David Wann

The Fabric of America Is Fraying as the Economic Downturn Continues

By certain measurements, the U.S. economy has been quite successful in the last several decades, but the fundamental question remains: Successfully what?

We may lead the world in categories like gross domestic product, average house size, and ownership of color TVs, but we also "lead" the industrial nations in debt per capita, the child poverty rate, overall poverty rate, ratio of people in prison, rate of traffic fatalities, murder rate, carbon dioxide emissions per capita, and the per capita consumption of energy and water.

These are hardly distinctions we can be proud of. Clearly, we're not taking care of what really matters. On the upside, increased awareness of where we stand can guide a reordering of national and local priorities, resulting in a healthier and more satisfying American lifestyle.

Especially eye-opening is data compiled by John de Graaf, director of the non-profit Take Back Your Time, which advocates legislative and lifestyle changes to provide more discretionary time.

The data compares the U.S. with 14 European Union countries in key quality-of-life indicators, demonstrating that many of our economic and cultural priorities are out of step with what humans actually need. Despite the familiar aspiration to be/appear optimistic, it's clear that health care, safety, personal security, equality, education, and leisure time are faltering in America.

For example, even a need as basic as nutrition is compromised when money is poorly allocated or spent. The average American slurps 53 gallons of soft drinks every year, and now spends more in restaurants (many of the fast-food variety) than in grocery stores. "Even wild monkeys have healthier diets than most Americans," says anthropologist Katharine Milton, partly because in our fast-paced world, the emphasis is on snackability, convenience and shelf life rather than human life.

Americans also rank near the bottom among industrial nations in health per unit of food, spending the least for food (as a percentage of income) but the most for health care. In spite of these expenditures, we've fallen to 42nd place in the world for longevity, ranking below Guam and just above Albania. We're also 42nd in infant mortality but No. 1 in obesity, pumping 1 billion extra gallons of gas each year to carry the excess weight -- enough to fuel 1.7 million cars, according to a University of Illinois study.

Coincidentally, Americans are no longer the tallest population in the world; the Dutch are. (In fact, most European populations are, on average, taller than the average American). Researcher John Komlos of the University of Munich speculates that the EU's emphasis on social safety nets, especially in the critical childhood years, may be responsible. De Graaf, co-author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic," agrees. "A 30-year trend of income tax cuts for the rich has decreased quality of life overall in the U.S.," he says. "In contrast, Western European countries invested in their social contracts. Strategic investments in health care, education, transportation, and common space reduced the need [and desire] of individuals to maximize their own incomes."

On the other hand, in America, the subsidized and culturally familiar quest for privacy and exclusivity often spins off unhealthy isolation. A 2007 National Science Foundation study reported that one-fourth of all Americans have no one they can confide in or celebrate with, and the inner circles of the rest have fallen from about three confidants to two. Our need to elevate social connections to a higher priority is literally a matter of life and death.

In one study reported by Dr. Dean Ornish in his book "Love and Survival," men and women who were about to have open-heart surgery were asked two questions: "Do you draw strength from your religious faith?" and "Are you a member of a group of people who get together on a regular basis?" Those who said "no" to both questions were dead within six months, compared to only 3 percent of those who said "yes" to both questions.

Another primordial human need is connection with nature. When people view slides of nature, their blood pressure counts fall. Hospital patients with a view of trees go home sooner than those whose view is a brick wall. When people with ADHD spend time in nature, the results are often as effective as Ritalin.

Yet Americans are increasingly creatures of the great indoors, or else we're stranded in sterilized, overly manicured landscapes. For example, some geometric, asphalted school playgrounds in America now display signs that say, "No running!" The design of playgrounds often excludes the rough, green edges of nature where kids love to play; instead the aim is to minimize liability, reduce maintenance, and improve surveillance.

How can we make political and cultural space for our most critical needs? To give a few examples, one Wisconsin school dramatically reduced vandalism and violence by simply taking out the pop machines and replacing cafeteria fast foods like pizza and burgers with salad bars, fruits and vegetables.

New ways of building and rebuilding neighborhoods are helping residents create social networks of trust and support, at the same time preserving habitat. And a new way of thinking about what we do with our time is resulting in more outdoor labs at schools, job-sharing opportunities, and bike lanes in our communities.

We're beginning to carefully examine the value we get for the huge amounts of money we spend, and owe. By changing a few key priorities and perspectives, we can take better care of our kids, the environment, and ourselves, rediscovering a mother lode of real wealth woven right into our everyday lives.

Waste Makes Haste

Speed is irrelevant if you're traveling in the wrong direction.
-- Mohandas Gandhi

I had an unsettling thought the other day as I wrestled, scissors in hand, with the fortress-like plastic packaging around a new electric razor. I wondered if anyone had accidentally taken his own life trying to unwrap a consumer item like this one. If a person's flustered grip on the package slipped, I thought, those sharp scissors could plunge into vital organs. Cause of death: thick, stubborn packaging.

