thestoryofmeaningfuluse

A Magazine Capturing the Story of Health- For People, Environment, Economy & Habitat

THE NEW NORMAL: An Agenda for Responsible Living

An Excerpt from THE NEW NORMAL

by Dave Wann

Golden, Co

Life has seemed effortless in our times for one simple reason: we have been mindlessly spending our natural endowment as if we’d won a Powerball lottery. Since 1960, global consumption and metals production have grown six-fold and oil consumption, eightfold.

Meanwhile, human population and water consumption have doubled, and in 2008 alone, global consumers bought 69 million vehicles, 85 million refrigerators, 297 million computers, and 1.2 billion mobile cell phones. How can this excessive economic paradigm possibly survive in an age of dwindling resources?

Renowned physicist and systems thinker Donella Meadows believed that the creation of sweeping change involves the scrapping of one paradigm and putting another into service.  “There is nothing physical or expensive about paradigm change,” she wrote. “In a single individual, it can happen in a millisecond.

All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing. It is in the space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, bring down empires and have impacts that last for millennia.”

I think many people would agree that the time has come for such a paradigm shift.  We have worn nature out (and ourselves, too) trying to comply with mandates for constantly increasing profits, productivity, speed and mobility.

It is time for a restorative era, rich in nature-friendly, ingenious design and ways of enriching and redirecting our most valuable achievement of all – human culture. It is time for a renaissance of human values.

Grimm Fairy Tales


There are at least a billion people on the planet right now worrying about getting enough food, while another billion worry about eating too much; a billion who can’t find clean water and another billion who drink bottled water at least sometimes, even though their tap water is just as pure.

We in the industrialized world are overfed but undernourished in many ways. Socially, psychologically, physically and spiritually, we are not fully meeting human needs. We’ve become susceptible to a virus of dependency, passive consumption; working, watching, waiting, and wasting.

Although the TV commercials would have us believe that every itch can be scratched with a trip to the mall, the truth is, we’re consuming more now but enjoying it less. According to surveys taken by the National Science Foundation for the past 30 years, even with steady increases in income, our level of overall happiness has actually declined.

Why? Many believe it’s because a lifestyle of over-consumption creates deficiencies in things that we really need, like health, social connections, security and discretionary time.

How can we expect a money-distracted culture to create trust, loyalty, inspiration, calmness and meaningful traditions? Frankly, the evidence indicates that the quest for ‘more’ at both the personal and commercial scale often strips these essential qualities away, leaving us borrowing, buying and selling rather than being.

The current lifestyle is designed for maximum consumption and ‘tolerable’ amounts of waste and destruction.  It’s considered shameful to have a below-average income or a beat-up car, unless one is actively struggling to acquire more. This cultural story is now so woven into our psyches that it’s hard to imagine how else it might work.

So ingrained is the story that we rarely question its overall meaning and implications: the faster the global economy grows, the faster the world’s fragile living systems decline. Each American now requires an average of 30 acres of prime land and sea to satisfy both the needs and wants of our excessive lifestyle – a national total of roughly nine billion acres.

This is more than three times the acreage of the United States, which is a primary reason the U.S. is currently more than twelve trillion dollars in debt. To continue consumption at current levels, Americans will have to be aggressive and opportunistic with other countries’ rightful wealth.

We’ll have to allocate more to the military, work even harder and longer at jobs that often don’t stimulate us; carry more stress, debt, doubt, and shame.  That is, unless we decide to simply change the story we live by; to change what we mean by the word ‘success’.

One of the primary mechanisms for maintaining social cohesion is status – the relative standing of an individual within the group, and that individual’s ability to obtain and retain respect. Individual status helps organize the group and makes 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 literally 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 can 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.

Authors bio:

David Wann is an author, filmmaker and speaker on the topic of sustainable design and lifestyles. He is the author of The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011) and contributing editor to thestoryofmeaningfuluse.com.

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5 Comments»

  Barry Johnson wrote @

‘One millisecond in one individual’, we need a timing of that one millisecond in countless individuals to effect the dramatic change that will break the habitual consumer/materialistic rituals that dominate our lives. Unfortunately we remained stoned on our habit, so desensitized that we can only hear a small whisper from within, that may have its roots in Gaia, bringing us out momentarily of our stupor. Articles like this and this magazine, assists in amplifying that deep whisper giving us a some clarity to ask the questions, bringing us together from around the world giving us that millisecond we need to effect change. Well done guys

  #AnonyMiss Slapped A New Normal « Anonymiss Express wrote @

[…] http://thestoryofmeaningfuluse.com/2011/03/10/the-new-normal-an-agenda-for-responsible-living/ Author Dave is slapped for logical, principled and honorable behavior, for upsetting the status quo, and threatening our Shopping Rights! […]

  Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach wrote @

Great piece – I just got my copy of The New Normal and I’m looking forward to enjoying it as I have Dave’s earlier pieces.

  Rosalinda Sanquiche wrote @

Nice piece, thank you. In community presentations, I often talk about wealth and profit and encourage participants to redefine these terms as “better” – better health, security, friendships, more time. I ask if they invest what they have – skills, time, education, experience, instead of money – if they might not come out ahead “better,” even monetarily. Stephanie Mills is another marvelously conveying this message.

[…] http://thestoryofmeaningfuluse.com/2011/03/10/the-new-normal-an-agenda-for-responsible-living/: Over at recently launched online magazine, The Story of Meaningful Use, there is a thought provoking excerpt from a new book, The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living, by Dave Wann. His book calls for a paradigm shift about how we view “success” in life, and look at it in ways other than consumption, because at the rate we’re going, we’re outconsuming our future. […]


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