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The American Dream is Killing Us: A Wake-Up Call-and a New Dream of a Simply Beautiful Life
Copyright 2002, Allison Weeks-Ewoldt
Among the political campaign ads that bombarded us during the fall of 2000, I heard one that promised "equal access to The American Dream." The American Dream. Why did those three familiar words-a beautiful beacon in my childhood-suddenly set off an alarm within me?
As I sat there on that lovely autumn day in my product-laden dream home, on my dream island, with my dream car sitting in the driveway, the growing, horrifying awareness that my 'dream come true' was contributing to the death of our planet grew within me. Worse yet, I realized that as telecommunications spread our materialistic values like wildfire around the globe, growing masses of humanity are also beginning to long for the short-term gratifications of consumerism-Newer, Bigger, Better, and More. The fire is about to consume us, and we're fanning the flames. Why?
I began to wonder a lot of other things about The American Dream that afternoon, too.
For instance, I started questioning whether our material pleasures and comforts are actually giving us the "good life" they promise. If so, why are our children-many of them from affluent neighborhoods-killing one another in our schools? In spite of modern technology and medical advances, why are anxiety attacks, asthma and "environmental illness syndrome" (multiple chemical sensitivities), obesity, cancers that ravage our bodies, and life-threatening stress related conditions like hypertension, stroke, and heart disease on the rise? The list of common serious ailments directly attributable to 'the good life' goes on and on, and is growing still.
Ironically, in addition to causing this plethora of maladies, it seems that the more we strive, acquire, and consume, the emptier and less fulfilled many of us feel inside. This spiritual and emotional 'lacking' is resulting in the consumption of anti-depressants and other mood-altering drugs by large numbers of us-including children. When those don't work, the result is often suicide. Our dream is killing us.
And what effect is the The American Dream having on the rest of humanity? The Earth has finite resources. It seems obvious that as those of us living The Dream acquire more and more, it is at the expense of billions of others (especially those living in third-world countries, but even many much closer to home) who consequently have less and less of the basics they need to survive. The fact that the US, with 4.1 percent of the world population, consumes 25 percent of the world's energy production-much of it wastefully-is just one of literally hundreds of alarming examples that make this harsh reality undeniable. Is it moral to live in ways that reduce the chances of life for others? Even for those who may believe that it is, what about the other negative effects of this disparity? For instance, as the benefits of economic growth (a major indicator of 'progress') become more and more concentrated-resulting in a higher material standard of living enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people while causing thousands of millions of others to be pressed into abject poverty-the development of a socially and politically explosive situation is only natural. We experienced this tragic lesson on 9/11 when terrorists brought attention to the immoral imbalance and attempted to 'right the wrongs' through violence and death. And that is still not all. The disparities caused by the fulfillment of our Dream also lead to other socially aberrant behaviors that try to make up for perceived material inadequacies through "get rich quick" schemes. These range from gambling and theft to organized crime, such as information fraud, prostitution (adult and child), and trafficking in arms, drugs, and human organs. Our dream is killing us.
And what about our planet, without which we cannot live? Earth has been enjoying perfect, sustainable balance that has supported the evolution of increasingly complex systems for 2 ˝ billion years-without producing garbage or pollution. Even 'natural catastrophes' and what we label 'violence' within the food chain and for the natural protection of territory have ultimately helped maintain the balance of the bio-global community of Life over the eons. But-Earth is no longer in balance. We are bombarded daily with compelling evidence of the hazardous effects of our addictions on the planet, from global warming to toxic oceans. And, as we do our best to increase the demand for our 'products' around the globe in order to accommodate our ever escalating longing for More... Then what? It has been said that if developing countries were to actually reach the level of consumerism of the US, it would take five planets the size of the Earth to support the current human population-two to supply the resources, and three to hold the garbage and toxic waste. Thousands of scientists have joined forces to sound the alarm: We are fast approaching the point where our planet will no longer to be able to sustain humanity's onslaught. Our dream is killing us.
As a woman I knew lay dying in the hospital, with little hair left on her head and her skin orange from liver failure, she firmly maintained once again (as she had for years) that she really didn't have a drinking problem. Then she died. We are collectively responding just as most addicts do when they cannot bear the ugly truth of their lives: We are in denial. Our president, who responded to the terrorist attack on our country by telling us to "Buy more!," may be the most deluded of us all. Isn't destroying our life-support system a very good definition of insanity? What will it take for us to face the reality that The American Dream is killing us-and then do something about it?
You don't really need me or anyone else to tell you that something is wrong with The American Dream. Besides intellectually understanding the ever-present evidence of our growing mental and physical health problems, social crises, environmental degradation, and lack of personal fulfillment, you somehow know-sense within you-that we are out of balance, that something vital is missing from our lives. The question is...what is it that is missing? What is it that is causing so many of us to seek fulfillment through materialism-at any cost? Can we find this missing piece-and wake up from this nightmare in time to do something to shift our current course toward total system breakdown? Is there a better dream we can embrace together?
