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      Profound Psychological Perspectives and Prescriptions for Trying Times

                                                                An Earth Manifesto publication by Dr. Tiffany B. Twain  

                                                                                                                               January 1, 2010

The famous pamphleteer Thomas Paine wrote, during a dark hour of the Revolutionary War in 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  In times of trouble we need someone to speak words of wisdom to us, clearly, cogently, truthfully and convincingly.  When we are absorbed in a bubble of fear and uncertainty, we can become paralyzed and lose the ability to rationally gauge our best courses of action.  In hard times we look to supposed experts, political leaders, economists, ideologues, spiritual authorities, gurus, saviors, or philosophers to provide us with guidance, assistance, reassurance and comforting direction to help us overcome adversities and our fears and insecurities.

Modern industrial capitalism is essentially driven by the goal of making profits through the stimulation of resource exploitation and materialistic excesses of consumption.  Today, seductive marketing and bubble economics and deregulatory ideologies and the promotion of debt financing and speculative greed have helped get us into an economic crisis which is more severe than any since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It is vitally important for us now to recover from this economic malaise, and to do so in ways that are sustainable in the long run.  We must re-orient ourselves, and restructure our societies, and rethink our national trajectories, and boldly move forward.

When economic growth falters, many social problems intensify and come into clearer focus.  Economic hardship forces us to reconsider our personal habits and goals and activities.  We need courage and perseverance and philosophic equanimity during such times;  and we need to avoid panic.  We need to reconnect with healthy aspirations and authentic goals. 

Our economies are structured to be highly dependent on increases in consumption and continuous population growth to stoke economic expansion and wealth creation and to provide jobs for the increasing number of people.  Yet we are beginning to see that there are distinct limits to the extent we can use up nonrenewable resources and over-harvest renewable resources.  There are limits to the damage we can do to natural ecosystems and to the amount of garbage and toxic wastes we can produce without causing significant adverse consequences.  There are also limiting factors associated with the burning of fossil fuels and the amount of greenhouse gases we can spew into the atmosphere without causing destabilizing climate change and other unintended adversities.

The purpose of this essay is to delve into the psychological aspects of capitalism, consumerism and human nature, and to seek better understanding of more sensible ways forward.  Before this investigation, I turn to the bigger context of these considerations.

The Über-Context:  Materialism Evaluated

President Obama gave the commencement speech to 2009 graduates of the catholic University of Notre Dame on May 17, 2009.  He declared:  “Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism.  The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manners of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustices.”

Modern man still has primitive instincts, and human nature has its noble aspects and its ignoble aspects.  The spiritual sides of our character and selves are the domain of our most noble motives, like aspirations for peace, fairness, compassion, kindness, healthy community and virtuous behaviors such as acting with prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.  Materialistic impulses like greed, envy, jealousy, acquisitiveness, pride of possession, immoderate selfishness and ruthless exploitation, on the other hand, lie on the ignoble side of the scale.  Even the quite conservative Pope Benedict XVI occasionally rails against rampant materialism.  Like the philosophies of almost all religious traditions, the Pope points out that worldly goods and money and power are transitory, and that ultimately they are not deeply fulfilling. 

Boethius, an influential Roman consul and philosopher, long ago made a similar argument in his book Consolation of Philosophy.  This was the most widely copied work of secular literature in Europe for many centuries.  Treachery had reduced Boethius from a position of power and wealth to that of a condemned prisoner in 524 A.D.  Then, in prison, a vision of ‘Lady Philosophy’ came to him that embodied true wisdom and compassion.  She gave him consolation, and he realized that happiness comes from within.  He wrote:

“Understanding of the self only arises in relationship, in watching yourself in relationship to people, ideas, and things;  to trees, the earth, and the world around you and within you.  Relationship is the mirror in which the self is revealed.  Without self-knowledge there is no basis for right thought and action.”

Materialism, self-understanding and proper relationship can be seen from a perspective that sheds light on much of human history.  An age-old battle has been waged from time immemorial between the flesh and the spirit.  All concepts of virtue and vice, of sin, and of heaven and hell originate in this basic conflict.  People seek meaning and fulfillment through material things and pleasures, as well as in spiritual practices like worship, meditation, and seeking enlightenment and transcendence.  Stoics and ascetics embrace a sense of rigorous propriety and a puritanical denial of pleasures, and they even sometimes mortify the flesh.  In contrast, Epicurean connoisseurs take a more humane and indulgent approach, seeking out the pleasures of delicious food, pleasing beverages, stimulating intercourse, swelling accomplishment, and the satisfaction of yearnings.  The ‘multitudes’, it seems, do not live by any particular philosophy;  they carouse at every opportunity, eating and drinking and dancing and flirting and gambling and laughing and loving and singing and striving and struggling and arguing and fighting and hating and praying and such.

Buddhist philosophers say that ‘desire is the source of all suffering’.  Surely there is some truth in that point of view, and there is a kind of merit in detachment from obsessive concerns about outcomes.  Luminous forces have done battle with dark forces from time immemorial, a struggle within us between virtue and vice, ascetic denial and Epicurean excesses, the spirit and the flesh.  In thinking about this tension between the spirit and the flesh, a perplexing vision comes to me of the alternating nobility and pathos of people who sublimate their physical desires.  As John Fowles points out, “We are designed to want;  with nothing to want, we are like windmills in a world without wind.”

I have a great deal of respect for Buddhists like the Dalai Lama, whose spirituality is not confused with motives for power and control like those of the leaders of established churches.  Unlike some religious leaders, the Dalai Lama does not espouse narrow and parochial and bigotry-prone doctrines that interfere with the otherwise noble aspects of religious traditions. 

