Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How Is Environmental Madness Possible?

Free market society requires the sacrifice of psychosocial integration for the benefits of wealth. The resulting poverty of the spirit leave each person, to a greater or lesser degree desperate for something that will provide a sense of meaning and belonging.  At the same time that the free market dislocates people, it proffers pseudosolutions for the misery of dislocation.  As corporations know that affluent people’s real material needs are already satisfied, they peddle a multitude of consumer products that are designed to fill the void of dislocation: enormous house, modish clothing, personal beauty products, lottery tickets, electronic games and gadgets, gas-guzzling cares, sexual enhancements, exotic foods, weight-loss schemes, and on and on.  Because these products can only partly or temporarily fill the psychosocial void, they are difficult to consume in moderation.  When they are consumed in excess, their ever-increasing environmental and social costs must be pushed to the periphery of consciousness, as in addictive denial. 

If we take the time to really get to know the overweight couple taking the four-wheel-drive car to the superstore to stock up on superfluous merchandise in apparent ignorance of the environmental costs, we will see that their motivations originate in the same addictive dynamics as clinically diagnosed ‘shopaholics’.  This couple truly needs to consume excessively.  No matter how much they buy, they never get the feeling of personal satisfaction and social importance that they are seeking.  They need to own that lavish home-entertainment center, because if they could not dull their wits with incessant television and other entertainments, they might become horrified by the state of the world and the role of their own country in it.   Their fragile, but essential, sense of the rightness of things as they are could be shattered.  Besides, keeping up with the media really helps them to participate in conversations with their media-savvy friends.  They need the big car to feel safe as they drive, because people drive these days as if nobody cares whether they live or die.  In addition, having those other vehicles in the garage for when they might be needed gives them a sense of freedom, and without freedom what would they have, really?  They need to buy materials to expand their already excessive house, because it will then express the unique sense of taste that they have so much trouble getting people to notice in other ways.  They need more high-protein food and medical care for the two dogs than is available to most families in the Third World.  Frankly, those precious little yappers have a bigger place in their lives than most of the people they know in the First World, never mind the Third.

They consume energy with the same avidity that they consume material goods.  After all, people who have worked hard to put their money in the bank need some kind of recognition and reward.  If it seems they have every electrical appliance and electronic gadget imaginable in their house, all flashing, whirring, heating, and cooling at once, it is only their due.  Besides, hydro-electricity is still cheap.

They have their separate needs too.  He needs to have all sorts of esoteric tools that he doesn’t use now, because it will enable him to serve a real function in the community when he can eventually afford to retire from his job, finish fixing up the house, get away from the TV, and then turn to what has most fascinated him, in the background, all his life.  She knows he will not have time to master any significant portion of that complicated stuff, but she senses his yearning for a sense of worth, knows his sensitivity to criticism on this topic, and values the stability of their marriage.  Besides, if she is considerate about his stuff, he won’t be mean about her little indulgences.
She needs to keep the fridge packed with meat and vegetables to feel like a good wife and mother, although most of it gets thrown out after a while.  It’s just that it’s impossible to say when family or friends might show up unexpectedly for dinner or when she might get back to regular cooking.  Besides, vegetable these days go all spotty; it seems like the restaurants buy all the good stuff.  Plus, the clerks at the supermarket are so nice and chatty they almost seem like good friends.  And isn’t there just a good feeling knowing you’re all stocked up?  Taken together, all their scarcely used merchandise constitutes the material scaffolding for the construction of a fulfilling life that they genuinely need – but then, somehow never gets built. 

Of course, they do not consume every product in grossly wasteful or addictive ways. And – you must understand – they already know about the environment and they care.  They recycle.   They only consume the products that satisfy real needs, and view the inexplicable, overconsumption of others with bitter disdain.  They would not buy things that are environmentally destructive unless they were really necessary, as a buffer against depression and the other ravages of dislocation.  They are not greedy, evil, or stupid.  Rather, they are desperate to be recognized, to belong, to have a purpose.

They have been told throughout their lives that they can achieve these goals if they just purchase the right merchandise.  There are as much victims of dislocation as the junkies who sleep in abandoned buildings.  I would imagine that they are also just as loved by the Christian God for they, too, are poor in spirit – even if their oversized house is stuffed with enough merchandise to enable some homeless, starving people to survive, and even if their addictions are, collectively, more environmentally and socially destructive than those of the much smaller number of heroin junkies.  They suffer by comparison with drug-addicted people in another way, too: their plight seems more hopeless.  Although there is no way that they will be able to buy a cure for their dislocation, they are doomed to keep trying because so many voices are encouraging them to make another trip to the mall. 

Many affluent people have a smaller number of grossly wasteful habits than the composite couple described here, but they are part of environmental madness too.  It matters little whether this style of life is formally labelled ‘addiction’ or not.  The essential facts are that the fundamental motivation to relieve dislocation is the same as the motivation for addiction to drugs or anything else, and this couple’s destructive way of life is as intractable as any other kind of addiction, even now, as the polar ice caps melt. 

Wasteful consumption is essential for the survival of a bloated economy.  There must be affluent people to consume the products of the factories as wastefully as possible so that more can be manufactured, because corporations that do not grow must die.  The eternal expansion of the free-market society requires that people learn new needs and try the new products that are continually being invented for their consumption.  The composite couple described here must be able to believe the barrage of propaganda that incessantly asserts that the way they consume is not madness, but is ultimately for the best, in some deeper sense.  Multiplied by millions, they form a perfect vicious cycle. They work compulsively; they consume compulsively; the gross domestic product rises; the environment deteriorates; the poor get poorer; everyone feels dislocated; they work more compulsively; they consume more compulsively, the gross domestic product rises further; [and on, and on].

It is not innate wickedness or stupidity that is destroying our planetary ecosystem, so much as it is the increasingly desperate response of countless people to the dislocation of their lives.