I submitted six of your questions to Dave Wann, one of the authors of the book we are reading in our book club, Affluenza. Here are the six questions I selected, including Dave's answers. Enjoy!
1. What can parents specifically do to help their kids value simplicity and NOT develop the attitude that all that glitters is gold?
Kids need to be mentored, just like wolf cubs or baby birds. To learn how to make it on their own, they first need to feel safe and connected – with parents, peers, ideas, teachers, nature, adventures, ways to be creative and expressive, ways to feel confident. They don’t want to feel like an obligation, they want to feel valued. So the best way for parents to help is make time for them, even if that means earning/spending less. What parents get in return is priceless.
If kids see their parents getting really involved in something, whether it’s car mechanics, cooking, or kayaking, they’ll learn to seek a similar joy in being engaged and connected, possibly the best antidote of all to affluenza. I think one of my best moments as a parent was to see early on that my daughter had a real connection to playing soccer. I wasn’t a soccer nut myself, but I knew one thing -- to get the most out of the sport, she needed to be free of hesitation. "Be the player who wants the ball to come to her," I urged. I’ll never forget the intensity and focus she brought, every time she played.
Choosing a school that celebrates experiential learning and outdoor exploration is a real gift to our kids. To outgrow the story that’s told on TV and given shape in many of our daily activities, kids need to understand that "there’s more to life than increasing its speed," as Gandhi observed. By being exposed to nature, kids gradually learn a much wider story than Play Stations and Disney movies. Again, they absorb what they see. If parents are gardeners or nature photographers, outdoor experiences may become moments of magic. Most of the world’s biologists and natural scientists were led to nature by mentors, and many artists and musicians were inspired by personal heroes, too.
It’s true that peers influence our kids with the "code of cool," but a child who’s received an immunization of connection will eventually move beyond that to create the real cool. I remember seeing friends become immersed in drawing or history or some other nerdy subject in Junior High and reacting to that as "uncool." But by the time I was in college, I realized that finding your own way no matter what others thought was freedom.
2. I believe there is much that individuals can do to "inoculate" against Affluenza. However, what would you suggest is the best course of action to get our government "on board" with the idea that over-consumption is unhealthy?
To get government on board, we need to be part of the government, not only writing persistent letters and emails to representatives but running for city council and state legislature ourselves. We need to insist that our elected officials state clearly what steps they’ll take to create a cultural tidal wave to wash away obsolete ideas, such as "the environment is inside the economy." (Read Collapse, and The World Without Us). Governmental decisions are heavily biased toward propping up the economy, but the end result is too often a "quantity of life" approach that distracts and insulates us from the real wealth.
We need to ask, together, What do PEOPLE need, especially our kids? What does NATURE need? As Dana Meadows poignantly phrased it, "Since the Earth is finite and we’ll have to stop expanding some time, should we do it before or after the world’s biological diversity is gone?"
Mainstream economists and politicians often behave like a family that mindlessly burns da Vinci or Matisse masterpieces to stay warm when they could be opening the blinds and letting the sun in! Beneath the economic bottom line is the ecological bottom line that’s often ignored by our well-funded leaders. Fortunately, there are at least 50 million "cultural creatives" in America committed to preserving and regenerating the environment; to promoting civil rights, gender rights, universal health and literacy, global peace, and other core issues. And there are many more waiting in the wings for this cultural revolution to set them free – a little like the dancing Munchkins singing "Ding Dong the witch is dead."
In short, we are quickly coming back to our senses; changing the metrics for evaluating national success. Instead of wealth and "hellness," we may soon be measuring health and wellness, in humans as well as the environment. In groups of eight and ten, let’s pay informed visits to our Congressional representatives. I will if you will.
3. How can we as a nation replace the consumer-driven society with that of a sustainable society when big business has such a huge influence over governmental policies?
