“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
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.
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?”