Simple Prosperity: Finding the Sweet Spot

by Millionaire Mommy Next Door on March 10, 2009

in About Me,Book Review,Inspiration,Interviews

David Wann author speaker filmmakerDavid Wann is a writer, filmmaker, and speaker on the topic of sustainable lifestyles. He’s coauthor of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a best seller that’s now in nine languages. Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle is Wann’s vision of a lifestyle that’s immune to Affluenza, and his book in progress, Beyond Simple Choices, evaluates 100 high-yield decisions at both the personal and public scale.

Twice, I’ve had the great pleasure of hearing Dave speak.  His message resonates with me, deep down in my soul.  Generously, Dave offered to share his thoughts with my readers here, about how to find the sweet spot with REAL wealth. His message is timely: As both our physical and economic climates reach crisis levels, Dave offers us a chance to reflect, plenty of hope, and specific pathways for healthy, joyful change. Thank you, Dave!

1) Dave, how do you define “simple prosperity”?

I think of simple prosperity as a social movement, a non-violent revolution similar to the civil rights movement, to replace our excessive lifestyle with a more moderate, sensible, grounded way of life. It’s not about guilt, shame, judgment, or sacrifice, but a strategic, mutually agreeable reduction in our level of consumption and a corresponding increase in our level of contentment. My message in Simple Prosperity is two-fold: it’s not ecologically, geologically, or socially possible to pump so much stuff, so quickly, through the global economy; however, a mindful lifestyle rich in experience, information, efficiency, connection, culture, and human energy can significantly reduce much of our hyperactive production and consumption. We can have twice the satisfaction for half the resources – a bargain!

When we directly meet basic needs like security; connection with nature and with people we respect, self-expression and creativity; meaningful leisure activities, it becomes clear that money and possessions are really an indirect way of meeting needs. For example, how can a money-distracted culture create trust, authenticity, loyalty, inspiration, calmness, tradition, and passion? Frankly, the evidence indicates that the quest for “more” at both the personal and commercial scale often strips these essential qualities away, leaving us borrowing, buying and selling rather than being.

Simple prosperity re-values the ecstasy of time spent in a garden or having a stimulating conversation; the relief and renewal of ideas put to practical use, as when we work to improve our neighborhoods and communities. To “save the planet” as well as ourselves, we’ll need to change far more than light bulbs and grocery sacks; we’ll need to change our value system, creating policies and technologies based on long-term success rather than just short-term gratification. If the cultural direction – the everyday ethic – changes, individuals will follow, en masse.

2) How is simple prosperity different than a lifestyle of frugal deprivation?

Simple prosperity is not about what we give up, but what we get back when we let all the junk go: the distraction, dysfunction, depression, corruption, pollution, doubt, debt, shame, stress, guilt, cruelty, and all the rest. If we actively re-prioritize our personal lives and also participate in getting our culture back on track, we’ll re-locate what I call the “sweet spot” of enough. Enough is perfect, too much results in diminishing returns. For example, when we drink a cup or two of coffee, we have useful energy. But ten cups is way beyond “enough,” and we pay for it in craziness, just as we are paying dearly for “too much” in this year’s economic train wreck.

The lifestyle presented in Simple Prosperity could easily avoid the need to earn and spend half a million dollars over a lifetime, including reduced medical bills, utility bills, legal fees, interest payments, counseling, lawn care, day care, appliance maintenance, and other forms of hired “care” that we can provide ourselves if we make time, and liberate ourselves from a consumer script that’s driving us nuts.

3) What does simple prosperity look like on a day-to-day basis?

In our current way of life, the typical American will spend six months of his life sitting at red lights, eight months opening junk mail, one year searching for misplaced items, two years trying to return calls to people who aren’t there, four years cleaning house, and five years waiting in line – all activities that relate at least in part to our lives as consumers.

dave-wann-gardening

When we choose real wealth, we change the way we spend both time and money. We begin choosing things like healthy, great-tasting food; work that challenges and stimulates us; and spiritual connection with a universe that’s infinitely larger than our stock portfolio. Instead of more stuff in our already-stuffed lives, we can have fewer things but better things of higher quality; fewer visits to the doctor and more visits to museums and friends’ houses. More joyful intimacy, more restful sleep, and more brilliantly sunny mornings in campsites on the beach – bacon & eggs sizzling in the skillet and coffee brewing in the pot. Greater use of our hands and minds in creative activities like building a table, knitting a sweater, or harvesting the season’s first juicy, heirloom tomato. These are the things that matter, and we can choose them, if we spend less time, money, and energy being such obedient consumers.

