from the recent real-estate downturn, John Wasik’s may be unique: he lost the premise of his latest book. Near the tail end of the housing boom, Wasik—a personal finance columnist for Bloomberg News and the author of a dozen books—was working on a book arguing that the latest crop of U.S. houses was too big and too wasteful of natural resources. A longtime resident of Prairie Crossing, the groundbreaking eco-subdivision in Grayslake, Wasik had for two years been gathering notes on the urgent need to reinvent homes and neighborhoods along green lines.
But in the late summer of 2008, the concept seemed to evaporate as real-estate markets began to collapse all over the country. “I had a book on sustainability, saying we shouldn’t build this way anymore,” he told me recently, “but suddenly home-building was coming apart.” The book seemed dead in the water.
Over the next few months, though, Wasik realized that the housing crisis catastrophically proved his point. “People can’t afford the kinds of houses we’ve been building,” he says. Not only were the resource-wasting methods of building unsustainable, but the mortgages that paid for many of those homes could not be sustained either. The book was back on.
Released over the summer, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream is Wasik’s 13th book. In it, he makes a compelling case that the shockwaves sent through the economy by the housing collapse could at least make people examine the ongoing practice of building too big, too far from urban centers, and too wastefully.
Wasik isn’t blaming the homeowners—or the builders. “They did what they could to make their homes affordable,” he says. “They did the right thing, taking advantage of an era of cheap interest.”
But now, Wasik writes, foreclosures, shrinking home values, and diminished tax revenues may force a reconsideration of some fundamental aspects of the housing industry. “There will be no sustainable growth in home sales unless the underlying cost and environmental impact of building and developing drops significantly,” he writes.
Wasik, a veteran environmentalist, comes at this topic with a preexisting agenda: to get greener homes built. But he also sees this moment as a crucial opportunity. With affluence rising in populous China and other countries, he notes, “their emulation of our profligate lifestyle imperils us all.”