U.S. consumer culture needs to transform into a society that values an abundance of time, health, relationships, experiences and connections to nature.
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?
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.
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.
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.