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All You Need Rather Than All You Want

  • Jun 30, 2011
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From the book description of Sherry Ackerman's The Good Life:

"For many people, consumer culture has lost its appeal. So have debt accumulation, time poverty, exteriority and social alienation. The Good Life traces one woman's journey toward a deeply fulfilling lifestyle-and points toward a way of life that values freedom, interdependence, caring, community and our connectedness with nature. The Good Life offers a guide to finding personal freedom through a sustainable lifestyle. It invites readers to view the recent global market downturn as an opportunity to transform our dead consumer culture into a living post-consumer society. The book is packed with information on emerging alternatives, such as co-housing, slow money, vegetarian and raw foods, permaculture and organic gardening, voluntary simplicity, green building, and more.

The Good Life is a Guide to Finding Personal Freedom and a Blueprint for a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle. Each chapter ends with a very practical ‘Dozen Things That You Can Do' to create a more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle."

I found Sherry Ackerman's book on the bookshelf of a friend when house sitting for him. It was a 125-year-old wonderful farmhouse outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, surrounded by field and forest, and I was looking for a good read that fit my surroundings. Oh, and did this book ever fit the bill!

All my life I have been longing for …. well, to live. To live a nature-centered life that is built around real values, and not just consumerism. I've always wanted that log cabin in the woods, and Ackerman's book is a guide of how to live such a life, that is, nature-centered, simple, in tune with our needs rather than in competition with the Jones's next door for who can drive the biggest, fanciest car, build a McMansion, earn the highest salary, wear designer labels, and so on, ad nauseum.

Enough already.

Ackerman is a philosopher by background, a professor, and this book incorporates more than just notes on how to garden and be organic. It goes far beyond that, weaving a philosophy of life into why we live as we do, and why we feel so empty when we ignore our true needs. She is a modern day Thoreau, only her call is also a call back to community. Who of us has not noted that to live in the crowded city or in the sardine-packed suburbs does not equate to isolation?

Our lives are ever more empty, and the recent market crash and other economic woes have only sharpened our awareness that this path was the wrong path. How then to find our way?

Ackerman takes on our dissatisfaction with work. Work should not be a burden, but a blessing, an extension and expression of ourselves. Yet too many of us work merely for a paycheck, living to work rather working to live.

"For many, the workplace is a golden cage—a place they stay because of the paycheck, not because they feel adequately engaged or stimulated. American workers are forgetting how to fly." (Page 53)

To clarify:

"Emphasis shifted from the pursuit of happiness to the accumulation of wealth. People were defined by their ‘stuff.' Having a lot of ‘stuff' indicated that one was successful. The only fly in the ointment was that people were not happy. There are currently approximately 19 million clinically depressed Americans, or 9.5 percent of the population in any given one-year period. Depression currently affects so many people that it is often referred to as the common cold of mental illness." (Page 52)

Rather than the pursuit of stuff, Ackerman reminds us of the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, that a happy life "is a mix of health, wealth, friendship, knowledge, nature and virtue." Wealth is defined as having everything one needs rather than everything one wants (which tends to lead only to more wants and so more dissatisfaction).

Ackerman describes guidelines and offers fascinating stories and descriptions of a life that brings back community, the exchange of work and goods, giving away what one no longer needs, and living within one's means rather than accumulating debt. Live in this manner, she writes, and the boom and bust cycle of our current style of living in the United States would not affect you, indeed, wouldn't happen at all.

She urges the reader to consider the European lifestyle and compares it to the American culture of making heroes out of those who work long hours in the office rather than spend time with friends and family. "Full time workers in most of Europe typically take seven to eight weeks of vacation and holidays each year … According to Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, Europeans are happier, and have less stress and insecurity, which is good for health and longevity … longer, mandated vacations haven't undercut the competitiveness of other wealthy countries, and there's even evidence to suggest that they have increased their productivity." (Page 112-113)

What else are we missing? Time with family. Time in nature. Time enjoying art or reading a book. Americans, Ackerman writes, now read less than one book per year. (One hopes, then, that the one book will be The Good Life!) We are missing out on the quality of life.

We are losing our compassion, our kindness, focused on getting ahead in the rat race and getting the biggest sale on the newest piece of stuff. Our worth is now measured by what we own, which has come to own us. Ackerman has us consider, too, how we treat others around us, and not just other human beings, but other life forms. Here is our true worth.

"Americans' love affair with cheap stuff—including education and airfares—has been one of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of sustainable relatedness. In the same way that consumer culture has moved toward valuing profit over people, it has put profit over nature. The U.S. agricultural industry, for example, can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans." (Page 156)

To live in a sustainable and ethical manner, we have to think in terms of value rather than getting our stuff cheap. In the long run, there is always, without exception, a cost to be paid for pursuing cheap.
Is this the best that humans are capable of? asks Ackerman. And perhaps we have gone too far in that cheap and unsustainable direction, now watching the results in terms of a faltering economy, health, global climate conditions, wars, disease, environmental degradation. Yet one must hope for better, and regardless of how far and how long we have lived in this manner, there is reason and need to change.

The Good Life offers a story about those who have chosen to live otherwise, including the author herself and her family and friends. It's not enough to envy them their wisdom. These are changes we should all emulate. It is the right thing to do, and it will return us to that pursuit of lasting happiness.

Visit The Smoking Poet, Summer 2011 Issue, to read Talking to Sherry Ackerman, an author interview.

