Archive for February, 2011

Beyond Affluenza and Into the New Normal

This is an interview with me,  conducted and edited by Carolyn Baker, editor of Transition Times. Carolyn has also written five books, and I’m in the process of reading her Sacred Demise now.  The interview is posted at

CB: David, tell us a bit about your background and your journey from the 1950s values that most people our age were raised with. How did you get from there to where you are now to write a phenomenal book like “The New Normal”?

DW: Back when I was a teenager in the 1960s, I felt queasiness lurking in the easy-going euphoria of the American lifestyle. Gandhi once said, “Speed is irrelevant if you’re traveling in the wrong direction,” and it was obvious to me that the accelerating pace of life in the U.S. didn’t have a real direction. Everything was becoming automatic, comfortable, and “convenient,” yet other than going to the moon, banishing germs from our kitchens, and scrapping with the communists, we seemed to be floating up and away from reality like soap bubbles. We each wanted to expend as little effort as possible but still get paid handsomely for it so we could live the good life, before we… popped.

I began to notice that people whose lifestyles didn’t center on money were often healthier and more interesting. They seemed more caring and unselfish, and they were passionate about doing active, celebratory things like playing music, dancing, playing chess or bridge, embroidering, fly fishing, cooking delicious meals, studying history, gardening, and staying current with political issues. TV wasn’t a central part of their lives; they were less distracted by commercial hype and less detoured by all the products. What they earned seemed less important than what they learned. I was fascinated that in many cases, the ordinary, American Dream-life was much more expensive than the extraordinary lives of these unique, self-creating people who lived their lives rather than trying to buy them.  They had the real wealth – things that made them feel glad to be alive.

Since those early years, I’ve worked ten years with the U.S. EPA, written or edited ten books, produced fifteen videos and TV documentaries on various aspects of sustainability, and helped design and govern the neighborhood I’ve lived in for 15 years.  My conviction that our species needs a new way of being in the world has only gotten stronger. The rules and norms we live by – our social “software” – are now obsolete in a world in which temperatures and populations are rising but water tables and human satisfaction are falling.

We urgently need to adopt and implement a simple but proven 4-step strategy to break our addictions to various substances from oil to stuff to prescription drugs. 1. Admit we have a problem of unprecedented proportions. 2. Humbly seek support and cooperation from each other, from whatever higher power we acknowledge, and from history. 3. Create a healthy new cultural identity. 4. With fresh new goals and priorities, intervene in the broken systems and patterns that are destroying the world with which we evolved.

We should shoot for health and wellness rather than wealth and “hellness,” and agree to move, together, away from a lifestyle of deadlines and dying species and toward lifelines and living wealth. In The New Normal, I researched and presented 33 leverage points or key places to intervene to quickly shift our economy and culture in a more admirable, affordable, and sustainable direction. The big picture is that production and consumption will no longer be the defining characteristics of the emerging era – cultural richness, efficiency, cooperation, expression, ecological design, and biological restoration will be.

CB: Right now as you and I sit here, the prices of food worldwide are surging daily. Yet you tell us in your book to buy organic food. We can grow some food, but much of it we can’t. And in this time of global economic crisis and skyrocketing food prices, why should we spend the extra money for organic?

Callout Title
Americans are overfed but undernourished.
Americans are overfed but undernourished. We have the cheapest food as a percentage of income in the “developed” world, but the most expensive health care. In recent years, national spending on health care jumped from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, largely to treat preventable diseases. Meanwhile spending for food fell from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent.  However, judging by the trends, we will spend more of our discretionary income for healthy food in the near future and less for poorly designed gadgets, clothes, and monster-houses. And this change in dietary priorities will deliver solid, satisfying value. We’ll have more energy and be more productive. We’ll spend more time baking and breaking bread with friends and family, and less time at the doctor’s office.

“Let food be your medicine,” Hippocrates counseled long ago, and insurance companies nervously agree. Observes Michael Pollan, every case of Type 2 diabetes they can help prevent with better diet and exercise adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly every can of soda or deep-fried chicken nugget in a school cafeteria is seen as a threat to future profits. So the insurance and health care industries are part of a coalition with enlightened farmers, politicians, and citizen activists, that is bring radical change to the food system.

