The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Livingby David Wann
In Simple Prosperity, Dave Wann showed readers how to have an abundant, sustainable life. In The New Normal, he challenges us to do some heavy lifting and transform our non-sustainable culture by transforming ourselves. For Wann, our current "old normal" lifestyle - buying water in disposable bottles, allowing the government to ignore global warming -/i>/i>
In Simple Prosperity, Dave Wann showed readers how to have an abundant, sustainable life. In The New Normal, he challenges us to do some heavy lifting and transform our non-sustainable culture by transforming ourselves. For Wann, our current "old normal" lifestyle - buying water in disposable bottles, allowing the government to ignore global warming - will not preserve the planet. To nurture our world, he challenges us to rethink our lives, stand up for a healthy planet and move towards a "new normal" lifestyle in an agenda that includes:
- Initiating local business alliances that actively lobby for local buying.
- Creating an investment strategy that values the balance of nature.
- Supporting the design, manufacture, and use of products made with natural chemicals.
- Publicly advocating a more efficient use of water by placing a higher cultural value on wetlands, streams, rivers, and lakes.
The New Normal is Dave Wann's way forward, a blueprint for a better life that preserves our world.
A practical guide to moderating wasteful modern lifestyles to benefit the larger global community.
Wann (Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, 2007, etc.) argues that changes in such variables as climate, population and resource availability are forcing consumer cultures to dispense with "the throwaway mind[set]." The author seeks "to evaluate and guide decisions that can steer us clear of both personal and planetary bankruptcy." Toward that end, Wann first examines the contexts—historical, social, economic—and the attendant value systems that have made "having more, and having it faster" the central mission of Western societies. The Industrial Revolution fostered a mentality that celebrated the pursuit of profit, regardless of human and environmental costs. In a world now threatened by overpopulation and resource depletion, however, that way of thinking is not only unsustainable, but also dangerous. According to Wann, three barriers exist to fully bringing about a saner, more holistic way of life for everyone: "cultural crisis, hyperindividuality and overproductivity." Rather than simply critiquing the problems that plague modern capitalist societies, the author offers a detailed 33-point "new normal agenda" built on convincing statistical and anecdotal information. The plan emphasizes informed activist approaches to problem-solving and focuses on such timely issues as decentralizing and localizing economic structures, reducing carbon emissions, promoting urban organic agriculture and restoring environmental integrity. While Wann's message is urgent, it is never strident and offers hope in an age of pessimism and scarcity. If humanity can understand that "the overall theme of nature is not bloodthirsty competition, but functional, celebratory interdependence and cooperation" writes the author, then individuals and groups can create lives that, though materially leaner, are healthier and more fulfilling.
Powerful, grounded reading for the challenges of 21st-century living.
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Read an Excerpt
The New Normal
An Agenda for Responsible Living
By David Wann
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 David Wann
All rights reserved.
The Software of Civilization
In the seven chapters that follow this one, I will present and discuss in depth an agenda of thirty-three public and personal choices: political, economic, technical, and social actions to create a more sensible way of life. In this first chapter, I want to explore the historical context, social framework, and value system in which these levers of change are embedded. We're social animals, and we need to tackle the large challenges we face together. Whether we like it or not, change happens, and the truth is, it will be far less painful to move to a new historical era now than to wait nervously for another generation, passing unsolved challenges on to our children and grandchildren. Our new-millennium mission is to take responsibility now, choosing a sustainable, anthropologically appropriate pathway for humanity, nothing less. Because of converging historical currents, the awesome responsibility to be catalysts of a new era falls to us. The ball is in our court, and that ball is the earth itself.
* Beyond the Industrial Revolution
Paradigm shifts occur during periods when significant cultural and natural factors converge. What we think of as the Industrial Revolution unofficially began with the invention of the mechanical clock way back in the thirteenth century, which enabled time to become a measurement of productivity. But our present era came into full swing after the Renaissance, in the sixteenth century. The world — and our understanding of it — was expanding. A new way of life was emerging from the shadows of plague, superstition, and oppression. Leading thinkers perceived the world in a more mechanical, less spiritual way. The focus of human energy shifted from the afterlife to the more profitable, "enlightened" present. The most significant change of all was the liberation of the individual — free now to strive for mastery over miraculous new machinery and financial systems. Encouraged by social norms to be "industrious," the individual could now make choices within the context of this stimulating, outward-looking, materialistic way of life, rising to the limits of his or her talents and aptitudes — at least in theory.