Plunged in thought, I reflect on the fact that joys and sorrows affect every one of us, and future joys and sorrows will be felt by each of us in an unknowable measure.  Pleasure and pain are our lot between the moment of our first breath and that of our last.  For some, the joys are sadly few;  and for millions, the sorrows and profound anxieties are many.  Some people seek adventures, new experiences, fresh perspectives, new paths, and the road less taken.  Others prefer traditional activities, the reassuring solace of the known, and the comfort of the same old path;  these people tend to oppose change and close-mindedly reject new ideas, and they strive to belong and to conform. 

John Fowles points out in The Aristos that one reason that there is such a pronounced “great contemporary attraction” of drugs and philosophies like Zen Buddhism which facilitate the discovery of virgin beauty in familiar objects, is that our search for the new and the virgin is difficult to satisfy.  This puts us in “the same situation as Midas”:  “Everything he touched turned to gold, and from then on became useless to him.  We crave the virgin beauty, but as soon as we experience it, it turns to gold … or boredom.  We have to move on.  The satisfaction of the desire is the creation of a new desire.”

People tend to figuratively favor the god Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, ecstasy, inspiration, instinct, adventure, intoxication, song and music and dance;  OR, they favor the god Apollo, the god of peace, leisure, serenity, beauty, and intellectual contemplation, logic and philosophic calm.  This is another aspect of the conflict between the impulses of the body and flesh versus those of the mind and spirit.  This is a contrast between intention and action that may be related to the dominance of the left-brain over the right-brain;  it’s like the age-old contest for domination either by feelings, emotions and intuitions OR by thoughts and rationality. 

No ultimate right and wrong exists between these alternate ways of being and these differing visions of life.  The best that one can do is to assimilate the best of these contrasting ways of being by living one’s life with moderation, appreciation, respectful awareness, reasonable self-esteem, and a generosity of spirit.

Heroic omnivorous souls like the character Zorba in Zorba the Greek seek ultimate expression through the thorough whetting of appetites in life.  They embrace and exhaust all things with passion, so that when death finally comes, it will find a world-traveling spirit sufficiently spent that it will voice no wild lament, and express no sad regrets, and will instead feel a sense of deep satisfaction at a life well lived.  One could, in contrast, live the life of a saint and embrace visions of a life of eternal glory in Heaven while others supposedly are burning in Hell for having believed erroneously, or one could do good while alive for less reasons unrelated to religious dogmas.  ‘To do no harm”, is not a bad motto.

“Money Makes the World Go ‘Round”

John Fowles also writes in The Aristos:  “Each age has its mythical happy man;  the one with wisdom, with genius, with saintliness, with beauty, with whatever is rare and ‘the Many’ are not able to possess.  The twentieth century’s happy man is the man with money.”  He also notes:  “Much more than we let philosophies guide our lives, we allow obsessions to drive them;  and there is no doubt which has been the great driving obsession of the last one hundred and fifty years.  It is money.” …  “Having, not being, governs our time.” 

Money can, to a certain extent, buy the variety and security that most people strongly desire.  But we should not allow our societies to become increasingly unjust because of the unfair influence of Big Money in our political system.  The significant increases in disparities of wealth and inequalities that characterize our current neo-Gilded Age are not socially desirable.  Our public policies have stoked the envy of Have Nots, and given greater power to the protective jealously of the Haves.  These policies have powerfully motivated people to indulge in conspicuous consumption.  This state of affairs is cynically unwise and ecologically dangerous.

In John Bunyan’s allegorical book The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is To Come, the allegorical characters Christian and Faithful are traveling through the wilderness seeking salvation and entry into the Celestial City of Heaven.  Christian had even abandoned his family for this quixotic quest.  They must pass through the town of Vanity where there is a year-round fair, called Vanity Fair.  Bunyan notes that “… all that is sold there, or that comes from there, is vanity.” …  “This is no newly-begun business, but a thing of ancient standing.”  At this fair, “there are at all times to be seen” every kind of material thing, and lusts, pleasures and delights of all sorts, as well as “jugglings, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind”.  The religious travelers, striving to remain on the straight and narrow, took no interest in the goods for sale, asserting that, “We buy the truth.”  The truth?? -- Maybe yes, and maybe no, I say!  Myth and dogma and simplistic understandings may be appealing in many ways, but the fullness of nuance and complexity are needed for the best understanding of who we are, and what our best courses of action should be.

See Inspiration, Imagination, and the Deep Well of Human Impulses in the Earth Manifesto for more information about John Bunyan and the context of his religious perspectives.

The Foibles of a Societal Emphasis on Consuming Things

Industrial civilization relies on consumerism, but this strategy is a shortsighted and spiritually bankrupt expediency that serves to disconnect us from nature and the cycle of life and the wholesomeness of our communities.  Compulsive consumerism is in some regards a form of disconnectedness within our souls from our authentic well-being.  It represents a materialistic way of living that is arguably correlated to an oft-bemoaned decline in the standards of our society's morals and ethics and the level of happiness and satisfaction.  When people over-indulge in excesses of any sort, they are like addicts who must undergo withdrawal treatments to wean themselves from their addictions. 

Consumerism and advertising tend to equate personal happiness with the purchasing of material possessions.  Consumerism creates a kind of pathology that can produce angst and emptiness.  Some of its primary symptoms are addictive behaviors.  Shopping and buying things have figuratively become preferred drugs of choice.  Addiction to buying things that we don’t need is one characteristic of industrial society.  Other similar addictions in our modern world include dependence on alcohol, drugs, anti-depressants, bodily pleasures, gambling, personal debt, video games, electronic devices, and a domineering compulsion to try to control everything. 

