Are We Happy Yet?

Kennecott Glacier, also Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

A recent thread on global warming and other environmental issues posed the question: “Are we having fun yet?” What a fantastic question to ask of ourselves in the year 2008. This question hit me square between the eyes; that’s really the issue here, isn’t it, I thought. That’s exactly what’s going on. Recent years have given more people more access to more goods and services, more art, more sport, more information, even to more other people, than ever before. With the internet we have access to the entire world at our fingertips. I can learn about almost anything in a matter of minutes. I can order plated Patagonian Alpaca Wool rugs in a few seconds, with the click of a mouse. I can order Goat’s Milk chocolate from Israel in the time it takes me to write this sentence. Figuratively, we have everything, literally we have more than anyone has ever had before. We live, in every sense of the word, in a time of abundance. And yet we seem bent on ‘more’. Why aren’t we happy yet, I wondered. (note: before you read on, this gets kinda long)

We work harder and longer, producing ever higher yields of ‘stuff’, reducing both our time for leisure and social relations, 2 primary sources of happiness, and replaced those with hours spent commuting, working, producing and consuming. Ironically enough, these have all been shown NOT to produce happiness. They have, ironically, been linked to depression, to stress, to nervousness, to anxiety, to anger, and that root of all evil, fear. As consumers fill their homes with more and increasingly expensive items such as motorboats and jewellery and high definition TVs and third or fourth cars, they spend ever-increasing dollars on burglar alarm systems and private security guards.

What’s all this got to do with nature photography? Well, it’s got a lot to do with nature, that much is certain. Our compulsive consumption engenders much less of what we call ‘nature’, and many, many more strip malls. We’ve replaced an incredible biodiversity with urban sprawl and office parks and monocrops. As someone who would rather photograph herds of bison than buyers, mountain ridges than city skylines and old growth forests over concrete jungles, that’s something I worry about.

Let’s look briefly at some stats of the last few centuries in the United States of America (this is simply a few – we could look at countless more):

We’ve consumed:

* Approx 60-100 million bison.
* Flocks of passenger pigeons once numbering in the billions (Billions, with a B, as in “B-I-L-L-I-O-N-S)
* The Great Auk, once found from Canada to Norway, and as far south as Florida and Southern Spain
* Stellar’s Sea Cow, first identified by western explorers in 1741, extinct 30 years later.
* Eastern elk, wiped out so quickly we still don’t know exactly where they once roamed and where they did not.
* Carolina parakeet, a gorgeous bird , exctinct because their bright plumage made them (apparently) excellent target practice.
* The innoncent beaver, nearly extinct in the eastern US by 1800, and nationwide by 1930 (fortunately the population has been granted a stay of execution and numbers are rebounding.
* Sea otters, once numbering nearly 300 000, reduced to 1-2000 animals by 1800, (currently c. 8000).
* 7th highest rate of primary forest loss in the world – by the mid 1800s, nearly all of the indigenous forest along the eastern seaboard was gone.
* The United States is both the world’s leading producer and consumer of forest products.
* In 1997, the U.S. consumed 99 million tons of paper and paperboard products, or 738 pounds per person. We consume more than 30% of the worlds paper.
* In 1990 over 12 000 new products hit the shelves in the US. This number is in the vicinity of 30 000 at this time. That’s over 80 new products on the shelves every single day.
* The USA constitutes 5% of the world’s population and consumes 25% of the energy. That same 5% has more environmental impact than the 51% that live in the other 5 largest countries. The United States is the world’s largest single emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for 23 percent of energy-related carbon emissions worldwide.

Rather than being satiated, we seem bent on consuming more. We now import more products than we export. Living in one of the richest landmasses in the world, we import products (and services) for our consumption. An ever increasing number of Americans earning in excess of $100 000 annually, describe their situation as “barely able to make ends meet”. They live a lifestyle that most of the world’s population would describe as ‘luxurious’ and yet they feel as if they’re barely able to make ends meet. People in the US today are, on average, 4.5 times richer than their great grandparents were at the start of the last century, but they’re not 4.5 times happier. Something’s awry, my friends, something’s very awry.

Rather than go on, I think it’s useful to examine this and see what it might perhaps point to. Before I do, however, I want to be as clear as possible. I’m not bashing the US. Even a cursory examination shows that the same is true, to a lesser degree, for many places today, especially those in which most of our cultural roots were spawned. The desertification of the Middle East occurred long before overpopulation was a problem. Most of western Europe lost how much wildlife over a thousand years ago? Where are the shadows of the bears, the wolves, the lions, the bison, etc, that roamed European countryside long ago? Though the ‘problem’ isn’t exclusive to the USA, it’s perhaps most clearly manifest here for of a number of different reasons, one of which is simply timing – the incredible abundance of this landbase hadn’t been exploited by Western Civilization because nobody knew it existed until relatively recently. That discovery coincided with an Industrial Revolution of unprecedented magnitude; this incredibly plentiful new world, if indeed it really is our oyster, was quickly shucked and chugged.