Even big business is at the mercy of resource realities that lie beneath the bottom line of conventional accounting. For example, Wal-Mart (as of last year, 2% of the U.S. economy) is racing to make its truck fleet more efficient, because the cost of diesel fuel is skyrocketing; its distribution empire is looking far less dominant. Oil companies are investing heavily in research on renewable energy, and even America’s "big three" vehicle manufacturers are slowly waking up. (Hybrid vehicles can be a transition technology, enabling Americans to rethink transportation. Gradually, we can replace a lot of fossil fuel consumption with human energy fueled by food and with remodeled communities that provide what we need.) If our loyalties shift back to our communities and regions, small businesses can challenge the corporate Monsters, forcing them to compete in terms of compassion, efficiency, and quality, just as thinkers like Paul Hawken, David Korten, and Rianne Eisler have advocated for years.
As opposed to "getting government off our backs," let’s harness the incredible momentum the federal government can achieve, as we did in World War II. Let’s encourage our leaders to think about the word “success” in a different light. Maybe success is best defined as "leaving the system intact by taking only the interest, never the principle."
Specifically, we need a progressive Farm Bill that gives incentives for agriculture that is sustainable and successful overall; a Carbon Tax that rewards a swift transition to renewable energy; a universal Health Care program that enables employees to break their addiction to corporate benefit packages (what’s left of them); Time to Care legislation that mandates European standards for sick leave, vacation, unwanted overtime, and family leave; a Producer Responsibility law that mandates that manufacturers must take back the products they make at the end of their useful lives. We need Bottle Bills in all 50 states, not just eleven; we need an Office of Technology Assessment like we used to have, to give guidance to the direction we want technology to take.
We need to sever the leash that keeps government meekly under the control of big business, insisting, for example, that EPA regulate CO2 as a pollutant, as the U.S. Supreme Court has already directed. We need the federal government to step up and do what more than 700 American cities have already done: implement a plan to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need to change direction, quickly, and only strong cultural and political leadership can accomplish that.
4. You talk in your book a little about what our country and world may face in the coming years and how simplicity will help us address some of those concerns. You sound very optimistic about the future, even though you also acknowledge that climate change and oil depletion will shape that future. I very much agree that simplicity will help us postpone or prevent some problems and will help us make the transition to a new kind of world. But sometimes I panic still. Do you? What keeps you so optimistic?
I believe in human instinct, and that we will learn to use all the equipment we have, including a cerebrum that’s still largely empty, and waiting. (22% of the energy in our bodies goes into our brains, and this is where we will either make it or break it.) I believe we can rise to our species’ highest potential, and I’m hopeful (though not always optimistic) that we will become increasingly humane as well as humble -- realizing at last that "survival of the fittest" is old-brain thinking; that "survival of those who fit" is more like it. Think how much better it will feel to instinctually change direction, migrating to a new era, and washing off the grease and oil of the technologically infantile Industrial Revolution!
We’re becoming much more adept at using culture to moderate and override genetic programming, in the process continuing our trial-and-error evolution. For example, our instinct is to protect our territory, but that territory has now become the planet itself – desperately in need of protection from us! We can use our territorial instincts to see our territory in a new light: Earth as a Sacred Garden. Though we instinctually glut ourselves with fats and sugars, in case times become lean, culture now instructs us to back off -- there are now far too many available, at subsidized, fast food prices. We should focus on what our bodies are designed to eat: slow-burn carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and a little meat. Our intestines, for example, are more like a deer than a tiger.
Much of our biological energy is genetically programmed to ensure procreation, but now "anthrologic" demands restraint. Our numbers must decline, and it would be humanity’s greatest achievement to date to reduce our numbers deliberately, like a cat climbing backwards down a tree. Surely there’s a genetic "off button" that will provide birth control without any side effects. Similarly, our genes may tell us to attract mates with excessive displays of material goods and machismo, but culture is beginning to tell us that aesthetic and intellectual displays may be just as compelling.
So the big picture of anthropology gives me some degree of hope, and part of that is the human trait of spiritual practice. By temperament, I’m closest to Buddhism as a religion, because I admire its goals of guiding human behavior toward moderation, compassion, and humility. But I think we can find a way to purge the "good and evil" aspect of other religions with so many followers, focusing instead on the collective power of hope and prayer. We are a future-creating species; we inhabit the places we have imagined. With the continuing ascent of the empathetic, imaginative side of the human brain, we may well find our way to a more peaceful, balanced existence. I’m imagining that we will.
