Simple Prosperity

Simple Prosperity explores
17 non-monetary forms 
wealth, mapping a lifestyle
that can provide twice
the satisfaction for
half the resources we now use.


“David Wann has woven together all the right stuff to make a compelling and appealing case for the abundance of enough and the poverty of more.” ~ Vicki Robin, coauthor Your Money or Your Life, co-founder of Conversation Cafés

“If ever there was a right book at the right time, Simple Prosperity is it. ~ Lester R. Brown, President, Earth Policy Institute, author of Plan B 3.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

“This book is full of wisdom for real living, and it will help you find a kind of wealth that’s woven right within the fabric of everyday life.” ~ Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters and the Not So Big House

“Dave Wann’s recipes from his own experience in Simple Prosperity are a breath of fresh air, and just what we need for a saner future. They include ideas, sound research and down-to-earth advice we can all use. This book is also much more: a friendly, personal guidebook for living a more enjoyable, healthy, loving life.” ~ Hazel Henderson, author of Ethical Markets: Growing The Green Economy

“Simple Prosperity reads like a well-loved novel, engaging and educational. David Wann offers creative solutions to the challenges of over-consumption and makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read.” ~ Jill Cloutier, Producer, Sustainable World Radio, KCSB




Last Rites For a Used-Up American Dream

As we listen to reports about climate change or the rising prices of food, oil, and water, my friends and I often ask each other, “When will we make the fundamental changes that will make our lives less destructive and less fearful?” Some suggest that our addiction is so strong that we won’t change until we absolutely have to, when global catastrophe strikes and resource prices spiral out of most peoples’ reach. My own comments usually go in two directions: first, if we perceive that life can be better without the detours and dysfunction, we may decide to change our priorities in this decade, and become historical superheroes! (This is the good news). Second, (the bad news) we are in fact already experiencing catastrophe, most easily perceived regionally.  For example, some eastern cities ran out of landfill space years ago and are now begging neighboring states to take their waste. (New York City alone ships 600 tractor-trailers out of state every single day.) Cities from Sacramento, California to Sydney, Australia are running out of potable water supplies and a new industry is emerging: the tug-boating of huge plastic bags containing up to 5 million gallons of “bottled” water from water-rich countries like Turkey to arid ones like Cyprus. Already, insurance companies refuse to provide coverage to residents of coastal, hurricane-prone areas; meanwhile, many inland areas are experiencing record-setting, regional catastrophes like flashfloods, forest fires, drought, and plummeting water tables – all related to our lifestyle and its side effects.

In the U.S., Venezuela, the U.K., Norway and about eight other major oil-producing countries, oil production has already reached maximum output and begun to decline, forever. Even in nations where production is still on the upswing, major fields are declining. Back in the 1940s, the United States was the Saudi Arabia of the world, producing about two-thirds of the world’s oil; brashly, we built our economy around the idea of limitless supplies. Today, U.S. output contributes less than one-tenth of global production from roughly 3 percent of the world’s reserves. Our fields are played out.

We already see what regional catastrophe looks like in places like New Orleans, with its one million environmental refugees; in famine-stricken Africa, where millions have died from civil war and lack of clean water; and the great plains of China, where chronic dust storms turn day into night and farmland into desert. But it’s also true that we can prevent the holocaust of planetary catastrophe if we read the persistent warning signs, stay calm, and take strategic steps to create a more efficient, less consumptive world. Consider this book to be last rites for an era dying of affluenza, as well as a birth announcement for a brilliant new economy that historians may refer to as a just-in-time Renaissance. Long live our emerging, moderate lifestyle, rich in green technologies, relevant information, human relationships, great health, and magnificent art!

In her work on the process of dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as the five stages that precede death.  Regarding the passing of our excessive way of life, I’d guess that we Americans are collectively in the bargaining phase, though of course some individuals are still in denial and others are quite angry – about the price of gasoline, for example. Many others are moving through depression about the scope of the problem. Fortunately, many have come to accept that changes are not only necessary but can be quite positive. Why carry the heavy baggage of over-consumption? These front-runners have already rolled up their sleeves and are ready to do whatever it takes to change the world for the better. Indeed, our future may rest on their good energies and sense of hope.


It’s not that money itself is a bad thing. A person’s skills, talents, and good energies often result in monetary as well as other types of rewards. That’s great. But the real value lies beneaththe money – in those things we crave instinctually. What money is worth ultimately depends on how it is earned, and how it is spent. When it becomes the central focus in a person’s life, the resulting imbalance may well create poverty in other areas, reducing our odds of being truly happy. For example, a person may be poor in available time, or else have lots of time but not know what to do with it. He may lack meaningful connections with people, be culturally clueless, or lack vitality and playfulness. Natural systems may be less abundant as a result of that individual’s business decisions and excessive purchases; or the community he lives in may lose the benefit of his creative, civic energy – all because the individual is off-balance – like most of us.

One executive who owns a global company with 300,000 employees confided that people “at the top” are often extremely lonely because they are suspicious of others.  They think anyone who approaches them in friendship does so because of their power and only wants to take advantage of them. (4) Another businessman reported that right after closing a big deal, it felt like his life might improve, forever. But, alas, the next deal hovered over his desk, and he calculated that he had “about seven minutes” of elation.

On the other hand, intrinsic goals like personal growth/self-acceptance, community involvement, and a sense of vitality deliver continuing satisfaction.  Psychologists like Kasser, Ryan and Deci aren’t suggesting that we live like monks. Kasser, for example, lives on a small, lush farm in central Illinois and has a great quality of life (without a TV!) He told me that what makes him happy are things like teaching his son how to swim, and spending quality time with his wife after the kids are in bed. Tim Kasser reminds us that it’s not stuff, stocks and bonds, or the horsepower of one’s vehicle that provides true satisfaction, but how well we meet our psychological and physical needs.