Yes. A simply beautiful one.
How do you feel when you walk through an ancient forest, sit perched upon a mountaintop, or enjoy the quiet of dawn by the sea? Most of us feel much more relaxed, peaceful, and content than we do in our hectic daily lives. A multi-billion dollar tourist industry is counting on it! But, besides being a refuge from the insanity of our lives, nature is also a model of perfect balance and fulfilling sustainability. Even as she staggers under our massive abuses, Earth continues to demonstrate a healthy, life-supportive, beautiful, and joyful way to live and be. As the wisest among us throughout history have said, we have only to stop our frenetic striving to satisfy a culturally conditioned desire for Newer, Bigger, Better, and More long enough to realize the real secret of heaven is right here on Earth. "Consider the lilies of the field..."
When we do look to nature, what do we learn? If you can, spend a few moments sitting quietly in a natural area. Notice the relationships among the incredible diversity of entities that are creating and maintaining this place. Everything is taking only what it needs to survive as it simultaneously gives back to the environment that is sustaining it. There is a continuous flow of energy, no greed...only mutual support and reciprocity, which achieves a balance that supports the life of all. Is this not true health and wealth?
The real question is, how is everything in this place-indeed, in the rest of the universe-kept in such exquisite balance? In The Whispering Pond, systems theorist Ervin Laszlo explains that leading edge scientists are now beginning to realize that "there is a constant and intimate contact among the things that coexist and co-evolve in the universe - a sharing of bonds and messages that makes reality into a stupendous network of interaction and communication." It is this 'sharing of messages' in Nature that keeps it in balance.
As part of Nature, we, too, instinctively know how to communicate with the rest of creation. We have at least 53 'ways of knowing'- our multiplicity of senses- that we have inherited to help keep us fulfilled, healthy, and in sustainable balance with the rest of the Web of Life. But because of excessive indoor living and the great power of cultural conditioning, our five commonly acknowledged senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell) as well as our senses of reasoning and language (called our "intellect'') have become the "favored few" which are validated by our culture-consequently overpowering and obscuring the messages being sent to us through at least 46 other valuable senses.
Don't believe me? Try this. Hold your breath right now for as long as you can. Longer. Longer still... As you begin to feel discomfort (still hold), it means your sense of respiration is communicating to you that something is wrong-that you need to exhale carbon dioxide and inhale oxygen... and soon. When you finally breathe again (go ahead), you are supporting your own life as well as the Web of which you are a part-for the very leaves that produced the oxygen you're inhaling need the carbon dioxide that you are exhaling. Connection. Mutual reciprocity. Life-sustaining fulfillment. Your sense of respiration is just one of the multiplicity of senses you share with the rest of Nature that is communicating with you all the time in order to support your life and keep you in balance with the rest of creation. The problem is that you've been taught not to trust many of your senses. Instead, you've been given cultural 'stories' to guide your life-and many of our stories, such as The American Dream, are killing us. It is almost too late for us to wake up and recognize that every one of our senses is important to our lives as well as the life of the Web. Is your intellect out of balance? Are you acquiring more but enjoying it less? Are you feeling anxious, stressed, frazzled, depressed, empty, lost and/or alone? Is your health deteriorating? Are you alarmed at the state of our society and planet but just can't seem to personally do your part to stop perpetuating the problem? If so...listen. Listen very carefully. Your many senses are trying to communicate through your conditioned, overpowering intellect that something is wrong. Respond to the messages, and begin to balance your intellect with your multiplicity of vital 'other ways of knowing!'
Education and information alone are not enough. Although they may help us understand that we are a vital link in a network of great complexity which is highly sensitive to human values and actions, a real shift in consciousness is necessary to catalyze actual changes in perspective, attitude, values, and behavior. Fortunately, considering the wonderful diversity of people in our beautiful country, there are many paths to developing the consciousness needed to regain personal balance and ultimately begin to shift the course of our species to a more positive, sustainable direction. As Laszlo points out in Macroshift, recognized paths include 1) meditation and other 'inner ways of knowing' which lead to spiritual fulfillment, 2) art and literature, in which human creativity often fosters and expresses cultural mutation, and 3) cutting edge science, in which the emerging view is that life is an interdependent network and the universe is a 'seamless whole.'
