The Conversion Of The American Dream

Breaking out of robotic patterns of consumption
re-engages us with life - and brings high adventure

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 15
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Is the American Dream actually a nightmare? From the planet’s perspective, it would seem so. Our profligate consumption patterns set a bad example and, at their worst, result in the wholesale ruination of both cultures and ecosystems. Can we wake up? Tom Atlee, Editor of Thinkpeace, thinks we can – by dreaming another dream. Thinkpeace, where this article first appeared, is an excellent newsletter published by the Bay Area’s “Whole Earth Study Group for Peace & Disarmament.” Subscriptions are $12 from 486 41st Street #3, Oakland, CA 94609.

The American Dream is a vision of individual and family happiness and security based on the ability to have and consume more of everything. Its social vision is of people with equal opportunity competing for these things and thereby expanding the prosperity of all.

Of course, it doesn’t quite work that way.

First: This American Dream requires unlimited supplies of cheap and free resources to keep going. Pursuing these supplies has resulted in massive exploitation of nature and of people unfortunate enough to be outside the structures of success.

Second: This American Dream requires vast physical and psychological emptiness into which we can send things we don’t want to deal with (from garbage and sewage to homelessness and the threat of nuclear war). This has resulted in gross pollution of our natural and cultural environments.

Third: This American Dream enables certain individuals to accumulate colossal amounts of (usually financial) power. These elites limit the power and opportunity of other people (for whom the system then doesn’t work).

Fourth: The American Dream supposes all this can go on forever. It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that there are limits to how far we can push it. As we approach those limits, people are getting worried the American Dream may turn into an American Nightmare.

Around the world, people are coveting American-style prosperity, often blind to the exploitation, alienation and pollution that go with it. That it won’t be possible for all of them to experience the American Dream doesn’t stop transnational corporations and their related elites from pushing it. This effort to globalize American consumerism is not peaceful. It is a growing disaster for the environment and most of the world’s people, who face increasing violence and suffering as they are drawn into the futile struggle first for affluence, and then, failing that, for survival and order.

But we can’t just tell the world “Don’t try to have what America has,” and tell Americans, “Tighten your belts.” This doesn’t speak to people’s needs.

What is needed is a new Dream – one not so riddled with contradictions, violence and alienation. One that replaces The Poverty of Affluence [a book by Paul Wachtel, New Society Publishers, 1989] with a rich life of community, deep connection with ourselves and others, and real fullness of living.

The New Dream we need should

  • end the Old Dream’s destructiveness
  • provide deep satisfaction
  • interest other countries who’ve been attracted to the Old Dream and
  • support a just, peaceful global society.

Peace activists advocate converting the military into socially useful things – swords into ploughshares, tank factories into bus factories. I’d like to extend that idea to personal economic conversion, about conversion of our lives, and about the conversion of values necessary to take us from the Old American Dream to this new one. As a first step, I’d like to look at our role in the Old American Dream, and what it’s done to us and the world.


What does it mean to be both a peace activist and a consumer in a society whose remarkable affluence depends on the often violent exploitation of people and nature?

Even as activists, most of us are choreographed into roles in the dance of consumer culture: we buy – often, new, better, different – limited more by our pocketbooks than by contemplation of what we truly need or the consequences of our buying.

We buy cars and clothes designed to break down or become unfashionable. We buy razors and diapers designed to be thrown away. We buy computers and book club “special offers” that tempt us into expanding orgies of related purchases. And we like buying: Our culture has taught us that having certain things makes us whole, happy, sane, special, admirable. We find ourselves measuring our success and our quality of life by our ability to “have what we have always wanted.”

We’re told that the more we buy, the more the economy grows and the healthier our country is. We know our buying gives people jobs. That’s important to us.

So we try not to get too caught up in how our consumption fuels the oppression of poorer peoples, the burgeoning power of mega-corporations, the massive destruction of environments, and a creeping, pervasive alienation in ourselves and our communities. But we can’t keep this dark side at bay forever. The daily news plays a crescendo of rainforests destroyed for fast-food hamburger beef; land reform stymied to give us cheap pineapples and bananas; the ozone layer dissolving in CFCs from foam cups and refrigerators; family farms being crushed by competition from automated, chemicalized factory farms so we can enjoy cheap meat, vegetables, eggs and milk from tortured animals and land.

