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Buy Less! Drive Less! Feel Great!

by Lisa Jones

Betsy Taylor has a nine-step plan to help you cut stress and improve your life. (Did we mention saving the world?)

On the sanity front, things are looking a little grim. you can now buy a Pez dispenser for $5,000, or about the per capita income of Ecuador. Jay Leno owns eighty motorcycles and eighty-five cars. In suburban Los Angeles, millionaires too time-strapped to plan their own homes can choose among several models of ready-to-build mansions, including the multi-columned, onyx-floored "Italian," which comes with a conservatory, and the more rustic "Country French," which, if you buy it pre-furnished, comes with ninety-five chairs.

To fund all our excess, Americans work more than anyone else. Each year, we spend twelve more weeks at our desks than those bon vivant Norwegians. We've even pulled ahead of the Japanese, the only people ever to feel the need to coin a word for "keeling over and dying from overwork."

"Simplify!" you can almost hear Thoreau muttering from his grave. "Simplify!"

The Center for the New American Dream would like to help us do just that. Unlike most advocacy groups, CNAD's two dozen staffers do not litigate, protest, or point fingers. They gently suggest ways for Americans -- and churches, and governmental bodies -- to make their lifestyles more environmentally sustainable. CNAD's green buying project helps state and local governments spend their dollars on environmentally sound goods. "Turn the Tide," its nine-part program for ordinary consumers, includes such simple steps as "Eat one less beef meal each week" and "Cancel one twenty-minute trip in the car per week."

"How do we start where most Americans are at rather than where we're at?" asks founder and executive director Betsy Taylor, an athletic-looking woman in her mid-forties with a headful of curls and a sweet smile tempering a steely determination. When we first met at CNAD's headquarters, she was getting ready for an appearance on a CNN talk show about spoiled kids, in which she would tell the audience that children are happier when their parents protect them from being bombarded with ads. CNAD is light on apocalypse, heavy on stress relief. "If you put out the bad news regarding depletion of resources and the amount of waste generated in environmental trends," Taylor explains to me, "people shut down. They're paralyzed by it."

That's nice. But it does bring up the question: Have you taken leave of your senses? Don't you realize that the world is in a Big Mess? Don't you think we have to do something big, and fast? Something bigger than eating one less burger a week?

One afternoon last August, Taylor stood by the sink in CNAD's offices, swallowed an Advil, and confessed that trying to make the world a saner place involves a good amount of craziness. She was dressed for the three additional interviews she had to give that day, in a sensible green dress and sensible black shoes. She had to be on a plane within twenty-four hours. She talked fast. After a few minutes, Taylor disappeared into her office to get ready for a television appearance.

There is something deeply paradoxical about a woman who pops Advil in order to get herself through a day of urging other Americans to slow down and smell the roses. But paradox is the name of the game at CNAD. Getting Americans to use resources more sustainably is the cultural equivalent of getting Butch Cassidy to say to the Sundance Kid, "Hey, I think we've gotten enough money off this train. Let's leave the rest, untie the people, and just go horseback riding."

For paradox at work, take CNAD's headquarters. Instead of a super-insulated rammed-earth cottage or a passive-solar office complex, the group occupies the ninth floor of a strikingly ugly building in Takoma Park, Maryland. The printer is equipped to print on both sides of the paper, and there's a Thomas Merton quote taped to the side of a computer that equates overwork with violence. But the air conditioner blasts the same pointlessly icy breeze as every other office air conditioner in the country, and the staff can't open the windows.

Taylor concedes that CNAD is a work in progress. "We haven't figured it all out," she says. "But I think trying to figure it out is of paramount importance. Because if the environmental leadership doesn't figure it out, who will?" CNAD builds on an honorable tradition of simplifiers, from Thoreau all the way to Your Money or Your Life, the 1992 bestseller that told overworked Americans how to escape from the rat race. (One of the book's co-authors, Vicki Robin, is on the group's board.) But it is the first environmental group whose sole and driving mission is to slay the dragon of rampant U.S. overconsumption. Or, at least, to put the dragon on a diet.

Reorienting the most credit card-happy society in the planet's history is no small task. And to close the gap between its minute actual membership (4,500) and its enormous potential membership (pretty much the entire U.S. middle and upper classes), CNAD must navigate yet another riddle: How do you preach sustainability in the world of mass media without contributing to the same overconsumption you are fighting? In short, how do you advertise against advertising?

Solving the riddle requires a completely different way of operating, a deep wrestling with the system. It's both less combative and more radical than standard activism. Finding the path, says intern Laura Hartman, has been "like suddenly remembering how to swim. You're sorta sinking, sorta flailing, and you think, 'What if I kick like this? What if I use my arms like this?'"

For instance, CNAD has never sent out unsolicited mail to recruit new members, which just about every national environmental group does. Nor does it buy ad space. Both of these choices are as morally unassailable as freshly fallen snow. On the other hand, Taylor and her communications director, Eric Brown, are shameless publicity hounds. They aim for spots on TV talk shows. They aim for writeups in Parade magazine and in women's magazines. They use the airtime to get viewers and readers to question basic assumptions about consumerism, assumptions necessarily embraced by the advertising-funded media that host them. CNAD's video news release about "Turn the Tide" was aired on 136 television stations -- by "First Business," an early-morning business show. "We want to participate in the very media we criticize," says Brown.

If this is hucksterism, it's hucksterism as Zen koan. In her CNN talk about spoiled kids, Taylor made sure to blurt out the group's website address on the air. But if you log onto CNAD's site and click the hot button "slow down," one of the tips that pops up asks, "Can you turn off your computer and sit quietly for five minutes?"








Websites
Center for the New American Dream
www.newdream.org

Books
The Overspent American and The Overworked American
by Juliet B. Schor, Harper Perennial

Your Money or Your Life
by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Penguin USA

Stuff
by Alan Durning, Northwest Environment Watch






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Lisa Jones has contributed articles to High Country News, The New York Times Magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor. She lives in Burlington, Vermont.

Photo: Claudio Vazquez

OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council