This pervasive pattern of addictive behaviors strongly influences our economics and our politics and our interpersonal relationships.  This pattern of excesses and out-of-control consumption results in people in the United States consuming 70 times more per person on average than a person in India.  Such behaviors are not qualitatively different from well-known behavior patterns of substance abusers. 

A psychotherapist named Sally Erickson, producer of the documentary, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, once said:

"What most of us experience when it comes to addiction, is a pattern of continually seeking more of what it is we don't really want and, therefore, never being fully satisfied.  And as long as we are never satisfied, we continue to seek more, while our real needs are never being met."

Consumerism is arguably a reflection of the fact that in our culture we do not promote forms of authentic deeper meaning and purpose in our lives as much as we promote the acquisition of possessions.  Evangelical religions are not honest, relevant and ecumenical enough to propitiously provide for these needs.  Many people try to make up for this sense of hollowness by shopping and buying.  There is overwhelming evidence that people who have materialistic attitudes and values are less happy and more prone to anger and depression and anxiety than those who are less materialistic.  If a survey were done on the Top Ten Most Wonderful things that contribute to well-being in people’s lives, we would likely find that they are all non-material things. 

The main psychological determinants of happiness include good relationships, strong friendships, meaningful work, a broad education, community connectedness, the positivity of affirmation and recognition, physical health, leisure time undertakings, creative and artistic pursuits, simplicity of living, participatory sports, intimacy, kindness, peaceful coexistence, spiritual practices, and the appreciation of nature. 

Annie Leonard has produced a compelling video that one can watch online, called The Story of Stuff.  This film talks about the crisis caused by our addiction to the growth of consumption, and the dysfunctional and detrimental aspects of consumerism that are involved in the extraction of resources and the profligate production, distribution, consumption and disposal of goods.  The video provides a fascinating perspective on such things as the pathos of a system designed for planned obsolescence and fashion-related ‘perceived obsolescence’.  It concludes with a strong argument for better ways forward, and for the restructuring of our economy.  It adduces many ideas on how we can achieve economic justice and ecological sustainability.  I highly recommend watching the film! 

Fulfillment vs. Addiction

Psychologists say that the purpose or function of an addiction is essentially to put a buffer between ourselves and the experience or awareness of our emotions.  Addictions serve to numb us so that we are out of touch with what we know and what we feel.  This numb buffer zone eventually becomes a habitual coping mechanism.  There are many socially accepted surrogates for genuine well-being and healthy connectedness -- things like alcohol, Prozac, obsessive work, or Jesus -- but these things do not truly heal.

Addictions, according to psychologists, often arise as the result of some violation of the self, like a deep wounding or trauma.  This wounding can come from any number of causes:  economic hardship, broken relationships, domestic abuse and violence, illness, the death of a loved one, prejudice, racism, hateful feelings, warfare, and even insidiously mundane things like shame, rejection, insecurity or feelings of inadequacy.

Writer-activists like Chellis Glendinning even assert that consumer culture drives a "culture of empire" that is inherently abusive, because this system is built on the exploitation of resources and the subjugation of peoples.  People who live under such systems tend to undergo a wounding or trauma that leaves society suffering from a collective form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Glendinning examines this disturbing relationship between addiction and the ecological crisis in her book, My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization.

In an essay on what she calls “techno-addiction”, Glendinning writes about our "primary" and "secondary" sources of satisfaction.  Primary needs are those needs intrinsic to human beings and necessary for life:  nourishment, love, awareness, meaning, purpose and spiritual succor.  When primary needs are not met, we turn to the "secondary" sources, which include drugs, violence, pornography, material possessions and gadgets.  Eventually we become obsessed with the secondary sources "as if our lives depended on them."

It is these secondary sources of satisfaction that our economic and political systems are designed to sell.  In doing so, they reinforce addictive behaviors and help to drive the consumer machine.  Businesses stimulate demand with seductive advertising and sly sales tactics that utilize slick demonstrations and persuasive testimonials and sexy user imagery and even amusing parody.  Product advertising exploits people’s unconscious motivations and manipulates hidden psychological desires.  Television and radio ads often appeal to our base instincts for dominance over others.  They titillate us, or urge us to conform.  They do not generally appeal to our higher and more virtuous instincts.  Consumption is promoted not only through persuasive corporate marketing, but also through wrong-headed government subsidies and tax incentives and the encouragement of consumerism in holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day. 

Advertising and the media generally do not contribute to wholesome values.  They help condition people to envy and to be envied.  They use sex and celebrity to sell products;  they glamorize youth;  and they divert people’s attention from vitally important things by using sensationalism in the news and shallow distractions like stories of scandal, intrigue and violence.  We are entertained by sports spectacles and vicarious experiences of the glory of victory and the agony of defeat.  A sinister side-effect of these influences is that they encourage winning at any cost.  Slick marketing makes us less aware of positive values such as integrity of character, honesty, thoughtfulness, healthy moderation, genuine connectedness, responsible thrift, generosity of spirit, positive forms of communication, and real civic responsibility. 

Bumper Sticker:  Clear the Road

                              I’m SIXTEEN!

Marketing and Consumer Psychology

Our corporate consumer culture is driven by consumers who are never satisfied with what they buy.  People are conditioned to always want to buy the newest and the biggest in order to feel like they are somebody.  If more authentic needs were being met, it's a good possibility that certain markets would contract or collapse.  Knowing this, businesses have in a sense engineered our identities to encourage disposable goods and accommodate forced obsolescence.  We are told that every few years we need an upgrade.  Tellingly, we call it our "new look" or the "new you."  Whole industries are based on this.