A great example of the social and personal benefits of a new lifestyle already occurred in Michigan from 1930 to 1985, when the Kellogg Company operated with a six-hour day. With two hours more discretionary time, Kellogg employees transformed the lifestyle of Kalamazoo, where many of them lived. Families and neighborhoods benefited from the extra time; schools included curricula about the “arts of living” and parental involvement in schools – such as “room mothers” in the classrooms – increased. Parks, community centers, skating rinks, churches, libraries, and YMCAs became centers of activity. Kellogg workers recall that the balance of their lives shifted from working to living. What to do with their time became more important than what to buy with their money.

4) How can adopting a lifestyle of simple prosperity help us individually and collectively?

We are an extremely socially oriented species, which accounts for our stunning success. Our ever-expanding brains enabled speech and language, and the complex social relationships that made cooperation and group decisions possible. Because of our genetic make-up, it’s hard for individuals to change unless the whole group’s ethic changes. I propose that a joyfully moderate lifestyle become, by consensus, the new norm for “the good life,” as it already has in moderate countries like Holland, Denmark, Costa Rica, and New Zealand.

Historian Arnold Toynbee observed that among thirty or more empire- civilizations, those that survived and thrived followed a Law of Progressive Simplification. The Roman Empire became Italy, where the Renaissance was born. The British Empire is now the far more moderate and exemplary United Kingdom, a world leader in dealing with global warming. The American Empire, too, will mature, in effect, outgrowing the gospel of growth.

I like the analogy of a backpacker when I think about the emerging American lifestyle. The backpacker doesn’t want a lot of junk in her backpack. She wants only items that are ingeniously designed, like a Whisper Lite cookstove, a warm fleece sweater, a good pair of boots that can go the extra miles, and food that’s full of slow-release energy. The backpacker brings along skills she has learned, the stories she can tell, a well-designed tent, maybe a flute or a great book. On her journey, the world is a splash of light and shadow, with mountain peaks in the distance and bighorn sheep standing guard. If we’re smart, the awakening American lifestyle will deliver clarity, a sense of wonder, and great health, as if life itself was an energizing, mind-opening backpacking trip.

5) I’ve heard you encourage your audiences to become “historical super-heroes.” As I recall, you suggested that we curb our consumption so that our grandkids will read about our generation in their history books with reverence. Can you elaborate?

In recent experiments with MRI technology, altruism, generosity, and cooperation register as strongly in the brain’s “pleasure center” as gambling, drugs, shopping, chocolate, or attractive faces. It would feel great to act unselfishly, in the best interests of our grandkids, but our society is focused elsewhere, distracted by situation comedies and constantly morphing car styles.

If we score high in the history books and become super-heroes, it will be because we finally let go of all the junk images, junk food, and junk information, and went after the real wealth. It’s so important that we each do our part to nudge our lifestyle in a more meaningful direction. We need fulfillment rather than just “fun,” engagement with passions rather than just passing the time. We should each ask ourselves this question: If it’s true that our whole life flashes before us when we die, will it hold our interest?

6) Despite the pain this financial crisis has caused, I can’t help but think that it serves as the wake-up call many seemed to need. My hope is that we become a nation of savers and conservationists, not spenders and takers; that we learn to value relationships over material possessions. What are your thoughts about the effect this crisis might have on society?

A culture shift like the one I propose – from an emphasis on material wealth to an abundance of time, relationships, and experiences – has already occurred in cultures such as Japan in the 18th century. Land was in short supply, forest resources were being depleted, and minerals such as gold, silver, and copper were suddenly scarce as well. Japan went from being resource-rich to resource-poor, but its 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 seen as lofty goals.

In this “culture of contraction,” an emphasis on quality became ingrained in a culture that eventually produced world-class solar cells and Toyota Priuses. Japanese shoguns established strict policies for reforesting. Training and education in aesthetics and ritualistic arts fluorished, resulting in disciplines like fencing, martial arts, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, literature, art, and skillful use of the abacus. The three largest cities in Japan had 1500 bookstores among them, and most people had access to basic education, health care, and the necessities of life, further enriching a culture that required very few resources per unit of happiness.

One of the main purposes of culture is to moderate and restrain individual excess, but our collective identity in 2009 is itself excessive. We’re like a family whose parents do not set clear, healthy guidelines for their children. Anything goes – drugs, unprotected sex, weapons, junk food by the barrel. Our global family desperately needs to set sensible guidelines. For example, we need to retrieve traditional diets that prevent illness and generate wellness. When the basic food groups and recipes of a particular culture are lost in the shuffle, we can’t figure out what we should be eating, with disastrous and financially costly results.

7) How would you describe a sensible economy?

A sweeping culture shift is happening right now, right in our generation. We’re at the tail end of the Industrial Era, moving into an age of restoration, biospirituality, and preservation. The entire industrial civilization is ramping down, just in time to prevent ecological catastrophe. If we’re lucky, we’ll find authentic abundance we can count on, rather than manufactured, prefabricated wealth that literally counts on us.