However, perhaps the most direct route to personal awareness is the one that worked so dramatically for me. After reading an article in Prevention Magazine called 'Reconnecting With Nature on Your Walk' written by editor Maggie Spears, I decided to try one of the simple reconnecting with nature activities she described-and immediately experienced a profound shift in consciousness as well as a deep sense of peace and joy. Deeply moved and wanting more, I went back and read the fine print. Upon learning that the article was based on the work of applied ecopsychologist Dr. Michael Cohen, founder and director of Project NatureConnect (www.ecopsych.com), I checked out the web site, immediately enrolled in one of PNC's on-line courses...and began to learn how to create moments that let Earth teach its balancing wisdom. I also learned about the power and promise of the new field of ecopsychology, which is redefining sanity as if the whole Earth matters-because we cannot be healthy (mentally or otherwise) if we are killing our life-support system. There is a range of methodologies within the field, from wilderness trips to counseling with Nature sessions, but all of them put people back in conscious contact with the healing, balancing force in Nature-and, because they simply awaken what is already present within us, they often catalyze profound results in a very short time.
So once you see The American Dream for what it is, and you experience a shift in consciousness... then what? Many people fear that living more simply and sustainably, in mutual support and reciprocity, will mean giving up technological advances and going back to living in caves, chopping wood, and carrying water. They are wrong. The secret to our health, happiness, and survival is not to go back in time to 'pre-civilized' lifestyles, but to simply regain our balance both within ourselves and with the rest of our planet. In fact, science-with its new awareness of the interdependent nature of reality-will certainly be called upon to play a huge role in helping us accomplish this through technological innovations, like accessing and distributing sustainable sources of power. No, living sustainably does NOT mean taking a vow of poverty. Rather, it is simply a matter of discovering natural fulfillment and being in balance. After taking my first Project NatureConnect course I began to make numerous small changes in my life, and then, as I continued to study, gradually bigger ones. I now no longer live unsustainably and dissatisfied in my 'dream home,' but I am far from being 'deprived.' Quite the opposite! I have everything I need, I am comfortable, healthier, more relaxed and peaceful, 'working' less and enjoying life more, in better relationship with others and the non-human world around me, sleeping better, and finally experiencing true joy and fulfillment. I am wealthy, indeed!
Once you choose a path to help you become consciously aware of your connection to the rest of creation, the motivation to make 'sustainable' changes in your life will come naturally. The things you've heard about (especially around Earth Day) and have intellectually known that you 'should' do suddenly become what you really want to do. The secret to making changes in your life is to start small and begin with things that really make sense and feel right to YOU. Explore the numerous wonderful books that have been written about simple living and voluntary simplicity. In the meantime, considering that humanity's collective Ecological Footprint is already 30 percent larger than what the world can support, you can begin the process by seeing how you fit in this picture by visiting http://www.earthday.net/footprint.stm to measure your own current 'footprint.' Then try a few of the following tried-and-true ideas to reduce the negative impact your lifestyle is having on our planet: Consolidate errands so you make fewer trips in your car-and walk or ride a bike when you can. Use the library often instead of always purchasing books when you can. Choose public transportation. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Communicate your values to your government officials, support candidates that share your consciousness, and VOTE. Eat less meat and more organic foods. Repair and get creative with what you already have rather than buying more. When you do need to buy, shop at thrift stores, yard sales, and consignment shops rather than buying 'new'-and when you do buy new, choose products that have been produced sustainably and humanely. Create opportunities to barter goods and services. Pool resources with 'conscious' neighbors and jointly buy and share expensive equipment, etc. that is infrequently used. Choose alternatives to pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Start giving back to the web of life that sustains you-through volunteering, or by contributing money to environmental and social causes. Invest only in socially responsible and environmentally sustainable companies. Think twice before using electricity. Replace your high-maintenance lawn with a low-maintenance native plant ground covering. Spend more time in nature and with your family-discovering for yourself that 'the best things in life are free.' Do what you can to develop a sense of community wherever you are. And, as you slow down and simplify, relish the beauty and wonder of the moments of your life as you live them.
What will happen to jobs and the economy if we all start buying less and giving back more? They will evolve over time to accommodate our new values and expectations. We have begun the process already by looking at sustainable economic growth indicators (already happening in many areas) as well as non-economic forms of 'wealth.' What will happen to our lifestyles? As we live more simply and begin to reclaim our biological inheritance for natural fulfillment and joy, we will gain freedom from possessions and notions of cultural success, experience a deep sense of peace and 'rightness,' regain our mental and physical health, and truly live.
Will you be alone? No! As our damaging cultural stories become exposed for what they really are, more and more people, such as the proliferating segment of society called Cultural Creatives (which currently comprises 23.4 percent of the adult population in the U.S.), are beginning to develop values and behaviors that are more resonant with the way Nature works. Cultural Creatives are fast approaching the 'critical mass' necessary to effect real change.
The American Dream is killing us- our bodies, minds, and spirits, our fellow human beings, and our beautiful planet. There is hope, but only if enough of us wake up in time. So choose a path that will lead to a healthier, happier, more fulfilling way to be in and relate with the rest of the world. Then, as Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."
Live a New Dream of a simply beautiful life-a Dream that can be enjoyed by all life for a very, very long time.
Allison Weeks is co-founder of Attraction Retreat, a center dedicated to educating, counseling, and healing with Nature located in Bellingham, WA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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