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June 30, 2011
I'm always cautious when a person defines their "needs" and "wants" for other people to act upon. Sherry Ackerman's decisions, life choices and intentions sound just fine to me…for Sherry Ackerman. For others, probably yes. For yet more, probably no.    ---America's "consumer" culture, for me, is simply the product of an educated people who were willing to work smarter, work harder and with more innovation and risk than others in other countries. They got there the fastest with the mostest, and they benefited greatly by winding up with more disposable income than many others in other countries.    ---It's instructive, I think, to consider that as other peoples are able to accumulate wealth they also spend it on making their lives easier, healthier, and more valuable for them. There's a reason the average English soldier in WWI stood only about 5'4" with a scrawny physique and terrible teeth, and why that has changed.    ---Without mass produced ground beef and chicken thighs, we'd have much less cheap, quality protein to ingest. People, as in all other societies, would be eating more cheap vegetable proteins. Their logical decision, logical for them, is that beef tastes better than oats, larvae or most tofu. (There's a reason younger Japanese eat considerable less tofu than their elders and much more milk and non-fish meat. They also, not coincidentally are inches taller and healthier. Taste, and they can afford it.)    ---It happens everywhere in other cultures when disposable income rises and mass market production breaks old rules. Organic milk may be healthier for a family, but it's also over a dollar more expensive for a half gallon at my supermarket. Is that extra dollar worth it or should I buy a non-organic milk and also a small bag of Cheetos? My head says "no," but my heart says yes. Fortunately I have enough disposable income to do both. But it's my decision and one that I think is neither better nor worse for me or for society.    ---McDonald's, I think, is a good example in terms of cost, cleanliness, taste, healthiness and value. It wouldn't be possible without mass-production, quantity buying, sophisticated distribution, dedicated quality controls and uniformity. And partly because of the cache of being American, people from China to Germany and places in between eat those burgers. Is this bad? Not when you consider some of the things people either choose to eat (mom's spaghetti sauce: fat, salt) or must eat (squirrels: little protein for the effort).    ---I think "consumerism" is built into humanity. If we are willing to concede that most of humanity…after being able to pay for real needs…want what they consider the good things in life -- a Big Mac, more dinners with friends, a second or third flat-screen TV, a week in the country, a trip to Las Vegas -- even if it means working harder. Give Americans an objective they want -- not what others want for them -- and most are more than willing to work hard to achieve it. I think that's admirable and remarkable.    ---I'm much less inclined to be judgmental about what a need or a want is for others. But I also think much of what Ackerman writes about, applied to herself, sounds delightful. And I much enjoyed your review. I hope others will offer their thoughts.
July 05, 2011
Enjoyed your thoughtful response, Charley2, thank you. Ackerman refers to what we need to survive (food, water, social interaction, shelter, clothing, etc.) rather than want (the new X-Box, an IPhone, an SUV, designer clothes) but doesn't at all try to sell the idea of living a spartan life of self-denial. Her argument is that we are living lives of self-denial now. You are right that our wish lists vary greatly from individual to individual, but her point is that, for whatever reason, obtaining these items or goodies does not appear to be making us any happier or healthier. Americans pop a lot of anti-depressants, after all, and one has to wonder why. We also have an epidemic of obesity going on, hand in hand with diabetes and other diseases. We are no longer living longer than our parents, and today's babies are actually slightly less in weight and size than those of previous generations. The tide has turned. Another point she makes in her book is that we are NOT working anymore for what we want. Too many hate their work, don't believe in what they are doing, and are buying what they think they should have simply to impress others and to appear successful ... and not at all what they truly want. As for buying (or growing) organic, I have been doing this for several years now, and I can say that I spend less on groceries now than when I bought non-organic. I have seen studies that show this to be true for many. Consider buying a pound of oats for 99 cents ... or that Egg McMuffin for 99 cents. The first will provide breakfast for a month. Quite simply, eating healthy means eating differently, and making more meals from scratch, from the garden. Personally, I would much rather spend money on good food rather than a good doctor later ... and the taste is so much more delicious! Once you've eaten this way, it is nearly impossible to go back. I also enjoy spending time in the kitchen and at the dining table with family and friends, and that, too, seems to go hand in hand with this lifestyle change. I eat this way not just because it is healthy for me, however. I eat this way because I am also concerned about the pollution mass-produced food causes, about animal cruelty (I am a meat eater, but I don't want to eat animals that have suffered all their lives or are filled with antibiotics and other questionable feed), and because I enjoy the community to which this has introduced me. Farmers markets are so much more fun than shopping a supermarket! Ah, but you address so much here that I can hardly begin to respond ... I highly recommend actually reading Ackerman's book. She answers your questions and addresses your comments ever so much better than I do here. I also recommend Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman. Opened my eyes and opened a door I could not close again.
June 30, 2011
Fantastic review and concept! I have often daydreamed of moving to Spain for the same reason that you listed above, the long paid vacations and, specifically, culture of siesta- a couple of hours in the afternoon to do nothing....sounds like heaven! I always joke that we may not make it back from our Barcelona honeymoon. This book sounds like a great wake up call to those of us caught in the chase of cheap! Thanks for sharing :)
July 05, 2011
Thank you! There are other excellent books out now, too, about this chasing of Cheap and what it has done to real value. I do try to know who produces what, buying local and/or fair trade whenever possible.
About the reviewer
Zinta Aistars ()
I am a bilingual writer and editor; founder and editor-in-chief of the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet. Learn more about me on my Web site--I welcome visitors!
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