Enough. It’s a simple word, but one that is rarely explored in western culture, where runaway consumption is the norm and overspending is actively encouraged. How much do we really need, and what opportunities are available to us in this time of economic chaos? Dave Wann, coauthor of the bestselling Affluenza and author of Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, suggests that now is the moment for us to fundamentally reexamine our cultural ethos around money and materialism, and that doing so can lead to a society that is more fulfilled, healthier and more self-reliant.
From custom-designed neighborhoods to community based agriculture, the ideas Wann promotes are ones that he actively embodies. As President of the Sustainable Futures Society, board member of the Cohousing Association of the U.S. and a fellow of the Simplicity Forum, Wann is at the forefront of the movement to create a society based on sound environmental and civic practices. In this interview with SuperConsciousness, he shares his perspective on creativity, a new definition of wealth, and the importance of the public good.
SC: You suggest that one of the fundamental problems with our economy is that it’s not aligned with values that make us feel truly alive. How so?
DW: What’s happened is that we’re kind of like a cat that’s run up a tree and can’t figure out how to get back down. It’s in the best interest of the economy to keep us in the tree. We’re living in an old-fashioned idea, and we have to wake up to that. And we are.
Our anthropological instincts and our survival way of thinking have been overridden by a culture that says, “Oh no. We don’t do that anymore.” For example, we don’t take care of our place so our offspring can succeed because technology will do that. The economy is going to do that for us. We’ve looked outside of ourselves for everything because it’s been so easy.
We’ve been reactive, and now we need to move towards preventive. We think that the environment is contained by the economy. We need to change that around: everything is inside the environment. We’ve forgotten this anthropological constraint, that the individual acts not only for his or her own benefit, but also for the benefit of the social good.
This is the perfect moment for us to say that people are going to care about me, not for what I consume, but for what I know, the stories I can tell, the way I treat people fairly.
In Scandanavia, they have redefined the meaning of their society as being one that’s not so obsessed with money. They’re going for health and wellness, and sustainability. That’s what the U.S. needs to do. Japan hasn’t ditched their sense of the social good. Even South America is looking at this. It’s the U.S. that is this standout in terms of what’s good for the individual should be good for the society. It’s just not anymore.
SC: Was it ever? It seems that we’ve always had this glaring discrepancy between the very wealthy and the poor.
DW: It could work better in an egalitarian society. The status anxiety that we experience is particularly prevalent when one percent of the people control one-fourth of the wealth. It’s not just at all. Our idea of justice is how we’re going to distribute the stuff, whereas justice should be about people getting their needs met. All the things that really matter, we’re not focusing on. We think the market’s going to supply them, but the market needs guidance. The market needs social conscience.
Manufacturing is not just about owning things. The manufacturing sector could provide things that we need but maybe they could lease them to us.
SC: It sounds like you’re saying that we need to start taking responsibility for our role in the economy.
DW: We’re here to come up with different ideas – not for ourselves, and not to the complete neglect of all the world’s species. Creativity has its own intrinsic rewards. The idea of flow is very much aligned with the sense of “enough.” When I’m in a state of flow, time goes by without me realizing it. When you’re in that state, what else do you need? Flow or creativity is really all we need, if we can perceive it in a different way.
SC: Obviously we have a lot of people who are struggling, living well below the poverty line, working several jobs. Can the changes that you’re talking about be implemented by anyone, or are we primarily talking about the middle class and the upper middle class downsizing?
DW: It’s about meeting in the middle. The wealthy don’t need a yacht the size of a battleship. We have to say, you can make up to $200,000 or whatever that number should be, but now I’m going to start taxing you at the rate we were taxing when Kennedy was president – seventy percent. In Roosevelt’s time it was even higher. We’re going to begin to level this out so we don’t have so much status anxiety. That’s one reason why we have so much crime. If it’s unequal I’m going to come and take what you have.
Dennis Kucinich recently said, what if status was based on service more than consumption? What if success was defined differently? It’s not lightbulbs we’re changing, it’s the entire cultural ethic.
Let’s challenge this American expansionist idea that in order to have this status, I have to have a larger and larger house. As we begin to change our cultural thinking, we’ll begin to build smaller houses.
SC: In Simple Prosperity you mentioned Japan as a country that sees all work as valuable – that there’s not this hierarchy of “good jobs” vs. “not so good jobs.” How might we change the way we view work in this country?
