What words come to mind when you think about the American Dream? Comfort. Security. A good job. A life partner. Kids. Family. Long life. So then, a choice to live a more sustainable life should take away from none of these things, and actually add to your traditional sense of personal happiness? Yes.
Take the purchase of a reusable water bottle. I realize that buying water in a disposable bottle means (i) you can toss it in the recycle bin (hopefully) when you’re done, or maybe reuse it a few times before you do, (ii) you don’t need to remember the reusable water bottle before you leave the house, (iii) you don’t have to clean the reusable water bottle, (iv) you will spend $10 to $40 on a reusable water bottle, which you might lose, (v) reusable water bottles are becoming a fashion statement and it’s more difficult to make the right choice, and (vi) it won’t get scorching hot if you leave it in the car on a sunny day. And yes, there is the issue of the carbon footprint of manufacturing the reusable bottle and shipping it to the store where you buy it. But assuming that you take care of it and don’t lose it, a reusable water bottle should last almost forever. Which means you will save a ton of money in the long run using the bottle rather than buying disposables. More money in your pocket is part of the American Dream, right?
Now consider a choice to commute to work by bike, foot, carpool or public transportation. Biking is the favorite of these for me, because I can skip the gym and get my cardio with my 10 mile ride to and from work. With my backpack and panniers, my bike turns into a cargo van, allowing me to make necessary stops along the way. I save money on gas, insurance and parking. And because I’m getting exercise, I should live longer. Commuting without the car and getting exercise means more money in my pocket and greater longevity. And biking is fun, building the balance in my happiness account. These are part of the American Dream, right?
Now let’s take this to the next level. Buy what you need, not what you want. Have the courage to tell the difference. Buying things that you don’t need means less money in your pocket. Buying things that you can’t afford is stupid, and means less money in your wallet. Buying what you can’t afford is a big reason that caused the housing bubble in America. We are all to blame for this – home buyers, home sellers, banks, brokers, appraisers and everyone in between.
America’s standard of living has been eroded by the Great Recession. But with sustainable objectives built into the pursuit of the American Dream, maybe that’s okay. A core financial objective of the American Dream is to live within one’s means. So when you mix in sustainable living to the American Dream, this means that we should live within the planet’s means.
I daresay in a slightly soapbox way, that the combination of population growth and technology means that so many of the middle manager jobs that existed in America may be gone for good. Add to this undisciplined consumption and dwindling non-renewable resources, a breaking point is right around the corner, but we can’t really see what it looks like yet because we are too busy trying to find good jobs that don’t exist. And we can’t yet visualize what it looks like because we are at a place on the happiness index that is totally and incredibly unproductive.
We did this to ourselves. We demanded more for less. We shopped at Costco and Walmart, Target and Macy’s, and forgot about the local, independent store where the service was excellent and we were treated with integrity and respect. We didn’t want to pay $25 for a reusable water bottle, we wanted 2 for $20. And American manufacturing equipment was sold to overseas interests because to get 2 for $20 meant that our consumption behavior could only be satisfied by cheap labor elsewhere. With the manufacturing equipment gone, so went the jobs.
So when we complain about China and worry about their manufacturing practices, we need to remember that we asked for it. We demanded it. Too, there are plenty of examples of American businesses that have treated their employees badly, polluted the environment, lied and cheated their customers, used toxic materials, etc, etc. I only need to mention Bridgestone’s exploding tire recall and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme to get the list started. Never mind the long and growing list of American companies that have knowingly and willingly polluted the environment to reduce costs, maximize profits, put products you buy (whether you think you need them or not) at prices that externalize all of the costs of extraction, job retraining, health care, social benefits, pollution, and solutions for the waste all along the way. Are you happier? I mean, seriously, truthfully, happier? Make conscious choices of the products you buy, where and how they are made, and demand transparency and disclosure from those who make them. Your local farmer will do all that if you get to know him.
The new American Dream is sustainable living. We must live within our means, show leadership in the choices we make every day, and search for a new paradigm that involves economic opportunity without excessive extraction of the world’s scarce natural resources. As we emerge from the Great Recession, we simply cannot and should not expect to return to the same unbridled, undisciplined consumption. It was, at its base, completely and utterly unsustainable.
Join me in pursuing the new American Dream.