It has to stop. We are peace activists.


I have observed eight basic patterns of consumption. Although we each generally specialize in one or two, we probably exhibit them all at different times.

1) To the extent we must consume or have things we’re being addicted consumers. In this mode we’re driven by inner emptiness. Shopping and consuming are our primary essential, predominant activities – and our first resort in the face of anxiety. We feel compelled to buy or consume, and are only briefly satisfied. In the back of our minds we’re into our next “fix” – our next purchase, our next spree, our next consuming entertainment.

2) To the extent we do what ads and the media tell us to, we’re being robotic consumers. We’re almost hypnotically motivated by the power of advertising or PR to purchase specific products or accept certain ideas without question.

3) To the extent we buy things to “be someone,” we are being status-driven consumers. We try to “keep up with (or ahead of) the Joneses.” We’re motivated by a belief that our validity and importance depend on what we have and consume.

Addicted, robotic and status-driven consumption are the lifeless, alienated end of the spectrum. They leave in their wake a haunting sense of pointlessness, of disconnection and frustration. We may feel satisfied because we’ve been convinced that consumption is satisfying – but no warm joy bubbles from our hearts. We’ve been incorporated into an artificial reality, made dependent on manipulated appetites, controlled perceptions, pre-designed frames of reference. When confronted with real life – intimacy, self-awareness, community, wilderness, silence, death, pain – we get confused and uncomfortable, and try to turn away into the security of the manufactured reality.

Individually and collectively, we have given up enormous power to economic elites who manipulate the marketable culture in which we live. When we follow the directions of large corporations on what to buy, we empower them to define how we think and how our society will function. They addict us to Things and Services and we, delighted, give them our production and consumption – from which they harvest the money and collaboration they need to direct the evolution of social policy.


Most activists are only occasionally caught in such compulsive modes. Usually we’re more conscious, selective consumers:

4) To the extent we go out of our way for a “good deal,” we’re being smart shoppers. We hunt for bargains: we head for sales and flea markets. We read Consumer Reports. We pride ourselves on beating the system, on living well for less, on getting the best quality for the price. We hate rip-offs.

5) To the extent we are out to buy “just the right thing,” we’re being appreciative consumers. We are motivated by the love of special things. We relish objects that satisfy our appetites and preferences. We have “taste” and “style.” Our possessions tend to have aesthetic quality, beauty, or craftsmanship or to characteristically reflect who we are.

6) To the extent we’re guided by an awareness of how products will affect us and ours, we’re being self-concerned consumers. We buy what’s good for us. We try to learn how things can help or harm our (or our family’s) health, safety, or welfare. Often we’re willing to pay more to feel secure – and companies that sell dangerous products make us very angry.

In “smart,” appreciative and self-concerned modes we are being selective in our consumption and are not so easily controlled. Our self-motivated decisions affect the marketplace: our tastes have to be taken into account by businesses. Some of us have even worked with “consumer advocates” to challenge corporate practices that endanger and defraud customers. And yet, even as we moderate specific abuses of corporate power, we identify ourselves as consumers and reinforce the culture of mass consumerism.

Our focus on getting “the perfect item” or “a real deal” can leave our days preoccupied with things and short on soul. Our beautiful things may also have a dark side: Japanese connoisseurs are stripping the rainforests in search of fine hardwoods (mahogany, teak, etc.) for their beautifully crafted homes, furniture, statuary and utensils. And our electronics and fruit bargains are often cheap because Third World laborers were paid slave wages to produce them – their attempts to unionize having been broken by local police financed with our dollars. With so much suffering and destruction involved in the creation of things we buy, acquiring even the best bargains and beauty can make us unknowing accomplices to evil. Meanwhile, corporate PR people, government officials, the consumerist media, and even our own psyches conspire to hide from us the bloody sources of our comfort and joy.

Is it worth it? Is this really happiness?


There are two other modes that offer a way out of all this into the New Dream: socially responsible consumption and engagement with life.