One day back in my college years, I noticed I’d been working for a few hours on a poem and thought it was only a few minutes. As opposed to the schoolwork I was required to do, the writing was something I did because I loved it. It was a fascinating puzzle, and the more I focused, the faster the time flew by. I suspected back then that writing could be something I might do for a “living.”  I think my instincts were guiding me towards something that might be of use. (I’ll leave that up to you.)

I’ve had many similar experiences before and since then, and a few years ago, I found an explanation for what I often experience in writing, gardening, playing music, or hiking. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that name three times backwards) calls it “flow.” He describes this phenomenon as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that the process of an activity can be more important than the end product. When we are fully in the process, fully focused on a task, we feel alive. The activity becomes its own reward. After a flow experience, we are not only refreshed, but we’ve increased our skills, sensitivity, and self-confidence. We are more “complex,” to use Csikszentmihalyi’s term. (It seems we are hard-wired to improve ourselves!)  He’s been researching “optimal experience” at the University of Chicago since the 1970s, and has compiled a large data set involving people from all walks of life. Basically his technique, the “experience sampling method,” (ESM) catches people in the middle of their daily activities and asks them to record what they are doing and how much they enjoy it.  When they are signaled at random a certain number of times during the day, participants record in a workbook if they are in a condition of flow, or something far less.

To be genuinely happy, observes Csikszentmihalyi, we need to actively create our experiences and our lives, rather than passively letting media and marketers create it for us. The pathway to greatest happiness goes beyond mindless consuming to the heightened, enlightened realm of mindful challenge, where we are engaged, connected, and alive. Csikszentmihalyi’s distinction between pleasure and enjoyment suggests that many of us are settling for Grade B happiness – a package of mind dulling pleasures – rather than reaching for more intrinsic flow experiences. His ESM research indicates that when we challenge ourselves to experience or produce something new; to see things in a different light; and in general, to become actively engaged in what we’re doing, true enjoyment transforms moments of our lives from the routine to the extraordinary.  The great news is that anyone can do it, with activities that are self-determined.

From the Chapter “Cultural Prosperity”

The heart and soul of a culture are its values, and how it meets them. Core values — expressed in words like diversity, moderation, responsibility, respect, durability, equality, quality, trust, prevention, care, and regeneration — translate directly into tangible goals like “clean energy,” “great neighborhoods” and “wellness.” In turn, these goals can drive specific policies and actions like “expand the use of public transit,” or “reduce the consumption of cigarettes, gasoline, and saturated fats.”

When we ask ourselves if we’re meeting our real needs with a given product, we start to understand that it’s not the stuff we want, but the values the stuff is trying to satisfy. We buy a sporty car to attract a partner so we won’t feel lonely. We eat a quart of ice cream in one sitting, but the real hunger is for something worthwhile to be doing.

The secret of success at the national and global scale is not really a secret; it’s in plain sight, and it’s called moderation. We’ll get more value from less stuff and better stuff, by tapping into riches like quality products; brilliant design and redesign of cities and towns; cultural and aesthetic greatness; curiosity and fascination about how nature really works; cooperation with co-workers and neighbors; and generosity, just because it feels right. We’ve always loved the idea of rising to the occasion, of being heroes in the last minutes of a game. We’ve practiced heroism for many thousand years in our myths and scriptures. We’re ready, in these most critical times, to continue the transition — individually and culturally — from the “love of consumption” to the “love of life.”

17 Powerful Assets Based on Real Wealth

  • Taking Stock: How Foresight Can Cut Our Losses
  • Evolutionary Income: An Instinct for Happiness
  • Personal Growth: Creating a Rich Life Story
  • Mindful Money: More Value from Better Stuff
  • The Bonds of Social Capital: The More We Spend, the More We Have
  • Time Affluence: How to Save It and Savor It
  • Stocks of Wellness: Preventive Pathways to Health
  • The Currency of Nature: A Living Endowment
  • Precious Work and Play: Going With the Flow
  • The Real Wealth of Neighborhoods: Designing for People, Not Cars
  • Higher Returns on Investment: Twice the Satisfaction for Half the Resources
  • Energy Savings: Finessing the Carbon Conundrum
  • The Benefits of Right-Sizing: Better Than Better Homes and Gardens
  • Trimming the Fat: Farewell to Fossil Food
  • Infinite Information: How to Channel its Flow
  • Historical Dividends: New Rules for An Old Game
  • Cultural Prosperity: The Earth as a Sacred Garden

Study and Discussion Guide for Simple Prosperity

  1. What are the most significant environmental effects of over-consumption?
  2. Using tools such as government policies, green design, and changes in cultural direction, how can Americans achieve greater satisfaction but use fewer resources and generate fewer environmental impacts?
  3. As ingenious and economically successful as the free market is and has been, it has inherent, critical weaknesses, some of which have were exposed in the economic recession that began in 2008.  Name three shortcomings of the free market as currently practiced. Why is the Gross Domestic Product a poor measurement of progress and success? Explain what can be done to give the free market a conscience.
  4. What does “story” mainstream America follow?  How can we quickly revise the story to provide a happy ending by directly providing the things we need most: trust, security, social standing/social connections, a sense of meaning, nutritious food, clean water, and a stable climate? Is there another way to define the “success?”
  5. What are some measurable health and environmental benefits of having strong relationships and more discretionary time? Name three tangible benefits of social connections and three benefits of “time affluence.”
  6. Drawing from your own experience and the material in Simple Prosperity, what kind of activities provide the greatest sense of engagement and “flow” for you? Explain how being active rather than passive in your life can reduce your ecological footprint.
  7. What kind of jobs will help steer the economy towards sustainability? What kind of investments?
  8. What makes a great neighborhood, and how can a great neighborhood meet human and environmental needs directly?  List five tangible benefits of living in a sustainable community.
  9. What five changes in the way you eat have the highest potential for reducing greenhouse gases?  How can policy innovations help individuals have a healthier, less expensive diet that also requires less fossil fuel than the average American currently uses?
  10. What are the key characteristics of the “cultural creatives” discussed in the final chapter of Simple Prosperity?  How is life in Western Europe different from life in America? Do you think U.S. policies and cultural trends will become more like those in Europe? If so, how could these changes reduce both consumption and environmental impacts? 