It’s not the Joneses we strive to keep up with; it’s an all-encompassing system of production and consumption – a way of life that takes away our ability to feed ourselves, entertain ourselves, or even have original thoughts. We’re looking for value in the wrong places. Is it really large houses we crave, or large lives, rich in discretionary time and generosity that we can share with those we love? Is it really expensive, programmed vacations we want, or simply the respect and admiration of our peers, and a sense that life is exciting? When our daily lives are energized with creativity and playfulness, we discover that life is an adventure no matter where we are.

It’s time for a cultural revolution – for consumer disobedience that demands quality over quantity; localization rather than globalization; time affluence rather than the poverty of constant, stressful deadlines; less aggression, more empathy; more respect for public places, including the environment, and less obsession with individual accumulation.

A sensible economy does not take more than it gives. On our watch, the world’s solar income and renewable yield is being consumed at a faster pace every year. This year, ecologists calculate that we’ll consume nature’s “interest” (from fisheries, forests, and farmland, etc.) by the middle of September, then, we’ll continue to draw down nature’s principle, in the process undermining the ecosystems that support us.

8 ) If we continue to reduce our levels of consumption, what do you think will happen to our economy?

We will simply create a different kind of economy, as the Japanese did centuries ago, including a rebirth of craft, amateur art and self-expression, and basic skills of self-reliance. Let’s face it, right now, we are at the mercy of a lifestyle support system that commands our obedience because we don’t even know how to re-light the pilot on our furnaces or spend a solitary hour in the park without being entertained.

Our economy’s primary measurement of “progress” is the Gross Domestic Product, which is very much a toxic loaf of bread. All economic activities are folded into it, whether beneficial or destructive. Crime, family breakdown, loss of leisure time, oil spills, hurricane damage, car accidents, loss of wetlands, legal fees for corruption – all are included in the GDP, and even though the bread is toxic, the superficial fact that it rises is good enough for mainstream economists. We need a new economic yardstick that tells us how we’re really doing, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator developed by the non-profit Redefining Progress, which subtracts the “bads.”

The U.S. GDP might possibly be smaller in the future, but that’s okay, because it could contain greater real wealth overall if all the negatives decrease while positive values like social relationships, renewable energy, bike trails, small farms, preventive health care, and compact communities with town centers increase.

Here are a few more shifts in the way we meet needs that will make our lifestyle more affordable:

* If our collective demand for products falls, so will prices, as we’ve seen recently with gasoline. With cooperation and synergies among social and technical systems, we’ll make better use of finite resources.

* When we design communities to fit human needs rather than corporate or automobile needs, our lifestyle becomes more affordable. Public transit will be far less expensive per capita than America’s current fleet of 250 million cars.

* Getting rid of packaging, glossy green lawns, and food waste also takes a huge chunk out of the collective cost of our lifestyle. We currently spend $900 per capita on advertising, which of course is embedded in the cost of products and services. Less consumption means less advertising as well as less debt. And less debt of course means less interest on the debt.

* Reasonable reductions in meat consumption, air travel, and energy-intensive materials like cement, aluminum, paper, and synthetic chemicals make it seem like we’re all making more money. War must finally be seen as the epitome of waste. Green chemistry, which shortens the steps and softens the environmental cost of making chemicals, in turn lowers the cost of everything manufactured.

* Preventive health approaches and more empathetic, service-oriented doctors and nurses lower the cost of maintaining our health, and better industrial design generates much less costly pollution.

* Eliminating subsidies that result in the destruction of ecosystems would save the world about $700 billion annually, about a third of that in the U.S. Rather than drawing down aquifers, letting soil erode, clear-cutting forests, and over-fishing the world’s fish species, we would learn how to be efficient, and how to harvest only a sustainable yield.

* In the new economy, recycling becomes a religion so less costly extraction is required; In a world with different values and priorities, there is less need for crime control, lawsuits, and security systems, because with a higher ratio of social input as well as greater equality, we nurture a population that is less fearful and has less “status anxiety,” a direct stimulant of crime.

These savings arise not because we are “doing without,” but because we’re tuning up our value system, getting rid of waste, and creating a more sustainable way of being in the world. Rather than requiring a hundred thousand hours of work per lifetime, this lifestyle enables each citizen to work less, avoiding the need for half a million dollars of earnings per capita — yielding a better quality of life in which nature is on the rebound, and trust is, too.

The future is waiting. I believe it’s time for us to stop seeing the world as it is, and begin to see it as it should be.

simple-prosperity-bookDavid Wann is a writer, filmmaker, and speaker on the topic of sustainable lifestyles. He’s coauthor of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a best seller that’s now in nine languages. Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle is Wann’s vision of a lifestyle that’s immune to Affluenza, and his book in progress, Beyond Simple Choices, evaluates 100 high-yield decisions at both the personal and public scale.

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