What is this compulsion to consume? Where does it come from? How can we shake it? What are the side effects, if any, of this disorder? I’ll take a stab at answering just a few of the countless questions that seem to spring to mind when we consider this situation.

Is it an addiction?

It certainly appears to fit the clinical definition of addition. Our seeming inability to cease such behavioral patterns in the face of overwhelming evidence of their destructive nature clearly fit the clinical definition of addiction or compulsion (more on the ‘destructive nature’ point later). When behavior continues in spite of our knowledge of the destruction it brings, often to family, work and social relationships, most therapists define that as compulsive or addictive behavior. We have consumed over 90% of the large fish in the world’s oceans, and continue unabated in our relentless pursuit of those that remain. An international team of ecologists and economists tell us they expect the world’s oceans to be devoid of fish by the year 2048, (“This isn’t predicted to happen. This is happening now,” study researcher Nicola Beaumont, PhD, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, U.K., says in a news release. “If biodiversity continues to decline, the marine environment will not be able to sustain our way of life. Indeed, it may not be able to sustain our lives at all,” Beaumont adds.). In the past 300 years, researchers have documented the global extinction of just 21 marine species — but 16 have occurred since 1972. Overfishing threatens the health of an entire ecosystem because it targets important fish species that play major roles in recycling nutrients. We KNOW what’s going on. We’re aware of the situation, and the dire predictions cast by those who work most closely with the ecologies at stake. Before you cry ‘theories”, or “unproven”, remember that one of the hallmark symptoms of an addiction is denial.

* Denial: Chellis Glendinning writes: “the practicing alcoholic pretends that everything is normal and holds up appearances at all costs”. The US govt denies a link between global warming and out environmental impact. The medical establishment denies environmental illnesses, corporations deny environmental impact, consumers deny the impact of their lifestyles, and are similarly dishonest with regard to veracity of their “need” for a new iPhone.

* Disconnection From Feelings: Our modern lifestyle, with its fragmentation of order and compartmentalization of relationships yields a disconnection of feelings, experiences and perceptions from one another. Repressed feelings reside deep in the unconscious mind, hidden from view. Our embrace of technology, giving us virtual reality, is a classic example of how disconnected we remain from the way we feel. Widespread drug use, both as recreational tools and prescribed medicinal treatments for so many “mental” ailments reflect an unwillingness to accept and engage what we feel. The more disconnected we are from these feelings, in many cases, the easier it is to remain functional in a dysfunctional world.

* Dishonesty: When confronted with the inevitable truth of ecological devastation and enormous present and potential impact of modern humanity, we immediately leap to typical responses. The ‘problem’ is someone else’s. It’s not our fault, but always someone else’s. There is no problem, your facts are incorrect. I’ll be gone by then. Me changing my life wont’ change anything anyway. And so on.

Other symptoms include control (self-explanatory, really), thinking disorders (if we can just buy one more shiny new toy, all will be right with the world, or we mustn’t slow down because it’ll hurt the great deity, the ‘market economy’ – like any addict, we defer to the greatest of excuses, that we can’t change what we do because we depend on what is wrong) and delusions of grandiosity (technology and better sound ‘ecological management’ WON’T save us, friends).

3 Stages of addiction are:

Stage 1 – Internal Change: the addiction provides a sense of escape from their problems. A dependency develops, and we start to move away from people and towards the addictive experience.
Stage 2: Lifestyle Change: life becomes built around the addiction. Behavior becomes out of control. People are either directly involved with the addictive behavior or they’re constantly thinking about it.
Stage 3: Life Breakdown: addicts believe everything would be all right if you just leave them alone. Total breakdown often ensues.

If we apply these 3 stages to our culture, it’s easy to see how clearly we fit the model. Stage 1 – We started, long ago, to move away from people, from relationships, from the natural world, and towards the addictive experience centuries ago. Money, for example, or gold, or power, became so sought after that nations of people have been wiped out, species driven extinct and entire ecosystems destroyed. Stage 2 – Our behavior IS out of control – if it weren’t, we’d have no problem changing it. Our lives are absolutely built around our addiction for more, particularly in ‘developed countries’, where the addiction is most deeply rooted. Stage 3 – Total breakdown; some would propose we’re there already, or very close to it. Richard Duncan of the Olduvai Theory suggests we’ve not long to go. Peak Oil is another term referencing a possible manifestation of this stage. Global warming proponents point to another.