7) To the extent our social consciences guide us, we are being socially responsible consumers. We are motivated by the effect our consumption has on other people and the environment. We try to make sure the products we purchase are produced in an ethical manner. We recycle, buy from worker-owned businesses, join boycotts, invest in low-in-come housing, avoid packaging we know was designed to be thrown away when it’s finished manipulating us.

With socially responsible consumption, we redirect our support from things we consider evil to things we consider good. But it’s not as easy as it sounds: so much of our economic system is rooted in exploitation and violence that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to live a truly “pure” life. And, to the extent our social responsibility is motivated by guilt and anger, we may find we’ve little room left for joy.

Socially responsible consumption is something we need to evolve toward with our economy, step by step. Each time we “shop for a better world” [See “Shopping for a Better World,” a booklet that rates the social responsibility of 1,300 company brands, available for $5 from Council on Economic Priorities, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003], we increase the demand for ethical business. Which means more socially-conscious companies get set up and thrive. Which makes it easier for us to shop responsibly.

While all this is evolving, we can grow into an adventure beyond consumerism – where our concerns for ourselves and the world arise not out of guilt, but out of being in tune with life.

8) To the extent we prefer engagement with life to consumerist short-cuts and quick fixes, we’re being life-engaged. We’re motivated by our natural inclinations to relate to other people, connect with life, or take part in the processes of our community or nature. We don’t bother to buy things we don’t need. Our consumption is marked by involvement – by recycling, growing our own vegetables, engaging cashiers in conversations, doing things with friends.

As life-engagers, we only buy what we need to live fully – because more than that gets in the way. We find ourselves needing less money and thus working less for big companies and more for ourselves, our friends, or our communities. We turn more often to our neighbors than to the Yellow Pages. We share with them the purchase of big-ticket items that are only occasionally used – vehicles, equipment, appliances. We don’t want to spend our lives earning money for fancy unnecessary personal equipment. A life free of object-oriented consumerism has more time available for living.


Ultimately, we’re talking about a change in values – about asking: How well could I do without this product or service? Does it help me connect with reality, or does it get in the way? How proud can I be of how it was produced and marketed, of how I will use it, of what will happen when I’m done with it?

This is a very different set of questions from: How much do I want it? Is it a good deal? Does it make my life easier and more fun? Will it make me liked or admired? Is it the latest? The best?

To the extent this change in values actually occurs, it will transform our society. Small businesses and communities will be empowered. The mass-marketers will find themselves ignored. Economic power – upon which the oppressive power of American is based – will decentralize, flowing back into people’s hands, so they can mold their own lives.

It will take time, but any motion we make in this direction is important social change work, peace work – part of the Conversion of the American Dream. It is peace work each time we turn our backs on the latest and the best, the prettiest and most entertaining, the fastest and most efficient commodity to spend time with friends; prepare a meal with fresh, locally-grown produce; walk, bike or join in the community of a bus or train; make, fix, borrow, or share clothes and gadgets; act on our deepest feelings; learn, debate, share questions, information and wisdom [see “50 Simple Things You Can Do Instead of Shopping” on page 34].

Compare doing these things to spending an evening in front of the TV; buying the latest fashions; clipping coupons; commuting in gridlock; rushing through the news with a pre-packaged, microwaved meal.


The first step doesn’t necessitate doing anything. It involves just being aware. Aware of where we are in the spectrum of consumer modes, as we go through our daily lives. Watching how we respond to advertisements, packaging and displays. Feeling what it’s really like (deep down inside) to shop, to consume, to throw things away, to fix them, to find out where they came from – and where they go. Watching what our minds do, our hearts, bodies, consciences. We may find our lives want to move in certain directions. If so, we might move with that and feel what it’s like. It may help to get together with others who are also trying to be more conscious of their consumer habits. (We could start local chapters of Consumers Anonymous.)

The Conversion of the American Dream will take years. Even while the Old Dream seems to be consolidating its hold, the Conversion is already trying to happen – in bursts, in waves, in slow erosions and tiny seismic shifts. Many hairline cracks are appearing in the foundations of corporate power, and some are widening as the massive towers quiver. Workers, managers, investors and consumers are, one by one and group by group, defecting from destructive consumption-oriented economics to piece together a value-oriented economy linking communities of life-engagers. Exploitation of nature is being replaced by care. Oppressive military, economic and cultural domination is wavering. And an international community is evolving with and without the machinations of transnational power elites.