I knew the packaging was as much for the manufacturers' and retailers' benefits as mine, and in a way, I resented that. They were making the money, I was spending the time -- first the work-time to buy the expensive razor, then the fluster-time to penetrate its package.

I'd bought the electric unit because I was tired of buying and throwing out blades. I wanted something that lasts longer than refrigerator leftovers.

I hoped to do less damage to my checking account and to the environment with the electric razor, but considering all the electricity the razor would use and all the energy that had gone into its manufacture, I wasn't completely certain. Still, it did feel better than the prospect of tossing another five thousand blades (and all their packaging) before I die.

I thought about the man who got me into this shaving jam to begin with -- King Gillette, who, at the end of the 19th century pondered what sort of business he should launch. Why not sell an essential but flawed product, he reasoned, that would be thrown away after a few uses, providing a steady stream of profits? In a sense, Gillette and people like him were responsible not only for the disposable razor blade but also for the calculated, costly, disposable culture we're tangled up in.

To obtain the "convenience" of those throwaway blades, how many hours do we spend prowling supermarket aisles in search of new cartridges? How much "hidden" time do we spend in the car and at work? And of course, it's not just razor blades but computer equipment, frozen dinners, paper towels, tape dispensers, batteries, even cars and houses, all of which typically have short and shoddy lifetimes.

Aren't we hurrying partly to overcome the hidden costs of these disposable, poorly designed products?

Frozen dinners, for example, seem to be quick and easy but there's much more time involved than meets the eye. The packaging is programmed for a shelf life of maybe six months, a cook time of two minutes and a landfill dead-time of centuries. A surprisingly large percentage of the product's price is for packaging, then we pay ongoing energy costs to keep it frozen, and health costs from air pollution related to manufacture, distribution, and disposal.

Or take computers. They're incredibly fast, but their speed is sometimes a liability. For example, home computers not only enable workers to extend the workday into their personal lives, they also enable us to shop 'til we drop in the privacy of our own homes.

Unless we choose the often-unavailable option of ground delivery, our Internet orders will be sent airmail, five times as energy-intensive as delivery by truck. When Amazon.com pledged to deliver copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the book's publication date, a squadron of airplanes distributed 250,000 packages to readers anxiously sitting by their mail chutes.

Computers have other hidden costs, which we pay for by working longer and longer hours. To take advantage of the computer's racehorse speed, we pamper it with the latest software, which takes time to download. We wait for it to boot up, and we wait as it steeplechases to a desired web page. We "defrag" it, upgrade it, forgive its inopportune crashes that leave us helpless, and like a protective, anxious mother, we shelter it from viruses. These are some of the hidden time costs.

Then there are the many hidden ecological costs, well explained by Jim Fisher in a web article titled "Poison PC's:" "Along with the lead in its cathode ray tubes and circuit boards," he writes, "my computer was loaded with chemicals that have documented risks to public health and the environment: There was cadmium in its semiconductors, mercury in its switches and position sensors, chromium in its steel housing, brominated flame retardants in its circuit boards, nickel, lithium, cadmium and other metals in its batteries. All that was missing was a 55-gallon drum."

It's not likely computers will ever give way to index cards and typewriter ribbons again (that would be a return to the Dark Ages), but since they contain 700 different materials, computers must be designed for effortless recycling. And since they require so much energy to manufacture, our product strategy needs to change from obsolescence to durability.

The Faster We Produce, the Faster We Consume...

As I fought with the electric razor's packaging, I wondered, Has the industrialized, conveyor-belt pace that creates "planned obsolescence" become embedded in our daily routines? In effect, does waste make haste, which then creates ever more waste in a vicious, accelerating cycle? If so, how do we break the cycle? To begin with, we need to acknowledge -- as individuals and as a culture -- that the best things in life really aren't things. The best things are bonds with people, contact with nature, and health -- qualities that don't require us to be in a hurry.

To give ourselves time for these priceless forms of wealth, we need to reduce our junk intake, buying fewer things but better things. More durable and environmentally friendly things, as many Europeans do. We need to slow down to the speed of quality, rather than accelerating to the speed of quantity.

Make no mistake; this will require a change of historic proportions. There's good evidence that the high-speed chase we're in began centuries before the invention of the disposable razor blade, in the blacksmith shops, tanneries, and sawmills where the Industrial Revolution was born. When tinkers began perfecting technologies that could produce more goods than were necessary, they felt compelled to persuade buyers to consume the greatest number of products in the shortest period of time.