5. What is the best way to make my family and friends understand about the personal step to consume less without making me sound like a self-righteous yuppie? Living by example and saying nothing to judge one way or the other might be effective in keeping negative opinions down, but actively spreading the word could be more effective. Will people listen or will they only follow someone who lives the example and doesn't try to convince anyone how to live?
No, I think we have to speak our convictions, but it may help to use a little humor. I love the Woody Allen quote, "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
People have different styles and different skills; my way of speaking out is in books, articles and films, and my delivery has made a slow transition from shrill, guilt-tripping environmentalist in my younger years to suggestion giver who just prefers to "keep it simple." Since my self-image is more wrapped up in what I learn rather than what I earn, and since I have several passions (playing music, gardening, a love of great art) to keep me busy, I try to show by example that "time affluence" is worth just as much as monetary affluence. When I left the 9 to 5 world behind, I knew I was taking a chance, but I also know this: I’ve avoided a lot of stress, a lot of commuting, a lot of boring afternoons at staff meetings or filling out quarterly self-evaluation forms.
Dennis Kucinich was quoted recently saying, "Status should be based on service, not on possessions." Those of us who sense big changes ahead are in fact doing a service to experiment with different ways of being. It helps that we know for a fact that the world of stuff doesn’t do it for us. I’ve had my radio on a lot more recently than in the past, because I’m sort of in training for next year, when I intend to take a break from TV. When the country goes digital, I’m going to say, "no thanks." With the convergence of the Internet with other media, and the ability to rent movies, I really don’t think I’ll be missing much! Maybe some of my friends and neighbors will decide they want to try that, too, so that many more perfectly good minds can be free of the static and more capable of helping in the transition.
There are changes coming, and they can take us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, a more direct way of accessing people and things that make us truly happy. I think calmness, humor, and gladness to get out of bed each day are the best ways to help others think about consuming less. It’s a skill everyone will need to learn. As poet Gary Snyder advises in the poem, For the Children, "Stay together, Learn the Flowers, Go Light."
6. How do you find that living in cohousing has affected your perspective on simplicity and green living? Do you find that your cohousing compatriots are on board with it all? I'm moving into cohousing at the end of the summer and am eager to develop a simple, sustainable, green community and would love any input.
I’ve been very satisfied with the extended-family feel of cohousing. It’s not wildly different than what we’re already used to, since everyone has his/her own private space, and the ability to be just as private as Americans are supposed to be. But there’s also this great opportunity to help each other grow and develop, at our own speed. There’s a base-level support that helps a person remain buoyant even in challenging times. A person is less likely to feel lonesome in cohousing, especially if the neighborhood learns to create traditions and community culture. For example, this month we had a house concert featuring traveling musician Peter Mayer. We made little tickets and pre-sold the concert to make sure Pete’s travels were profitable. We had our traditional St. Paddy’s Day dinner, corned beef and cabbage stew; we had a second "progressive dinner" later that week that always forces everyone to clean up their houses; and we had a "Meet the Artist" night, where some very fine talent was on display and we learned from each other about aspirations, techniques, and why we create. Next week, a neighbor will show slides of his adventures on the Tibetan side of Mt. Everest.
No, we aren’t as eco-friendly as we’d like to be. We’ve had a challenge going to see if we can be the group of people that makes it perfectly normal to bring cloth bags to our local grocery store. But the other day a neighbor confessed that she had taken her cloth bags out to the car after going to the grocery, and transferred her groceries into them so she wouldn’t be seen carrying food in seabird nooses. Several homes have solar panels on them, and several neighbors drive hybrids, but I think our greenest characteristic is that we meet many of our needs right in the neighborhood, filling up that empty place inside ourselves that used to get sucked to the mall.
Cohousing is really just the mainstream stepping forward with some new ideas and as well as a very OLD idea: that humanity is a very social species for whom the most valuable currency of all is Trust. To get a deeper look, read Reinventing Community: Stories from the Walkways of Cohousing, a book of stories I collected from all over the country about daily life in cohousing. And have a look through the website www.cohousing.org.
Thanks, Dave, for taking the time to answer the reader's questions!
Tomorrow will be another installment of the Affluenza book club plus I'll be announcing who the two winners of Simple Prosperity are tomorrow.