Systemic collective addiction, though much like individual addiction, is a relatively new realm of study. Being human, we like to pigeon hole and categorize or label everything, so we refer to these 2 processes as separate things, but the reality is they’re most likely simply different manifestations of the same dynamic. Our individual addictions may manifest themselves in alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, sex, food, people, etc. Our collective addiction to consumption, manifest in a variety of products/services – oil, gold, currency, power, technology, prestige, careers, etc, is that not very different, in every aspect. Simply, we’re addicted to ‘more’, we suffer a systemic quest for ‘more’; be it more ice cream, more alcohol, more drugs, more technology, more information, more knowledge, more megapxiels, more freedom, more war, more religion, more money, more whatever. It’s all the same thing, it’s ALL rooted in the external, as if our salvation lies there. Another great writer, Eckhart Tolle, once said in a lecture (I’m paraphrasing) “So what if scientists solve life’s mysteries, solve the question of the universe, unravel the deepest secrets of Being itself? What then? What do they do with their time after that?” What he’s pointing to here is that we don’t really need any ‘more’ – and that the eternal pursuit of ‘more’ doesn’t bring us what we yearn for – even when we reach the pot of gold we’ll still be empty, and still want that hunger satiated. Our incessant quest for ‘more’ fuels only itself – it creates a hunger it can’t satisfy.

So no, we’re not happy yet. We can’t be. Like all addicts, we’re trying to fill a bucket that has no bottom, we’re trying to find happiness in something that doesn’t yield happiness. Dangerously, the process is self-fulfilling, much like pouring gasoline on a fire – the fire feeds on the fuel and burns ever brighter, rather than decreases.

Our culture clearly engenders individual addictions, but what is perhaps not so evident is that these are just manifestations of a greater, more systemic problem. The modern consumer culture spawns a need for ‘more’ that is society-wide. This addiction is every bit as destructive as the alcoholic’s disorder, it’s just transparent because the consumptive addict is better able to fit in to the patterns of everyday life within our society. Certainly, compulsive consumption is artificially fed through our cultures insane levels of advertising and marketing. Research numbers vary greatly, but the average American consumer is probably exposed to somewhere between 500 and a thousand commercial messages daily. Certainly, compulsive consumption is artificially fed through our cultures extreme level of advertising and marketing, etc. But what does that tell us? What is our culture if it’s not ourselves? Whilst not every ad we see may make us run out and devour that product, it does reinforce the notion that we need something ‘more’. Physchologist Alan Durning puts it this way: “Even if they (ads) fail to sell a particular product, they sell consumerism itself by ceaselessly reiterating the idea that there is a product to solve each of life’s problems, indeed that existence would be satisfying and complete if only we bought the right things.”

The outgrowth of this is a group of people who are literally consuming the planet. We’re not keeping up with the Jones’ any more. The Jones’ have fallen by the wayside a long time ago. We’re vainly trying to keep up with our own insatiable demands, and it’s not ever going to bring happiness to anyone.

All addiction is rooted in an attempt to change the way we feel. Addicts become, essentially, addicted to the feeling that the addiction brings, hence they are often so hard to break. What appears to be happening today is that we’ve become convinced that through consumption we can change the way we feel. And it works, albeit only temporarily. At least it FEELS like it works. A new purchase, a new high, a new achievement, a new job, etc and a promise that life is now somehow different

I don’t believe population alone is the problem here. I think our level and rate of consumption is every bit as destructive, if not more so, than mere the number of people walking around today. Consumerism is so deeply entrenched in our mindset today the minute someone suggests, even tentatively, that maybe we need to address this, they’re fired upon from all sides. As George Bush Sr told those representatives from several third world countries who asked him to consider reducing the consumption habits of the US: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation”. Or, as Senator Trent Lott told the Senate floor during a debate on whether or not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be opened to drilling for oil, “I am not going to ask the American people to use less” or even better “The American people have a right to a great big road hog. And I’m gonna get me one.” This blind adherence to a particular ideology in the face of an incipient ecological crisis is every bit as much a function of addiction as the lung cancer patient sucking on a cigarette.

I don’t have the expertise, nor the time, to offer much recourse. Treatment of addiction is far more complicated than I’m able to grasp, and you probably aren’t interested in reading further anyway (if you’re still reading this at all). I have no training in the treatment of addiction, so the following is worth the money you’re paying to read it. 🙂 From what little I understand, here’s a short and simplistic summary:

* All addictions require behavior modification. Whatever is available, be it 12 step programs, faith, legislation, family, etc – whatever it takes, the behavioral patterns need to cease – while they continue, the addict will continue to seek refuge in that behavior.

