Can We Build a New American Dream?

By Barbara Brandt

This article is from the May/June 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the May/June 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

The Center for a New American Dream is a new nonprofit organization whose goal is to promote "sustainable consumption." The Center seeks to change the ways North Americans produce and consume, in order to lessen our harmful impact on the natural environment, while improving our quality of life as individuals, families and communities.

It was founded by environmentalists and social activists concerned that the traditional American Dream, which defines success and status through ever-expanding possessions, is socially, economically, and environmentally unstable. During its first phase of operation, from January 1997 to March 1998, with Ellen Furnari as its director, it focused on programs promoting lifestyle change. In March, the Center for a New American Dream, under the leadership of Betsy Taylor, shifted to a second phase—building a national coalition of, and serving as a national clearinghouse for, environmental, social justice, labor and religious groups interested in promoting sustainable consumption. Barbara Brandt interviewed Ellen Furnari to learn more about the Center's first year.

Brandt: The Center is a unique kind of social change organization, because you are attempting to bring about broad social and economic changes by focusing on lifestyles—on individuals' everyday activities of buying and consuming.

Furnari: In the long term we will also be involved with public policy. For example, some issues we are thinking about now concern the design of urban communities—especially to promote more public transportation; and eliminating perverse tax subsidies for environmentally destructive logging or fossil fuels. But we are starting out by encouraging individual change, because we want more Americans to understand the connections between the typical American lifestyle and bigger social and environmental problems.

For example, the race to "keep up with the Joneses" pushes many Americans to work longer hours so they can earn enough to consume all the "right things." This leaves little time for getting together as a family, or for community or civic participation, which diminishes the quality of our community and family life. The average American now spends six hours a week shopping and only 40 minutes a week playing with children—and the average couple only spends about 12 minutes per day talking together!

Also, the Earth can't support the current level of U.S. consumption and waste, especially if it were extended to the rest of the world. Environmentalists have estimated that we would need about three Earths to support the entire global population at the current U.S. level of consumption and resource use—and about nine Earths to absorb the wastes and toxins generated. The U.S. is seen as a model by so many other people, and the media is busily promoting our materialistic and consumption-oriented lifestyle all around the globe. So if we can change our consumption habits here, that will send a new message to the rest of the world.

Brandt: But is there enough interest in reducing consumption here in the U.S.? Isn't materialism and the desire to express ourselves through our possessions deeply ingrained in the American psyche?

Furnari: There's clearly significant interest. A number of recent polls show that large numbers of Americans are now concerned that our society has become too materialistic—our lives have gotten out of balance. They are especially concerned about materialistic values in our young people. The vast majority of Americans now say that what's really important to them are satisfying relationships with family and friends, making a contribution to their community, enjoying nature and expressing their spirituality.

The problem is that most of us are not living according to what we really value. It's not that people want to go back to the Stone Age; they don't want to give up material things. But they want more of a balance between material things and those non-material things which give real meaning to life. People feel that our lives have gone too far in the direction of materialism, so there is now a new interest in living more simply. A small percentage of Americans have already started making these changes, and the numbers willing to make these kinds of changes is growing. Our database lists several thousand individuals, organizations, publications, and so forth around the U.S. already actively promoting sustainable consumption.

Brandt: What about the criticism that this movement to consume less is only relevant to white upper-middle-class Americans?

Furnari: Our consumption-oriented lifestyle is related to issues of social and economic justice. It widens the gap between the super-rich and the super-poor, both in North America and internationally, and this division is unsustainable. For the sake of equity, the people who consume the most will have to reduce their consumption the most. The Center doesn't dictate how much people should cut back, but says we must begin talking about this problem.

Also, our materialistically focused culture is especially brutal to lower-income communities. It's hard enough to be poor because you don't have material necessities, with all the extra work and stress that entails. But it's especially cruel to have the whole culture bombard you with the message that you're only a worthwhile person if you buy this or that. And all that waste and pollution generated by our consumer culture has to go somewhere. In most cases it is dumped in or near poor communities, often communities of color. Municipalities tend to locate landfills and toxic waste dumps in low-income neighborhoods, and in fact, one out of every five African-Americans and Latinos live in a community with one or more toxic waste sites.

Brandt: Has the Center done specific outreach to lower-income communities or communities of color?

Furnari: In the next year we plan to hold two special constituency meetings, one with people who organize in low-income communities, and another with labor unions. There's so often conflict between labor and environmentalists, for example on the issue of jobs. We want to make sure that there is no wedge driven between environmentalists and labor around the issue of sustainable consumption.

Brandt: Talking about jobs—that brings up another familiar question. If we reduce our consumption, won't that shrink our economy and increase unemployment?

Furnari: This is a very important question that we as a society need to discuss openly. Where do we want our economy to expand? Where do we want it to contract? How do we want it to grow? Do we want—or need—to grow? Can we redistribute instead of grow?

Even the May/June 1997 issue of Dollars & Sense on the environment never asked these questions. You had a good article on green consumers, but we need to redeploy the market both to support better products, and to fight the ethos of consumption. For example, even if you bought shirts made of organic cotton, and sewn by union labor with good wages and safe working conditions, we still need to ask the question "How many shirts do you need? How often do you need to buy a shirt?" And what about children's toys? Do we really need to buy every new baby 25 stuffed animals? And do all the gadgets and appliances that fill our homes and closets really save us time? Maybe they just make more work for us because we have to clean them, maintain them, and then we need a bigger house to store all these things!

Even if all our businesses were producing everything with a minimum of waste and pollution, and recycling everything, we should still be consuming less overall. Even if the auto industry came out with a car that gets 70 or 80 miles per gallon, people should still be using more public transportation instead of so many private automobiles.

So we at the Center are saying that we need to look at what are the things we can consume more of, for example, the arts. And what are the worst things we now consume, which we absolutely should consume less of? And what are the implications of these kinds of questions for employment, distribution, etc.? It makes no sense to reduce consumption unless you also deal with equity issues.

Luckily for us and our planet, the kinds of things people really long for, such as friendship, community, and spiritual meaning, are low-consumption items.

Brandt: How are you getting your message out?

Furnari: We are focusing on public education [in part by using an action kit and a study guide on "How Much is Enough?"]. We especially want to promote individual awareness and change around two points. One: How can we bring our lives back into balance with our values and with the Earth? And two: How much is enough? Our goal is to reach over 1,000,000 Americans with these two questions.

Barbara Brandt is the author of Whole Life Economics and a coordinator of the Charter Work Time Group.

Resources: "Yearning for Balance Action Kit," Center for a New American Dream, 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 900, Takoma Park, Md. 20912; 888-289-2317;
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