"We can see where consumer psychology has led us," one observer notes.  "It's a disaster.  It's the kind of thing that has caused the human organism and psyche to go so far out of balance.  Marketing to our unconscious leads us down a dangerous path that promises satisfaction and wholeness and a sense of importance and worth, without us having to do anything but spend.  But none of these things come in any real sense unless we work hard at them."

It is foolishly shortsighted for us to let such pervasive persuasion result in consumerism that threatens the future well-being of life on Earth.  This is especially true in light of mindless resource depletion and stimulated population growth.  Our societies would be better off, in the long run, if we invested more money in well-rounded critical-thinking education and in efficient uses of energy, conservation efforts, national infrastructure, fair opportunity, social justice, honest family planning and free contraception.  Instead of doing this, our leaders squander taxpayer funds and borrow money from the future to give generous tax breaks to rich people, and to fund pork barrel projects, increase corporate and citizen “entitlements”, ramp up spending on weapons and warfare and foreign occupations and war reconstruction projects, and naively teach abstinence from sexual activity.  We must change these priorities and alter this paradigm!

Times of crisis provide our nation with greater opportunities to make significant positive changes for the future.  But in desperate times, our leaders all too often embrace shortsighted expediencies.  For instance, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush urged us to go shopping.  He could have instituted a bold program after 9/11 that would have steered us toward energy independence by developing fossil fuel alternatives;  he could have helped wean us from polluting non-renewable fossil fuels by encouraging us to use energy more efficiently, and to consume less fuel.  This would have lessened our dangerous dependence on the volatile Middle East for our energy supplies.  The Bush Administration could also have implemented a modest tax increase to pay for its “war on terror”.  This would have represented a small bit of ‘sacrifice’ that would have left our national economy in much better shape.  He could have;  he should have;  but he didn’t.

In the face of the daunting obstacles we face, we must not despair.  After all:

     “Despair is the solace of fools.”  ---Today’s Special, a humorous 2009 film

The Implications of Consumerism as a Gambit for Social Control

Making addictions seem natural through strategies that promote consumerism curiously had its beginnings in early 20th century notions of psychology and social control.  The story of how hyper-consumerism and the consumer self came into being is the subject of Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary,The Century of the Self.  One of the theories that emerged was the brainchild of Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, who was a sloganeering progenitor of ‘public relations’.  Bernays helped Woodrow Wilson sell the First World War to the American public by inventing the tag line, "Making the World Safe for Democracy."  "Public Relations is really just propaganda," Bernays says in the film, "but we couldn't use the word because the Germans had."

Bernays showed American corporations how to encourage people to buy material goods they didn't need.  He did this by connecting those products to people’s subliminal thoughts and unconscious desires and unmet needs.  This made Bernays quite powerful, and he used this influence to propose that the same principles be used politically to control the masses.  This social-control-through-indulgence model was later excoriated in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a book that is a critique of consumerism and the vapidity of a culture that is based in pleasure seeking.  Brave New World is a “futuristic dystopia” in which freethinking and human attachment have either been outlawed or genetically modified out of most of humanity.  In its place is an oppressive and dumbed-down hierarchical ‘Big Brother’ society that is pathetically characterized by conformity, dependence, lots of high-tech entertainment, sexual promiscuity and a powerful, all-purpose narcotic drug called Soma, which is used to dispel thoughts and quell unpleasant feelings.  Soma is similar, disturbingly, to the most widespread drugs sold today in the United States --- anti-depressants.

We seem to be creating a Cowardly New World through the domination of our political process by amoral corporations and the concomitant dysfunction of mindless diversions and manipulative propaganda.  People’s feelings of ethnocentric supremacism are used by our leaders to support aggressive militarism, and some drugs like alcohol and coffee and nicotine are encouraged while others like cannabis are harshly repressed.  I advocate more enlightened policies, and more progressive ones!

The Epiphanies of Sigmund Freud and John Fowles

To better understand the psychological underpinnings of this situation, it is helpful to examine the insights of Sigmund Freud into the essential nature of the human psyche.  Freud analyzed the mind/self as being governed by three principal aspects:  (1) the ego, which represents the province of conscious desires;  (2) the id, which represents the more obscure province of subconscious motivations;  and (3) the superego, which governs the emotional intelligence that strives to balance and control these other two powerful forces.

Freud contended that each person internalizes the ego values that society regards as being fulfilling.  The nobler aspects of us as individuals seek fulfillment through such things as our contribution to society and our own sense of meaning, integrity, connection, love and vital accomplishment.  Consumerism, on the other hand, teaches the ego to let go of integrity, and to vainly inflate itself with material things, and to associate and confuse self-worth with net worth and possessions and conspicuous consumption.

Author John Fowles realized that there is also a more subtle force that is growing deep in the modern soul.  This is the ‘nemo’, representing the psychic force that motivates us to try to be somebody, to be remembered, and to thwart our profound fear of being an insignificant nobody.  The nemo is activated by such haunting anxieties as feelings of psychological emptiness, futility, ephemerality and insignificance.  The nemo is agitated by the knowledge of unfairness and inequalities in life.  The idea of the nemo is proposed in John Fowles’ thought-provoking book The Aristos.

Fowles recognized that people seek personal senses of self-esteem and security by trying either (1) to conform, or (2) to conflict.  People conform by striving to obtain the status symbols that society defines as successful.  For instance, many people obsess over money, or consume conspicuously (Bling!), or seek identity by embracing uniforms of belonging.  Alternatively, to gain attention or a sense of self-importance, people often choose to conflict.  They find meaning in striving to be unique, to embrace countercultural ideals, to oppose the conventional, to be cool or ‘bad’, to seek liberation, to escape through altering their consciousness, or to indulge in the allures of the forbidden.  Everyone, deep down, wants to be regarded as “somebody”, or to create some sort of lasting legacy.