* Factors That Enabled the Industrial Era
1. A rethinking of land ownership, including the closing of the commons, and the consolidation of fiefdoms into kingdoms and nations
2. Intellectual, religious, and scientific revolutions in the Renaissance period (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries)
3. Emergence of modern ship technology, merchant navies, and global exploration, creating a frenzy of demand for imported luxuries
4. Development of the plow and other advances in agricultural productivity, freeing agrarian populations from a bare-bones, subsistence lifestyle
5. Introduction of banking, common currencies, and the factory system of production
6. Increased social mobility and personal freedom, awakening in the individual aspirations of financial success
It all seemed to fit together so well: one technology was bolted onto another and one custom merged with many others to shape a civilization whose central mission became making and having more, and having it faster. Although the symptoms of decline are increasingly urgent, many still believe obsolete concepts that are embedded in this paradigm: that the earth's resources are limitless and that nature is inside the economy, at our disposal. Many still fervently believe that individual acquisition is the best way to create social good, and that God will shield us from all harm if we simply "keep our noses to the grindstone" (ouch). It hasn't fully sunk in yet that the human population is geometrically expanding while many keystone species are declining and while natural resources and cultural wealth are being plundered. The idea that we can damage huge natural systems and alter the planet's climate still doesn't seem real to many, even after decades of focused debate and vivid, discomforting early warnings like drought, melting glaciers and ice sheets, and monster hurricanes.
But the pages of history are turning. What once seemed like an ingenious, equitable strategy for collective prosperity is increasingly coming under fire. When our current paradigm was first shaped, species were abundant, and nature could easily absorb the comparatively harmless wastes we generated. The world was not centralized, and people had more direct access to things they needed, like food, social support, and the abundance of nature. Things are radically different now.
* Factors That Make the Emerging Restoration Era Inevitable
1. Emerging scarcity of key resources like oil, water, minerals, fish, soil, grain
2. Expanding understanding of biology and ecology
3. Completed exploration and mapping of the planet (we know what's here)
4. Expanding understanding of how the mind and body work
5. Development of computer technology and nature-based chemistry
6. Increasing interest in nondenominational spirituality
7. Growth of human and livestock populations beyond sustainable limits
8. Strong trend toward relocalization, quality, and craft
9. Changing attitudes about meaning, authenticity, expression, and creativity
* Grim Fairy Tales
There are at least a billion people on the planet who worry constantly about getting enough food, and another billion who worry about eating too much food; a billion who can't find clean water, and another billion who drink bottled water at least sometimes even if their tap water is just as pure. We in the industrialized world are overfed but undernourished in many ways. Socially, psychologically, physically, and spiritually, we are not fully meeting human needs. We've become susceptible to a virus of dependency, passive consumption: working, watching, waiting, and wasting (in another book, I and my coauthors called this virus "affluenza"). 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 National Science Foundation over the past thirty years, even with steady increases in per capita income, our level of overall happiness has actually tapered off.
Why? 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. How can we really expect a money-distracted culture to create trust, loyalty, inspiration, calmness, and meaningful traditions? The evidence indicates that the quest for more, both personally and commercially, often strips these essential qualities away, leaving us borrowing, buying, and selling rather than being. The truth is, the current industrialized lifestyle is designed for maximum consumption and "tolerable" amounts of waste and destruction. That's our creed. In good faith, we structured an economy around extractive technologies, cheap labor, new individual freedoms, hard work, and consumer spending. This cultural story is now so woven into our psyches that it's hard to imagine how else society might work. In our world, reality has become perception. It's considered shameful to have a below-average income or a beat-up car, unless one is actively struggling to acquire more.
So ingrained is the story that we rarely question its overall meaning and implications: the faster the global economy grows, the faster the world's fragile living systems decline. Each American now requires an average of thirty acres of prime land and sea to satisfy both the needs and wants of our excessive lifestyle — a national total of roughly 9 billion acres. This is more than three times the acreage of the United States, which is a primary reason the United States is currently more than $12 trillion in debt. To continue consuming at current levels, Americans will have to be aggressive and opportunistic with other countries' rightful wealth. We'll have to allocate more to the military; work even harder and longer at jobs that often don't stimulate us; carry more stress, debt, doubt, and shame. We'll have to react obediently to crises like 9/11 and the current financial meltdown with "patriotic" shopping — that is, unless we decide to change the story we live by, to change what we mean by the word "success."
* The Anthropology of Success
According to one New York Times article, after the financial meltdown of 2008 even some wealthy homeowners cut back to two meals a day rather than trade in their Lexus or Jaguar. This secretive belt-tightening measure helps them save face because it's not visible to their neighbors and friends. On other, middle-class driveways, more than a few SUV owners who can't afford to fill their tanks have been convicted of torching the vehicles to collect the insurance. Meanwhile, in low-income households, as much as 40 percent of the household budget goes to purchase, operate, and maintain vehicles.
What do we want our vehicles and other possessions to express? We are a story-telling, lesson-learning species whose stunning success is largely the result of highly evolved social skills. Our ever-expanding brains enable the interpretation of complex facial expressions; speech and language; a strong sense of fairness and social organization; and the complex social relationships that make cooperation, group decisions, and advantageous mate selection possible.
