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For 2010, think of self-reliance as progress

By Peter Bregman, Special to CNN
  • Peter Bregman says when we need a capability to survive, we acquire it
  • When we don't need a skill, we lose it, he says
  • Bregman asks: How many of us know how to darn socks?
  • When we have less, we grow vegetables in our own gardens

Editor's note: Peter Bregman is chief executive of Bregman Partners Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of "Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change." He writes a weekly column, How We Work, for

New York (CNN) -- In last year's futuristic movie, "Wall-E," human beings, evacuated from an uninhabitable Earth, now live in a space station, confined to hover chairs and unable to walk because they have become so obese. Actually, it's the other way around. They became so obese because they no longer walked.

Either way, their situation reflects a powerful trait in the human race. We adapt. When we need a capability to survive, we acquire it. When we no longer use it, we lose it. How many of us know how to darn socks?

It's that time of year again. When we take stock of our lives and contemplate next year -- when we decide how we want to move forward, how we plan to adapt to the world around us. Which got me thinking: What, exactly, is progress?

Recently I was in Shanghai, China, a city in transition, with newly built skyscrapers quickly replacing century-old crumbling shacks. Progress, right? Perhaps. But a "Wall E"-like vision is gaining momentum. The streets in Shanghai used to be filled with bicycles. Now, they're filled with cars, trucks, and buses. In the first eight months of 2009, passenger car sales rose 37 percent in China. Obesity is now considered an epidemic there.

But here's what struck me most: Men in blue cotton jumpsuits were on almost every street, sweeping trash, keeping the city clean. And what was interesting? They made their own brooms.

That's right, the official government street cleaners in this part of China collected thin branches from trees, tied them together to the end of bamboo poles and made perfectly functional brooms. Contrast that to the massive, loud, energy-sucking, polluting street cleaner trucks that mechanically sweep our streets in America, and then ask: Is this progress?

Sure, one person in a street cleaner truck can do the work of 20 people with brooms. But in the days of 10 percent U.S. unemployment, 20 people with brooms -- even if they're making modest salaries -- sounds like a pretty good idea.

Of course, it's only a matter of time before Shanghai progresses from street-cleaner people to street-cleaner trucks. And the residents of Shanghai will adapt to these changes because that's what people do. And when the trucks replace the people, the people will eventually forget how to make their brooms from fallen branches; they will buy them from Wal-mart.

Divisions of labor can be useful, of course. Street cleaners could get jobs at factories building street cleaner trucks or creating brooms for Wal-mart. But humans do lose something in that transition: our ability to fend for ourselves.

What's interesting about the recession that this country -- and much of the world -- has been struggling through, is that, in a small way, we're retrieving some of what we lost. When money is tight we begin to rely more on our own talents.

A survey published earlier this year by GfK Custom Research, a New York marketing firm, showed some of the things people were willing to give up in a downturn. First on the list was dining out (time to relearn how to cook?); next was entertainment (break out the board games); then new clothes (sock darning anyone?) and higher-priced organic foods.

Are these sacrifices simply a loss? Or might we develop some new skills and enjoyment as we replace them with lower cost alternatives. According to a National Gardening Association survey, 7 million more households planned to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, or berries in 2009 -- a 19 percent increase from 2008. There are a variety of reasons to grow one's own food but one clear motivator is cost: an average well-maintained food garden saves its owner $500 in food costs.

There's been a similar increase in bicycle commuting. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey, it's up 14 percent since 2007. That means more physically active people, fewer emissions and less consumption of oil and gas. The bicycle commuters are doing it, in part, to save money (bicycle commuting spiked when gas went to $4/gallon), but they're getting a healthier body and healthier planet too.

None of us would choose a recession. But sometimes backwards can also be forwards. Perhaps, within its destruction, we can find some revitalization. We can strive to become more independent and more capable.

Maybe our children will grow up stronger, more resilient, with values that center less on money and more on relationships and meaning. Maybe they'll be more prepared to live well in an unpredictable world, learn craftsmanship as they build or fix their own toys, imagination as they invent their own games, and initiative as they find creative solutions to their own boredom.

And maybe we'll all gain some compassion as we learn to adapt to our own circumstances and as we watch others adapt to theirs.

Because that's what we do: adapt. When we have more money, we buy cars. When we have less, we buy bicycles. When we have more, we buy fruits shipped from overseas. When we have less, we grow vegetables in our own gardens.

Maybe, as we move into this new year, we can get out of our hover chairs and onto our own two feet -- as we become more self-sufficient -- we can enjoy the benefits of our current adaptation. We can notice the changes in our body, in how we feel, as we get more fit and healthy. We can appreciate the taste and quality of the vegetables we eat from our gardens.

And maybe, if we're so inclined, we can learn to make brooms out of branches.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bregman