Finding Real Wealth: From a Consumer Culture to Social Well-Being

U.S. consumer culture needs to transform into a society that values an abundance of time, health, relationships, experiences and connections to nature.
By Dave Wann
May 4, 2010
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Creating new networks of trust and support within our communities is key to achieving social well-being.
PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO/JOSEPH HELFENBERGER
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The following excerpt by Dave Wann is from the collection Less is More  (New Society Publishers, 2009). This compilation of essays comes from some of the most respected voices to grace the simple living movement over the past few decades. 

Taken as a whole, we North Americans are overfed but undernourished. Socially, psychologically and physically, we are not fully meeting human needs. Although the TV commercials would have us believe that every itch can be scratched with a trip to the mall, the truth is we’re consuming more now but enjoying it less. According to surveys taken by the U.S. National Science Foundation for the past 30 years, even with steady increases in income, our level of overall happiness has actually tapered off. Why is this?

Deficiencies of a Consumer Culture

Many believe it’s because a lifestyle of overconsumption creates deficiencies in things that we really need, like health, social connections, security and discretionary time. These deficiencies of a consumer culture leave us vulnerable to daily lives of dependency and passive consumption — working, watching and waiting. The typical urban resident waits in line five years of his or her life and spends six months sitting at red lights, eight months opening junk mail, one year searching for misplaced items and four years cleaning house. Every year, the typical high-school student spends 1,500 hours in front of the tube, compared with 900 hours spent at school. And this in not just an American addiction: a 2004 French survey representing 2.5 billion people in 72 countries documented an average of 3.5 hours of TV watched every day!

Yet, the game is changing. Just as we approach an all-time peak in consumption, converging variables such as shrinking resource supplies, necessitate changes in the way we live. Here’s the good news: reducing our levels of consumption will not be a sacrifice, but a bonus, if we simply redefine the meaning of the word “success.”

Instead of more stuff in our already-stuffed lives, we can choose fewer things but better things of higher quality, fewer visits to the doctor and more visits to museums and the houses of friends. We can choose greater use of our hands and minds in creative activities like playing a flute or building a new kitchen table. If we are successful as a culture, we’ll get more value from each transaction, each relationship and each unit of energy; by reducing the waste and carelessness that now litter our economy — energy hogs like aluminum cans and plastic bottles, huge thirsty lawns, excessive airplane travel, feedlot meat and suburbs without stores — we can finance the coming transition to a lifestyle that feels more comfortable in the present and doesn’t clear-cut the future.

A Value Shift for Social Well-Being

Imagine a way of life that’s culturally richer but materially leaner. In this emerging lifestyle, there is less stress, insecurity, pollution, doubt and debt, but more vacation time, more solid connections with nature and more participation in the arts, amateur sports and politics. There is greater reliance on human energy — fueled by complex carbohydrates — and less reliance on ancient sunlight stored as pollution-filled fossil fuel. Fewer fluorescent hours in the supermarket, more sunny afternoons out in the vegetable garden. Instead of being passive consumers, doggedly treadmilling to keep up with overproduction, we’ll choose healthy, renewable forms of wealth such as social capital (networks and bonds of trust), whose value increases the more we spend it, stimulating work that’s more like a puzzle than a prison sentence, and acquired skills and interests that enhance our free time, making money less of a stressful imperative.

A culture shift like this — from an emphasis on material wealth to an abundance of time, relationships and experiences — has already occurred in many societies, such as 18th-century Japan. Land was in short supply, forest resources were being depleted, and minerals such as gold and copper were suddenly scarce as well. Japan’s culture adapted by developing a national ethic that centered on moderation and efficiency. An attachment to the material things in life was seen as demeaning, while the advancement of crafts and human knowledge were lofty goals. Quality became ingrained in a culture that eventually produced world-class solar cells and Toyota Priuses. Training and education in aesthetics and ritualistic arts flourished, resulting in disciplines like fencing, martial arts, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, literature, art and mastery of the abacus. The three largest cities in Japan had 1,500 bookstores among them, and most people had access to basic education, health care and the necessities of life, further enriching a culture that spent less money but paid more attention.

