The Non-Consumer Advocate Book Club — Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle by David Wann

by Katy on February 3, 2009 · 22 comments


Simple Prosperity


Welcome to the first day of The Non-Consumer Advocate Book Club. We are discussing David Wann’s Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle. 

I am slowing down the schedule, as I think the one I put forth earlier would have tried to do too much in too short a time. This week is the preface, introduction and first chapter. Each week we’ll discuss another chapter. I appreciate everyone’s patience with my willy-nilly-ness, but I think this plan is a bit more sane. 

There is so much content, that I will not be able to touch on each and every point. Please feel free to bring up any points you feel bear discussion in the comments section below. 

The website gives this very nice synopsis of the book:

The book Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle outlines a new way of life that can deliver twice the satisfaction for half the resources. What we eat, where we live, where we work, and what we buy are all topics of discussion, and all can be assets that build immunity to over-consumption. The book’s underlying theme is that current, unprecedented rates of consumption can’t and won’t continue. “Because of resource shortages, a reduced capacity of the environment to clean up after us, an epidemic of debt, a longing for meaning and purpose, and a deep-seated instinct for ecological stability, we’ll invent a joyfully moderate and culturally abundant lifestyle.” 

Preface: A Generation’s Journey Back to Health:

The preface explains “how the book is about how to recover from the debilitating disease that is affluenza.”

Lines that stuck in my head were, “instead of choosing the door marked life/time, we chose the one marked money/stuff.” And also that we’re, “converting the planet’s richest and finest resources into products of dubious quality.”

These two lines pretty much sum up why live the life I do. I choose to only work part-time, even though my job as a labor and delivery nurse is engaging, and how I feel it’s irresponsible to be continuously buying more and more poorly manufactured goods. If we stopped buying crap, then there would be no market for it. Period.


The author writes that “the central premise of this book is that significant changes are now occurring in the ways we live our lives, with many more changes on the way.”  He also writes that “the good news is that curing the pandemic of over-consumption at both the personal and cultural scale is not about giving up the the good life but getting it back.”

I like this. I often get the attitude that the way I live my life, (frugal simplicity) is too much a pain in the tuchus to tempt people away from their over-consumptive lives. (Not from my readers, but from people I come across in real life.)

But I really feel that I’m getting more than I’m giving.

Yeah, I  don’t get to eat out that frequently, but I don’t have the hassle of full-time work. Which for me is a better deal.

The section on Supply and Demand: Double Trouble goes back to the important premise that “consumers are far from innocent, since we’ve been more than willing to let consumption be the centerpiece of our lives.”

I strongly believe every time we fill up our baskets at the dollar store, we’re making sure that the manufacturing of poorly made goods, produced by poorly paid workers, working in unsafe working conditions, in countries with poor environmental oversight will continue. In essence, we vote for these practices to thrive.

The introduction ends with the line, “It’s time to create a more moderate, more enjoyable, less frantic American lifestyle.” Hear, hear!

Chapter One — Taking Stock: How Foresight Can Cut Our Losses

The first chapter starts with Wann explaining how he is not a “confident consumer.” He also explains that he’s “very uncomfortable being labeled a ‘consumer.’ We’re far more than consumers, aren’t we? ”

The whole being referred to as a “consumer” really bugs that crap out of me. (Not to put too fine a point on things.)  I am so many things, but one thing I know I am not, is someone defined by my purchasing habits. 

The connection between the economy and the environment is further explored:

“Over-consumption is clearly a fundamental problem, not solution, in the maintenance of a healthy economy and planet.”

“We’re trained to think of the environment as a subset of the economy, when we think about it, we see it’s just the opposite. Everything in inside the environment.”

There is no chicken-or-the-egg. The environment came first, and ultimately will come last.

Wann makes the important point that, “the accumulation of money and consumption of manufactured goods is not why we’re here.” 

Yet, our economy is based on continuous buying of unnecessary stuff. Just today public radio’s Marketplace had a piece about how Saving More Can Be Bad For Economy. The premise of the show was how even those with steady jobs are cutting back on expenditures and putting money into savings, which is making our economy even worse.Do we have a responsibility to our own financial security over an economy based on over-consumption? Of course not. Wann addresses this very point, writing that:

“Since consumers are responsible for more than two-thirds of U.S. Gross Domestic Product, what will happen when household debt, lack of savings, an increase in the cost of living and other variables combine to reduce consumer spending?”

