Suburban Reality: We spend too much time and money driving

Energy prices are pummeling the American lifestyle, which until recently was labeled as not negotiable by our leaders. These same leaders did not see the need for a viable energy policy.

Link: Life on the fringes of U.S. suburbia becomes untenable with rising gas costs – International Herald Tribune.

As the realization takes hold that rising energy prices are less a momentary blip than a restructuring with lasting consequences, the high cost of fuel is threatening to slow the decades-old migration away from cities, while exacerbating the housing downturn by diminishing the appeal of larger homes set far from urban jobs.

In Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis, homes beyond the urban core have been falling in value faster than those within, according to analysis by Moody’s Economy.com.

In Denver, housing prices in the urban core rose steadily from 2003 until late last year compared with previous years, before dipping nearly 5 percent in the past three months of last year, according to Economy.com. But house prices in the suburbs began falling earlier, in the middle of 2006, and then accelerated, dropping by 7 percent the past three months of the year.

Many factors have propelled the unraveling of U.S. real estate, from the mortgage crisis to a staggering excess of home construction, making it hard to pinpoint the impact of any single force. But economists and real estate agents are growing convinced that the rising cost of energy is a primary factor pushing home prices down in the suburbs – particularly in the outer rings.

More than three-fourths of prospective homebuyers are more inclined to live in an urban area because of fuel prices, according to a recent survey of 903 real estate agents with Coldwell Banker, a national brokerage.

Some proclaim the unfolding demise of suburbia.

"Many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s – slums characterized by poverty, crime and decay," said Christopher Leinberger, an urban land use expert, in a recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly.

Most experts do not share such apocalyptic visions, seeing instead a gradual reordering.

The Carrying Capacity of the Land

We live in the Atlanta area, where August’s intense heat, with no rain, has turned into beautiful blue skies and low humidity in September through November, with almost no rain. The governor has blamed environmentalists for Atlanta’s main water source drying up and has started leading prayer groups to bring rain. It’s heresy to point out that the rapid residential and commercial development throughout the area has created an insatiable thirst for water that cannot be satisfied by the current water resources.

I’ve included some excerpts on the use of resources below from writer and thinker John Michael Greer. Ignore his message if you don’t use energy or water, or, if you believe that your favored political party will save us. One of the targets of his sharp writing tool is the drought in the Southeast and Atlanta. Click on the link below to enjoy the full flavor of his commentary of the current state of our culture.

Link: The Archdruid Report: Lifeboat Time

As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.