Reinventing Community

A collection of first hand
experiences from inside
cohousing’s unique neighborhoods,
offering a glimpse at the personalities
and dynamics that make them work.
The first “report from the field”
about how cohousing is working,
written and photographed by
people who live there.


“The folks David Wann profiles in Reinventing Community are the vanguard for the future — they’re learning today, often by painful and sometimes humorous trial and error, what it takes to go beyond the solitary and alienated survival tactics of modern urban life to the full flowering of the human spirit of tomorrow, in community.” ~ Eric Utne, founder of Utne magazine and editor of Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac.

“Reinventing Community is an accessible and inspiring book, a rich tapestry of voices and insights from modern pioneers who are creating human scale villages, friendly to people and the sustainability of life on this planet.” ~ Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity

What you’ll find in this anthology:

Stories that mainstream Americans, as well as culture shifters, can relate to:

Whether it’s photovoltaics on the common house roof in Davis, CA, community activism to shut down a pesticide-happy strawberry farmer on adjacent Oceano, CA land, the offer of a kidney in a Boston-area community; a wacky way of celebrating rather than competing at a Golden, CO garage sale; the annual retreat at a New York cohousing community; an all-African American neighborhood in downtown Chicago; an existing neighborhood-turned-cohousing, also in Davis, CA (by UC students;) an operating farm in Vermont – an off-the-pipe village that designed 26 computer-controlled compost toilets into its village infrastructure – and they’re working; the celebration of marriages, deaths, graduations, births, promotions, new books; and the creation of neighborhood cultures, complete with community traditions — cohousing is establishing itself as a proven component of new urbanism.

Common meals created by teams of chefs; community gardens, pedestrian walkways, labyrinths; carsharing; bicycling and skiing outings; kids who are especially articulate in school, and whose teachers visit cohousing to find out why; cohousing residents who become politically active (city council, etc.) because they’ve learned how to interact with a group;

An interview with Chuck Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, who “imported” the idea from Denmark in the 1980s, and a vicarious design workshop led by a cohousing architect in which a group decides what their neighborhood will look like–


I believe the mini-movement of cohousing is partly a response to a perceived loss of trust and individual control that’s becoming pervasive in our world. People gravitate toward do-it-ourselves communities because they sense they can be better heard and understood in a place that strives for cooperation and support. They can be neighbors with others who want to help put the pieces back together. When I first joined the group that would become Harmony Village, my old Subaru sported the familiar bumper sticker “Cohousing: Changing the World, One Neighborhood at a Time,” and I’m still convinced that the reinvention of community can bring individual empowerment as well as cooperative action. The world is sorely in need of focused, nonpartisan cooperation right now. Why not deliberately create neighborhoods that are safer, friendlier, and healthier? Is there a downside to this?

The reason cohousing fuels my own burning soul is that many of its experiments are extremely valuable to a society so distracted by materialism and so shell-shocked by the frantic American lifestyle. What kind of experiments am I talking about? Consensus decision-making; participatory design; alternative sources of energy; alternative sources of information; shared resources and designs that reduce each person’s ecological footprint; aging gracefully and vigorously; neighborhood activism in surrounding towns and communities; and collaborative management of neighborhood resources, to name just a few. In general, residents of cohousing are living actively rather than passively.

The underlying intent of cohousing might be seen as the deliberate substitution of real experiences for canned ones. Cohousing at its best provides a structure for learning to trust other people and for learning to be unselfish, at least in theory.

But you know what? Cohousing isn’t Utopia, as you’ll see in some of the stories included here. For example, the process of codesigning a neighborhood involves many, many meetings, some of them very emotional. Children begin to role-play going to meetings as a way of life, and outside friends of cohousing participants begin to suspect insanity. But the dividends begin to accrue as future members start to know and rely on each other, learning how to create and maintain a mutually beneficial neighborhood. By the time houses begin to rise up from construction sites, cohousers are ripe and ready for life in cohousing.

And then other challenges — lots of them — pop up like jack-in-the-box puppets. What happens if the community won’t let your free-range cat roam the neighborhood? What if one of the neighbors is “difficult,” a carrier of stress? What if nobody wants to do the work required for the maintenance of commonly held property?



There are
many great examples
of NEW neighborhoods
that are sustainable
right from the start,
but how can we make
EXISTING neighborhoods
more sustainable? 


