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.

| May 4, 2010

  • Less is More Cover
    The principles of simple living compiled in this collection from editors Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska will resonate with a huge percentage of the population suffering from consumption-fatigue.
  • Community
    Creating new networks of trust and support within our communities is key to achieving social well-being.

  • Less is More Cover
  • Community

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.

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.

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 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. 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

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