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How to Create a New American Dream

Over the last few months, I’ve been interviewing amazing individuals about simple living, location independence, financial freedom and more. Every Thursday, a feature interview is posted on RowdyKittens. Last week I spoke with Sam Spurlin, the writer behind The Simpler Life.

This week I had the honor of interviewing Juliet Schor, a best selling author and Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Juliet is one of my heroes. She is the co-founder of the Center for a New American Dream, a national sustainability organization. And for the last two decades Juliet has worked on issues related to consumerism as well as economic and environmental sustainability.

Juliet is also author of the national best-seller, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need.

We talked about her most recent book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.

Enjoy the interview. 🙂


Tammy: Can you tell us about your book Plenitude and the philosophy behind the name?

Juliet: The standard economics discourse is all about tradeoffs. If we want to protect nature, we have to give up stuff. If we want to work less, we’ll have to sacrifice well-being. Plenitude rejects that mentality by recognizing that if we change more than one thing we can transcend myopic tradeoffs.

For example, protecting the planet enhances well-being, it doesn’t make us worse off. If we move forward by allowing people to work less, it will enhance our lives outside of work, build social connections, and allow us to invest in local communities. Tradeoff, or austerity economics is only right if we are already in the best situation possible. We are not.

Tammy: In Plenitude you talk about the concept of “business as usual (BAU).” What do you mean by BAU and why does it need to change?

Juliet: BAU is a term from the climate discourse. It’s what will happen to emissions if we stay on the current path. With climate, BAU yields catastrophe. There’s a way in which that’s true more generally. The BAU economy is the large corporations and institutions which keep us locked into a destructive fossil fuel economy, which have created 26 million unemployed and underemployed people in the US, and which are generating more depression, social dysfunction and inequality year by year.

Tammy: How can individuals help move the mainstream conversation away from the status quo (one based on continuous growth), toward a more realistic conversation about economics and sustainability?

Juliet: We need to tackle economics and environment together, recognizing that the solutions that lighten footprint are also those which can generate more employment. Fostering a small-scale, ecologically light sector of small businesses, coops, and self-employment is a key part of the answer. So too is the idea of investment in community. Plenitude is a language which is not about austerity and belt-tightening, but which recognizes that we can have more of some kinds of wealth (social capital, natural capital, time affluence), even if we do less in the way of high-impact consuming.

Tammy: In Plenitude you talk about how individual actions, on the micro-level, can make a huge difference at the macro-level. How can more individuals get on board with this philosophy? And start “getting more from less?”

Juliet: I think the idea that if enough people begin to do something it will have an impact at the large scale, is one that resonates with many Americans. A lot of us feel powerless to affect the big structures, but do want to be in control over our own lives. Plenitude is a vision for getting started. It also suggests that we can make big changes, at a systemic level, but we have to start by creating new models that work, publicizing them, and then collaborating for the system change.

Tammy: You’ve studied the working habits of American’s for over two decades. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned while doing this work?

Juliet: The big story is that the average person, and even more the average household is putting in many more hours of work at his or her job (or multiple jobs). That has created more stress, pressure, and conflict with family. Getting beyond the “overworked American,” is one of the big lessons of plenitude.

Tammy: You’ve done incredible work with The Center for a New American Dream. Can your tell us more about the organization and how people can get involved?

Juliet: New Dream was started in 1997 with a mission of making our environment and society more sustainable. We work on the big picture: culture change. We offer alternatives to the mainstream consumer culture, such as simplifying the holidays, raising kids in less consumerist ways, reducing ecological footprint, and working for an alternative economy. We pioneered a positive, solutions oriented approach to changing the consumer culture, and creating more quality of life. You can become a member by visiting us at newdream.org

Tammy: Everyone has unique skills; skills that I call superpowers. What is your superpower?

Juliet: I have dedicated a lot of my life to debunking the conventional wisdom in economics and communicating my ideas to people with as much elegance as I can create, especially through the written word.

Tammy: What’s the most important thing you’d like to tell the audience?

Juliet: Plenitude is a powerful way of getting beyond the conversation of denial—all the things we somehow can’t do, to seeing a way forward that is life-affirming, socially just and restorative for the planet.

Tammy: Thank you Juliet!


Don’t forget to check out Juliet’s website and blog. If this post helped you, please share the content on twitter. Thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist June 17, 2010, 5:25 am

    New Dream sounds marvelous, and the idea of starting as an individual within the system and then scaling it up really resonates with me. Thanks for this interesting interview!

  • Katie June 17, 2010, 10:15 am

    Thank you Tammy and Juliet for sharing these ideas. Your organization, mission and desire to debunk wisdom in economics extends into very personal and powerful terrain. It’s empowering to think that on some level, we can each make a difference, choose to think and live differently and impact our world. Inspiring interview.

  • David June 17, 2010, 10:44 am

    This is so great to see – thanks Tammy. Love Juliet’s approach and vision for Plenitude and looking forward to learning more about the work she is doing at New American Dream.
    #awesomesauce 🙂

  • Christine June 17, 2010, 10:52 am

    I just finished Juliet Schor’s book (which I purchased for my kindle — no trees were harmed in the making of that book). I found it to be a remarkably deep analysis of a very complex issue, and appreciate that she didn’t dumb down the book for a mass audience. It’s always great to feel that an author respects their audience enough to present complex information without oversimplifying. It provides excellent food for thought.

    Really, in many ways, what Ms. Schor espouses is nothing short of heresy — that ever increasing consumption simply cannot continue as the sole underpinning of the American economy, that time can be more valuable than stuff or money, and that working less sometimes results in gaining more.

    The import of her analysis could be to the American (and, by extension the world) economy what Galileo’s heliocentric theory of the solar system was to the Catholic Church — absolutely game changing. She challenges the very foundations of our belief in what might fairly be called the religion of consumption capitalism. Bravo.

  • Logan June 19, 2010, 7:29 am

    Awesome interview! Dr. Schor is a fantastic author and communicator! I really enjoyed her “over-worked” series and I look forward to reading this new one. 🙂


  • soultravelers3 June 19, 2010, 8:36 am

    Thank you Juliet and Tammy. So happy to discover someone writing about these things so eloquently! I love it that more and more people are “getting it”.

    We have been living a VERY minimalist, green life as a family since 2006 as we travel the world and live large on just 23 dollars a day per person. We’ve never been consumers but our traveling lifestyle has taught us even more about the value of minimalism, freedom, simplicity….and just how little one needs to live an extraordinary life.

    “we can have more of some kinds of wealth (social capital, natural capital, time affluence), even if we do less in the way of high-impact consuming.”


    • Tammy June 20, 2010, 5:51 pm

      Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I love Juliet’s work. 🙂

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