“Chiras and Wann have not only visualized ways to create a higher quality of life, they provide real life examples of people who are doing it.” ~ Judy Corbett, Executive Director, Local Government Commission

Superbia! is a great read while you’re stuck in traffic. It’s full of practical ideas for moving from commuting to community. Whether you live in the city or in the ‘burbs, it will help you connect with nature, with neighbors, and with yourself.”  ~ Jim Diers, Founding Director, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods

From New Society Publishers:
Superbia! is a book of practical ideas for creating more socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods. It is about remaking suburban and urban neighborhoods to serve people better and to reduce human impact on the environment.
The authors first trace the history of the suburbs, showing how they fail to meet many peoples’ needs. They then describe how existing neighborhoods can be transformed, offering cohousing and new urbanist communities as examples. The reader is then guided through the transformation of a fictitious neighborhood that adopts the authors’ 31 steps. Ideas for the blossoming of the suburb are described in order of difficulty, from easy to boldest, including:

  • the creation of a neighborhood newsletter to foster a sense of neighborhood identity and cooperation
  • regular community dinners, discussion groups, and babysitting co-ops
  • the removal of backyard fences to create park-like spaces for community play areas, or gardens
  • retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, and installing community energy systems.

Examples from all over North America and beyond provide real-life proof that citizen planners can create Superbia! And the most comprehensive resource listing imaginable puts all the tools needed at your fingertips.


From the chapter  “The Changing Face of Suburbia”

The American house-car suburb was more or less invented in Los Angeles in the  1920s, but in the post World War II period, it became an American institution.  Following the  war, 14 million military personnel with sudden family syndrome played a frantic game of musical chairs, living with extended family or friends, or whatever else they could find:  converted boxcars, chicken coops, and garages. Crowds lined up at funeral parlors to get the  addresses of newly vacant apartments. One Omaha newspaper ad read, “Big Ice Box, 7 by 17  feet. Could be fixed up to live in.”  In response to the emergency, the U.S. government shifted gears and came up with a new plan of attack. We had open land, and we knew how to access  it, strategically. In a manner of speaking, we declared war on American soil, deploying bulldozers instead of tanks to level hills, fill creeks and yank trees out like weeds to build one  subdivision after another, and the economy boomed!

Various factors shaped the suburbs, including the availability of open, affordable land,  the embrace of the automobile, urban flight, and the birth of a glitzy new American Dream, as  seen on the new technology of television. Even fear played into the equation. If nuclear attack  were to occur, military experts warned, high-density developments would be more vulnerable,  so we should spread development out. Highways would be needed to evacuate civilians, after  the bombs hit. Eisenhower met that challenge by signing the Interstate Highway Act in 1956,  which authorized and scheduled the construction of 41,000 miles of roads.  These were the  days of bomb shelters, and elementary school kids obediently covering their heads in basement  hallways during air raid drills.

Economists loved what the new Dream did for the Gross National Product, and the  media loved the storyline, too: GI FAMILIES OCCUPY SUBURBIA. Developer William Levitt, a five-star general on the tract home front, appeared on the cover of Time magazine,  and stories about Levittown, the nation’s first subdivision, also ran in Life and Reader’s Digest.  How could we question this energetic, giddy, sexy Dream? All the pieces seemed to fit  together, and money flowed into the country’s green fields like harvested grain through a  combine, making subdivisions the last and most profitable crop. In battalions of brand new  Fords and Chevies, Americans rolled into the suburbs on highways and streets that now  measure four million miles – enough to circle the planet 157 times. Just ten years earlier, only  44 percent of American homes were resident-owned, and fewer than half of the households  had cars. But that was changing, quickly.

The ideal of the suburb was country homes for city people – nature without the mud.   In the suburbs, a family could have it all: community, fresh air, proximity to the city, and  convenience. “The most house for the money,” was the mantra for both buyers and sellers.  Naturally, people wanted the biggest and best piece of the Dream they could get, and the best  perceived value was in the suburbs. With FHA guaranteeing buyers’ loans, the new American  Dream lay on the horizon — on the outskirts of Emerald City.

But there was a glitch.

A legal precedent, Ambler v Euclid (1926), in effect made it illegal to put houses,  businesses, and stores in suburban neighborhoods. Based on the dubious assumption that  residences should be separate from commerce, civic life, and even recreation, planning  departments throughout North America adopted boilerplate code systems. What resulted were  look-alike neighborhoods that stretched from suburban Toronto to suburban San Diego.  Subdivisions typically weren’t custom designed to fit the needs of each piece of land, they  were simply mass-produced like automobiles or metal mailboxes.

From the chapter, “How to Remodel a Neighborhood:”

When you remodel a house, you have certain goals in mind – to make the kitchen bigger,  for example, while at the same time providing a place for taking off muddy shoes and boots when  coming in the back door. We propose a similar strategy for remodeling a suburban neighborhood.   The goals might be to create a sense of community, provide more public spaces, and meet more  individual needs right in the neighborhood.

After building the neighborhood’s social capital to create a functional network (Chapter 2),  and identifying common values like a sense of community and sustainability (Chapter 3), the next  step is to agree on basic design principles and building blocks that can guide a  long-range  neighborhood remodeling program. This, in turn, can make streets, sidewalks, and backyards more  valuable, and neighborhoods less dependent on costly, imported resources. By thinking outside the  box, we can gradually upgrade the performance of our neighborhoods, making them more  desirable to live in. Really, our only other option is to keep looking for those elusive neighborhoods  where “the grass is greener.” In other words, to participate in the huge game of musical chairs in  which one-sixth of the U.S. population moves every year.

Neighborhoods and communities have five basic types of features: paths, edges, districts,  nodes, and landmarks. As we begin to think about remodeling our neighborhoods, we need to look  at how these components interact.  At the end of this chapter, we’ll look at two neighborhoods that  were built with these components in mind.

Paths, or corridors of movement, give a neighborhood form.  These include streets,  sidewalks, bikepaths, alleys, wildlife corridors, canals, and railroads. As we’ll see, there are many  opportunities for upgrading paths in suburban neighborhoods, despite the fact that many were  really engineered to serve machines, not people.