Marketing propaganda exploits these conscious and subconscious human impulses by taking advantage of natural drives that help define our senses of meaning and self-importance, especially the drives for security and belonging and sexual attraction. 

These ideas are being explored because it seems probable that once we more clearly understand the psychological motivations that underlie our actions, we will have a better chance of changing our system so that our societies become dedicated to healthier and nobler causes, and to those things that really matter the most.  The restructuring of our societies to give people more wholesome purposes and positive potentialities would be distinctly advantageous.  It could help us create saner individuals and healthier communities, and it would motivate us to give greater respect to the biotic health of Mother Earth.

I opine in Comprehensive Global Perspective – An Illuminating Worldview that the “nemo of neoconservatives” is driving mankind headlong in the direction of potential calamity.  Nationalistic neoconservative convictions of God-appointed self-righteousness were particularly strong during the Presidency of George W. Bush.  These ideas impelled us down an arrogant and ignominious and imperialistic path.  The neoconservative worldview facilitates unjust authoritarian domination and serves to advocate special privileges for insider elites.  As a result, our nation indulged in prideful empire building and militaristic world dominion, as well as white supremacy, misogynistic male authoritarianism, social repression, puritanical domestic policies, brutal prisoner interrogation policies, and theocratic Christian hegemony.  Neoconservatism also fervently embraces irresponsible profiteering and unfettered capitalism.  In contrast, I advocate that we create fairer societies and make more courageous attempts to coexist with others peacefully and promote more far-sighted ecological understandings!

John Fowles tellingly noted in The Aristos that “we are all psychological dwarfs, and we have the complexes and psychological traits that are characteristic of dwarfs:  feelings of inferiority, with compensatory cunning and malice.”  Yikes!  (Apologies to dwarfs for the generalization!)

“A healthy and wholesome cheerfulness is not necessarily impossible to any occupation.”

                                                                                                                     --- Mark Twain

Critical Insights … or Merely Psycho-Babble?

Many of the above psychological insights have been plagiarized from an article by Charles Shaw that was originally published on AlterNet.  I recently found it copied into one of my ‘Germinating’ files.  This essay borrows extensively from Shaw’s valuable ideas.  He pointed out that an activist and performance artist named ‘Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping’ says that consumerism has become our great national addiction.  The ‘Reverend’ was the star of the film What Would Jesus Buy?  He preaches a gospel of anti-consumerism, saying that if we are ever going to move away from being consumers and back to being good citizens, our society needs “to go into recovery”.  "I recommend at least 60 to 90 days away from shopping just to detox.  If we don't repent," he warns, "then the Shopocalypse is coming!"  Hmmm …

A great dilemma presents itself.  If we were all to do less shopping, the economy would undergo a dramatic contraction.  This has, in fact, happened in the last year due to a credit crunch and the trend reversal of the “wealth effect” that Alan Greenspan so diligently and rashly cultivated.  Recently, the faltering economy has been affected by another development:  not only are average Americans spending less money because tens of millions of people are unemployed and almost everyone has lost some of their net worth, but even rich people are beginning to show a greater sensitivity to ostentatious spending.  What would happen if people stopped acting on materialistic and egocentric impulses to attain higher social status?  Wealthy people might even be becoming mindful of the ecological folly of consuming extravagantly and wastefully.  I mean, maybe a little, outside of Texas?  Ha!

The decades-long American economic strategy of hyper-stimulating the international economy is creating serious problems.  The strategy suddenly looks like a house-of-cards.  By foolishly facilitating consumerism and empowering multinational corporatism and stoking easy credit and cultivating bubble economics and encouraging aggressive home equity borrowing and incurring more and more debt, we create an unstable economy.  At the same time that the home appreciation bubble is bursting and the value of equities has fallen, we are approaching levels of consumer and government debt that may be close to the maximum that is prudent or sustainable.  We must therefore figure out how to structure our societies in new ways that are productive, ways that create millions of jobs while also taking into account the overarching importance of economic activities that are ecologically sound and sustainable.  Human activities must become restorative of Earth’s ecosystems, rather than being destructive of them.  This is a grave predicament.  But we would be wise to come to grips with it. 

We can do this.  But we must be honest about all the interrelated aspects of this quandary, including the adverse impacts of uncontrolled population growth.  When our civilizations were agrarian, having many children meant lots of cheap labor and a form of family security for people in their old age, so it made good sense.  As the industrial revolution stoked urbanization and transformed societies by making it much more costly to feed and educate children, large families became outmoded and “social security” programs became more necessary.  Progress toward more effective and more easily available contraception in the past century has allowed people to better plan the number and timing of their offspring, and this has led to remarkable demographic changes and smaller families.  The average woman of child-bearing age in Mexico, for instance, had SEVEN children thirty years ago, and today they are begetting an average of fewer than THREE children.  This is stunning, really.

Leading indicators tell us that resource limitations and conflicts over diminishing resources mean that people need to be flexible in adapting to new conditions in which even smaller families make better sense.  The quality of life must take precedence over the quantity of children we have.  Unfortunately, religious establishments have found that it is extremely difficult to find gullible converts to their doctrines, and they know from long experience that when believers have large families the Church automatically has greater success in recruiting pliable potential adherents, so to assure continued growth of their influence they staunchly oppose sensible sex education, contraception and reproductive prerogatives for women.  But Churches must evolve, and stop their opposition to pragmatic and socially intelligent family planning.  As Mark Twain pointed out, “The church is always trying to get other people to reform;  it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example.” 