Places such as Canada and the European Union have already started down this enviable path, making political and cultural space for values that lie beneath the bottom line of monetary wealth. For example, most countries in the European Union give legal standing to mandatory family leave from work, part-time jobs with prorated benefits, higher taxes on energy use and pollution in exchange for lower income taxes and take-back laws requiring manufacturers to recycle products at the end of their use. An everyday ethic is emerging in Europe that encourages sustainable behavior by popular demand. Says John de Graaf, co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, “Western European countries have invested in their social contracts. Strategic investments in health care, education, transportation and public space reduced the need (and desire) of individuals to maximize their own incomes.”

On the other hand, in places such as the United States and Australia, subsidized development patterns and an ingrained quest for privacy and consumption often spin off unhealthy isolation. A 2007 National Science Foundation study in the United States reported that a quarter of all Americans have no one they can confide in or celebrate with, and the inner circles of the rest have fallen from about three confidants to two. Our need to elevate social connections to a higher priority is literally a matter of life and death.

In one study reported by Dr. Dean Ornish in Love and Survival, men and women who were about to have open-heart surgery were asked two questions: Do you draw strength from your religious faith? and Are you a member of a group of people who get together on a regular basis? Those who said no to both questions were dead within six months, compared to only 3 percent of those who said yes to both.

Another primordial human need is connection with nature. When people view slides of meadows and streams, their blood pressure falls; and hospital patients with a view of trees go home sooner than those whose view is a brick wall. When people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder spend time in nature, the results are often as effective as Ritalin. Yet Americans are increasingly creatures of the great indoors, and sterilized, manicured landscapes. For example, some geometric school playgrounds now display signs that say, “No running!” The design of playgrounds often excludes the rough, green edges of nature where kids love to play; instead the aim is to minimize liability, reduce maintenance and improve surveillance.

Healthy, robust cultures mentor diets that are anthropologically correct, but sadly, in many market-bound economies, food has fallen from its lofty stature as a source of well-being, community and clarity to the simplistic category of fun. “Even wild monkeys have healthier diets than many humans,” says anthropologist Katharine Milton. Again, in our money-mad world, the focus is on snackability, convenience and shelf life rather than human life. Alarmingly, the value of the food has radically declined in the last century. In 1900, wheat from conventional farms was 90 percent protein, compared to only 9 percent today, according to United Nations data. Popeye would have to eat a hundred or more cans of supermarket spinach to get the energy-boosting iron he got from one can back in the 1950s, when soil was still rich in minerals and enzymes.

Toward Real Wealth

How can we reclaim our vanishing psychological, physical and spiritual nutrients? How can we make political and cultural space for these most critical needs? To give a few examples, one school dramatically reduced vandalism and violence by simply taking out the pop machines and replacing cafeteria fast foods like pizza and burgers with salad bars, fruits and fresh vegetables.

New ways of building and rebuilding neighborhoods are helping residents create social networks of trust and support, at the same time preserving habitat and providing great places to exercise. Cities are stepping forward to ban trans fats, set global warming targets, tax bottled water and train organic farmers. We’re beginning to steer the economy in a different direction that minimizes unnecessary consumption but optimizes contentment. Rather than remaining trapped in an economic box of outdated assumptions, we are speaking out in favor of a joyfully moderate, compassionate economy that delivers a higher proportion of health, hope and happiness.


Reprinted with permission from Less is More, published by New Society Publishers, 2009.

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Post a comment below.

 

Ron Clobes
5/13/2010 9:16:44 PM
I'm thinking someone is in La-La Land here. Difficult economic situations do not always bring out the best in people. Look at the very poor countries. Do they take better care of their environment? Do they have more culture? In many places, it is a struggle just to avoid going to bed hungry. Anything else just isn't a priority. I'm currently using much of my spare time learning to grow and preserve food for my family and neighbors. The back yard is being turned into a huge garden. Those who are not preparing are probably not going to be real thrilled about their opportunities for personal growth in a couple of years. Very high inflation is just around the corner. The 1970's will be child's play in comparison.