In successful communities, edges are physical/visual boundaries or transitions between  distinct districts or neighborhoods. They could be creeks, open space, or higher-volume avenues.

Nodes are places within a neighborhood that are accessible by paths, and that are often  traveled to and from for specific activities.  They range from a well-used basketball hoop in a  driveway to a local park or community building, and because they are a center of activity, they  help create a neighborhood sense of place.

Landmarks are icons that create a sense of familiarity in a neighborhood. A large, stately tree, like a giant oak planted in a median strip, could be a landmark.  A sculpture situated on a  piece of donated front lawn could be a great neighborhood landmark, as could a community  garden, an old schoolhouse, or a church.

The word district is a distinctly identifiable region, a concept that is more familiar in urban  settings. However, districts may also be developed in suburban neighborhoods. For example,  imagine a given neighborhood that had a well-landscaped, common parking area for both residents  and customers, and several shops that specialized in musical instruments and small-stage concerts.  In that musical district-neighborhood, streets might be “slowed down” with county-funded landscape features such as traffic circles, and trees might line either side of the street, creating a  people-friendly atmosphere. Certainly, a neighborhood like this would have its own identity, and  could be thought of as a little district.

We’ve included some key principles of neighborhood design to help you think about how a  neighborhood can be remodeled.

Ten Basic Design Principles for Remodeling Neighborhoods

1. Human Scale.  There are basic spatial relationships that can create resonance in a  neighborhood, including focal points, a sense of transition, and a sense of enclosure in key places.  Four hundred and fifty feet might be an ideal length for a neighborhood with its own sense of  community, because at that distance it’s still possible to recognize individuals. Cohousing research  indicates that an optimum neighborhood scale might include 30 to 40 houses, because that number  could successfully share a common building and get to know each other well.

2. Resource Responsibility.  A neighborhood that develops an everyday ethic that includes  efficient household resource use, recycling, community gardening, shared transportation, energy  generation at the neighborhood level, also stands a better chance of being economically and  socially viable. Individual efforts to be sustainable can be greatly augmented by cooperation within  the neighborhood.

3. Walkability. We’ve got legs, we just need good sidewalks, bikepaths, parks, and shops to use  them.  The five-minute walk is considered a good measurement of “walkability.”  What  destinations should lie within five minutes of the typical suburban front door?

4. Open Spaces. Whether in common backyards, on vacant lots, or in areas reclaimed from the  car, open spaces can be used for picnics, community gardens, and places for conversation, reading  and relaxation.

5. Public facilities. A neighborhood that becomes a “we” rather than a string of “me’s” will  probably want to create a place where the neighborhood can gather.  It could be in a neighborhood  church or school, or it could be in a cooperatively purchased home that becomes a common  building.

6. Streetscapes.  By working with the city or county, neighborhoods can create public areas in and  around streets that are well landscaped and people-friendly. The best time to plant a shade tree is  fifteen years ago.  The second best time is now.

7. Variety.  Landscaping and house decoration have typically been the only tools for creating  variety in subdivision neighborhoods. At Fox Run, featured in the next three chapters, variation  and neighborhood color are created by adapting garages, planting a community garden and  orchard, taking out driveways, creating gardens and pathways, and taking down fences.

8. Mixed Uses.  Home businesses are becoming a large sector of the American economy. In  Superbia, shops and neighborhood enterprises like composting, energy generation and daycare will  begin to make suburban neighborhoods more lively and productive.

9. Coordination.  This term means “architectural style,” including walls and fences, streetscapes,  colors and materials. A neighborhood should co-design features to create a sense of harmony and  resonance.

10. Maintenance.  Public features should be designed with the future in mind, by using materials, technologies and plant species that won’t require large amounts of capital or time for maintenance.

Superbia! Checklist

Easy Steps
1. Sponsor community dinners.
2. Establish a community newsletter, bulletin board, and community roster.
3. Establish a neighborhood watch program.
4. Start neighborhood investment clubs, community sports activities and restoration projects.
5. Form weekly discussion groups.
6. Establish neighborhood baby-sitting coop.
7. Form an organic food co-op.
8. Create car or vanpools for commuting to and from work.
9. Create a neighborhood work-share program.
10. Create a mission statement.
11. Create an asset inventory.

Bolder Steps
12. Tear down fences: opening backyards to create communal play space and a space for neighbors to mingle and a community garden.
13. Plant a community garden and orchard.
14. Establish a neighborhood composting and recycling facility.
15. Plant shade trees and windbreaks to create a more favorable microclimate.
16. Replace asphalt and concrete with porous pavers and greenery.
17. Establish a more edible landscape—incrementally remove grass in front lawns and replace with vegetables and fruit trees.
18. Start a community-supported agriculture program in which neighbors “subscribe” to local organic farm’s produce.
19. Create a car-share program–purchasing a van or truck for rent to community members.
20. Begin community-wide retrofitting of homes and yards for energy and water efficiency.
21. Solarize your homes.

Boldest Steps
22. Create a community energy system.
23. Establish alternative water and wastewater systems.
24. Establish a more environmentally friendly transportation strategy.
25. Create a common house.
26. Create a community-shared office.
27. Establish weekly entertainment for the community.
28. Narrow or eliminate streets, converting more space to park and edible landscape, walkways and picnic areas.
29. Retrofit garages and rooms in your homes into apartments or add granny flats to house students or others in need of housing.
30. Establish a mixed-use neighborhood by opening a coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market.
31. Promote a more diverse neighborhood.