Population stabilization is just one facet of the changes we need in our societies.  One of the most far-reaching and positive ways of making this a better world would be to devise changes in societies in every nation in the world that would effectively encourage girls and women to get an education and to give them more power.  Our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and all female ‘significant others’ in our lives deserve greater appreciation and respect.  They also need more clearly articulated rights and civil protections in our patriarchal societies.  This is one of the most profound and courageous undertakings we could commit to, and it would be a definite win/win situation for men as well as for women.  It would reduce gender stresses, improve interpersonal relationships, and help reduce the size of families.  It would improve the potential quality of life of all children, and limit the many environmental pressures on our home planet caused by rapid population growth.

It occurs to me that faith which does not admit of doubt is absurd.  As Barack Obama said in his May 17, 2009 commencement address to Notre Dame graduates:  “This doubt should not push away our faith.  But it should humble us.  It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness.” 

Religious people, as well as those who are not religious, should remember that we need to have respectful dialogues rather than to demonize others.  We need to be able to communicate with a generous understanding to find common ground.  Barack Obama has called for open hearts and fair-minded words and open minds in the search for common ground in debates over issues like abortion and women’s rights and stem cell research.  Such sentiments strengthen moderate forces inside established churches, and argue against the stoking of culture wars.  They harken back to the noble aspects of religious teachings which say “Love thy neighbor”.  They put the spotlight on the fact that right wing and conservative elements have much too stubbornly dominated religious debate in recent years.  Moderate and liberal elements must take back their churches from extremists who have had dominion for so many years.

   “True story.”

                    --- Rowbear

Global Recovery

Very good reasons exist for humanity to be open-minded enough to consider going into a type of ‘global recovery program’ from our growth-addicted consumerism.  An addiction can be conquered, according to the wise psychologist Carl Jung, only through a true spiritual awakening of some sort.  Likewise, ecologists believe that only a global spiritual awakening will end the cultural consumer addiction that is ravaging the planet and causing a planetary ecological crisis.  This is a provocative perspective!  For deeper ecological understandings, I encourage readers to peruse the aforementioned Earth Manifesto ‘magnum opus’, the Comprehensive Global Perspective:  An Illuminating Worldview.  In this epistle, Chapter #98 – True Values expresses this observation:

Television, radio, newspaper, and magazine advertising tend to indoctrinate us with false values.  They effectively enshrine the gods of materialism on the highest pedestal of our imaginations.  Above all, the message of advertising is that happiness is found in possessing things.  It subtly preaches that you should get all you can for yourself, and that you should get it all as quickly as possible.  It champions variety, pleasure seeking, luxury, indulgence, and the avoidance of boredom.  Shopping and owning things have become central ways for us to make ourselves feel “cool” and special and more worthy. 

Our shopping-seduced consumer culture is causing us to fail to appreciate truer values.  We have supersized our meals, our houses and our automobiles.  But these “gains” have come at a high social and environmental cost, and they are arguably diminishing the true quality of our lives.  I have faith in the potentiality of people to develop richer lives without at the same time impoverishing the planet and harming others.

Another aspect of the gross commercialization of our societies is the manipulation of children for marketing purposes.  Using the “Nag Factor”, advertisers exploit the credulity and vulnerability of children to manipulate them into nagging their parents to buy things.  Especially harmful is the marketing of unhealthy junk foods to children, including sugary cereals, candy, soda pop and fast food.  This contributes to obesity, childhood diabetes and other health problems.  Saturation marketing by the toy industry even affects young minds by diminishing the imagination of children through corporate tie-in toys that narrow play activities.  These trends may effectively brainwash children into being good consumers rather than being good citizens and virtuous human beings.

Mild austerity can actually be a tonic for the character, whereas wild riches quite often prove corrosive.  (“There but for the grace of God go I.” --- Ha!)  The economic hard times of World War II forced people to ride bikes, plant gardens, mend clothes, recycle, reuse, spend more time in cooperative endeavors with neighbors, and cultivate friendships.  These were good things.  “Moderation in everything!”

Historical Perspective Is Valuable

It is widely recognized that capitalist economic systems during the past century have out-competed and supplanted centrally-planned ones in countries worldwide.  Ideological arguments have arisen which stubbornly insist that capitalism should be allowed to flourish with a minimum of government interference.  But every economic system is structured according to laws and regulations that govern the prerogatives of producers and consumers and capital and labor.  Our economies simply must be better structured and more fairly designed with powerful incentives and disincentives to advance the common good and prevent socially harmful activities like fraud, insider trading, worker exploitation, conglomerate abuses, the wasting of resources, and the unacceptable externalizing of costs upon society and the ecological commons. 

Our economies also must be much better managed.  Unbridled competition leads to risky excesses and many forms of unfairness and injustices and increased inequalities.  Such distortions and excesses can create dangerous and highly detrimental economic hardship and recession.  On the other hand, too much bureaucracy and bigger government can be wasteful, vulnerable to corruption, inhibiting, inefficient and anti-competitive.  A better balance must be struck between laissez-faire capitalism and overly-regulated capitalism. 

Economic fundamentalists must relent in their stubborn insistence on deregulation and regressive changes in taxation and the dominance of politics by large corporations.  All Americans should support policies that focus on a fairer balance between the goals of consumers and investors, on the one hand, and differing goals that are congruent with the common good, on the other.  We must transcend hyper-partisanship, and begin to cooperate together to ensure that our political system delivers prosperity which is broadly shared.  We must not lose sight of the fact that we need to strive to make sure that economic and social conditions are consistent with the greater good in both the short term and the long term.