The pattern of spending beyond one’s means could never be a long term plan to keep a healthy economy. Which is why we’re where we are today. 

But the good news is that “discomfort has always been a powerful catalyst for change.” I think we’ve all seen our friends and family re-examining how money is spent lately, and we all certainly saw people making the choice to drive less when prices went through the roof last year. 

The environmental effects of manufacturing are explored as well. Wann writes that, “about four hundred pounds per capita of earth are moved to contruct highways and buildings, mine for copper, drill for oil, and harvest timber. . . Each product we use leaves a pile of rubble back at the source.”

We all learned in our high school science classes that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation. Nothing is created from thin air, it had to come from somewhere. The pile of rubble example is a good image for me to keep in my head and remind myself why I choose to not buy new.

I feel bad about the economy, but I feel worse about the environment.

The 1955 Marketing Analyst Victor Lebow is quoted as saying:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying of use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption . . .” 

I don’t know that I’ve derived any spiritual satisfaction from buying anything. Ever. But having the latest fashions is very much entwined with ego satisfaction. God forbid your pant legs are too thin, or too wide or your waistline too high or too low. Planned obsolescence isn’t just about refrigerators, folks.

What if fashion didn’t change? How would we know if we were cool or not? I lived in London in 6th grade, and I absolutely loved that everyone wore the same school uniform. Nobody could tell that I was a dork, and I was none the wiser about my classmates. (There was a cool shoe hierarchy, but it took a while for me to figure that one out.)

And what happens to all the broken, no longer cool consumables? Wann writes that, “Every day, Americans sacrifice fours pounds of unrecyclable stuff to the garbage truck gods — trash bags bulging mostly with packaging, food waste and paper advertisements.”

Every day?! 

Wann also writes about the nightmare that is e-waste. Outdated toxic electronics that get shipped to other countries, only to poison their land. 

In the section titled, The Story Behind the Stuff: Burgers and T-shirts, the issues related to beef production and cotton and polyester get explored:

“Food scholars tell us that if we ate 10% less meat in America, sixty million people could eat the grain, directly that the livestock would have consumed at the feedlots.”

I am not a vegetarian, but we only eat meat maybe three times per week, and I cook beef maybe two-three times per year. I logically know that it would be a kinder decision to entirely stop eating meat, but I’m not ready to make that decision.

The resources involved in making polyester and growing cotton are also explored. Let’s just say it’s not pretty.

Wann finishes the chapter recounting his own experience as a newspaper columnist directly after September 11, 2001. His message on non-consumerism at a time when “What could be more American than spending money?” got him fired and labeled a terrorist.

This is the offending passage:

While we frantically climb the peak toward economic milestones that are always still farther up the trail, less time and care are given to things that really matter, like family and friends, personal health, environmental vitality, community and cultural traditions. Rather than exhilaration, we often experience vertigo, as to uncertainty whether we’re living well. Are we spending our time, human energy and money in ways that really make sense? We may be the no contest world champions in economic prestige, but at what real cost?

There’s so much in this first chapter, so I think you’ll agree it would not have been feasible to discuss much more than this.

Please put your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Next week we’ll be discussing:

Chapter Two —  Evolutionary Income: An Instinct for Happiness

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan February 3, 2009 at 5:10 am

I just received my book last night so I just read the preface. What I got out of this section was how numb Americans have become to everything. It’s like ‘we’ are just a bunch of lemmings, shuffling off on a path every day but not truly LIVING our lives. I know that’s how I felt in my role as a healthcare recruiter (yes, I hired RNs!). I think it’s the mindset that a corporation puts you in that stifles your life & you become numb.

I look forward to reading the Intro & Ch 1 now!


Jan February 4, 2009 at 3:43 am

Ch 1 also refers to how many acres each of us takes up, 30 acres, & how much we should take up – 4.3 acres. Why isn’t this fact in the media? I feel like writing a letter to the editor of our paper about this & I think I will. People need to get educated about the impact on the Earth in a way that makes sense or hits home with them. Just saying the icebergs are melting doesn’t impact people. But saying something that someone can relate to in their own life at this very moment does. I haven’t thought what that statement is, but when I do – I have to publicize it!