In the twentieth century, Henry Ford made speed an industrial requirement when he borrowed the idea of the assembly line from Chicago slaughterhouses, to accelerate automobile output. The key elements of mass production, according to Ford, were power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity, and speed. The same techniques that he perfected for the car were soon adapted to the mass-production of houses. Developers like William Levitt (who built Levittown in the late 1940s) erected 30 houses a day by dividing the construction process into 27 different steps. Every piece of lumber was numbered, every nail accounted for, every task in the house-building process given to a different team. The houses were built at remarkable speed, and when the dust settled and the first families moved in, an army of salesmen were there to greet them, hawking everything from milk delivery to curtains.

What postwar economists loved about the accelerated pace of house construction was that each new home was a ready market for stuff. And a market for stuff was what they thought the economy needed more than anything else.

Wrote marketing analyst Victor Lebow in 1950, "Our enormously productive economy demands that that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate."

Manufacturers, smelling spoils, ramped up the speed of their conveyors. As Alvin and Heidi Toffler point out in Creating a New Civilization: "In the new hypercompetitive marketplace, being first to market allows companies to command higher prices and profit margins. Even a few months of lead-time over competitors can mean the difference between success and failure."

Observe the Tofflers, "The interval between desire and gratification is quickly approaching simultaneity as consumers come to expect a greater array of novel products and services at near breakneck speed."

Speed Kills

The problem is that speed kills. When production systems are in a hurry, care falls by the wayside, along with mountains of waste. To give just one example among many, production capacity and consumer demand have combined to deplete about one-fourth of the world's fisheries, according to the World Resources Institute, with another 44 percent currently being fished at the biological limit.

Sonar technology tracks large schools of fish; trawling nets -- the bulldozers of the ocean floor -- gather them in, and refrigerated processing ships bring them back to market. In the process, a third of the global catch (30 million tons a year) is killed and tossed overboard because it's unmarketable.

Much of that fish catch is fed to America's 60 million cats, and the beat goes on.

The pace of industry strikes every inch of the globe, dicing habitats into fragments and smothering them under mine tailings, stripe-shorted tourists, logging slash, and pavement. For example, since each of America's 215 million automobiles requires a fifth of an acre for roads and parking spaces, every additional five cars smother another football field-sized chunk of America. Ponder this image for a moment: 38 million football fields, already covered with pavement, and many more to come.

Even the essential nutrients of life -- nitrogen, sulfur, carbon, and phosphorus -- have become hyperactive, far surpassing the natural cycle rates that remained constant for eons. An overdose of nitrogen causes rain to be acid and lakes to become clogged with algae. Too much carbon, too fast, and the world's glaciers begin to melt.

In 1991, hikers in the Alps came upon a startling time capsule: an intact human mummy protruding from a melting glacier. Apparently trapped in a snowstorm more than 5,000 years ago, he returned with a symbolic message for us, notes environmentalist Lester Brown -- the Earth is getting warmer, quickly. Ask residents of Alaska, where the average temperature has risen more than five degrees in the last 30 years. Engineers are frantically shoring up sections of the Trans-Alaska pipeline threatened by melting permafrost. Meanwhile, every single day the world economy burns as much fossil fuel as it took nature 10,000 days to produce, warming the earth even faster.

The Faster We Consume, the Faster We Produce

The message we get every day is hurry up and consume. But many scientists now agree that over-consumption is the world's most serious environmental threat, because for every product we consume, an average of 20 times its weight in raw materials was consumed to make it. The raw materials that go into a gadget or article of clothing may have disrupted biological habitats at the mine site, farm field, or chemical plant. Then, product manufacture, distribution, advertising, and packaging take their toll. At the end of the line, our use of the product may contribute further impacts in health, air, water, and land.

Every day, each American consumes 120 pounds of stuff, figuring in all the natural resources used in the making of our products. Stone and cement, coal, farm products, minerals, oil, wood, and so on flow at increasingly faster rates from sacrificial sites, as if the speed were turned up on a conveyor belt smorgasbord that runs through field and forest and right into our neighborhoods.

The faster we consume, the faster we produce, the faster we consume...

The average American now requires roughly 24 football fields (or acres) of natural resources to maintain his or her standard of living, despite the arithmetic fact that there are only five acres available for each person on the planet. And five acres per capita must also meet the needs of millions of other species that support us and share the planet with us. As countries like China strive to raise their levels of consumption, where will four or five more planets come from?

No Time to Care

The commercial need for speed often results in faster, more destructive extraction, quick and sometimes-shoddy manufacture, and blitzkriegs of advertising (for which each average American spends more than $500 annually). All these impacts are costly, and require us to pick up the pace. One poignant example is the beef industry, in which cows are bulked and slaughtered at younger and younger ages, to increase the volume and velocity of marketable product. At the slaughterhouse, the assembly line moves so fast that cows are sometimes butchered alive.