Evolution dictates that we should eat organic. The better food we eat, the less we go to the doctor. Furthermore, organic food gets CO2 out of the air and back into our food. What is more, organic materials hold water, and this is especially relevant here in Colorado with its water issues. We would all do well to shift our budgets so that we can eat organic.

But our backs are against the wall, there’s no doubt about that. The assumptions and goals that guided agriculture in a world of one billion  (1800) or two billion people (1930) are way out of date. We need to preserve the source of our food – the farms themselves – or else the global food system will collapse, as it already has throughout history. Yield and profit are important, but so are preservation of soil and water; restoration of biological diversity; safety and healthiness of food; radical reductions in fossil fuel consumed and greenhouse gases emitted; and co-evolution with an increasingly urban population.

Good farming mimics nature's diversity

Fortunately, the global food system is one of most easily adapted major systems (though it won’t be a snap) for several key reasons: agriculture has until recently been solar-powered, and can be again, when oil becomes too expensive to prop up the industry. The supply-and-demand economics of the food system are accessible to consumers, who are becoming more aware of the overall value of food purchases. Because food affects the most important issues of our times – energy, health, security, equality, biological habitat, and climate change, agriculture will come under increasing public and political scrutiny. The trend toward organic produce and whole foods grown in market gardens and small farms will continue – not just because it can be financially lucrative but also because the work is satisfying to a certain, green-thumbed sector of the population. For example, 2010 was the first year in many that there were more farms in the U.S. rather than fewer.

CB: We live in a state (Colorado) that is going to confront very serious water issues in the near future, especially as climate change worsens. From your perspective, what should we as a state and as local communities be doing about this now?

The issue of water has always been interwoven with keystone resources that lie beneath the bottom line of our abstract economy: oil, grain, minerals, and topsoil. Ask farmers and ranchers who have relied on “fossil water” from aquifers if water shortages are real. Many have now gone out of business. Many of the strategies we need to implement are already underway, but we need to amplify and expedite them. Our landscapes are far too thirsty, and can benefit greatly from a higher level of water-conservative design, using more appropriate plants, mulches and increases in soil organic matter to hold the water.  Innovative farmers drip water right into the root zone, however many of them still ship water thousands of miles in the form of juicy peaches and tomatoes. Long “food miles” to transport watery produce may one day become a taxable offense.

Water is embedded in many other products and practices currently in use. For example, although plumbing fixtures are becoming more efficient, there’s still great potential in products like the dual flush toilet. Why use a gallon and a half of water to flush urine?  Water and wastewater treatment will be much more efficient in the future, and operate at a much smaller, more local scale. For example, “living machines” can treat wastewater right in the neighborhood with cattails, snails, fish, and other organisms in greenhouse tanks, without nuisance odors, providing clean water for irrigation. Another emerging energy technology, the fuel cell, can also produce clean water for neighborhood use, without any noise or pollution.  This is a huge departure from fossil fuel and nuclear plants which require up to 40% of a region’s water for use in cooling towers.

We need to collect rainwater and use gray water in our state, which can only happen when state laws change. Already, Arizona, New Mexico and California laws allow these uses, why not Colorado?

In the long run, the best way to conserve water is to host fewer people at a time on our small planet.  When the fossil water runs out and glaciers dry up, our current “normal” will be revealed for what it is: a very temporary and excessive binge.

CB: In “The New Normal,” you have a section on the new affordable economy which is absolutely amazing. It is a roadmap for where we need to be in order to insure the continuation of our planet and our species. What are some of the characteristics of that economy, and what has to happen for us to get there?

Though we still cling to our current, high-stress lifestyle, it’s become crystal clear to many that the half-millennium-long Industrial Era is running on empty. There’s not enough rich industrial ore, topsoil, or biological habitat left for the same old hyper-consumption game to continue— especially as human population and expectations continue to swell. There’s not enough natural resilience to absorb our wastes and provide immunity; not enough climatic stability, psychological stamina, cheap energy, timber, or potable water, either.  A primary goal in the new era will be maturity rather than growth. In their most mature, climax stages, biological systems have learned how to optimize diversity, resourcefulness, and resilience, weaving partnerships among species to make use of each scrap of resource. As a subset of nature, so should we.  To create an affordable economy, the Holy Grail should not be unlimited growth but maturity, like a well-practiced, flawless concerto or a basketball team whose plays are perfectly executed. The players don’t need to be bigger to win games, just better.