* Addicts require an acceptance, and embrace, of a higher power – something that has more power than the addict does.

* Addiction problems are intrinsically problems with boundaries. Addicts must come to learn how to accept and embrace boundaries.

* Newer methods of treatment revolve around the understanding that creating a safe, warm, loving environment for the addict will lead to the addict sharing what they understand to be the root of their addiction.

* Most mental health specialists believe there is no such thing as an “addictive personality” – addictions can be fueled by, among many other things, anxiety, depression, isolation, social pressures, physical chemistry, etc.

* One of the reasons treating addictions is so difficult is that addictions typically work so well for people. The gambler is, for a short while, comforted through gambling, the drunk through drinking, the sex addict through sex. The truth of the temporal nature of this relief is unknown, indeed unknowable, to the addict.

I think the million dollar question is whether or not we choose to do something about this. Do we acknowledge a problem and deal with it honestly, or do we continue to look askance at whoever suggests the problem lies within? That the problem is endemic to a social and cultural structure that motivates us to infinite consumption with promises of “a happy place, with flowery meadows, and rainbow skies and rivers made of chocolate, where the children dance and laugh and play with gumdrop smiles.” (paraphrased from the film, “Team America”) is clear, but, like most addicts, we typically refuse to see clearly, to own the addiction and move away from it. Addicts, via dependence, become incredibly resourceful at finding excuses for facilitating their addiction, and that blinds the addict from honestly accounting for their behavior. Addicts also have, fortunately, a world of people out there willing to support and foster their treatment and good health. We have each other and the natural world – we can choose to surrender to those around us and lend ourselves and the planet we live on to good health, or not.



6 thoughts on “Are We Happy Yet?

  1. Beth Lunsford

    Whew!!! That was intense! That’s what MY THERAPIST said! NO, no therapist here. But one of the sentences that really jumped out at me was this:” The more disconnected we are from these feelings, the easier it is to remain functional in a dysfunctional world.” I really believe that. I feel sad when I look around and see & read what’s going on in the world. I always used to wish I could have been born in a simpler time. Yeah, technologically & medically it may have had it’s disadvantages. But I would bet that it was a much more peaceful time in so many ways that we can’t even comprehend today. I know when my dad went to a little one room schoolhouse, he didn’t have to worry about a nut with a gun!Great post!!!!

  2. Beth Lunsford

    P.S. Very sorry to hear about Jeff Healy. I’m even more so because I never knew his music. Sounded like he had quite a following. May he rest in eternal peace. On a little brighter note, I got to check out Marks` webpage. He has some really good stuff,too. But I think for the most part I’ll still blog you crazy!!!!Ha!Ha! Have a great day!

  3. Mark

    Wow bruhtha, that’s a lot to soak in. I might put forward that this whole digital revolution in photography has contributed to furthering the addition torwards consumptive consumerism. Let’s face it, external hard drives, new computers, new cameras, new printers, etc, etc, etc. Seems every month there is some new gizmo being promoted by someone as something you have to have. As much as we have decreased the need for chemical processing, we certainly have increased the amount of potential electronic waste. And as that great article in National Geo pointed out, this electronic waste does have far reaching impacts that many people probably don’t realize.

    What I struggle with is even if say the richer nations of this planet could actually put a stop or significant slowing in place, how do you tell that to poorer nations that are actually on the upswing (ie. China, India, etc) to limit themselves? I have to believe they think that they deserve all that the richer nations have had. And even within one society, you probably have the same ambitions amongst the lower classes.

    I don’t know, really it is probably going to come down to population control. Perhaps a taboo subject amongst various cultures and religions, but if you can’t change the behaviors, you have to make less of it or ultimately just face the consequences.

    No solutions here either man, other than to say this is one heavy post, and I am a bit more depressed now. 😉

  4. Carl Donohue

    Hey Beth

    Thanks for the post/s. yes, a simpler life is often a richer one, in many ways – it’s almost always a healthier one. I remember reading a book about primitive cultures, and the writer explained how free of stress they were, largely because they had so few choices to make each day. We start making choices the seconds we roll over out of bed, with what clothes to wear, right down to socks and undies. And it doesn’t end until we hit the hay at night. Makes a lot of sense to me.

    If you dig some blues, check out Jeff Healey’s first Album, “See The Light” – killer stuff.

