We Americans are in the habit of wanting easy solutions: just give us lists of products we can buy and small decisions we can make that will "save the planet." Many believe that we can responsibly consume our way out of the mess we're in, that somehow nature will heal itself if our products are stylishly green. But the truth is, even green over-consumption is over-consumption. Our most important mission now is to get beyond the "simple" mentality and fix a broken culture. We need to participate in the ratification of a more sensible value system because the challenges we face are not primarily technical; they are social, political, psychological and anthropological. Our way of life is a social agreement--not surprising since we are a social species.
Every society has a collective identity, and the awful truth is ours is obsolete, agreed upon when we were fewer and the world seemed larger. The best way to save our civilization is to devise a different agreement. For example, agree that huge houses and high salaries are no longer symbols of success. We want the respect of our peers, but let's earn it in new ways. From here on, we need status symbols related to who we are and what we do, rather than what we own. It's in our collective power to change this agreement, and there's a lot of evidence we are doing just that.
To be sustainable and satisfying, policies, technologies and everyday choices need to be guided by a clear set of core values. Beneath the radar of popular culture, Americans are beginning to choose empathy over unquestioned rationality; kindness over aggression; resource efficiency over waste; quality over quantity. We are giving greater value and political focus to the public sector and cultural commons, including the environment. We are closing the gap between rich and poor. Whether we like it or not, change happens. And the truth is, it will be far less painful to migrate now, culturally, than to stay where we are for yet another generation. Our new challenge is to choose a sustainable, anthropologically sensible pathway for humanity. Because of converging historical currents, the responsibility to catalyze a new era is ours.
We need new rules for the game we are playing, which may mean that competition becomes less important and cooperation more important. Consider the game of Scrabble, typically played as a nerve-wracking, competitive game. Yet, the game doesn't have to be competitive. It is still called Scrabble if the goal is a cooperative mission to use all the tiles. Players can still challenge themselves, but keeping score becomes unnecessary. We are hard-wired to cooperate, and the act of cooperation actually stimulates the pleasure center in our brains. We can prove this with real-time brain scans. We'll be swimming against anthropological currents if we don't use this defining characteristic to change the purpose of our technologies, to create more effective health-care systems, and provide work that accomplishes far more than money.
At this tumultuous point in time, we need systemic change that will qualify as a cultural revolution in the history books. And we will get it, whether intentionally or by default. The choices we are making are much bigger than one kind of detergent or another. We are choosing one value system over another. More than we realize, our culture is choosing how much weight we will give to the public sector (including nature and public assets) vs. the private sector, with its emphasis on individual consumption. There are tensions between being consumers or producers of our lifestyle; active or passive; rational or intuitive decision-makers; comfortable with change or unwilling to budge.
There are choices about whether we want a higher ratio of time to money; convenience or self-reliance; centralized or decentralized patterns of living; and whether we want to shape technology rather than letting technology shape us. In a revolution, citizens question the wholesale destruction of nature, and inequities in the way people are treated. They propose new symbols of success, new ways of expressing who we are and what we want.
David Wann is a keynote speaker at Idaho Green Expo at Boise Centre. Wann will speak Sunday, July 19, at 3 p.m. on Simple Prosperity in the New Economy. He is the co-author of the bestseller Affluenza and author of Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, published in 2008. He's now at work on Culture Shift: American Mind. For more information, please visit www.davewann.com.