It seems that a majority of Americans don’t yet understand that there are too many transactions, too much “throughput” for biological systems to remain stable. More consumption isn’t the answer to our economic challenges; it’s where the problems began. Every single day, the global economy extracts the volumetric equivalent of about 112 Empire State Buildings from the earth, disrupting the nests, seedbeds, roots, and hunting grounds of gazillions of living things—our planet’s real wealth, which provides clean air and water, flood control, pest control, pollination, renewable energy, fertile topsoil, and climatic stability. When natural systems degrade, life becomes more expensive.

Callout Title
One of the most powerful points of intervention is social: the definition of “success.”
One of the most powerful points of intervention is social: the definition of “success.” In the new normal, we won’t consider individuals and cultures successful unless daily life is rich in discretionary time, trust, health, social connection, and meaning. Yet, in a recent Gallup survey of 150 countries, the U.S. ranked at the bottom, below 145 other countries in overall stress – just ahead of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the quest for material wealth is bankrupting nature and filling us with anxiety, why don’t we just change the goal?  Stepping outside the box into a brand new paradigm may be the most effective lever of all.

Right now, our economy is all about plunder— “destroy nature and make money.”  It must change direction, to “preserve nature, save money.”

The restoration of nature should be our overall mission for the remainder of this century. We already see remarkable results from approaches like marine reserves, where fishing is temporarily banned. After a New England snapper fishery was protected for a number of years, the local population of snapper increased 40-fold, and as supply went up, prices came down. Yet old-normal federal subsidies for fishing, farming, and forestry encourage depletion of resources like fish, water, soil, and old growth trees, because they reward yield and neglect to protect the source of that yield. Instead of subsidizing farmers based on quantity of yield, our money will be better spent rewarding maintenance of soil and diversity of species. Protecting natural resilience avoids environmental and social costs that make life more expensive, such as erosion, pesticide and fertilizer pollution, and loss of rural communities.

If we look at other systems that support our current way of life, we see many opportunities to create a truly affordable economy, in which we could work less and play more. For example, if we avoid energy losses in America’s millions of buildings—with better insulation, windows, appliances and fixtures—energy experts document more than a trillion dollars in savings. We can finance these improvements as much with information as capital, because they provide a continuing stream of avoided costs, or “negawatts.”

The redesign of America’s suburbs can also make life less expensive. By changing zoning laws to permit restaurants and hardware stores, by growing gardens rather than lawns, by establishing neighborhood vanpools, shared power sources, and recycling systems, by creating town centers that supply what local residents need, we avoid the need for relentless economic expansion by meeting needs directly. Dysfunctional systems are not affordable.

The way we make and consume products offers a universe of opportunity, too. High on our hit list are reductions in unnecessary packaging and air travel, excessive meat consumption, glossy green lawns, and food waste (the average household throws away 14% of what they buy). Flagship American industries like cement and steel are only half as efficient as the global state of the art. In the case of steel making, we miss an opportunity to convert to high-efficiency electric arc furnaces because they use recycled steel, and our recycling rate for steel is a dismal 60%.  In the new economy, recycling will become a ritualized, standard practice, embedded in design and policy, so less costly extraction is required.

Recycling prevents the need to mine, preserving both energy and nature

We can have much greater quality and durability in our products if we stage a cultural revolution of “consumer disobedience.” Maybe our motto can be “fewer things but better.” With fewer things, we’ll be happier in smaller, less expensive houses, and as a society, we can convert much of our expansive housing stock to multi-family dwellings.

We currently spend $900 per capita to be shelled with unsolicited advertising, embedded in the cost of products and services. A culture that is less consumer-driven will tolerate less advertising and less debt. And less debt means less interest on the debt.

Close to half of the diseases Americans suffer are preventable with improvements in diet, exercise, and stress reduction. For example, we spend $150 billion annually to treat diabetes and $120 billion on obesity. Many of these ailments are symptoms of the way we live. For example, one economist suggests that the huge gap between rich and poor in America is creating unprecedented stress. Our unaffordable economy is making us sick. We are a nation on the edge of a nervous breakdown. We consume two-thirds of the world’s anti-depressants as we battle for position in the economy. Why not just declare a cease-fire with the Joneses we’ve been trying to keep up with?  We’ve bought into the notion that if we’re not wealthy, we’re not good enough, which creates horrible stress and anxiety. Why not become citizens again, creating employee-owned businesses and member-owned credit unions that can reduce both killer stress and unnecessary expenses? (Credit unions save $8 billion a year in interest on loans because they are non-profit) Why not invest in community bonds, portfolios and banks and make living returns on our investments?

