What does the phrase "The American Dream" mean to you? Does it embody your hopes and dreams for the future? Is it a goal whose accomplishment would leave you feeling completely fulfilled? Or is it a monolithic social norm that tells you that your success is inexorably linked to your ability to claw through the rat race, even taking a second job or working overtime at an unfulfilling job, in order to accumulate a three bathroom house with a two sport utility vehicle garage and steaks on the grill?
The traditional notion of the American Dream does not embody the key to happiness, yet for over half a century Americans have been lured by Madison Avenue's siren song that material goods, even purchased on credit, will lead to happiness. Only after crashing on the rocks of record personal debt and stress are we realizing that the dream which advertisers spend $161 billion a year to paint is just an illusion. While the size of the average American home has doubled, increasing from 1,100 square feet in 1949 to 2,060 square feet in 1993 (and the number of televisions, cars and other objects filling those homes has skyrocketed accordingly), research shows that Americans work an average of 168 more hours per year now than 20 years ago, and are no happier than their parents were at the same age.
The plain truth is that more stuff just isn't doing it. On April 7th of this year, The World Resources Institute released an international study which showed that the average citizen of an industrialized nation consumes 300 shopping bags full of natural resources each week. And to what end? Since 1957, the number of people telling the National Opinion Research Center that they are "very happy" has dipped from 35 percent to 30 percent.
Our hyperconsumerism is also a driving force behind a spectrum of inequities -- within the U.S., globally, and across the generations that stand to inherit the planet. At home, the growing wealth gap is a testament that the American Dream is indeed a pure fantasy. Some of the richest people feel they need "just a little bit more" to be content, while millions of families on the other end struggle to meet basic needs and stay out of debt.
The notion that "more is better" has also become a flashing neon mirage for the developing world. As their economies take off, countries like China are consuming dramatically more cars, televisions, refrigerators and meat. The simple truth, however, is that it is physically impossible to extend our current lifestyle to the rest of the world -- it would take the resources of at least three planet earths (even more if population continues to grow).
The good news, perhaps, is that because we set the global standard for success, we can take the lead in changing it. The challenge is getting the ball rolling. Going vegetarian is certainly one excellent starting point; when it takes 13 pounds of grain and exorbitant amounts of water to raise one pound of beef, you don't need to be a scientist to realize that eating lower on the food chain will leave more food to go around and greatly decrease the erosion and pollution of the soil we bequeath to our children.
But our consumption consciousness must be extended to all aspects of our life. Approaching every purchase with a "Do I really need it? Can I get by without it? Could I borrow or rent it?" is a good general rule of thumb. Buying local products reduces the pollution associated with shipping. Shifting to a one-car or no-car family and utilizing bicycles or public transportation also decreases our reliance on harmful fossil fuels. In the policy arena, enacting eco-taxes and reducing subsidies for ranchers, loggers and other resource extractors, as well as advertisers, are important steps to building a foundation for a more sustainable society.
Members of a democratic society have a civic and political responsibility. We also have the responsibility to support businesses and practices that match our values, and the freedom to pursue a dream that comes from our heart, not from a TV commercial. Let's tear down Madison Avenue's American Dream and build a new dream: one that can be enjoyed by all people, today and seven generations from today.
Sean Sheehan is the program associate at the Center for a New American Dream, a new national non-profit organization dedicated to reducing resource consumption and improving quality of life. For more information or resources, contact: Center for a New American Dream, 156 College Street, 2nd Floor, Burlington, VT 05401, 802-862-6762. http://www.newdream.org or Anewdream@aol.com
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