Business Books

3 minute read
Andrea Sachs

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, goes the saying among policy wonks these days. A trio of authors agree in their new books about life in the postcrash world. Rather than bemoaning the harsh realities of the Great Recession, they see the downturn as a chance for Americans to enjoy a healthier, greener lifestyle. These writers offer some hope–nay, optimism–for living well on less.

John Robbins has the most dramatic story of achieving a life of monastic simplicity. In the 1960s, he turned down his family’s Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune in order to “live a far more simple and earth-friendly life.” He and his wife built a tiny one-room log cabin on an island off the coast of British Columbia, where they grew most of their own food. In The New Good Life, Robbins writes about modest living with the fervor of a convert: “This isn’t about deprivation. It’s about choice and self-determination.” Later, Robbins found his own success (and plenty of material comforts), as an author, but in 2008 had to economize again after losing his money to Bernie Madoff. “When I heard someone say that money doesn’t buy happiness, I wanted to tell them they were full of crap,” he recalls.

Robbins nonetheless believes that too many people are suffering from “affluenza,” a “painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” The cure, he says, is transforming your “entire relationship to money” by becoming more conscious of your financial choices. “This will give you the traction you need to become more powerful and more effective in every aspect of your life that involves money.”

While Robbins takes the micro view, Richard Florida is a macro man. An urban-development expert at the University of Toronto, Florida is best known for his book The Rise of the Creative Class. His ideas about revitalizing cities by attracting artists and high-tech workers have influenced a generation of urban planners. In his latest effort, The Great Reset, Florida explains how societies are “reset” during times of turmoil. “They are the great transformative moments when new technologies and technological systems arise, when the economy is recast and society remade, and when the places where we live and work change to suit new needs.”

Florida’s forecast is that life will be “less oriented around cars, houses and suburbs.” More of us will rent rather than buy homes, giving us greater mobility, he says, and we will increasingly choose public transportation and bicycles for the daily commute. He predicts that the population will gravitate toward a smaller number of “megaregions” connected by high-speed rail. Green products will enjoy more cachet, and frugality will become the new status symbol. “Instead of showcasing logos and material bounty as a mark of achievement in life,” Florida writes, “people–successful, affluent people–are beginning to wear their lack of consumption … as a badge of honor.”

For those who aspire to wear such a badge, Be Thrifty is an encyclopedic collection of tips. The editors, Pia Catton and Califia Suntree, stress self-sufficiency and show you how to be your own cook, plumber, accountant and dry cleaner. If that sounds exhausting, Catton and Suntree advise rethinking your attitude, not your budget. Like the other authors, they too see redemptive value in cutting back: “The practice of thrift isn’t solely about saving money; it’s also about living well.” That may be hard to believe for the suddenly unemployed or foreclosed. But these authors skillfully find the silver lining in the slump.

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