I still don’t understand how people got away from savings. My parents (who are Depression-era kids) always saved & made us save as well. We even brought money to school, and the bank gave us little books that we deposited money into either weekly or monthly (can’t remember now), but we did that all through elementary school – I’m referring to the mid to late 70s. I’ve always had a savings account & at least some money to fall back on.


Karen February 4, 2009 at 8:07 am

I had read each of the sections we are discussing this week and some of the same high points hit me as they did you, especially the idea that it is my “duty” as a “consumer” to continue to purchase and to avoid saving.

But what I liked most in your post today were the high points that I know I read, but that didn’t leap out at me like they did for you. It was a refreshing quick second-read of those three sections through someone else’s eyes. Thanks Katy for that.


Debi Cole February 4, 2009 at 8:17 am

I’m really enjoying this book! Thanks Katy! Okay, I’ve read ahead-but since I haven’t been working,my life is so much richer,I have time to help out my neighbors and friends,cook from scratch-so much tastier, spend time walking my dogs. I feel healthier,happier,and more SANE than I’ve felt in years. He puts into words and validates all my thoughts!!!

Oh!! And on a mission to help my friend declutter- we dropped off stuff and the thrift…I saw a ton of other people’s STUFF…it was almost sickening-you had to wonder about how many people were still paying on credit cards for all the stuff that eventually ended up at the thrift store!


Martha February 4, 2009 at 9:17 am

Great synopsis Katy, thank you!

I hope all the folks in this blog world have seen the Story of Stuff–it seems like it is a good companion to this discussion…if you havent seen it yet, click here…


Mariah February 4, 2009 at 9:51 am

I like to share my books and let other people form their own opinions about what they read, so I usually don’t mark them up or comment in the margins. But I got out a highlighter in the first chapter and underlined the part about the number of acres used.

And in another section he talks about people being blown up trying to steal oil from Nigerian pipelines and how wars are fought over “stuff.” I underlined “The good news? By reducing our consumption we also reduce war, fear and despair.”


Pennie February 4, 2009 at 12:57 pm

The sentence that stood out for me the most was that minds, like parachutes, work best when open.

And also the 4.3 acres concept.


Again, so much information in the preface, introduction, and first chapter. Thanks Katy for selecting this particular book to study.

While as a serious practicing simplicity fan for 15-20 years (when it wasn’t even remotely cool to be one) much of the information and thoughts presented in the book aren’t new to me, the up-to- date facts and science presented in are handy to have to back up a conversation with!

I can’t wait to delve into ch 2.


Meg from FruWiki February 4, 2009 at 2:32 pm

I’m really enjoying this book so far.

I also hate being called a “consumer”. “Customer” — sure, sometimes; “consumer” — never. Though, as a nation, we’ve definitely earned the shameful title. Maybe if we consumed less and made better purchasing decisions we could get back to just being customers. And maybe companies would start producing better quality stuff somewhere along the line, like an egg slicer that doesn’t break so easily.


Jan February 5, 2009 at 4:28 am

I just want to comment on Meg’s post about companies making better things. As seen in The Story of Stuff, companies make items designed to break. Case in point – I’ve lived on my own for 15 years & I can’t tell you how many toasters we’ve been through. My parents have been married for 53 years & still have their original toaster from their wedding day! All my Dad did was replace the cord. Don’t you think I would buy my appliances from that company if they were still around? Talk about high quality goods.


liza February 5, 2009 at 10:37 am

I’m reading Culture Jam: the Uncooling of America simultaneously for another book group. The author is one of the co-founders of Adbusters. The premise is the same for the two books, but the tone is completely different. Both books talk about over-consumption, emptiness, wastefulness. But Culture Jam takes on the tone of advertisers and seems to be saying “you suck and you need to do xyz to improve/change.” The tone of Simple Prosperity is hopeful, encouraging, spiritual even? Guess what book I prefer reading 🙂


Wendy February 5, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Nice summation Katy! The point made about the label consumer resonates with me in relationship to our role as people. I especially detest the hyphenated healthcare-consumer. What ever happened to citizens, patients, etc.? We are far more than consumers. It is truly offensive to have our recognizable value rest so heavily on expenditures in the marketplace.


