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Let's Get Simple

We're the richest people in the world. So why aren't we happy? It's a question Betsy Taylor takes seriously--and she has a plan to break the work-and-spend grip on America.


Throughout her career, Betsy Taylor has been drawn to organizations trying to improve society--the peace movement, the nuclear freeze campaign, environmental reform.

But for the past year she has focused on a project so idealistic it almost sounds like a joke. Taylor, 41, is launching a national Center for a New American Dream.

She hopes it will provide a nonpartisan forum where Americans can talk about an overriding theme of the 1990s that nobody seems to address directly: If we are the richest people on Earth, why aren't we happier? And the forum aims to offer solutions--ideas and models for ways people might break the work-and-spend grip that materialism has on their lives.

"We want to spark a national conversation," said Taylor, who has already enlisted a network of high-powered activists, spent a year laying the groundwork and expects to offer details next month. "Our hope is to change the society. This idea can be seen as hopelessly utopian or as something that people desperately want."

She's banking on the latter, contending that the old American dream of opportunity has deteriorated. For many, it's become a weary race for consumer goods; for others, the abrupt loss of a job they'd counted on for life.

People do want change, she said, offering up documentation: a Gallup poll showing that a third of all Americans would trade a 20% cut in income for reduced work hours, or an Index of Social Health report that in spite of a 50% increase in personal income since 1957, the percentage of Americans who say they are "very happy" has not risen at all.

Much of the data is from Taylor's own organization. She is director of the Merck Family Fund, a nonprofit foundation based in Takoma Park, Md. In the world of foundations, Merck is a modest player, with an asset base of about $35 million, and gives away about $1.5 million a year, mostly to projects to sustain a healthy planet.

Last year, in a new move, the fund commissioned a nationwide poll attempting to measure the impact of materialism on the collapse of community. The purpose was to get information that would guide the fund's grant-making, but Taylor said the outcome was so impressive it charted a new direction.

The survey revealed a widespread dissatisfaction with materialism, with 82% of the respondents agreeing that "most of us buy and consume far more than we need." And 67% agreed that "Americans cause many of the world's environmental problems because we consume more resources and produce more waste than anyone else in the world."

The survey, conducted for Merck by the Harwood Group of Bethesda, Md., included random-sample telephone interviews with 800 adults and four focus groups representing a demographic cross-section of the population. A 26-page report, "Yearning for Balance," has been published and more than 6,000 copies distributed. "The poll response took us by surprise," Taylor said in a recent telephone interview.

And it kicked her into action. With $100,000 Merck Fund seed money, she convened a conference last spring, pulling together dozens of thinkers who spent three days wrestling with the thesis that materialism has not bought happiness and the possibility of creating a "sustainable" society that does not borrow from the future.

The participants were challenged to look at the global picture: With less than 5% of the world's population, the United States consumes nearly 30% of the planet's resources. Americans now can choose from more than 25,000 supermarket items--including 200 kinds of cereal and 11,092 magazines (mostly filled with ads for more products).

In many ways, our society has grown beyond acceptable environmental limits, it was emphasized, and yet ominously, the American lifestyle is now the uncontested global model. This poses a paradox that technology alone will not resolve, said board member Robert Engelman, a program director at Washington's Population Action International. "If the entire world used energy the way we do, the increased carbon dioxide in the air alone would bring on an immense greenhouse effect."

The conference was concerned about the vacuum in American conversation, even in a presidential election year, and about the irony of consumers working overtime to buy things whose production is depleting the Earth's resources.

"When we consider the rollback of the 4.3-cent gas tax we should also be discussing the way we use gasoline," Engelman said. His vision is a society in which people are consuming fewer resources and still living a high-quality life. "We are not suggesting that Americans are awful people or that we all need to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle immediately."

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