Thank you, Nicolas Kristof, for reminding us that many Americans have too much and many of us can live quite well and, in fact, be a lot happier if we gave up some of our material wealth (What Can You Live Without? The New York Times, Sunday, January 24, 2010) That’s exactly what the Salwen family Kristof writes about, did—they sold their house, gave half of the proceeds to the Hunger Project, an international development organization, and moved themselves into a much smaller home which surprisingly turned out to be “more family friendly” than their previous one. There was much less space to retreat to, so family members spent more time around each other. “We essentially traded stuff for togetherness and connectedness,” Mr. Salwen says. Part of this togetherness involved engagement with the work of the Hunger Project in Ghana.
Not everyone has a large house to trade or a large sum of money to donate but look around you—we have excess of stuff, talent, ideas, information—in our homes , in our communities, and in our organizations. We are over-producing and under-utilizing resources all over the place. Witness the recent example of clothing retailers like H&M deliberately mutilating and tossing unsold clothes in the trash. Many experts in retail concede that the practice is not uncommon—for some unfathomable “economic” reason it makes more sense to destroy clothes than to release them into a local community. The situation is even worse when it comes to food. We over-produce and waste a lot of it. According to the USDA, just over a quarter of America’s food — about 25.9 million tons — gets thrown into the garbage can every year. University of Arizona estimates that the number is closer to 50 percent. The country’s supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores alone throw out 27 million tons between them every year (representing $30 billion of wasted food). This is why the U.N. World Food Program says the total food surplus of the U.S. alone could satisfy “every empty stomach” in Africa. How about empty stomachs in our own communities?
The list goes on an on. We have surplus of space—many commercial buildings, schools, corporate and government spaces are underutilized, while many small organizations and individuals are struggling to find spaces for their work. We also have excess of talent—musicians, artists, designers, educated unemployed people, young and old—needing audiences, venues to work in, or contribute ideas to. Many unemployed or underemployed people have excess of time, excess of knowledge, excess of skills. We have excess of empty seats in our cars and not enough public transport to help people get around. I bet we even have medical doctors who are willing to treat people in need for free. This is what many doctors are doing in Haiti right now; this is what many of them do informally among their family and friends.
Just like the global level hunger is largely a problem of distribution rather than production (we currently have enough food available to feed the world’s population), the problem of economic and psychological malaise many of our communities are experiencing may be a problem of distribution rather than supply. If we pulled together available resources at the local level, particularly leveraging surplus currently available within our organizations, we could do a lot to improve our local economies. We can also improve psychological well being in our communities by turning up levels of giving and by increasing connectedness within our communities. And this, according to Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis”, is one of the main contributors to happiness. Haidt points out that, “We are, like bees: our lives only make full sense as members of a larger hive, or as cells in a larger body. Yet in our modern way of living we’ve busted out of the hive and flown out on our own, each one of us free to live as we please. Most of us need to be part of a hive in some way, ideally a hive that has a clearly noble purpose.”
We do come together as caring communities during crises. We are proudly watching outpourings of aid and volunteerism in Haiti. But do we have to only do so when disasters strike? How about using platforms such as wehaveweneed.org, created to help pull together resources for Haiti, for our own communities. Can we create a platform similar to craigslist that allows local exchanges and pulling together resources of all kinds similar to what we are doing in Haiti and other crises areas?
This does not mean abrogating responsibility for changing policies or letting governments off the hook. But with gridlock in Washington and crisis in California and many other states, I am with Doug Rushkoff who exclaims in frustration in a recent blog post “Screw’em. Let’s do This Ourselves.” I believe the future belongs to SEHI’s—Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals—people with an urgent sense of optimism, amplified by the power of our collective intelligence using lightweight social connectivity platforms to get us out of the mess we are in. Let’s do it!