Savings like these are possible not because we are “cutting back,” but because we’re tuning up our value system, getting rid of waste, creating and adopting more sensible ways of getting things done. Rather than mandating 100,000 hours of work and commuting per lifetime, a more affordable lifestyle enables each citizen to work less and pay closer attention to things that really matter, like the health of our families, communities, and the environment.

Of course we can’t do these things individually. It’s an agreement, and the whole culture needs to say, “Enough! Now we must serve the economy instead of expecting the economy to serve us.”

CB: In “The New Normal,” you have another section that is my personal favorite and that we could spend all day on called “The 12 Paradigm Principles.” What do you think needs to happen spiritually and emotionally for humankind to embrace these 12 principles? Can you spell that out specifically for our readers and tell us a little bit about what that would look like? Some of it may be pleasant to think about, and some of it may not be pretty.

It’s been said that we humans don’t usually make major changes when we see the light—we also need to feel the heat.  That convergence is well underway, but many of the changes we are making are not visible. They are not about flashy new technologies or innovative policies, and they are not about “doing without.”  You could say they are more about “doing within.”

Changes of heart and mind have often created social tsunamis – almost-instant transitions to a new way of seeing the world (like a school of fish reversing direction). In turn, this renaissance leads to changes in technology, policy, and behavior. When that happens, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we make these changes sooner?  They’re far more sensible, comfortable and equitable than we thought they would be.  It’s just the way we do it now.”

But this cultural epiphany can’t take place unless we are willing to leave our comfort zones, and unless we recycle some familiar assumptions that are no longer useful. For example, that the environment is inside the economy. That people are only worth what they are paid. That economic growth of any kind is always good. That one country can teach another how not to kill, by killing them.

We have experienced a mini-Golden Era since World War II. Many of our challenges have been solved (or at least apparently solved) with technological innovations that have increased labor and land productivity. However, we now face challenges of a different nature; technology is not the limiting factor of productivity—resources are. Deeper wells can’t pump water that’s no longer there, and larger boats and nets can’t harvest more fish when fish populations have been wiped out.  Since we can’t change certain biological and geological realities, we need to change ourselves instead. As in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s progression towards the acceptance of death or tragedy, we need to move through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression and accept that the game is different now.

We need to rethink what we are trying to accomplish as a species, and what we truly want to do with our time. Do we really want to let technology guide human evolution ever further into a blind, lifeless alley, or do we want to choose only technologies that enhance our humanity? Now is the time for ecology-based design that lets us participate with our hands and minds, that lets us produce what we need the way bees produce honey: without harming the flower.

New systems of accounting will track productivity in terms of quality, not just quantity. For example, exemplary companies now track tons of cement or sheets of paper produced per unit of energy (not just per dollar invested). Similarly, to evaluate the overall productivity of farming, the new metrics will track the nutritional value of the food and the health of the farms it came from, not simply bushels of grain or pounds of beef.

If we are to save our civilization, all human activity should be based on meeting needs, fully, rather than creating marketable but superfluous wants. A sustainable economy maximizes the productivity of resources in addition to people. When we maximize the productivity of people, we use fewer people, but we have more people than there are jobs. Basically we are using less and less of what we have more of (people) and more and more of what we have less of (resources). That kind of economy just doesn’t make sense. Why not move toward full employment of a part-time workforce, giving us enough income to thrive in an affordable, secure economy and also have enough time for living?  It seems obvious that we could very quickly reduce the high unemployment rate by making workweeks shorter and sharing the work, as Germany has done successfully. To fund public services and infrastructure, why not finesse an American political stalemate by cutting taxes on income and levying taxes on fossil fuels and pollution?

These are some of the paradigm principles that guide the discussion in The New Normal. More than ever before, we need to rely on intuition and instinct to challenge the stranglehold of institutions.  Wouldn’t it be fascinating to come back in a few hundred years to see if we stopped the stampede in time?


