It seems apparent that American consumerism must change if the American way of life is to be viable in the long term. We either need to find less environmentally impactful ways of producing and consuming, or we need to simply consume less.
The former tactic will require incredible investment, research, and policy change. The latter, in contrast, requires nothing. So why aren’t we already implementing the easier of the two solutions?
For me, it helps to think about my two grandmothers: Grandma Echterling and Grandma Giessman. Both women were shaped by the Great Depression, but that early influence played out differently in their lifelong approaches to consumerism.
After the Second World War, Grandma Echterling married a veteran whose father owned a small lumberyard. She and her husband sold the business well before the typical retirement age and became what we call financially independent. Grandma Echterling was now able to afford clubs and cruises, diamonds and doo-dads. She enjoyed all of these things immensely—even innocently. She was living the life of plenty she had not had as a girl.
To my sister and me, she was a symbol of materialism, yes, but also of living life to its fullest. The sign in the back window of her Cadillac (a bumper sticker would have been tacky) read: "Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go everywhere." Her implicit lesson for us: Pleasure is good; go out and get it.
Just a short drive away, Grandma Giessman had married her own veteran—a working man whose wages she spent as little of as possible. While Grandma Echterling lived it up, Grandma Giessman stayed in. She let us drink the water from boiling potatoes (there’s a lot of nutrition there!) and taught us to live without air conditioning (just wear lighter clothes!). She walked us to the grocery store and showed us the shelf with dented, discounted cans. Her consumer lesson to us: waste not, want not.
If our country had to choose between the two role models, Grandma Echterling would win hands down. Even amid a historic recession and ominous climate change, ours is a society of excess. Our response to economic and environmental woes here and abroad is to consume even more and to vote for people who promise that we will continue to be able to do so forever.
There are, to be sure, some Americans who have a Grandma Giessman lifestyle because they have no choice. There is also a countercultural fringe that chooses a simple life despite having other opportunities. The real issue, though, is how to sell Grandma Giessman’s wisdom to the rest of America. Living simply is not something we want to remain class-based or countercultural; we want it to be downright American.
That is why I like New Dream’s attempts to evoke the plenty that can come with simplicity ("More of what matters—and less of what doesn’t"). Grandma Echterling, after all, would only have adopted Grandma Giessman’s lifestyle if she had thought it would increase her happiness; that’s just reality. Both of my grandmothers had practical, human wisdom to share. A workable solution has to honor both.
Juliet Schor calls this solution plenitude. I might call it "luxurious frugality": increasing pleasure by partaking judiciously of our country’s wealth. By the rule of luxurious frugality, we would keep smaller but more elegant homes. We would buy cheap cars but nice bikes. We would travel less often, but make it count when we did. If the old American Dream is to get a piece of the pie, a New American Dream needs to be that more people get smaller pieces of a better pie.
This is not just about America, either. We know now that our dream has to be one that the whole world can sustainably aspire to. The planet can’t support an India and a China that live like we currently do, yet we can’t keep the world’s rising middle class from aspiring to do just that.
Perhaps if we can mix Grandma Echterling into the Green Dream and Grandma Giessman into the American Dream, we can raise our national standard of living to one that could accommodate all humans.
Jake Giessman is a teacher in Columbia, Missouri, and a guest blogger for New Dream.