The New Normal

The New Normal predicts that
in the emerging era, production and
consumption will no longer be
the defining characteristics of
civilization – cultural richness,
efficiency, cooperation, expression,
ecological design, and
biological restoration will be.


“Powerful, grounded reading for the challenges of 21st-century living.  Rather than simply critiquing the problems that plague modern capitalist societies, the author offers a detailed 33-point “new normal agenda” built on convincing statistical and anecdotal information. The plan emphasizes informed activist approaches to problem-solving and focuses on such timely issues as decentralizing and localizing economic structures, reducing carbon emissions, promoting urban organic agriculture and restoring environmental integrity. While Wann’s message is urgent, it is never strident and offers hope in an age of pessimism and scarcity. If humanity can understand that “the overall theme of nature is not bloodthirsty competition, but functional, celebratory interdependence and cooperation” writes the author, then individuals and groups can create lives that, though materially leaner, are healthier and more fulfilling.”  ~ Kirkus Reviews

“In The New Normal, David Wann maps out a future without dependency on fossil fuels, cheap goods or processed food. He offers steps to deeply transform our resource-dependent routines to self-reliant, more fulfilling lives that are easier on our planet. This book provides both the vision and the actions needed to change the status quo.” ~ BookPage

Wann follows up on his previous book, Simple Prosperity, which teaches readers how to have a sustainable life, with this one that shows them how to transform a nonsustainable culture into one that will nurture the planet and preserve the world. Wann pulls from the disciplines of biology, anthropology, history, and psychology to make his case that the current paradigm of bigger and more is not working. He proposes the “Era of Emerging Restoration,” in which healthy families, communities, and ecosystems are the best measures of wealth. What differentiates this from the more zealous ecological literature are Wann’s 33 specific “New Normal Agenda Points,” from buying organic and American to pushing for legislation to designing with nature. This is one of the best approaches to promoting a sustainable world.  ~  Library Journal  

Shifting the Paradigm

Old Paradigm New Paradigm
Perpetual growth of capital is the goal Sustainable yield; preservation of systems and good quality of life are the goals
Products and profit as outputs People and culture as outputs
Emphasis on quantity, appearance, force Emphasis on quality, durability, precision, flexibility
Throwaway mentality: one time use, products not repairable Closed loop, continuous recycling mentality, products easily repaired andre-used
Disruption of natural balance acceptable if profit justifies it Natural systems must remain intact and functional
Biologically oblivious Function and value are enriched by understanding of nature
Understandable only by experts Easily understood by anyone
Generates hazards and requires protective equipment, guards, or defensive spending Increases security and safety, doesn’t require vigilance or monitoring
Operates with inflexible, standard operating procedures Offers innovative, diverse solutions to both technical and social problems
Centralizes authority, limits access Empowers individuals and communities, broadens and decentralizes authority
Uses non-renewable energy and materials from distant sources Uses renewable energy sources and recycled materials, obtained locally
Extends supply lines and process steps to deliver goods and services Shortens supply lines and process steps, saving energy and preserving culture
Causes unforeseen health effects, limits wellness, and dominates nature Nature-compatible, proven over the course of billions of years
Nature seen as a warehouse of resources to be extracted and exploited Nature has intrinsic, quantifiable values when left in place
Promotes and fosters exclusiveness and isolation of people from what they need Meets needs precisely and inclusively with rich, local networks that enable accountability and participation


From the Preface:

The cultural framework we live in – our way of thinking – will either save the day or drop the fragile egg that rightfully belongs to the future. We usually assume that huge challenges can only be finessed with technical, political and economic fixes, but we forget that all three are programmed by human culture, and it is there that we can leverage change most quickly and effectively. What do we really mean by this fuzzy term, “culture?” It’s not just about paintings and music, not just opinions, values, and styles; it’s nothing less than the lens through which we perceive reality – the customs, traditions, symbols, norms, motivators, and direction that constitute a way of life. Right now, our culture is confused – trapped between the old paradigm – in which economic growth is king – and a new paradigm that correctly perceives limits to growth and acknowledges its potentially catastrophic social and environmental costs.  We are looking for a new identity – a new normal that is more secure, stable, and sensible.

Our most influential institutions – education, family, government, business, and media – instruct and insist that the shortest route to meaning, happiness, and equality is through the marketplace – a bustling, bumbling universe of production, transaction, and consumption. Centuries ago, economies of the developed world geared up to produce more than we need to be happy, and we obediently bent our way of life out of shape to keep up with over-production. Although this worn out paradigm continues to accelerate, we ask ourselves, nervously, “Where is this sports car taking us? Does it have dependable brakes?”

A primary source of cultural dissonance is the disparity between institutions and intuitions. A harnessed, institutional mindset says, “Full speed ahead – look what we’ve created!” But our intuition – with the full force of evolution behind it – cautions, “Slow down – look what we are destroying!”  This duality is very familiar to those who study nature. Successful living systems (including humans) typically progress from being highly productive yet wasteful to being highly protective and efficient. 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, and to survive threats from outside the system. This book maps a pathway to cultural maturity, a natural and achievable destination.