Getting Carbon Out of Our Systems, Now

Media moguls must take Americans for a pack of idiots, assuming we’ll never pay attention to anything that requires responsibility, let alone “sacrifice.” Yet beneath the predictable plotlines of celebrity-studded media, there’s a laser beam of solid reporting on the web, public radio, and cable TV about what’s really happening. And there’s a quickly growing legion of citizens who are paying attention. Many try to keep up with the eco-emails that pop into their inboxes every day. They realize that our decisions should be grounded in good science, whether or not it makes us feel “happy.”

Rising CO2 levels from human industry

A recent eco-email from the Earth Policy Institute reports that 2010 is tied with 2005 for the hottest year on record, and that last May, millions of Pakistanis wilted as thermometers spurted to 128 degrees F., an industrial-era high for the Asian continent. Images of cracking farm soil come into our minds, along with urban flashfloods two and three stories deep and hellacious dust bowls swirling across the parched plains of China and Africa. But we remain in a media-induced stupor, certain that there will somehow be a happy ending, like there always has been in our lifetimes.

It’s true there are many hopeful trends to report. Farmers markets and light rail systems continue to be launched in one city after another. Wind energy already installed in the U.S. provides enough electricity to power 8 million American homes! Renewable energies like solar, wind, and hydroelectric already supply more juice than the world’s 400 nuclear power plants combined. Electric and hybrid plug-ins seem destined to challenge the gas guzzlers in 2011 showrooms and there are also monumental shifts in the way we think about the food system. For example, 2010 was the first year in many in which the number of farms increased rather than fell, an indication that small, information-rich farming may be on the rebound. There is growing evidence that Americans are willing to change their priorities, for example, spending more of their household budgets for high-quality food and less for products like clothes (which the average American now buys at the rate of one new item every five days) or electronics that are out of style before we even get them home. Food is increasingly seen as a smart buy – a way to spend more time with friends and less time with the doctor.

If we are an intelligent generation, an over-arching goal should be to absorb greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from the air and put them back in the soil, which is precisely what organic farming does. Increasing the average amount of spongy black loam in soils stores carbon, retains water, and produces healthier food, all at the same time. So when we shift our priorities to buy organic food, we are helping prevent climate change. Cover crops like clover and alfalfa naturally fertilize the soil, reducing the amount of energy-rich fertilizer that is needed while also absorbing carbon dioxide in the off-season. Grazing livestock on grass we can’t eat but they are designed to eat reduces the amount of fertilizer-hungry grains required per unit of meat.  Eating no meat on a given day is the energy equivalent of driving twenty-five fewer miles in an average-sized car, so if the whole country eats just one less meat-centered meal a week, it would be like leaving eight million cars at home.  The web is teeming with delicious meat-free recipes.

Callout Title
Will future generations shake their heads, asking why we remained as silent about global weather shifts as the Germans did about the rise of Hitler?

Yet many of us wonder, impatiently, if we will win or lose the war on warming. Will future generations shake their heads, asking why we remained as silent about global weather shifts as the Germans did about the rise of Hitler? On national polls of the most pressing political issues, climate change seems to rank just below bridges to nowhere. We each seem less concerned about the droughts, floods, tornadoes, and monster cold fronts that degrade our quality of life than we are about which color and brand of cell phone expresses us best.

With thanks

When was the last time a politician planning to run for re-election spoke up about climate change?  Elected officials don’t feel secure supporting major policy changes until voters demand them in convincingly large numbers, yet a sleepwalking majority in America remains silent. After all, researchers paid by the fossil fuel industries tell us reassuringly that humans are simply not capable of affecting the weather. One eco-email warns that glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and oceans are acidifying, but another announces that as many as 7 billion trees – one for each of us – have been planted in the past ten years.

Are we doing enough? Experts tell us there are at least $1.2 trillion dollars of efficiency savings if we invest in existing and emerging technologies.  For example, the heat that usually goes up industrial and power plant stacks could instead turn turbines to meet up to 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs.

Renewable technologies can help us go cold turkey on fossil fuels, too. For example, solar hot water heaters could easily provide half the world’s residential and industrial hot water, reports the Worldwatch Institute. Recent experiments with algae show that this tiny plant could collectively soak up massive amounts of climate-changing carbon dioxide – for example in the emission stacks of coal-fired power plants. Venture capital is betting big money that CO2-absorbing algae can also be deployed as a far more efficient bio-fuel than corn. In industry, large companies like Calera and Novomer are finding ways to incorporate CO2 directly into energy-hungry products like cement and plastics.

