• United States

Rethinking the American dream

Sep 27, 20044 mins
Enterprise Applications

Study shows our priorities are "out of whack."

Don’t ask yourself if you’re better off than you were four years ago. Instead, ask: How is your life? Is it where you want it to be?

Don’t ask yourself if you’re better off than you were four years ago. Instead, ask: How is your life? Is it where you want it to be?

That’s the basic question driving the folks at the Center for the New American Dream, a group of population specialists, economists, environmentalists and spiritual leaders trying to help Americans consume more responsibly. Its recent poll yielded results that made me think: Jeez, I’m not alone. Look at this:

93% of respondents say Americans are too focused on making money and not enough on family and community.

• 87% feel the current consumer culture makes it harder to instill positive values in children.

• 85% think our society’s priorities are out of whack.

• 53% say having more time with family and friends and less stress would make them more satisfied.

• 48% have opted to make less money to get more time and a balanced lifestyle.

This boils down to understanding the relationship with stuff and time, I think. If we need less stuff, we might be able to work less to get it. Hmm.

Stuff I’m better with. When I sold my house I sold most of its contents too. I’m down to books, futons, a few antiques, a hand me down desk. I kept the Saab, but I’m torn. I only drive it to the office and to visit family; parking in Cambridge is a sport. Do I want to be the kind of person who pays $500 a month to drive a Euro fashion statement?

Time I’m not so sure about. I like working all the time, but I must be deluded, a ticking time bomb? I’m more concerned for a colleague who just came back from a tropical vacation exasperated, overwhelmed. “I was going to bring my Blackberry to keep up with e-mail, but I felt too guilty.” Guilty for wanting to work. I can relate to that.

“People are in this horrific work-and-spend cycle, like hamsters squirreling around in a cage, and they can’t get out,” says the Center’s Executive Director Diane Wood. “We want to help people see they have more control than they think.”

The organization, which has a staff of about two dozen adheres to a four-day work week – Fridays off – and uses telework, job sharing and flextime. The organization has 30,000 “activist members,” which it hopes to grow to 100,000 by next year. Goals are to fight apathy and build community; help people understand buying responsibly – and green – really helps.

The Web site makes it easy. You can plug in your zip code and find your nearest farmers’ market, where to buy green appliances and light bulbs. Members are asked to take certain steps to improve the environment, easy things like skipping one car ride per week.

As important, the group works with state and local organizations to help them buy recycled paper, green cleaning products and hybrid electric cars. It helped fleet managers for the state of Washington put together a contract with Ford, Toyota and Honda to justify buying hybrid electric cars.

The Toyota Prius costs $27,000 and gets 700 highway miles on a (11.9 gallon) tank of gas. “It might have an upfront cost of a thousand or two more, but in seven years it’s recovered that cost and is likely to last 10 years rather than seven,” Wood says.

The really good news? You can’t get a Prius. When Wood last spoke with Toyota, it had 200 vehicles left in the U.S. and just upped production in Japan for 2005. “They just didn’t see it coming,” she says.

Around here, the Toyota dealership in Danville, Mass, long ran out of Prius literature and recently sold its test model. The dealer told a friend to rent one from Enterprise if he wanted a test drive. The dealer said he’d just sold a returned Prius with 17,000 miles on it for more than a new one, and that premium models sell on eBay for list plus $8,000. My friend plunked down $500 to put his name on a six-month waiting list.

That’s a good start on stuff. But time? This same friend who e-mails me from the highway: “Going 85. There soon. No cops.”