The ideology of Reaganomics largely opposed public investment, other than ramped-up military spending.  This latter kind of investment can be detrimental and wasteful, so it can be of questionable merit.  Ronald Reagan considered almost all spending other than ‘defense spending’ to be wrong-headed government spending.  This is why budgets were reduced, on an inflation-adjusted basis, for education, job training, infrastructure, and basic research and development during his Administration.  George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush pursued similar tactics and goals.  This may be one reason that Republicans are reluctant to make health care a universal right.  The Republican Party did champion a costly new drug entitlement program in 2003, but this move can accurately be seen as ‘corporate welfare’ for the pharmaceutical industry, not as a true concern for the well-being of older citizens, and certainly not as a wise program from the standpoint of younger people, whose interests are so poorly represented.

The policies of ‘Obamanomics’, in contrast, are theoretically committed to forms of public investment in people and productivity and innovation.  There is good reason for this, according to economist Robert Reich:  “In a global economy, capital moves to wherever it can get the best deal around the globe.  That means capital and jobs go to nations that can promise high returns either because labor is cheap and taxes and regulations are low, OR because labor is highly productive due to a well educated work force that is healthy and supported by modern infrastructure.  Which type of nation do we want to be? 

For the better part of the last quarter century, our implicit economic strategy has tended toward the first.  But that's a recipe for lower wages and lower living standards for most Americans, together with widening inequality.  The only resource that is rooted uniquely in a national economy is its people -- their skills and insights and capacities to collaborate, and the transportation and communication systems that link them together.  Everything else -- including capital, technology, designs, even plant and equipment -- can move around the globe with increasing ease.”  Let’s support more intelligent policy-making!

We simply must embrace more farsighted planning, because we are faced with a "perfect storm" of problems, including food and water shortages and insufficient energy resources.  These problems make it urgent that we deal boldly with the challenges that confront us.  These shortages will likely unleash more unsettling and risk-laden public unrest and cross-border conflicts and mass migrations as people flee from the worst-affected regions, according to the United Kingdom's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington.  The world is heading for major upheavals which are due to come to a head by 2030, says Professor Beddington.  “The growing population and success in alleviating poverty in developing countries will trigger a surge in demand for food, water and energy over the next two decades, at a time when governments must also make major progress in combating climate change.”  NOW is the time to begin coping with these problems!

A Ditty About Thomas Paine

The pamphleteer Thomas Paine was a common sense American hero who passionately stood for the freedom of individuals and a fair modicum of social and legal equality for the colonists, and for democratic representation in a federal government that would be independent from the tyranny of the British Empire.  Paine inspired generations of Americans toward exceptional purpose and revolutionary ideals.

In the Musical Pins and Needles in 1937, the lyrics from the song Status Quo are revealing:

In 1776 Tom Paine was writing books with a might and main
The Tory said "Now man alive
Stop giving out with this here liberty jive”

“Don't sing of people's rights that way
They might believe in what you say
So stop your song it's not polite
Pipe down before you start a fight”

-You don't say, Teacher, is that right?

Aha, but Tom Paine looked ahead
And to those Tories, Thomas said no, no, no, no
When you got to go, you got to go
You can't stand still on freedom's track
If you don't go forward, you go back
You can't giddyup by saying Whoa
And sitting on your status quo.

The conservatives of today are like the Tories of Thomas Paine’s time.  Conservatives have seriously harmed our nation in the past decade.  This is astonishingly ironic.  The Party of so-called conservatives threw caution to the wind when they controlled the federal government from 2001 to 2009.  They gambled wildly and acted like irresponsible radicals.  They undermined precautionary principles of ecological sanity;  they opposed scientific consensus understandings;  they supported ideological fiscal policies that dismantled proven safeguards against economic depression;  they sought regressive changes in the tax system to make it much less fair for the majority of people, in favor of the wealthy;  they promoted empire-building and U.S. military aggression;  they gave more power to multi-national corporations and the ‘military/industrial complex’ and business lobbyists;  they struggled against Golden Rule fairness principles and measures that would ensure more social equality;  they strongly opposed change, even when it was smart and sensible, except when they wanted to do such things as reduce regulations on banks and infringe on constitutional rights in the name of national security;  they defended the rights of women to have unlimited numbers of children but opposed women’s reproductive prerogatives;  and they claimed to support human life, but were eager to apply the death penalty and seemed to care more about the quantity of life spawned than the overall quality for life of the general populace. 

As a result of these wrong-headed policies, conservatives lost the national elections in November 2008, and progressives won a great political victory.  It is now time for progressives to demonstrate the integrity of their beliefs by acting in ways that are consistent with creative and humanistic and fair-minded thinking.  Some say that it is our moral obligation to do better as winners than either we, or our political opponents, have done in the past few decades;  that we need to put aside our differences and decline to vilify those who have vilified us.  In any case, we need to build more effective bridges and coalitions to solve the daunting challenges that face us.  And we must not compromise our founding American principles;  instead, we must articulate them more clearly, and work to find win/win solutions that help make our nation a more productive place with more solid foundations.

My best prescriptions for healthier societies are detailed in three compendiums that can be found in Part Four of the Earth Manifesto:  (1) Three Bills of Right: A Triumvirate of Responsible Actions for the Greater Good;  (2) One Dozen Big Initiatives to Positively Transform Our Societies, and (3) Progressive Agenda for a More Sane Society.  Check them out!