If we act on some of these opportunities, we can prevent the need for humans to stay indoors in afternoons of the not-too-distant future. We can prevent utility bills from creeping steadily upward, and prevent catastrophic weather events that could ultimately bankrupt the insurance industry We can count on steady, dependable rains to water our gardens and fields, and we can throw our fellow species a lifeline – species that purify our water and pollinate our crops. If it’s rational, bottom-line decision making we want, we should make sure all the benefits are accounted for, and quickly chart a course for a planet on the rebound.


The Anthropology of Success, and Evidence We Are Changing

The Anthropology of Success

Callout Title
Until we change the direction of our plug-and-play, no-effort-required lifestyle, we’ll continue to be an endangered as well as dangerous civilization.

Let’s face it, we Americans are in the habit of expecting easy solutions. Just give us lists of products we can buy and small decisions we can make that enable us to feel less guilty and less responsible. Just give us warm and fuzzy economic indicators like “home sales are up,” or “consumer confidence is up.” We keep hoping, naively, that it will be simple and automatic to “save the planet;” that if we’re just more dutiful recyclers and car tire inflators, our frenzied yet familiar routines can continue – no real change necessary. If we screw in a few more compact fluorescent or LED bulbs, maybe we can avoid the need to rethink our civilization’s combative relationship with nature?  Not exactly. Until we change the direction of our plug-and-play, no-effort-required lifestyle, we’ll continue to be an endangered as well as dangerous civilization. We’ll continue to generate game-ending carbon dioxide as we convert ecosystems to must-have, easily broken gadgets and nutrition-free, processed food.

The American Dream?

The perceptual shift we are making is that who we are precedes what we do and why we do it. Our most important mission is to get beyond a “simple” mentality and take part in creating a more mature culture. We need universal endorsement of a more sensible, sustainable value system that doesn’t reward corporate or governmental exploitation but does re-value living systems. We need enlightened policies that take us in a more meaningful direction. Here’s the good news: the most effective way to save our civilization is also quite simple if most people do it: we just need to start talking about different things. We’re far more than consumers; we’re voters, teachers, employees, church-goers, discussion group members, menu planners, city planners, product designers, investors, union members, members of food coops, farmers market attendees, recyclers, politicians, and writers. Most importantly, we are people who talk, email, twitter, text, and otherwise communicate with other people, constantly building opinion and culture the way humans have always done. Each one of these many roles can be guided by the new-paradigm ethic that is now coming into focus – just in time!

We have an obsolete worldview.

Every civilization has a collective identity, and ours is now obsolete, agreed upon when conditions were radically different. Embedded in our old identity are self-destructive assumptions such as, All growth is good; The environment is inside the economy; and People are only worth what they are paid. We need to reach new social agreements, quickly. For example, houses large enough to get lost in and sky-high salaries for playing sports or managing companies are no longer useful symbols of success. This is not to say that a person’s life accomplishments don’t have value, just that we need to agree on new ways to express and reward those accomplishments. We want the respect of our peers but let’s earn it by being authentic, service-oriented, and fair. From here on, status symbols should express who we are and what we do with our time and energy, rather than just what we earn and own. If we simply change the meaning of this one word – “success” – we can steer the civilization in a completely different direction. Bloated stock portfolios and yachts the size of battleships won’t win our respect in the new era, but reliability and honesty will. In the book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner challenges the familiar dog-eat-dog interpretation of natural selection, arguing that humans are successful as a species because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. His own interpretation of evolution? “Survival of the kindest.”

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 the least 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 forty percent of the household budget goes to purchase, operate and maintain vehicles.

Sunday afternoon in the suburbs

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, hard-wired 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 each other 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 60,000 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 place of an individual within the group and that individual’s ability to obtain and retain respect. 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 each other 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, mortality rates, low 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 U.S., possessions and consumption have become a shortcut in the communication of 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 – via cultural mechanisms like art and innovative policy-making – to think about personal worth in a different way? Really, 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’s 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, rather than flee. Instead of accumulating just monetary wealth, we will accumulate calmness and wellness as our lifestyle becomes less confusing, more equitable, and more affordable.

