Walking Our Talk:
A review of two recent books

The New Normal:
An Agenda for Responsible Living

by David Wann

St. Martin's Griffin, 2011

Choosing a Sustainable Future:
Ideas and Inspiration from Ithaca, NY
by Liz Walker
Penguin Books, 2006

Review by Bolton Anthony

Older people are not just card-carrying members of Leisure World and mid-afternoon nap-takers. We are tribal elders, with an ongoing responsibility for safeguarding the tribe’s survival and protecting the health of the planet. To do this, we must become society’s futurists, testing out new instruments, technologies, ideas, and styles of living. We have the freedom to do so, and we have nothing to lose.

— Maggie Kuhn

I remember visiting the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the summer residence of the Hapsburg monarchs. And as I was herded through the 40 rooms included in the tour (40 of some 1,400 in the residence) — the sitting rooms and bedroom of Maria Theresa and the parlor where the 6-year-old Mozart used to entertain the Empress; the parlors and apartments of the last of the Hapsburgs, Franz Joseph and his consort — a deep anger began to grow in me. By the end of this orgy of frescoed ceilings, crystal chandeliers, mammoth mirrors, and gilded baubles, I was almost suffocating with outrage: Who could think they had a right to live this way!

Well, the fact is, I live this way. My “modest” life style (in which I take a small measure of pride) is, when compared to the lives of 90% of the world’s population, anything but modest. Could we cultivate a righteous indignation about the manner in which we live that would spur us to forswear our consumption-driven life style?

The problem is that the negative strategy of renunciation will get us only so far. More powerful incentives to change are activated when our sense of the possible is expanded and we glimpse better, more fulfilling ways of living grounded in a celebration of genuine community. This is the message of two recent books by authors whose pioneering work we have followed over the years.

David Wann’s new book, The New Normal, reflects the just-in-time emergence of a new way of thinking — a new way of being in the world — where production and consumption are no longer the defining characteristics. These are instead replaced by cultural richness and expression, health, efficiency, cooperation, ecological design, and biological restoration. Wann sees this not as a moralistic stance, but an inevitable step in the progression of our civilization. When empires neglect the true sources of their wealth (as ours has), and overstep their resource base, they inevitably retract: “As the organizing principle of a civilization, unlimited material growth on a finite planet is and always has been a fairy tale.”

Far from being a tragedy, this crisis presents us with an opportunity to create a qualitatively better society, based on new assumptions and a healthier ethic. The book explores key leverage points where interventions can quickly shift our economy and culture in a more admirable, affordable, and sustainable direction and provides a detailed agenda for rethinking topics at the core of all our lives:

  • Where we live and how we build
  • What we eat and how we grow
  • How we interact with, and protect, nature
  • What we buy, and how we design and make it
  • How we provide power, mobility, and access
  • How we prioritize and budget both private and public capital

We should shoot for health and wellness, rather than wealth and “hellness,” writes Wann, “and agree to move, together, away from a lifestyle of deadlines and dying species and toward lifelines and living wealth.”

The New Normal is the third book in a “trilogy” by Wann whose earlier titles include Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, which provided an in-depth exploration of non-monetary wealth including health, social connection, time affluence, and natural abundance.

The new book by Liz Walker, Choosing a Sustainable Future: Ideas and Inspiration from Ithaca, provides a kind of case study of the macro changes Wann explores.  It captures the breadth and essence of the fast-growing sustainability and social justice movement in this “small city's big vision.” Walker, who has been a grassroots activist her whole life, says she has rarely seen such a blossoming of interest and activity with a common purpose as what is growing in Ithaca: “Amazing activities are going on in fields as diverse as local food and farming, challenging racism, caretaking our watershed, enjoying lively celebrations, honoring our indigenous heritage, and building a vibrant local economy There is a unity of purpose here that is reflected across a wide spectrum of players":

  • from the county planning department, which has a goal of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 — for the whole county of 100,000 people;
  • to small businesses, such as Garden Gate, which uses a biodiesel-powered van to deliver fresh, locally grown produce, dairy, meats and more;
  • to a consortium of academic institutions all engaged in creating courses about sustainability topics as well as greening their own buildings and operations;
  • to grassroots efforts to provide alternative health care, alternative currency, food security, and more.

“Liz Walker takes us into Ithaca's innovative adventures in a way that's both awe-inspiring and warmly companionable. This tonic of a book expands our sense of the possible and readies us for it with stories and strategies. It holds up a mirror in which we can see ourselves reconnected with our innate creativity, fairness, and basic sanity... And that is good news.” — Joanna Macy


Visit Liz Walker's Web site at http://www.liz-walker.org/

 Visit David Wann's Web site at http://www.davewann.com/