We must boldly and open-mindedly go forward, and create a better future.  One of my pet theories is that a commission of two dozen smart people drawn from diverse backgrounds and independent of partisan political influences could come up with far better plans for a prosperous and propitious way forward than we are currently achieving through our vested-interest-dominated political process.  This commission would be like the impartial panels of ordinary citizens that form the Civil Grand Juries in every County in California.  Such groups of people could easily recommend wiser budgets and better plans and smarter compromises that would be designed to make this a fairer world.  A commitment should be made to listening to their findings, and to acting upon them!

I have traveled extensively around Europe, North Africa, Asia, the Pacific islands, and Latin America, and I can assure you that there are good people everywhere.  Another of my pet theories is that it is entirely reasonable to believe that the best strategy for us to adopt would be one in which we collectively choose to make our societies more just, so that inequities do not make stresses worse and cause increasing poverty and violence and insurrections and wars. 

Why Don’t We All Do More Good?

Mark Twain regarded himself in his later years as an icon of common sense and public virtue.  He once said, “Always do right.  This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”  Ha! -- A good call.

Think about the philosophic aspects of this humorous statement.  Some say that we have no freedom of will, and that all of our actions are determined by inherited propensities or social conditioning.  Others say, in contrast, that we have complete freedom of will.  John Fowles writes:  “Most religions and codes of justice have supposed complete freedom of will in order to make their ethical and punitive systems effective;  and this is more forgivable, if no less undemonstrable than the determinist reduction of all human behavior to mechanics.” 

While almost every person would say they believe people should do good, few do all the good they could.  This is one of the deep contradictions of human nature.  John Fowles, in his philosophical treatise The Aristos, considers this issue, noting:  “For the last two and a half millennia almost every great thinker, every great saint, and every great artist has advocated, personified and celebrated -- or at least implied -- the nobility and excellence of the good act as the basis of the just society.”

Yet the bulk of mankind seems to apprehend “a perverse but deeper truth:  it is better generally to do nothing than generally to do good.”  Fowles adduces many reasons for this seeming shortcoming.  We are not only seekers of spiritual nobility, we are also eternal seekers of reward for ourselves.  We expect recompense for doing good, and more than just a clear conscience or a feeling of self-righteousness.  We seek the hope of benefits in return, or approval, or recognition, or personal gratitude, or community esteem, or we seek to assuage a sense of guilt.  John Fowles lists the principal causes that he sees for this failure to do good:  a perception that the action that is contemplated is so small in relation to the final intention that it seems pointless;  an uncertainty of what the outcome may be, or a conflict of intentions;  a fatalistic belief that it is only an illusion that we have freedom of choice in willing an action;  the complex nature of understanding;  a feeling that it is futile to oppose an “evil”;  or a belief that our opposition will give ‘counter-support’ to what is opposed.

If we were to structure our societies so that the incentives for doing good were more attractive, more good would result.  We all face a multitude of anxieties in life, from fundamental universal anxieties to special individual anxieties.  These anxieties should unite us rather than isolate us.  When we let them divide us, as John Fowles explains:  it is “as if the citizens of a country would defend it by each barricading himself in his own house.”

In any case, positive attitudes are extremely important in our lives.  Sylvia Boorstein, the prominent Buddhist who also happens to be a Jewish grandmother, has written:  “We don’t get a choice about what hand we are dealt in life.  The only choice we have is our attitude about the cards we hold and the finesse with which we play our hand.”  I say, then:  Let us collectively begin to play our hands with more fair-minded and sensible and visionary finesse!   Mother Mary comes to me, Speaking words of wisdom:  Let it be!

Although there are healthy and valuable aspects to maintaining a positive attitude, my mind wanders to Bill Moyers’ keynote address on October 16, 2001 to the Environmental Grantmakers Association.  He observed that he once asked a friend on Wall Street what he thought about the stock market, and the friend replied, "I'm optimistic."  He then asked, "Then why do you look so worried?!"  And his friend answered: "Because I'm not sure my optimism is justified."  An existential Ha!

Though perplexity may confront us in many things, transcendental changes are required for our well-being, and for the well-being of our children and their descendents.  Let’s find the areas that we share of common ground, and in this agreeable unity, let us strive to leave a more sensible legacy to the future.  Let us “pay forward” some overarching social good!


                  Dr. Tiffany B. Twain     

                     Hannibal, Missouri     

      January 1, 2010  



P.S.   Admittedly, when a person explores psychological insights without being a professional, it makes them vulnerable to a psychoanalytical assessment of all aspects of their character and persona and motives.  Well, I plunge ahead audaciously.  A popular 1995 ‘New Age’ book titled The Celestine Prophecy asserts that a synchronicity of coincidences can be discovered in events that transpire, and that these coincidences have deep meanings and mystical connections.  In attempting to understand the significance of such contentions with my whole soul, I can see the extraordinary import of the unfolding sequence of occurrences in my life, as clearly as if I have been wandering in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights.  Fate!  For instance, I recently saw soulful rocker Joe Cocker crooning from the stage at a live concert;  he was accompanied by a hot sexy female bass guitar player and other accomplished members of the band.  The songs, strung together in a veritably rich profusion of lyrics are like a roadmap to the soul, definitively full of significance.  They must be a propitious sign.  Joe Cocker sang: 

Come Together, Right Now, Over Me

    (‘One thing I can tell you is you got to be free’). 

I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends (“What would you do if I sang out of tune”;

    … “I want somebody to love’). 

You Can Leave Your Hat On (‘You give me reason to live’). 

Unchain My Heart (‘Please set me free’). 

She Came In Through the Bathroom Window (‘Sunday’s on the phone to Monday,

   Tuesday’s on the phone to me’). 

Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong (“All we have is here and now’).        Hmmm …


         A Closed Mind in a Wonderful Thing To Lose       --- Bumper Sticker 2009

                 (I’m of two minds about this matter!)