    Hey Mark

    I think the digital thing is absolutely a great example of stuff we have to buy more of – I said once it’s like running on a bigger and more powerful treadmill, running faster and faster and ultimately going nowhere. I think a lot of things about digital photography fuel this endless desire for more – one of which is, very simply, the very quantitative nature of the cameras .. they’re measured by megapixels – so they have a number .. this one is 10mp .. and the next one is 12mp, so it MUST be better, right? And the next one is 14; our little brains, so good (for most people) at counting, go crazy, and we need more and more .. newer, bigger, more. Car manufacturers figured this out long ago .. there’s a reason why they expressly state the year a car was made, rather than a simple name? 2008 sells better than 2007 – this competitive advantage is lost, and some catalyst for the consumer to buy, if the cars were called Red and Blue. There’s a built in little tool to create a perception of ‘better’ in 2009 than, say, 2008 .. it’s like I wrote above, we’re sold on the idea that if we make this one little purchase, our lives will in some way be more complete — and the danger, of course, is that the opposite happens – the more embedded we become in this cycle, the less complete and more unhappy we become.

    I agree with you completely about the onset of ‘development’ in less-developed nations (again, look at the nation, and how the premises established there).

    I don’t agree that population control, in any sense that we know the term, is a solution. It’s treating a symptom, and the effect of this is twofold: (a) it doesn’t remedy the problem, and (b) it actually blinds us to really seeing, and hence dealing with, the problem, which typically perpetuates, if not enhances, the problem. Have a look again at the first table in the post above. How many of those points have occurred as a result of ‘overpopulation’? I’d say none. They’re all a function of rampant, overconsumption . So we can talk forever about how we need to stem the flow of population growth, even reduce population, but the problem doesn’t go away. Instead, we feel good about ourselves because we’re reducing the population, right? So, we consume more.

    I forget the term, but there’s a phrase they used to refer to this kind of effect with regard to oil and gas consumption in the 70’s and early 80’s. Rising prices drove US consumers towards smaller, more fuel efficient cars. And what happened to mileages driven? They soared. In fact, they actually pushed overall and per capita consumption of gasoline higher than it had been previously. The term begins with a ‘J’ .. Jared’s Effect or something like that. I’m sure other factors influenced it, for sure, but to some degree, this is what happened.

    It’s like an alcoholic getting busted for drink driving – taking away his car keys doesn’t stop his alcoholism – in fact, it often leads to increased drinking, and the symptoms simply manifest themselves elsewhere.

    I remember a discussion with some environmental activists about this topic, and one of them referred to me as naive to think we could remedy any kind of systemic addiction problem and that trying to address that was simply living in la-la land. I replied that I think it’s no more naive and Disney-esque to think we might be able to stem population control either, so if we’re going to propose fantastical solutions anyway, we might as well suggest those that focus on the reality of the problem, rather than ones that won’t provide anything more than a temporal slowing of the problem at best.

    Thanks for reading through this meandering waffle. 🙂



  5. Mark

    Carl – very good points, and have really enjoyed reading your take on this. I agree that population reduction is a fantastical solution, and perhaps a band-aid in many situations. From the perspective of reducing consumerism, certainly the addictions of the parents could be highly likely to be passed onto the children, not unlike other addictive behaviors. On the other hand, one of the best ways to begin change is to set examples for future generations if the parents take on the challenge to change their addition.

    I know you site the example of oil and gas in the 70s/80s, but perhaps hitting people in the pocketbook is really the only way to drive such a drastic change. I know when I was in Germany, where gas is $6/gallon – it is a pretty rare site that you see a SUV. And then of course, smaller cars = not enough room to buy lots of stuff at the store. And at those gas prices, of course internet shipping fees will go up, reducing the appeal of purchasing online. Sound crazy??? 🙂

  6. Carl Donohue

    Hey Mark,

    I’m glad you got something out of it. Dealing with addiction is one of the most difficult things we can do – I think because it’s at its core, totally egoic. Our ego builds our sense of who we are, and changing that, even questioning that, is extremely frightening. But you’re right, it can start early, it can restrict the influx of threads that feed addiction – but so much of our culture works exactly the opposite way – we treat children, from the outset, so poorly we make them more susceptible to this kind of addiction. Then we constantly teach them that rewards will come in the form of ‘stuff’, even that rewards themselves are measurements of happiness – the end over the means kind of thing.

    Another facet of addiction treatment is breaking the behavioral patterns – the manifestation of the addiction – so doing what we can to change behavior should help – but I think it’s do embedded in our way of seeing the world, largely due continual exposure to manipulative advertising and other forms of marketing, that it will probably just redirect itself some other way. We’ll try to find some replacement for oil and gas, and continue absorbing everything the world around us has to offer.

    Lastly, why shouldn’t what we say here sound crazy. Tell me the current situation isn’t crazy?



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