The Message of Overconsumption

The magazine “New Scientist” recently published a remarkable set of graphs that make a strong visual case for the overconsumptive predicament our civilization is in.  They are reproduced below:



This collection of graphs, all showing apparently exponential increases in consumption – especially since 1950 – serves to remind us that human impact on the world has accelerated dramatically in a variety of wildly different domains. They also pose a series of unspoken questions:

  • "Is the apparent correlation between these graphs real, or is it simply the result of confirmation bias (otherwise known as cherry-picking)?"
  • "If it is real, are there cause-and-effect linkages involved between the different domains that are driving the correlations?"
  • "Is this apparently exponential behaviour a problem?"
  • "If it is a problem, can the exponential nature of the curves be reversed by voluntary human action?"
And:
  • "What might happen if the functions of those curves remain unchanged?"

For me, these burning questions have lost a lot of their urgency over the last year or so. I decided long ago that the correlation is real and is being driven by cause and effect linkages. I also decided that the overall trend is probably irreversible, although changes are definitely possible within some problem domains.

However, I've also concluded that it really doesn't matter that much. Our current situation is just one more in a long chain of similar dangerous circumstances that individuals, civilizations and species have faced since the dawn of time. The world is a dangerously changeable place, and we are not its masters.

Evolution has always proceeded through a feedback process of environmental pressure, adaptation, mutation and selection. Our current circumstances can be seen as just another type of impersonal environmental pressure. As a result, our future progress will be determined by the dynamic balance of adaptation and selection that plays out.

Being a somewhat metaphorical thinker, I see the growth of the small-group movement described by Paul Hawken in his book "Blessed Unrest" as a sort of cultural mutation. As such it will play an inevitable role in our evolutionary process. Whether it will be a successful mutation or turns out to be irrelevant or even morbid remains to be seen – just the same as all the other adaptive and restorative actions we undertake.

Still, the accumulating evidence of interlinked, accelerating problems in widely separated parts of the human experiment screams out for strong solutions.  Why is it that with the exception of a few eccentric people and a few small fringe groups everyone is proposing solutions that are nothing more then variations on the theme of Business As Usual? There is scant evidence of solutions whose strength matches the scope and scale of the problems.

 One reason for this shortcoming is that our analysis of the problem is defeated by its sheer size.  Very few people can or do dive deep enough into the problem space to get a realistic understanding of how deep its roots are. People can only propose (or accept) solutions that are consistent with our understanding of the problem, and only those who understand how deep the roots of the problem lie are likely to embrace strong solutions.

Diving very deep into the problem space can reveal surprising things about its origins.  For example, I've become convinced that the root cause of all our woes can be traced back to the sense of separateness that arose from the self-awareness we gained as our neocortex developed.  There is a risk in developing such a deep view, however.   My perspective, while interesting, is not terribly useful. It provides no resolution path, and can easily lead one into paralysis from feeling that our problems are "bred in the bone". In a sense we need to go deep enough to understand the need for radical change, but not so deep as to start feeling that any change is useless or hopeless.

Why is this happening?

As social creatures, we are all acutely aware of the continuing breakdown of our social contracts.  Communities are being reduced to soul-less husks with a Wal-Mart at their core.  Extended families are now largely distant memories, and even the nuclear family is succumbing to the disruptive energies of the atom-smashing civilization we have created.

I see the breakdown of small-scale social structures like families and communities as being driven by the same general forces that are breaking down the environment, the economy, and the human spirit. These forces seem to work fractally, generating similar problems at all scales of our experience: from dying species to dying towns, from ruptured ocean ecologies to ruptured personal relationships.

The underlying problem is that we are telling ourselves a dysfunctional cultural story about who we are, what our place in the universe is, what our rights are (and they are very many), and what our responsibilities are (very few). This underlying story drives everything we do, from strip mining to cruising for chicks, so the results are similar in every arena we enter. The story is malignant, so the outcome of the behaviour it causes is malignant.

The story we are telling is one of our innate superiority, independence and separateness – from nature, from each other, and from any sense of the sacred. Unless and until that story changes our behaviour will not change, nor will the effect our behaviour has on everything we touch. At the core, the problems in the world today are not technical as much as spiritual.