We don't take time to care.

In recent years our household budgets have skyrocketed for daycare, eldercare, healthcare, lawn care, house cleaners, psychiatrists, chiropractors, herbalists, party entertainers, and online vendors -- in direct proportion to our quest to be "care-free."

Court reporters document that we talk faster than we did in the '60s. Visitors from other countries comment that we appear to be walking in fast-forward, and graphologists note that our writing is progressively degenerating into scribble.

We sleep less, cook and eat faster, and even have sex faster. The best-selling book, Five Minutes to Orgasm Every Time You Make Love: Female Orgasm Made Simple, is a great indicator of our perceived need for speed. But is there really anything "simple" about orgasm, or any other biological event?

To the rest of life on earth, time is something to be savored. Biological and physical rhythms and cycles define and celebrate time in a clock-free world -- things like the temperature of the soil in spring, mating rituals, and phases of the moon. Other animal species eat when they're hungry, not when clocks tell them to. The critical factor for other species is fitting in with the timeless patterns of evolution. In short, time is synonymous with life itself. Yet, for many Americans, "time is money."

We used to "slow down and smell the roses," but now we only have time to "wake up and smell the coffee." We schedule our lives to fit abstract time rather than natural time, forfeiting opportunities to understand how nature works, and be part of it.

Average time spent on one of the country's most awesome outdoor experiences, the Grand Canyon? Twenty-two minutes!

We're finding out that consumption is itself time-consuming, carving away opportunities to experience nature directly. Instead, we regard it as a commodity to be snacked on like animal crackers. American Wilderness mall exhibits, for example, enable weary shoppers to get a breath of natural fragrance in a stage-set wilderness. For about the price of a pair of good hiking socks, the tourist is led through six different wilderness settings. How many different simulated species can you spot?

No Time to Recycle

Maybe you're wondering about the fate of the electric razor packaging I finally wrestled to the ground. I assure you it went into the recycling container. But what about the several Super Bowl stadiums of waste the country generates every day? Are Americans taking the time to recycle it?

About a decade ago, Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine, observed that more people took part in recycling than voted. "Recycling is more popular than democracy," he concluded.

I called him to see if he stood by that statement now, and was relieved to hear him say, "Absolutely. 140 million homes have curbside recycling available, and about 70% take part. When you add in drop-off centers, office recycling of paper, telephone book recycling, and so on, you easily surpass our low levels of voter turnout." (A dubious benchmark, when you think of it.)

We may have recycling systems in place, but we're using them less, partly because we're in a hurry. For example, in Seattle, once the national leader in recycling, city waste management officials recently announced that the amount of the city's waste that is being recycled has dropped from 52% to 38% (and that's below voter turnout!) over the past few years. The drop off in recycling occurred precisely at a time when working hours were rising. Many people say they are just too busy, too tired and too overworked to recycle.

Another problem, as Jerry Powell points out, "is out-of-home consumption. For example, at work, it used to be standard to bring your lunch in reusable containers. These days, haste makes waste when we rush into a convenience store or a take-out restaurant, where burgers and pizza come in throwaway packaging. We take garbage out with us, and a large percentage of that kind of waste ends up in landfills."

The less we recycle, the faster we'll churn through natural resources, and the harder we'll have to work.

Slow Down and Take Care

Picture the typical American family - 2.6 people -- at home on a weekend. Marty, the Mom, wears a casual designer sweatshirt with a thumbs-up on it. "I'm a confident consumer," it says. Yet she's also constantly in a hurry, as if her life were a race. To keep up, she gulps her fourth cup of coffee, a beverage that induces symptoms doctors compare with a stress-induced panic attack -- elevated heartbeat, and increases in blood pressure, respiration, and gastric secretion. It's life in America's fast lane, but unfortunately, many of the finer things, like nature, are reduced to a blur. We can only hope that Marty and millions of Americans like her put on the brakes before it's too late.

When the phrase "Haste makes Waste" was first uttered, back in the 14th century (also when the mechanical clock was invented), it meant, "Go slowly, take care. Do it well, so you don't have to do it again." That advice is even more compelling today, at a time when haste and time pressure are contributing to growing mountains of waste, and growing threats to ecological systems. And when it comes to mega-challenges like species extinction, global warming, and the contamination of global water supplies, we may not get a chance to do it again. The sobering -- and let's hope, rallying -- fact is, we're running out of time.

This article will appear in the forthcoming anthology "Take Back Your Time" (Berrett-Koehler, September, 2003), a book that will precede the first annual Take Back Your Time Day -- October 24, 2003. David Wann is coauthor of the best-selling "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic" (Berrett Koehler), and also author of the recently released The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West (Fulcrum). Email him at wanndavejr@cs.com.
BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.