Baboons and Spittoons: Evidence That We Are Changing

Survival of the kindest

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky documents social alchemy in his work with baboons – a species typically identified with aggressive, male-dominated behavior. The Stanford University scientist has studied Kenyan baboons for years, observing that alpha males have their pick of females while bullying subordinate males into a state of constant stress. But in one troop the culture began to shift when a tourist lodge opened nearby and began to dump half-eaten scraps and leftovers near the baboons. The alpha males insisted on first pick of these freebies but their aggression did them in. They accidentally ate contaminated meat and died of tuberculosis. The remaining males refused to perpetuate aggression as a way of life. They were lovers, not fighters, and began reciprocating when females groomed them. Even more unusual, the males groomed other males rather than bullying them. Typically, adolescent baboons leave their birthplace to join other troops, but have to fight to gain status. However, in this born-again troop, new arrivals were treated much more congenially. The baboon sisterhood began grooming them within six days, in contrast to the usual three-month, stressful waiting period. The baboons had changed their deep-seated culture, “editing out” a highly aggressive hierarchy. Being subordinate in this group was no longer more stressful than being dominant. Sapolsky concludes that the determinant of stress (in both baboon and human cultures) is not what rank an individual achieves, but whether the larger society treats all individuals with respect – even those with low status.

Many human cultures have also shifted behavior patterns, sometimes out of necessity. Cuba, for example, was forced to desperately shift its agricultural practices (essentially going organic) when Soviet Union oil and fertilizer supplies were cut off. This “Special Period” of transition, with its accent of cooperation, provides the world with a model of self-reliance that may prove useful in coming years. Costa Rica, Bhutan, the United Kingdom, and several Scandinavian countries have reinvented key aspects of their cultures within the past generation, and even the profligate U.S. culture has shown a capability for change. During World War II, for example, Americans accepted the rationing of essentials like tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar. Automobile factories stopped making and selling cars for private use and instead manufactured tanks and armored cars. Highway construction stopped, and women marched into factories by the millions to build aircraft and operate cranes. Everything was recycled, from bottles to bones, and two-thirds of the nation’s vegetables were produced in twenty million Victory Gardens. Camaraderie blossomed, both on the war front and the home front during this unique and heroic period, illustrating a key theme of this book: as material wealth declines, more intrinsic forms of wealth often increase.

Tobacco is another example of a dramatic shift in American norms. During the 18th and 19th century, the use of chewing tobacco was so common that the floors of public places – including government offices – were “slippery with tobacco juice.” Even into the early 20th century, sidewalks and floorboards of trains and buses were coated with spit, since hitting the sandbox or spittoon was considered unnecessary. Throughout the 20th century, despite billions spent by the tobacco industry, cigarettes fell from their move star allure to a place of disgrace. In addition to being banned from many restaurants and other indoor places, even the last refuges are now disappearing:  The University of Kentucky recently banned cigarettes from the entire campus – indoors as well as outdoors.

The U.S. has taken at least three direct hits on its cultural identity in the last decade.  And what have we learned?  9-11 taught Americans that not everyone in the world idolizes us. Although we initially responded to that attack by pulling together as neighbors and families, when the President told us to go shopping and then invaded the wrong country, we lost an opportunity to use that graphic moment as a fulcrum of change. The flooding of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina revealed flaws both in engineering and government response to the needs of people; and the Great Recession that began in 2007 revealed deep character flaws in the financial system, demonstrating again that our political purpose – to represent the public good – needs to be reclaimed. Yet in 2010, significant indicators of change became apparent; for the first time since World War II, the number of cars scrapped exceeded the number purchased. The overall size of the national fleet fell two percent in 2009, from a peak of a quarter-million cars. While there are still nearly five vehicles for every four licensed drivers in America, this drop is an indicator of several underlying trends, according to resource analyst Lester Brown: market saturation, ongoing urbanization, economic uncertainty, oil insecurity, rising gasoline process, frustration with traffic congestion, mounting concerns about climate change, and a declining interest in cars among young people. These are the kind of liabilities that together tilt a culture in a new direction. Rather than clinging to a worn-out worldview, we finally perceive that we can create a fresh one. Rather than deadlines and dying species, we can have lifelines and living wealth.

(This blog is two excerpts from The New Normal)