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):
* 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.
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.
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).
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.