DW: I think the answer is that all work is honorable, whether it’s washing dishes or whatever. In a lot of the countries of the world, particularly in the guilds and apprenticeships, you early on decided “here’s the work I’m going to do and I’m going to be really good at it. Society is going to be all right that I’m a butcher.” If we begin to look at work as something that is more honorable, as something that has to be done, we’ll do a lot better.
SC: What do you mean by the term “the real wealth of neighborhoods”?
DW: This is something that’s very close to me, because fifteen years ago I helped design the neighborhood that I live in. It’s a European, communitarian way of thinking that makes me get out of my own house and my own ego. The purpose of it is that we’re in this together as a neighborhood. Many neighborhoods are starting to have this ethic. It’s not just my little house and what I’m consuming. What about these other people? If I work in the garden it’s providing some needs, it’s providing entertainment. If I’m able to use my car a lot less because a lot of my needs are very local, then I’m not thinking about consumption all the time.
It’s intentionality. Let’s challenge this American expansionist idea that in order to have this status, I have to have a larger and larger house. As we begin to change our cultural thinking, we’ll begin to build smaller houses. In the meantime, maybe we can subdivide them.
What if status was based on service more than consumption? What if success was defined differently? It’s not lightbulbs we’re changing, it’s the entire cultural ethic.
The real wealth gets into these other areas. We have house concerts in our neighborhood, and that gets us entertainment. The gardening gets me entertainmnent. You’re just standing out there on a sunny day and there’s maybe fifteen people out there. You can talk to anyone you want. You don’t feel isolated. That’s one of the major sources of poverty in this country. One out of four people has no one they can confide in. The rest of the population went from three confidants to two in the last decade. That is disturbing.
SC: What are some of the benefits of changing?
DW: If we begin to think about changing the agriculture, the benefits of doing that would be that we could taste food again. We’d get a cross section of minerals that make us feel great. It’s the taste and the health, the protection of habitats, and the reduction of greenhouse gases. If you put organic content into the soil, it also sequesters water, and then you’re sequestering CO2. You’re not using the pesticides.
It’s a good model for what we need to do in all of our production sectors. It’s not mobility we want, it’s access. Manufacturing is not just about owning things. The manufacturing sector could provide things that we need but maybe they could lease them to us. It’s flipping things around from an ownership society to a meeting needs society.
We’ve forgotten this anthropological constraint, that the individual acts not only for his or her own benefit, but also for the benefit of the social good.
SC: What do you see as the greatest opportunity afforded by our current economic downturn?
DW: There’s a lot of unemployment. Now is the perfect time to start sharing the jobs and sparing the planet. If we had many more part-time jobs, as Europe does – in Denmark and Holland it’s up to something like forty percent of the jobs are part time, with no loss in pay. In other words, I make the same amount per hour as the guy working forty hours per week.
Mass transit ridership is up. People can find that changes that would seem to be so difficult, are not so bad. This whole idea of sacrifice really bugs me. We will need some stuff that people will regard as sacrifice. But I would rather substitute the word “satisfied” for “sacrifice.” It’s not sacrifice if you’re learning new recipes and cooking better food – if you’re even cooking food. That’s not sacrifice.
SC: “Sacrifice” doesn’t connote the understanding that we’re in a state of overconsumption already.
DW: What we’re looking for is that balance, that point which is really quite easy to find – it’s like a magnetic true north – that place that is not too little, not too much. That tree doesn’t grow to be forty feet tall. It grows only as tall as the water and nutrients can overcome gravity. There are the perfect ingredients for a given species of tree to grow.
SC: If we’re not basing our economy on natural resources, what do you see as the basis for the new economy?
DW: It has to do with becoming producers ourselves again. If I become a producer and suddenly I’m producing my own entertainment and some of my own food, I don’t need to eat out for eighty percent of my meals. It’s about self-reliance a lot more. It’s also about experience. We begin to see that experiences have more value, and that’s what we’ve been trying to buy. When you meet needs, there’s enough. What I would replace the consumer economy with is the reality of experiences that are resonant. Instead of Christmas being this hodgepodge of stuff flying around, it becomes going skating on the pond. Products are not really tangible, and the economy isn’t either. The economy is only paper, and it’s based on an idea, a hope and a trust, and we’ve seen what happens with that.
All the things that really matter, we’re not focusing on. We think the market’s going to supply them, but the market needs guidance. The market needs social conscience.
This is the perfect moment for us to say that people are going to care about me, not for what I consume, but for what I know, the stories I can tell, the way I treat people fairly. It’s going to strip away all the externalities, all these superfluous things that we kept trying to get more of, because it’s an addiction.