The overall theme of nature is not bloodthirsty competition, but functional, celebratory interdependence and cooperation. Ecosystems – and civilizations – succeed by building on the accomplishments of preceding systems. A mature civilization does not violate natural realities and laws, however there is more than enough evidence to charge our civilization with planet-slaughter. To clear our name, our generation’s pivotal assignment is to design a systemically more mature way of fitting in. Our intuition tells us that it’s not higher profits and faster transactions we crave but greater value. If we get more use out of each electron and each cubic foot of soil; if we learn to meet our needs squarely for health, food, social connection, and shelter, we won’t need or want as much money – individually or collectively. At that point, our way of life can be less expensive, less destructive – and more satisfying. It isn’t sacrifice, and it isn’t threatening, if everyone does it together – if rich and poor (people and nations) meet somewhere in the middle, in terms of material wealth. Rather than enduring lives of debt, doubt, fear, and stress, we can create a lifestyle and culture filled with the affluence of time, health, and stimulation. But first we have to come out of denial, acknowledging that our excessive, wasteful way of life can’t and won’t continue. Game Over. Like participants in a 12-Step program, we need to confess that our way of life isn’t working. Only then can we make appropriate course corrections in policies, technologies, and everyday habits – all contained within the rich matrix we call culture.

From the Chapter, “Living Wealth: Restoring the Economies of Nature:”

Old Perspective: Nature is, at worst, an evil enemy and at best a warehouse of resources we can convert to cash. Produced capital is more valuable than natural capital because we made it. By the force of technology, will, and human ingenuity, we can displace people, plants, and animals that were original inhabitants and replace them with malls, subdivisions, and electronic gadgets that are far more profitable. Pay no attention to the weeds, pests, toxic chemicals, slash piles, and tailings ponds that are side effects of industry, because that’s what money looks like.

New Perspective: Nature is far from being a problem; rather, it’s a symphony of tried and true solutions – a source of materials if harvested sustainably; and a “sink” that recycles biodegradable wastes. Letting nature go broke is like swinging wrecking balls against our own houses and places of worship. In many cases, the services nature provides, just in the course of being a living system, have far greater value than the minerals, processed food, and other products that come from Earth’s ecosystems. In the emerging era, restoration of natural systems and adoption of sustainable practices will be our civilization’s highest priority.

The key questions are:

  • Will biological and physical scarcity stimulate beneficial changes in human behavior?  Will civilization change its priorities because of new biological realities?
  • Can we change the direction of our economy, from “Destroy nature, make money” to “Preserve and restore nature, save money”?

Too often, we respond to urgent reports about the decline of nature with a shrug of our shoulders. Since many impacts are embedded within our way of life – the way we manufacture, farm, generate energy, collect used material, etc. – we often don’t feel there’s much we can do as individuals. This collective shoulder-shrugging – a whole civilization deferring responsibility – is potentially fatal; many empires and civilizations before ours collapsed because of a lack of respect for nature. In our times, the throwaway lifestyle seems easy, but inevitably results in higher taxes, expensive health effects, and degraded landscapes that need to be repaired.  These added expenses make our civilization unaffordable.

However, by “saving nature” we make life less expensive, creating jobs, recreation, health, and security; a stable climate, and a way of life that requires less maintenance. Yet, because our role as consumers has dominated our lives, we sometimes forget the many other ways we can preserve and restore nature: as teachers, students, farmers, designers, parents, voters, citizen activists, business owners, shareholders, churchgoers, vacationers, petition signers, meal planners, Internet users, and influential friends. In each of these roles, we can weave additional strands into the web of life.

Evidence of the changing paradigm is all around us, as the word “green” begins to redefine our culture. Here are a few high-leverage examples of how individuals play a role in preserving and restoring nature in various aspects of our lives:

Internet user: The Internet is rapidly enhancing the very nature of communication, including the way opinion and advocacy become reality. This new medium, more transformative than the printing press, enables not only political participation, awareness-building, and fund-raising for environmental activism, but will inevitably become a means of frequent referenda and pulse-taking on key political issues. This may create a more responsive and egalitarian form of democracy than we’ve ever seen. Individuals can already use the web to become expert on issues; sign petitions and respond to polls; download e-books; become bloggers, and network with thousands of people instantly via email, Twitter, Facebook, and many other sites. In less time than it takes to microwave a dish of potatoes, you can be one of half a million signatories of a global warming petition; plant a virtual tree on the Second Life website, or research options for green personal care products.

Meal Planner: Each household’s meal planner can be a key player in helping nature bounce back, and meat consumption offers the highest returns. The average American diet, heavy on the meat (more than 200 pounds a year) requires twice as much water and two to four times the land area per person as an equally nutritious vegetarian diet. The livestock industry alone generates about a fifth of global greenhouse gases. Studies have shown that becoming a vegetarian is a more effective greenhouse gas-buster than switching from an SUV to a hybrid car. But we don’t all have to become vegetarians, we just need to reduce the amount of meat we eat, either with smaller (healthier) portions or meatless meals. When we learn a new meatless recipe, we are playing a role in changing the ratio of CO2-absorbing plants to methane-generating livestock. Once again, the web can help increase our options, offering a wealth of flavorful recipes from all over the world.

Vacationer: Vacations can be great fun for travelers (up to 800 million a year) but sometimes not so much fun for nature. Air travel is one of humanity’s most troublesome habits, as is tourism-related development and consumption that can destroy world-class natural areas. For example, recent research suggests that sunscreen, which may be toxic to algae, may contribute to the decline of coral reefs. Acid rain – partially generated by vehicles – impacts the pristine lakes and forests we often visit. Taking vacations closer to home is a start, and combining that approach with purpose-driven vacations is even better. Many vacationers now opt for ecotourism getaways, spending time learning about and rehabilitating ecosystems. A program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) allows volunteers to learn, hands-on, about farming and gardening while at the same time helping farmers stay in business. Farms and ranches across the country also offer agritourism – a chance to stay, for example, on an olive farm on California’s Central Coast and see how olive oil is pressed. Such vacations enable individuals to have an authentic experience that’s neutral or even beneficial in its impact.

