About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Mixed Bag

So, dilemma of the day: Simple Prosperity, or Smugly Pretentious? My reactions to my 65th book of the year, whose full title is Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, by David Wann (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007) were decidedly mixed. On one hand, Wann's central premise is appealing: it's possible even in contemporary American culture to live a life where we consume less, but enjoy more "real wealth" ("efficiency, quality, care giving, trust, and teamwork"); moreover, not only is this better for the planet, but it's better for us, yielding "a more moderate, more enjoyable, less frantic American lifestyle." It's also well-developed in many places, particularly in the opening and last few chapters. On the other, when he delves into specific examples of simpler, more sustainable choices, he often comes off as myopic and classist, mistaking "my own, or my loved ones' life choices" for "the right choices," without acknowledging that a) people's tastes and interests differ, and b) many of the "simple" alternatives he offers aren't feasible without a substantial up-front capital and/or educational investment. On balance, I was glad I stuck it out to the ends -- but there were many points in the middle chapters where that wasn't a foregone conclusion.

The seeds of this dilemma are evident in the book's preface. Wann's opening sentence is, "This is a book about how to recover from the debilitating disease of overconsumption." If that sounds familiar, you may be thinking of affluenza, defined first in a PBS program and then in a book Wann co-authored with John DeGraf and Thomas H. Naylor as "an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream." And whether or not it's familiar, you've got to admit that this is both an interesting concept and a tall order for one book. However, Wann goes on to describe the observations that led him to write Simple Prosperity in vivid, clear terms that suck you in (at least, they did me):
"Back when I was a teenager in the 1960s, I felt queasiness lurking in the euphoria of the American lifestyle. ... [I]t was obvious to me that the accelerating pace of life in the United States 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. But somehow, the cost and dimensions of hte good life kept morphing, first into a 'new, improved life,' then a 'better' life. (There was always a better life.)"
By contrast, Wann claims to have observed at the same time that
"[P]eople whose lifestyle 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. ... What they earned seemed less important than what they learned. ... [I]n 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 real wealth, or you might say, the right stuff."
More specifically, Wann argues that over the last half-century, mainstream American culture has increasingly become synonymous with consumerism. Not only does this deplete both the environment and our wallets, but it also fails to provide what we really want and need: less stress, more control over our time, more energy, people in our lives who love and respect us, and safe communities. He argues that those whose lives are filled with "activities and passions that foster creativity and self-expression" are happier, healthier, and less inclined to shop and consume to excess.

From here, he goes on to suggest that the key to authentic satisfaction is to know ourselves: to figure out what we're good at and what we believe in. While I like the overall message here about "[following] a script you believe in, based on values that resonate for you," this is also the section of the book where I though Wann started getting a bit self-absorbed, and just didn't seem to get the real-world constraints most Americans live with. He tells the story of a friend whose script and values called her to make a living as an uninsured freelance writer, mentioning that she still gets top-notch medical care by persuading doctors to let her pay her bills in installments. He then goes on to talk about how he himself voluntarily left a conventional "good" job to live below the poverty line while writing a book, and how his sister defended his choice to their mother by citing all the things most people want money for that he already had: college educations for his children, a nice house in a good neighborhood, and travel to numerous exotic locales. While I don't doubt that this is more or less an accurate reflection of Wann's experience, I also don't think it's one easily replicated by just anyone. Homes, travel, and college aren't cheap; presumably, either Wann had enough money to pay for these at some point, or was lucky enough to find someone else who would.

We see more of the same in the "Mindful Money" chapter, which is mostly about how simplicity means "more value from better stuff." As Wann explains it, "[n]o one wants to spend money for products or experiences that don't deliver value. ... The new lifestyle will contain fewer things but better things, and the typical household will be less cluttered with junk." Sounds good to me, but when he then waxed poetic about his affinity for fine Belgian, Swiss, and Italian chocolate, and how different it is from "American chocolate, [which] has so much sugar and so many additives that it makes me feel jumpy -- and fat," it hit me: Wann is a Bobo. (This suspicion is confirmed later, in the chapter on housing, where he cites Jay Walljasper's criteria for good neighborhoods: "great spots to 'sip latte, watch foreign films, and browse used-book shops.'" For more on the whole Bobo phenomenon, check out this book, which coined the term -- even though I'm not usually a David Brooks fan.) The trouble is, what counts as "better stuff" is highly subjective, and the dividing line between "worthwhile investment" and "symptom of affluenza" is very grey. He speaks in glowing terms about his daughter's sojourn as an exchange student in Nepal, which sounds fascinating but costly, both environmentally (hello, carbon footprint, anyone?) and financially. Moreover, his suggestions on how to live simply and spend money mindfully contradict one another in places; for example, he urges us to spend less on housing by choosing smaller, more efficient houses, but then advises us to live close enough to walk to the places we want and need to go. Perhaps it's just me, but a home that meets all these criteria and is affordable is a pretty tall order in most places. Likewise, his adult son's decision to live in a parked van and work only two days a week is certainly unorthodox, but probably sustainable only so long as he remains healthy, strong, and unencumbered by recession or dependents.

In short, while I might personally agree that the "mindful" lifestyle and consumption patterns Wann describes are more appealing than some of those we're more accustomed to seeing, they seem like choices that are only available to a privileged few ... and in some cases, like ones that are at least as much about personal preference as they are about sustainability. What if I'd rather sip beer, watch high school football, and browse hardware stores than "sip latte, watch foreign films, and browse used-book shops"? What if I, too, am more interested in a neighborhood's "safety, walkability, public spaces, and proximity to both big-city culture and natural peace and quiet than in its "income, appearance, and exclusivity," but don't have the do-re-mi to live in Larchmont, the old home town Wann presents as idyllic ... without ever mentioning its homogeneity (92% white), affluence (median family income $164,000), and pricey housing stock (the median home price is over $900,000).

The underlying classism here is really a shame, because it makes the fence-sitters less inclined to take Wann seriously or think this book really has anything to offer them ... which means they miss out on a number of valuable insights. Larchmont aside, his comments on the importance of meaningful social relationships and communities and connections to the natural world were interesting and insightful (though the latter chapter is mostly drawn from Last Child in the Woods, itself a brilliant book). There are also some light bulb moments in the closing chapters, where he connects a call for "right-sizing" -- in particular, seeking housing and food that meet our needs precisely, rather than providing too much and still leaving us lacking -- to energy savings and better health (though I do wish he'd focused less on "organic" food and more on sustainability; for more info on the perils of "big organic" and how food that wears the organic label may not be as sustainable as you think, of course, read The Omnivore's Dilemma). Additionally, as perhaps the world's biggest anti-fan of reality TV, I love the riff on this subject, even though Wann is quoting Adbusters here: "'We live, you watch,' say the photogenic contestants. 'We're too dazed and confused to live, anyway,' respond the viewers, crunching handfuls of Cheetos."

The final chapter of the book, entitled "Cultural Prosperity," is really the capstone of Wann's argument. He calls for a cultural shift, "from an emphasis on material wealth to an abundance of time, relationships, and experiences." While his chart on the characteristics of cultural creatives seems a bit elitist (he might just as well have said "they listen to NPR"), the overall premise is good -- which, I guess, is true for the book as a whole.
"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 coworkers and neighbors, and generosity, just because it feels right. ... 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.'"

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