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What American Business Needs to Know

David Wann Posted by David Wann.

David Wann is the author of ten books and a speaker on sustainable lifestyles and designs. He is president of the Sustainable Futures Society and a designer of the cohousing neighborhood he has lived in for seventeen years.

What American Business Needs to Know

Investors and venture capitalists are increasingly taking notice of new indicators of opportunity. For example, 2009 was the first year that the average size of a new American house actually went down. The number of farms in the U.S. went up in 2010 and the number of golf courses went down. Solar and wind installations are way up, coal is plummeting. The sale of garden seeds shot up in recession years, indicating several key trends: Americans are indeed financially pinched, but more importantly, we crave hands-on connection with living things, and we want to develop new skills and pastimes that include nature.

Beneath cultural data like these lie deeper patterns that express who and what we are as a culture. Says neighborhood developer Peter Calthorpe, “It’s time to redefine the American Dream. Certain traditional values – diversity, community, frugality, and human scale — should be the foundation of a new direction in designing.”  A recent Zogby poll reflected that redefinition: while thirty–four percent emphasize the familiar rags- to-riches aspect of the American Dream, an equal percentage go much deeper. To them, the American Dream is about the opportunity to participate in decision-making, human rights, fairness, and community.

Beneath the media’s radar screen – so focused on political scandals, crimes, and movie stars – Americans are exploring whether to give a higher priority to discretionary time, which would necessarily mean working and spending less; whether we truly want convenience or a more satisfying self-reliance; and whether we want to democratically shape technology rather than passively letting it shape us. Americans are internally on the move. We question the mismatch between the world we’ve created and a higher order -our DNA. To give a few examples, suburban development often isolates us from each other, yet we thrive with meaningful social connections. Processed foods packed with various kinds of sugar fool our taste buds into thinking we’ve found a whole hillside of blueberries when really all we’ve found is 40 pounds of excess weight. We build doomsday bombs that are only useful if we don’t use them, and conduct wars to teach other people how not to kill – by killing them. Our best choice is to change the rules of a game whose endpoint is collapse.

Our challenges are not just technical; they are social, biological, political, and psychological. There are several basic truths that will necessitate and require teamwork at the national scale:

1.  Technology is no longer the limiting factor of productivity – resources are. Deeper wells can’t pump water that’s no longer there; larger boats and nets can’t harvest more fish when fish populations have been wiped out.

    2.  As a global civilization, we are using more and more of what we have less of – resources – and less and less of what we have more and more of – humans. For this reason and others, the new normal will include far more human engagement in crafts and skilled professions – not because we have to – but because we want to. We’ll inevitably run our economy on a richer mix of carbohydrate energy and a leaner mix of hydrocarbon energy.

    3.   New systems of accounting track not only productivity but also “destructivity.” Not just efficiency of labor and investment but efficiency of resource inputs; integrity and renewability of the source. Similarly, to evaluate the overall productivity of farming, the new metrics are tracking the nutritional value of the food and the health of the farms it came from, not simply bushels of grain or pounds of beef.

        Here’s the takeaway message, beneath the bottom lines of profit and loss: the free market is moving away from deadlines and dying species, toward lifelines and living wealth.