Employee: Who in his right mind really wants to spend 100,000 hours per lifetime commuting to a job whose products and services harm the environment? Choosing a nature-friendly job can be one of the most valuable ways to make a difference. Ask Steve Golden, now a senior manager with the National Park Service. “Starting in elementary school, I walked to school most days along a brook, stopping to chase ducks or catch frogs. I sometimes arrived at school drenched from falling in the brook, or covered with poison ivy rashes, but these trips were often the highlight of my day,” he recalls. Golden preceded his 20-year career at NPS with a 3-month hike on the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia all the way to Maine, and now he brings his passion to his work. “Every day I partner with people – from the South Bronx to the wilds of Maine – working to save their rivers, trails, and open spaces. I think I may have the best job there is.”

Shopper: According to a Natural Marketing Institute survey, certain certification labels that that are most familiar have a major, beneficial effect on consumer decisions.  Among the early adopters of green products – sometimes termed the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) market segment –– 75 percent are more likely to buy products with green labels such as Energy Star, Recycled, USDA Organic, and Fair Trade. And they will pay more for the quality assurance these labels offer: efficiency, less waste, health, sustainable farming practices, and monetary support for workers. Each label indicates multiple benefits. For example, to qualify for a Fair Trade label on coffee, chocolate, and other products, importers must support fair wages for workers and assist growers in transitioning to organic methods. Similarly, those building and paper products bearing the Forest Stewardship Council logo must obtain their wood from forests that are managed using sustainable methods. By purchasing products with these labels, consumers support sustainable, quality production.

Recycler: Individuals don’t recycle, cultures do. I can be a burning soul for the idea of recycling, but if a recycling system isn’t set up, I’ll ship all my paper, bottles, and cans to the landfill like all my neighbors. Fortunately, my hometown has just implemented a commingled, Pay as You Throw program, which means we can now combine most recyclable goods in a single container, and that we will pay by the bag or trashcan for everything we don’t recycle. All of a sudden, recycling becomes kind of a consumer sport. If we want to pay less for trash collection, we need to generate less trash; which means buying products with packaging we can recycle; products that are concentrated, repairable, durable, designed to resist fashion swings.

If we want to help natural systems recover (partly to keep up with the born-again Joneses) we’ll use less paper, and the paper we do use will be at least 80 percent post-consumer recycled.  Cloth towels will replace paper towels in the kitchen and paper plates will become a fad of the past. To insist that Americans can’t live without 700 pounds of paper a year per person (cumulatively, a third of the world’s paper) is to ignore the fact that paper consumption has doubled since 1970. And to further assume that paper must be made from trees is to ignore the fact that the Gutenberg Bible and the U.S. Constitution were printed on hemp-based paper.  In the future, a larger percentage of paper can and will be made from agricultural and manufacturing wastes.

Environmental Activist: The environmental activism of Kenyan Wangari Maathai won her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for initiating and shepherding the African Green Belt Movement.  Maathai’s energies demonstrate a cornerstone of activism: identify human and environmental needs and meet them using the focused energies of local citizens to improve their quality of life. She observed that Kenyan women needed firewood, clean drinking water, nutritious food, and income, and that planting trees could help meet these needs. Since 1977, the program planted over 30 million trees and trained more than 30,000 women in trades such as forestry, food processing, and beekeeping to provide income in ways that protect and restore the environment. Of course, we aren’t likely to win the Nobel Prize, but we can join the efforts of groups like Environmental Defense, Union of Concerned Scientists, and World Wildlife Fund to help change the direction of our culture, including our wayward economy. For example, in the 1990s, activism prompted the giant food corporation, Unilever, to work with World Wildlife Fund to establish a system to certify sustainably harvested fish. The resulting Marine Stewardship Council now administers the “Fish Forever” ecolabel, used in more than 30 nations. Similarly, Home Depot began buying sustainably harvested timber because of shareholder activism. Tyson Foods announced it would no longer use antibiotics in its poultry products, and Red Lobster will certify all farm-raised shrimp as having a minimal impact on the environment.  By recognizing and valuing sustainable production, activists  are making a huge difference.

House and landscape maintainer: Another inspired individual, professor Douglas Tallamy, looks at the protection of nature through the eyes of an insect. Entomologist Tallamy has observed throughout his career that native insects don’t thrive on non-native plants, and that “Because so many animals depend directly or indirectly on insect protein for food, a land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life.” The pampered species (such as thirty to forty million acres of lawn) we have imported into our private landscapes are aggressive, demanding heavy inputs of nitrogen, herbicides, and energy-intensive maintenance, and providing neither food nor shelter for insects. His passionate, activist response was to reclaim his own ten-acre property in Pennsylvania – replacing all the alien species with natives – and then write about it, in a book titled Bringing Nature Home. “This use of our time has put us in intimate contact with the plants on our property and with the wildlife that depends on them,” writes Tallamy.

Again, we can’t all muster that sort of enthusiasm for insects, but we can each begin to add diversity back into our landscapes, even if we risk bewildered gazes from our neighbors.

Educators and students: In a great little book called Beyond Ecotopia, elementary school teacher David Sobel writes, “What’s emerging is a strange kind of schizophrenia. Children are disconnected from the world outside their doors and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.” Sobel prefers the less convenient but more relevant method of teaching kids about the nature in their own yards and neighborhoods. To teach children about birds, for example, he likes to craft wings out of cardboard boxes and let his fledgling students become the birds, build nests, and only then bring out the bird books. He is also adamant on the principle of “no tragedies until at least fourth grade,” recognizing that when kids are overwhelmed by environmental problems, they don’t learn to be comforted and amazed by nature. “Let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it,” Sobel writes. His place-based principles have inspired many educators to ask, “What do children really need?”