The overall mission, hardwired in our genes, is to survive long enough to have offspring, protect the territory they will live in, and perpetuate the social structure of the people who will take care of them. This strategy is starkly pragmatic: we need to take care of one another and act cooperatively or we won't make it. Therefore, we've always valued trust, resourcefulness, authenticity, and the integrity of our leaders. Security, safety, and social connections are as valuable now as they were sixty thousand years ago, when our genetic ancestors left Africa and began to explore and settle the rest of the planet.
One of the primary mechanisms for maintaining social cohesion is status: the relative standing of an individual within the group, and that individual's ability to obtain and retain respect and make positive social contributions. Individual status helps organize the group and make it more functional. However, status as a social mechanism developed in small, relatively stable, face-to-face groups, in which people knew one another over the course of a lifetime. Now our social world is shuffled, fragmented, in constant flux. The evolution of our brains and instincts hasn't kept pace with sweeping changes in our way of life over the last five hundred generations. Author Jim Rubens characterizes our current lifestyle: "unceasingly fluid relationships, constant challenges to our status within new groups, the geographic dispersion of extended family, the message that only we are responsible for our life's outcome, the barrage of status comparisons we see in mass media, and the incessant modeling of unattainable, stratospherically high goals." All these conditions pit the individual against the group, resulting in an epidemic of depression because of what Rubens terms "social defeat."
Yet, to make collective, world-changing decisions, we need social coherence, organized by networks of trust and respect. In other times, status has been awarded to hunters, fighters, storytellers, healers, elders, and priests — not just the person with the most tools, furs, or cars. Sociologists have proven that status is critical to our health, because lower social status correlates with higher stress levels and mortality rates, lower birth weight, obesity, heart disease, lung disease, incidence of smoking, asthma, cancer, diabetes, number of sick days taken on the job, accident rates, suicide, exposure to physical violence, and compromised mental health. No wonder we are status seekers! We need recognition and respect to be healthy. However, this recognition doesn't have to center on material symbols. A cultural shift to other ways of earning and rewarding respect is a central theme in creating a sustainable future.
It's clear that in the United States, possessions and consumption have become a shorthand to communicate status, and it's also clear that in our headlong pursuit of goods and services, we're making an unprecedented mess. Why not just change the way our civilization achieves and confers status? To meet an urgent need — to reduce the volume of consumption and accompanying destruction — why not confer social rewards in place of material rewards?
Instead of honoring bank CEOs who fluff their own pillows with fairy-tale bonuses and take catastrophic risks with our money, why not respect and reward people of service, people who have gained our trust, people intent on making the world safer and more sane? Why not agree — by means of cultural mechanisms like art and innovative policy making — to think about personal worth in a different way? What must change are the symbols of success. It's not large, expensive, hard-to-maintain houses we truly want but large lives that contain enough discretionary time and generosity to share with those we love and respect. In an era less obsessed with status through consumption, it will be not exotic vacations we'll cherish but rather a contentedness that makes life an adventure no matter where we are. In the near future, there will be less energy-intensive travel and more focus on creating great communities where we want to be. Instead of accumulating just monetary wealth, we will accumulate calmness and wellness as our lifestyle becomes less confusing, more equitable, and more affordable.
* Avoiding Status Anxiety
In a less stressful lifestyle, there will be more options for attaining status. If we slow down and cultivate a wider appreciation of one another's unique passions and accomplishments, everyone wins. Says Robert Sapolsky, who studies the social aspects of baboon behavior, "We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of. For example, I might say, 'This job, where I'm a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn't matter. What really matters is that I'm the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church.'" In other words, we can opt out of confining, stress-inducing social expectations and instead, by the strength of healthy self-concepts, help lead the culture in a completely new direction.
A great example of the tangible benefits of avoiding status anxiety is the community of Roseto, Pennsylvania. In the 1890s, hundreds of Rosetans migrated to America from Italy, building stone houses with slate roofs and a church. They grew fruit trees and vegetables in their long backyards, and grapes for homemade wine. Their village culture remained strong; shops and restaurants flourished on Garibaldi Avenue.
When several local physicians noticed how few residents of Roseto had heart disease, an in-depth study was performed, with astonishing results: for men over sixty-five, the death rate from heart disease was about half that of the United States as a whole. In fact, the composite death rate was 30 to 35 percent lower than the U.S. average. A sociologist reported that there was no suicide, no alcoholism or drug addiction, and very little crime. There were no peptic ulcers, no welfare recipients. The physicians and scientists concluded that the secret of the health and vitality of Roseto residents was the community itself, with many civic organizations, a strong religious congregation, and extended family clans. It was not merely genes and individual choices that made a person healthy, but the culture he or she was part of. One of the factors that led to the comparative health of Roseto, Pennsylvania, residents was a sense of equality in the local culture, which downplayed material success and awarded status based on skill, trustworthiness, and authenticity.
Excerpted from The New Normal by David Wann. Copyright © 2010 David Wann. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
DAVID WANN is the author of many books including "Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle" and the bestselling "Affluenza", which he co-authored. He lives in Golden, Colorado.
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