liza February 6, 2009 at 5:38 pm

a story…i have a Fuji road bike from the 80’s, and today i finished converting it into a city bike for my errands and daily riding. i swapped the handle bars, saddle and wheels to make it more suitable to my needs. it rides like a dream, a sort of cross between a old cruiser and a mountain bike.

this last December before i quit REI, i was really tempted to buy a new bike from the 2009 lineup. as the spring bikes were coming in, i coveted one that had all the basics integrated: rack, lights, fenders, even a bell. the eggplant color spoke to me, and i pictured how nice it would look with my wardrobe and against my brown hair. i’m serious!!! that’s how much i was infatuated with this bike. plus it’s hard to resist a 40% discount. but i quit without doing the final shopping binge, a common practice in retail jobs.

i chose to rebuild a bike that i already owned. doing the work myself made me genuinely happy too. Wann talks about this feeling in Simple Prosperity, “challenging ourselves to experience or produce something new, to see things in a different light, and in general, to become actively engaged in what we’re doing, true enjoyment transforms moments of our lives from the routine to the extraordinary” (33). all these things happened during the process of building this bike. i’m on cloud 9 🙂


thenonconsumeradvocate February 7, 2009 at 1:04 am

The footprint talk is interesting, but I have deliberately never done one of those online, “How large is your footprint” quizzes.

I secretly think they’re kind of annoying and smug.

I live in a big house with 3 people.

I own two cars and drive them much less than your average mother-of-two.

I choose not to take public transportation to work because I work 12-1/2 hour shifts, and the idea of adding any extra time to that commute makes me want to cry.

I eat meat, but cook non-meat meals probably 4 nights per week. I only cook beef a few times per year. After watching a million surgeries, red-meat is highly unappealing to me.

We only buy used.

My house is big — 5 bedrooms and one bathroom.

But . . . we keep the heat at 60-62 degrees in winter and have no air conditioning.

I haven’t flown anywhere since 2005, and have no flights planned.

I choose to live in a neighborhood where almost everything I need is within a one-mile radius, so even when I do drive it’s pretty short distances.

My work is a 18 mile round-trip, but I wouldn’t work anywhere else.

I think I’m all over the place in the artificial “footprint” thing. I probably have enough significant outliers to skew the result, which is why I’m not interested in knowing my “footprint.”

Have you guys ever done a footprint quiz? And if so did it change any of your behaviors and choices?

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


thenonconsumeradvocate February 7, 2009 at 1:11 am

Liza —

I am impressed with your bike.

My husband cleared a huge pile of remodeling debris from our garage earlier this week, and I am also on cloud nine that I can finally get my bike in and out with ease.

(This was my birthday present, and I loved it more than anything he could have bought me!)

My ten-year-old and I rose to the bank together and to the grocery store as well. It was a beautiful day and we ran into a friend, which wouldn’t have happened if we’d driven.

My bike is a Specialized, “Hard Rock” model, which I bought in 1992. I almost didn’t buy it because I hate hard rock music. (I’m kind of a snob that way.) It’s not the best bike, but it fits my needs.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Zoe February 7, 2009 at 9:22 am

Hi Katy, thank you so much for choosing this book! I have found it so inspiring and it gives me hope for the future. I have to admit I have raced through and read it to the end (a first for a non-fiction book for me!). So I am now re-reading it to join in with your book club.

My overall feeling from the first section was RELIEF that there are other people out there who think like I do! It is also interesting for me to read about the American lifestyle, as I live in the UK. I didn’t realise how much bigger and ‘better’ everything is in the US.

The main points to take away so far are: first, we need to work out what our root needs really are, as opposed to our perceived needs and wants. Then, we need to work out a better, more efficient and more sustainable way of meeting those needs. That way, we will ensure our own happiness without ransacking the natural environment. We need to re-learn what is ‘enough’ and stop constantly striving for more more more all the time.

The really important message is that leading a sustainable lifestyle by consuming less does not mean we will have to accept a lower quality of life. In fact, the opposite is true – by slowing down we will be much happier and healthier. It is a cliche, but in this case, less really is more!


liza February 7, 2009 at 11:30 am

katy, that is funny. i have a Hardrock from the 90’s (teal with hot pink accents 🙂 too that i love to pieces and ride exclusively in the nasty weather months. what a great present for you to be able to access your “Rock” and ride it again. have fun exploring your world on two wheels!


