The old American dream is giving way to a new American dream, a dream that can improve our quality of life, promote social justice, and protect the environment. In this three-part series, I’ll try my best to first articulate where we are now, and then offer a vision of a society that pursues not just “more,” but more of what matters – and less of what doesn’t. I invite you, our reader, to participate in a valuable dialog that will, at least in some small part, help shape a new American dream.
The Three Parts
Here is a birds’-eye view of the three parts, and how I see them fitting together:
- Our country is suffering a severe case of economic inequality, the likes of which we have never seen before. This was the topic covered in Part I of this series: A New American Dream: Part I .
- This economic inequality is the primary reason for all sorts of social injustice issues all around us. The danger is that current economic divisions have set in motion a self-perpetuating cycle of social disadvantage. Unless we do something to alter the course of this self-propelling cycle, things can only get worse. This was the topic covered in Part II of this series: A New American Dream: Part II.
- Voluntary simplicity (a.k.a. simple living) can and should be one of the solutions. Notice that I do not say the whole solution, but certainly a major part. Part III will examine these solutions.
Why Voluntary Simplicity Is the Perfect Answer
Are you familiar with the concept of “voluntary simplicity”? If you are unsure, then please refer to an earlier post on this blog: Simple Living Is Better for Everyone. Okay! Now why do I say that voluntary simplicity is the perfect answer? Follow my line of reasoning:
- Social justice depends on the distribution of wealth and resources, NOT on the growth of wealth. and resources.
- Simple living requires less wealth and resources, so we don’t need more growth.
- Human happiness does not depend on economic growth.
- This is such good news because Mother Earth is reaching the limits of what she is able to provide for us.
Let’s examine each of these three points in turn:
- Social justice depends on the distribution of wealth and resources, NOT on the growth of wealth and resources. Another way to express this: We should be striving for development rather than growth. From Mark A. Burch, author of several books, and web article Simply for Others:
- Growth means quantitative expansion in scale, size or number. Northern, industrialized, “developed” nations cannot stand any more growth, nor can the planet support it. If human cultures everywhere on Earth are to sustain themselves over the long term, growth must cease and the pursuit of growth as a means to riches must cease. Growth … always involves “trade offs,” finding a “balance,” which usually means everyone loses something, and “breaking eggs to make omelets,” which usually means degradation of ecosystems.
- Development refers to qualitative or functional improvement. It is an inherently value-laden concept. It refers to changes that are desired and valued. Development is clearly possible in a steady-state, non-growing system. … development usually works to the good of the whole, of all species, and all participants in the development process.
- Simple living requires less wealth and resources, so we don’t need more growth. While we recognize that there is not one way to live simply, being frugal with money and consuming less are central to any practice of simplicity. In a market economy, spending wisely plays a central role. Consuming less involves reducing energy consumption and using energy more efficiently, reducing waste, and questioning the amount of stuff in our lives.
- Human happiness does not depend on economic growth. Since the earliest days of our country, Americans have been pursuing happiness, often without knowing how to achieve it. Today the science of happiness has shown us that happiness has many dimensions besides economic growth. Some of these other dimensions are: reduced stress, good health, more leisure time, and social connections. From a terrific article titled Satisfaction and Smiles in an Unequal World by Sam Pizzigati: “The longer hours we work … reduce our social connections, a central foundation of happiness. To compensate for the resulting loneliness, we buy more stuff. These defensive purchases, in turn, add to our national GDP. Higher GDP numbers create a sense that we’re wealthy. In fact, we’re impoverished on the things we value most.”
- This is such good news because Mother Earth is reaching the limits of what she is able to provide for us. Humanity needs what nature provides. If we want everyone on our planet to have enough, then we need to be mindful of how we consume Earth’s resources. So how do we know how much we are using, and how much is available for us to use? The Ecological Footprint is an accounting system designed to answer that question.
The demand side (Footprint) tracks how much land and water area a human population uses to provide all it takes from nature. The supply side (biocapacity) is a measure how much biologically productive area is available to provide these services. Since the 1970’s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot. It takes 1.5 years for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources that people use, and absorb the CO2 waste they produce, in that same year.
The Other Half of the Answer
As we have seen, voluntary simplicity can go a long ways towards alleviating social injustices; at the same time it can make our lives richer (in the real sense!) and happier, and preserve and protect our home planet. I believe that the other half of the answer lies in economics! Many of us, particularly Americans, have been brainwashed into believing that the only way to drive our economy is consumerism. I don’t “buy it”, and neither should you! There are many economists, environmentalists, and development campaigners who endorse an economics which puts people and planet first. Some label this brand of economics “The Sufficiency Economy”. From The Sufficiency Economy by Samuel Alexander: “… a sufficiency economy can be understood in direct contrast to the dominant macro-economic paradigm based on limitless growth. Whereas existing economies in our increasingly globalised world are predicated on the assumption that ‘more production and consumption is always better,’ the sufficiency economy described below is shaped by an acceptance that ‘just enough is plenty.’ As will be seen, the implications of this alternative economic perspective are nothing short of revolutionary. Rather than progress being seen as a movement toward ever-increasing material affluence, the sufficiency economy aims for a world in which everyone’s basic needs are modestly but sufficiently met, in an ecologically sustainable, highly localised, and socially equitable manner. When material sufficiency is achieved in these ways, further growth would not continue to be a priority. Instead, human beings would realise that they were free from the demands of continuous economic activity and could therefore dedicate more of their energies to non-materialistic pursuits, such as enjoying social relationships, connecting with nature, exploring the mysteries of the universe, or engaging in peaceful, creative activity of various sorts.”
A New American Dream
There you have it! I hope that you have enjoyed reading this series. I certainly enjoyed writing it, and in the process, I have learned a good deal about the voluntary simplicity movement. I am ready to join! How about you? If you would like a practical action plan, I encourage you to visit this web site, a project of The Simplicity Institute: The Simpler Way. Another great resource is an organization called Resilience, a program of Post Carbon Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the world transition away from fossil fuels and build sustainable, resilient communities. Their web site is Resilience.