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The American Dream Vs. the European Dream

Which dream will ensure a better future for all the world’s people?

August 18, 2005

Which dream will ensure a better future for all the world's people?

Americans hold a negative definition of what it means to be free and, thus, secure. For us, freedom has long been associated with autonomy.

If one is autonomous, he or she is not dependent on others or vulnerable to circumstances outside of his or her control. To be autonomous, one needs to be propertied.

The more wealth one amasses, the more independent one is in the world. One is free by becoming self-reliant and an island unto oneself.

With wealth comes exclusivity — and with exclusivity comes security.

The new European Dream, however, is based on a different set of assumptions about what constitutes freedom and security.

For Europeans, freedom is not found in autonomy, but in embeddedness. To be free is to have access to a myriad of interdependent relationships with others.

The more communities one has access to, the more options and choices one has for living a full and meaningful life. With relationships comes inclusivity and with inclusivity comes security.

The American Dream puts an emphasis on economic growth, personal wealth and independence. The new European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life and interdependence.

The American Dream pays homage to the work ethic. The European Dream is more attuned to leisure and deep play. The American Dream is inseparable from the country's religious heritage and deep spiritual faith. The European Dream is secular to the core.

The American Dream is wedded to love of country and patriotism. The European Dream is more cosmopolitan and less territorial.

Americans are more willing to employ military force in the world, if necessary, to protect what we perceive to be our vital self-interests. Europeans are more reluctant to use military force and instead favor diplomacy, economic assistance and aid to avert conflict and prefer peacekeeping operations to maintain order.

Americans tend to think locally, while Europeans’ loyalties are more divided — and stretch from the local to the global. The American Dream is deeply personal and little concerned with the rest of humanity. The European Dream is more expansive and systemic in nature and therefore, more bound to the welfare of the planet.

This isn't to say that Europe has suddenly become Shangri-la. Its problems are complex and its weaknesses are glaringly transparent. And, of course, Europeans’ high-mindedness is often riddled with hypocrisy.

The Brussels' governing machinery, say European Union (EU) supporters and critics alike, is a labyrinthine maze of bureaucratic red tape that frustrates even the most optimistic Europhiles.

The point, however, is not whether the Europeans are living up to the dream they have for themselves. We Americans have never fully lived up to our own dream.

Rather, what's important is that Europe has articulated a new vision for the future that's different in many of its most fundamental aspects from America's.

The new European Dream is powerful because it dares to suggest a new history, with an attention to quality of life, sustainability, peace and harmony.

In a sustainable civilization, based on quality of life rather than unlimited individual accumulation of wealth, the very material basis of modern progress would be a thing of the past.

A steady-state global economy is a radical proposition because it challenges the conventional way we have come to use nature's resources. It does away with the very idea of history as an ever-rising curve of material advances.

The objective of a sustainable global economy is to continually reproduce a high-quality present state by aligning human production and consumption with nature's ability to recycle waste and replenish resources.

A sustainable, steady state economy is truly the end of history defined by unlimited material progress. If the European Dream represents the end of one history, it also suggests the beginning of another.

What becomes important in the new European vision of the future is personal transformation rather than individual material accumulation.

The new dream is focused not on amassing wealth but, rather, on elevating the human spirit. The European Dream seeks to expand human empathy, not territory.

It takes humanity out of the materialist prison in which it has been bound since the early days of the 18th century Enlightenment and into the light of a new future motivated by idealism.

Of this much I am relatively sure. The fledgling European Dream represents humanity's best aspirations for a better tomorrow. A new generation of Europeans carries the world's hopes with it.

This places a very special responsibility on the European people, the kind our own founding fathers and mothers must have felt more than 200 years ago, when the rest of the world looked at America as a beacon of hope. I hope our trust is not trifled away.

Adapted from “The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream” by Jeremy Rifkin © Penguin 2004.