Dave Wann February 24, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Thanks to Katy, I’ve been following some of your commentary and comments about Simple Prosperity, and I think they are very enlightening and “right on.” Thanks for reading the book I spent 400 days in a row writing!

Although I’ve been asking conference audiences recently if we are in recession or remission, and if “Do Not Resuscitate” applies here, it’s clear that we’ll have to stop the bleeding before we can capture mainstream interest in a new story about a Restoration Economy, in which consumption is not compulsory but optional. The other night I spoke to a Florida audience about “Prospering in the New Economy,” gradually making the point (I think) that individual choice is often embedded in social expectations, practices, habits, regulations, infrastructure, media, and that the best way to create change is to change not just light bulbs and cars but value systems.

Even green over-consumption is still over-consumption. Efficiency’s great but we’ve often gobbled up the energy savings with demands for MORE. Houses became better insulated but we needed larger ones; cars and TVs became more efficient but we needed bigger, more powerful models. We increased our global production of grain but a heightened demand for meat left us still perilously close to the bottom of the barrel.

I concluded that our way of life is itself too expensive– not just our individual lifestyle but the way we meet needs at the cultural/social level. Trying to frame out how a New Economy might be collectively less expensive, I detailed the defensive spending that’s now necessary to cover for the loss of natural services (fish farming, vitamins, air freshener, desalination, damage control after hurricanes because wetlands no longer exist, etc., observing that if natural and cultural systems remain intact, we won’t collectively need to earn, borrow, and spend as much capital.

If our collective demand for products falls, so will prices, as we’ve seen recently with gasoline. With cooperation and synergies among technical systems, we make better use of finite resources.

When we design communities to fit human needs rather than corporate and automobile needs, our lifestyle becomes more affordable, and getting rid of war, packaging, glossy green lawns, and food waste also takes a huge chunk out of the collective cost of our lifestyle. We currently spend $900 per capita on advertising, which of course is embedded in the cost of products and services. Less consumption means less advertising. And less debt of course means less interest on the debt.

Reasonable reductions in meat consumption, air travel, and energy-intensive materials like cement, aluminum, paper, and synthetic chemicals makes it seem like we’re all making more money. Green chemistry, which shortens and softens the cost of making chemicals, lowers the cost of everything manufactured.

Preventive health approaches and more empathetic, service-oriented doctors and nurses lower the cost of maintaining our health, and better industrial design generates much less costly pollution.

In the New Economy, recycling becomes a religion so less extraction is required; resource productivity is more critical than labor productivity, and there is less need for
crime control, lawsuits, and security systems, because with a higher ratio of social input as well as greater equality, we nurture a population that is less fearful and has less “status anxiety,” a direct stimulant of crime.

These savings arise not because we are “doing without,” but more because we’re getting rid of waste, creating a more sensible way of meeting needs and being in the world. Rather than requiring a hundred thousand hours of work per lifetime, this lifestyle enables each citizen to avoid the need for half a million dollars of earnings — yielding a better quality of life in which nature is on the rebound, and trust is, too.

Now more than ever, we need part-time jobs that “share the work and spare the planet.” In many EU countries, there are non-discrimination laws that prevent part-time workers from earning less per hour than full-time workers. In Holland, a third of the workforce works part-time. Less work means less commuting, fewer computers and printers sucking energy, fewer work costumes necessary.

These thoughts of a New Economy are part of my research for a book-in-progress, tentatively titled Beyond Simple Choices. A major theme is that to change individual behavior, we have to simultaneously change social norms, making it “safe” for individuals to begin living outside the box of our current paradigm — which is very much a ticking time-bomb. We need to support policies that take us in a new direction, like many that Obama & Co. are proposing.

Simplicity is about civilizations as well as individuals, and if ours survives and thrives it will be because we stripped away the junk, shortened the supply lines, and employed heavier doses of prevention, precision, and participation.

Maybe more later – sorry for this soapbox oration – I hope it’s useful. Thanks again for your interest in the book, and in creating positive change.

For the future!


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