New Dreams for the Future
I don’t know about you, but sometimes, as an environmentalist (or when I’m listening to other environmentalists), I come away with one of three emotions: fear, dread, or guilt. And what that does is it shuts me down. It makes me either feel bad about myself—“I’m not a good enough environmentalist,” “I’m not doing enough”—or I want to go crawl into bed and hide under the covers.
This does not make a movement. It has its place—it’s important to understand the science and to acknowledge the magnitude of the crises we face. But we also need to remain hopeful because we have to engage more and more people, and to do that we need to paint a picture of the possible. Brain science shows us that positive and attractive visualizations open our capacity for innovation and imagination. Social change emerges not only from the push of the problem, but also from the pull of the possible.
So let’s go beyond talking about green living or even saving the planet. Let’s talk about a future where, yes, we use fewer material resources, turn waste into wealth, and mimic the efficiencies of nature, but let’s also tie it to well-being. What about, as environmentalists, talking about moving toward a golden age of leisure, a golden age of creativity, of arts and culture, of community abundance, of nature and wilderness, of spiritual connectedness?
We need to take back the dialogue and tap into our traditional values—traditional values of freedom, self-reliance, community, and independence. We want to emphasize liberation, not sacrifice. We want to promote values alignment and modeling of lifestyles based on freedom— freedom from debt and work overload; self-reliance—not being dependent on the corporate marketplace and fossil fuel industry for all our needs; and community—in terms of strengthening both social relationships and economic ties between producers and consumers.
We need to flood mainstream culture with demonstrations of living better that also happen to leave a smaller footprint. Let’s start off with the positive solutions that make our lives more enjoyable and shine huge spotlights on these solutions—on people and places where change is already happening—to show that we can adjust and adapt. It’s exciting to see evidence of where transformation is happening, where people are building systems of sharing and collaborative consumption, where they are creating community energy, supporting local economies, and new ways of doing business that are sustainable for people and the planet. When we “see” the future, we can start to build it.
So we can redefine our own American dream. We can rethink what success means. What the “good life” is. What true wealth is. We can reclaim our future. Right now, our future has been hijacked by those who only talk in terms of gross domestic product and growth-at-all-costs. Essentially, a measure of raw economic output has become virtually synonymous with social progress, locking us on an unsustainable growth path and leaving us in the dark about many important dimensions of social justice, well-being, and environmental sustainability
But, at New Dream, we are seeing real opportunities for change. Below are a few trends that I’m excited about and that I believe we can build upon to have an impact on changing our consumption patterns and improving our quality of life.
- Increased calls and action for new measurements of progress. Former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted that, “what you measure affects what you do,” and if “you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.” We need to expand efforts like the Geninue Progress Indicator, the Happy Planet Index, the Human Development Index, and the Ecological Footprint, so we can share our vision of the future using different indicators that measure more of what matters to us all. New measures of progress and success can help tell us if we are moving toward the future we want. And some states are leading the way on this front, including Maryland and Utah.
- Collaborative consumption, or the peer-to-peer economy—in other words, sharing. More and more people are seeing the inefficiencies of ownership: why be burdened by owning and caring for all that stuff when you can rent it, share it, or borrow it? When New Dream created our Community Guide to Sharing, we found so much innovation going on in this area. It’s about access over ownership, about paying for the benefit instead of for the product itself. It’s about reusing or reselling or regifting rather than throwing away. It’s a whole new opportunity to reimagine the American Dream from ownership toward sharing what we have, and sharing the skills we have with others to strengthen our communities.
- Reskilling. Just witness the explosion of Maker Faires, “repair cafes,” and urban homesteading. The feeling of satisfaction you get from being able to grow your own food, build your own things, make your own repairs, or even generate your own energy is fundamentally energizing. Over the years, we have seen a tremendous loss of basic skills such as carpentry, sewing, and cooking from scratch, as we’ve become more reliant on the mass marketplace for just about everything. This in turn makes us less secure and more dependent, which is the burgeoning movement for self-reliance is so important. And this desire for more self-reliance and community capability cuts across ideologies: it appeals to many Americans, regardless of whom you vote for at the ballot box. This common value is something we need to build on, to help all of us build our skill sets and our community.
- The local food movement. In the last decade, more than 3,000 new farmer’s markets have been created. We’ve also seen encouraging growth in strengthening local food systems. For example, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Local Food Hub helps connects small local farmers with retailers. And while food aggregation and distribution is at the crux of the Hub’s operations, the organization does much more, focusing on farmer education, community outreach, and equal access to local food. Together, these programs support economic development, job creation, community health, and farmland preservation. In the past, small farms have been locked out of these markets because of missing infrastructure, delivery minimums, insurance requirements, and lack of time. Meanwhile, local institutions and businesses have not always been able to access a consistent supply of local fruits and vegetables. So growing the local food hub movement is key.
- Relocalization more broadly. Over a decade ago, New Dream began promoting Buy Local campaigns because we were finding that more and more people want to make a meaningful connection with their local businesses. We’re seeing a shift in cultural values: in their consumer lives, people want simplicity, traceability, transparency, and participation. In May, New Dream will release its new Community Guide to “Going Local.” Going local is about placemaking, about creating a local identity, about not being “Anywhere, USA.” It’s about limiting big-box intrusion, using more local and regional resources to meet our needs, connecting investors with entrepreneurs, and connecting business owners with the communities and natural places on which they depend. It’s about investing in ourselves and our relationships to create local healthy economies. This is an opportunity to refocus the American dream toward local businesses that are the backbone of our economy.
In all of these ways, we have an opportunity to re-imagine the American Dream—to one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and a celebration of non-material values. And the time to act is now. Our hyper-consumer and environmentally destructive culture takes its toll on us beyond personal dissatisfaction and dependency. It takes a toll on our communities, taking over our civic spaces and diminishing local culture. It burdens us with debt, marginalizes nature, and weakens our social capital as people socialize less and work more.
To reclaim our future, what we need now are new examples, new stories, new narratives, new role models, and new heroes to help define ourselves and provide us with alternative social realities that are plausible remedies for our own circumstances. That means we need models for change in urban settings, rural settings, surburbia. If we are to make the transition to a happier, healthier, and more sustainable, future, we need a new set of social norms across geographies and income levels.
We at New Dream want to help foster the spread of good community ideas through our Collaborative Communities program and by helping our members and others find each other locally to take action together. Stay tuned for our upcoming member meetups and new resources to help groups implement change in their own communities and cities.
As Americans, we need to have the courage to re-envision the world and then have the courage to share that vision, and to help people find the path to it. Together, we can imagine a New American Dream.
Wendy Philleo is Executive Director of the Center for a New American Dream.