How all this evolves has a lot to do with us. As each new dawn brings more news of remarkable changes in the world, I feel how ready – even desperate – people are for new dreams.

There are many options. But of this I feel certain:

A peaceful, just and joyful society will be built by people who have traded consumerism for connection with themselves, with other people, and with their world.

The Spectrum Of Consumerism

In general, as one moves down this scale, one becomes more compulsive and less selective:



Socially responsible consumption

Self-concerned consumption

Appreciative consumption

“Smart shopping”

Status-driven consumption

Robotic consumption

Addicted consumption


Immigrants, Memories, And Trash

by Andrew Lam

I took a countryman from Vietnam for a tour of the Berkeley campus where I once studied. San Francisco’s skyscrapers gleaming across the bay seemed more formidable than Berkeley’s Greco-Roman style buildings. But when we walked past a large garbage bin filled with papers and carton boxes, he suddenly paused. Pointing to the heap of trash he exclaimed, “Brother, in Vietnam, this stuff is all money!”

I, of course, know this. But in America how easy it is to forget. What I throw away today would have astounded me years ago.

This young man is not an environmentalist; he understands little about the world’s ecology or the greenhouse effect. His comment simply reflects his own Third World background. He is, therefore, frugal and practical. What’s more he has a great respect for the materials we Americans discard as refuse, as waste. His family in Vietnam could live for a week recycling these papers, he tells me, and it pains him still to see so much wasted.

“I can’t believe you throw this stuff away,” he shakes his head, and I feel a slight tug of guilt – my garbage is filled with junk mail, newspapers, empty bottles, leftovers (what used to be his living).

At my parents’ home my extended family gathers over a letter sent from a cousin living in Saigon. The letter itself is flimsy thin – it threatens to dissolve with a single teardrop. Recycled for who knows how many times, the dark material reflects the poverty of the country from which it came. “The poor country is condemned,” says one uncle haughtily. He now drives a midnight-blue Mercedes Benz.

A sure sign, then, of a Third World immigrant’s successful assimilation into an overdeveloped society is when he casts a snobbish glance back towards the impoverished world he left behind. We sit and ponder as to how we ever managed to live in that malaria-infested place, where the sewer turns the river black as night. The green bottleflies the size of your toe; the unpaved road with potholes; the heat; the stench – didn’t it all seem like a bad dream, my dear?

The cousin came back from two weeks of frolicking in Vietnam complaining of bad hotels. They have no street lights, he says, they still wrap food in newspapers, they smoke hand-rolled, filterless cigarettes. To the pedicab driver who was once an ARVN officer, my cousin gave a 20 dollar bill. It’s equivalent, you know, to that old man’s monthly wage.

But it was also these same relatives who, on one winter night some 15 years ago, dragged a carton full of day-old food across an empty Safeway parking lot near the one-room apartment where three families lived. I was with them when we were stopped by the police. Indignant, my uncle offered to return the food to its trash bin but the officer demurred. “Help yourself,” he shrugged, and walked away.

A world and only 16 years away, I look back to my homeland and admit how much I and others have forgotten – as if along with the pile of papers and uneaten food, we have carelessly tossed away our memories. In our material success in America, we have forgotten what it was that sustained us – our attachment to the land, our old identity.

In search of old wisdom, I visit my grandmother in her convalescent home. She is the one least influenced by America’s opulence. With her wrinkled hands she meticulously wraps a piece of apple in a napkin and stuffs it in her pocket. “To throw food away is a waste of God’s gift,” she tells me.

To throw memory away is also a waste of God’s gift. My grandmother survived the starvation year when the Japanese burned most of the rice fields in North Vietnam during World War II. And so, no matter how many times we tell her not to save, she won’t listen. “They won’t have these many things for long,” she predicts.

Isolated in her convalescent home, forgotten by the outside world, she gathers bits of our identities, scattered pieces of our soul.

Andrew Lam, an editor for Pacific News Service, was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. in the mid-1970s.© 1990 PNS.

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