Xyril_2
5/12/2010 10:50:13 AM
It is special that being green starts inside us and among us because we are the doer of such actions like this. It's about time establishments, buildings and homes consider green makeover. Green products such as window tints would be a great idea in pursuing green makeover. While most window films are for reducing solar heat gain in the summer, low-e films both block summer heat and improve winter heat retention. Eco-friendly sites such as www.TintBuyer.com discuss how window tints can be labeled as one of the most effective way to conserve energy consumption for less compared to other green related technology. TitntBuyer.com can also help you get LEED points for window tint and find a dealer near your area.

Lara Jane | Ultimate Lifestyle Project_2
5/11/2010 4:25:37 PM
This is very interesting and very much aligned to my current writing project. Many thanks for the insights and information. Peace and much love Lara Jane Founder of the Ultimate Lifestyle Project

Becca_6
5/11/2010 1:54:28 PM
Yes, I do agree that less is more. I am without a doubt more content today than I was several years ago. I have a smaller home, but a bigger yard. I work less and make less money than my days in FL, but I am now closer to friends and family, so I can enjoy life more. I used to miss out on most of the family gatherings, because I was too busy working to go have any fun! Ha! It has taken me some difficult lessons to get on track to enjoying life. Due to my son's health challenges, the past few years has taught me that absolutely nothing on earth is worth missing out on quality time spent with the ones that you love. We (fam of 4) lived in one room at the McDonald House off and on for a couple of years, and at the Target House in a small apt while my son was being treated. For the most of 4 years now, I have lived on just a small fraction of our previous income. I learned to make ends meet, made a lot of friends that I keep close to my heart, and even decided that it was better this way (except for the cancer part..). I think that our culture as a whole needs to experience this truth first hand, because it is difficult to understand what life is really all about when you are isolated in your own personal routine and comfort. For some (like me) it takes God to hit you on the head with some sort of wake up call.

Karen W
5/10/2010 4:46:39 PM
This book is such a breath of fresh air. I couldn't put it down. I'm passing it on to my friends and then to my three children to read. My husband and I are in the process of downsizing. He lost his job in the 2008 recession and has gone back to school to earn his bachelor's degree. Between his unemployment check and my paycheck, we are doing fine since we have always lived a fairly frugal lifestyle, but we are finding we can live on/with a lot less. Our last of three children is in college and, our nest is now empty, we are planning on looking for a smaller home in another community once my husband has completed his degree. It will be difficult going through 29 years of accumulation, but also cleansing and freeing.

Jacqueline Jakle
5/10/2010 4:21:52 PM
This was a great article and if people will re-evaluate their lives, goals, and priorities, good changes can take place. Living with less stuff and eliminating activities that dull the senses and create isolation can only improve relationships and emotional health. Recently, I had to downsize from a large home to a much smaller one, and had to elminate some furniture pieces. It was a very emotionally challenging time, but I edited carefully and thoughtfully, and created a lovely home that is cozy and efficient. The furniture I couldn't keep I gave to a friend going through a divorce. It's the best kind of recycling. Having no yard to speak of, but growing a few roses in pots, and a small organic salad garden in containers allows for a little beauty and homegrown produce. Living with exactly what I need makes me feel emotionally lighter and free to enjoy all kinds of things.

Veshengro_4
5/10/2010 9:28:35 AM
The book mentioned is a great read and for anyone interested here is my take on the book http://greenreview.blogspot.com/2010/04/less-is-more-book-review.html and on the subject per se http://greenreview.blogspot.com/2010/05/ending-consumerism.html

Julie Casey
5/10/2010 7:26:32 AM
I am all for moving away from a consumer economy, in fact, my family already lives very frugal lives, but we, as a nation, must be prepared for the consequences of this move: economic recessions. We must have the fortitude to not only make do with less, but also to withstand the media and political pressure to react dramatically and financially to get us out of recessions. Transferring consumer spending to tax spending will not improve our country nor our personal lives, but only weaken both in the long run.

Megan Squire_1
5/4/2010 7:02:22 PM
I liked the article. However, you cite a study about open heart surgery on page 3 of this story. The original story did not say that anyone answering 'no' to both questions would be dead within 6 months. (This is how you explained the study.) Rather, the study stated that the levels were 3% for people who answered 'yes' to both questions and 21% (a 7-fold increase) for those who answered 'no' to both questions. 21% does not equal certain death. Here is a link explaining the study: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1571/is_n12_v14/ai_20442632/








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