Luckily it's not we who are broken, it's just the story that's broken. We can always tell a new story about ourselves. Again luckily, that's now starting to happen. Will enough of us change our story quickly enough? Who knows? We're a species that's addicted to risk, and waiting this long to change our story is the biggest risk we've ever taken.

Now, it may not seem as though strip mining and cruising for chicks could possibly have the same underlying driver.  They operate at entirely different scales, by totally different rules in completely different areas of our culture and civilization, and operate.  Why do I lump them together so casually?

I have come to believe that the story of separation we tell ourselves has a general pervasive influence on all our activities, whether the activities are directed at inanimate nature, other living species or other members of our own species. Here is how it works.

Because I have a neocortex I am self-aware. I can feel my sensations and experience my thoughts. However, I can feel only my own sensations, and I can experience only my own thoughts. Because of that, I am the most "real" object in my universe, and therefore all other objects in the universe are less real than I am. Because they are less real they have less value to me than "I" do.

However, I need other objects in the universe to accomplish my goals, whatever those might be. I have to use them, and therefore they become my resources. Different goals may require different resources. Getting rich (which enhances my sense of status and self-worth) may require digging up coal to sell. Getting laid (which enhances my sense of status as well as providing hormonal soothing) requires a woman (or a man, of course).

Because the mountain full of coal and the woman are both outside of me they are less real than me, and therefore have less value to me than I do. Their feelings are less important than mine (in the case of the woman or a community living close to my coal mine) or non-existent and therefore irrelevant (in the case of the mountain). In both cases the objectification of the not-me (mountain or woman) that is imposed by my self-awareness permits me to do things to the not-me that I would consider totally unacceptable if done to me.

This is a deeply rooted issue, but how it expresses itself is always open to cultural modification. In Western industrial society we are imbued with the cult of the individual, where self-interest rules, competition is the norm, and the zero-sum nature of the game is taken as self-evident.  However, this is not the only way to see the world.

We can learn to give others as much or even more value than ourselves. We can learn to see our welfare as inextricable from the welfare of the natural world. We can even learn to see that we "contain" the entire universe -- what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls "interbeing".

However, these attitudes must be learned. The fact that we have this fundamental sense of objectification (which is really a polite term for solipsism) built into our nature courtesy of our brain structure means that we are very susceptible to learning cultural stories that devalue "the other" -- whether the other is human on not.

Our sense of separateness, brought on by the self-awareness provided by our neocortex, is what enables us to rape both mountains and women. The only way out of the box is to learn to value the world beyond ourselves, to heal the sense of separateness by learning to connect with the other. The more we learn this skill, the less harm we do. The less we learn it, the more harm we do.

Where do we go from here?

I see one possible long-term resolution path, even if my belief about the root cause is true. It's a two pronged approach.

First, it involves deep cuts to Business as Usual using the technological and regulatory tools everyone is familiar with. Given the entrenched interests of our civilization's Guardian Institutions this change alone is hard enough, as we have seen at Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto, Bali and in the American Congress.  In my opinion, even if we are successful at implementing such superficial changes it will do little more than buy us a bit of extra time.

The second prong of this approach, the one that I view as the real game-changer, might be considered even less likely.  It involves a global, grass-roots transformation of consciousness from an economic paradigm to an ecological one.

To make this shift we need to help people to understand that without an underlying ecology there is no economy: that economics is a purely human construct that depends on a functioning ecology for its existence, while ecology is a fact of nature like gravity that functions on its own.  When I talk about a transformation of consciousness to the ecological, I really mean recognizing the primacy of ecology, and as a result understanding and accepting that our economies are only branch offices.

If you are so inclined, you can see this transformation in spiritual terms, as a reclamation of the sacred through a recognition of the ecological interconnection of everything.  If it happens, it will be a metamorphosis in the truest sense of the word.  Humanity will step from adolescence into adulthood, as mature beings able to accept our role in the world, accept the damage we did while we were getting here, and look back with compassion on those unconscious dreamers whose sleepwalking caused so many irreversible changes.

The only reason I give the possibility of such a shift any credence is that, as Paul Hawken has described in his book, "Blessed Unrest", it’s already happening.  And that is the greatest reason for hope I can possibly imagine.

Namaste,
Bodhisantra

June 12, 2009

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