John Schumaker is a retired psychology academic living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa.


John Schumaker is a retired psychology academic living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa.

The demoralized mind

man with shopping trolley

© Robin Heighway-Bury/Alamy

Our descent into the Age of Depression seems unstoppable. Three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling with each successive generational cohort. At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation, aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age. Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression.

By contrast to many traditional cultures that lack depression entirely, or even a word for it, Western consumer culture is certainly depression-prone. But depression is so much a part of our vocabulary that the word itself has come to describe mental states that should be understood differently. In fact, when people with a diagnosis of depression are examined more closely, the majority do not actually fit that diagnosis. In the largest study of its kind, Ramin Mojtabai of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health sampled over 5,600 cases and found that only 38 per cent of them met the criteria for depression.

Contributing to the confusion is the equally insidious epidemic of demoralization that also afflicts modern culture. Since it shares some symptoms with depression, demoralization tends to be mislabelled and treated as if it were depression. A major reason for the poor 28-per-cent success rate of anti-depressant drugs is that a high percentage of ‘depression’ cases are actually demoralization, a condition unresponsive to drugs.

Existential disorder

In the past, our understanding of demoralization was limited to specific extreme situations, such as debilitating physical injury, terminal illness, prisoner-of-war camps, or anti-morale military tactics. But there is also a cultural variety that can express itself more subtly and develop behind the scenes of normal everyday life under pathological cultural conditions such as we have today. This culturally generated demoralization is nearly impossible to avoid for the modern ‘consumer’.

Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment. The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction. Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing battle. The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to the circumstances impinging on the person’s life.

Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life

As it is absorbed, consumer culture imposes numerous influences that weaken personality structures, undermine coping and lay the groundwork for eventual demoralization. Its driving features – individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt – all correlate negatively with psychological health and/or social wellbeing. The level of intimacy, trust and true friendship in people’s lives has plummeted. Sources of wisdom, social and community support, spiritual comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up. Passivity and choice have displaced creativity and mastery. Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life.

Research shows that, in contrast to earlier times, most people today are unable to identify any sort of philosophy of life or set of guiding principles. Without an existential compass, the commercialized mind gravitates toward a ‘philosophy of futility’, as Noam Chomsky calls it, in which people feel naked of power and significance beyond their conditioned role as pliant consumers. Lacking substance and depth, and adrift from others and themselves, the thin and fragile consumer self is easily fragmented and dispirited.

By their design, the central organizing principles and practices of consumer culture perpetuate an ‘existential vacuum’ that is a precursor to demoralization. This inner void is often experienced as chronic and inescapable boredom, which is not surprising. Despite surface appearances to the contrary, the consumer age is deathly boring. Boredom is caused, not because an activity is inherently boring, but because it is not meaningful to the person. Since the life of the consumer revolves around the overkill of meaningless manufactured low-level material desires, it is quickly engulfed by boredom, as well as jadedness, ennui and discontent. This steadily graduates to ‘existential boredom’ wherein the person finds all of life uninteresting and unrewarding.

Moral net

Consumption itself is a flawed motivational platform for a society. Repeated consummation of desire, without moderating constraints, only serves to habituate people and diminish the future satisfaction potential of what is consumed. This develops gradually into ‘consumer anhedonia’, wherein consumption loses reward capacity and offers no more than distraction and ritualistic value. Consumerism and psychic deadness are inexorable bedfellows.

Individualistic models of mind have stymied our understanding of many disorders that are primarily of cultural origin. But recent years have seen a growing interest in the topic of cultural health and ill-health as they impact upon general wellbeing. At the same time, we are moving away from naïve behavioural models and returning to the obvious fact that the human being has a fundamental nature, as well as a distinct set of human needs, that must be addressed by a cultural blueprint.

In his groundbreaking book The Moral Order, anthropologist Raoul Naroll used the term ‘moral net’ to indicate the cultural infrastructure that is required for the mental wellbeing of its members. He used numerous examples to show that entire societies can become predisposed to an array of mental ills if their ‘moral net’ deteriorates beyond a certain point. To avoid this, a society’s moral net must be able to meet the key psycho-social-spiritual needs of its members, including a sense of identity and belonging, co-operative activities that weave people into a community, and shared rituals and beliefs that offer a convincing existential orientation.

We are long overdue a cultural revolution that would force a radical revamp of the political process, economics, work, family and environmental policy

Similarly, in The Sane Society, Erich Fromm cited ‘frame of orientation’ as one of our vital ‘existential needs’, but pointed out that today’s ‘marketing characters’ are shackled by a cultural programme that actively blocks fulfilment of this and other needs, including the needs for belonging, rootedness, identity, transcendence and intellectual stimulation. We are living under conditions of ‘cultural insanity’, a term referring to a pathological mismatch between the inculturation strategies of a culture and the intrapsychic needs of its followers. Being normal is no longer a healthy ambition.

Human culture has mutated into a sociopathic marketing machine dominated by economic priorities and psychological manipulation. Never before has a cultural system inculcated its followers to suppress so much of their humanity. Leading this hostile takeover of the collective psyche are increasingly sophisticated propaganda and misinformation industries that traffic the illusion of consumer happiness by wildly amplifying our expectations of the material world. Today’s consumers are by far the most propagandized people in history. The relentless and repetitive effect is highly hypnotic, diminishing critical faculties, reducing one’s sense of self, and transforming commercial unreality into a surrogate for meaning and purpose.

The more lost, disoriented and spiritually defeated people become, the more susceptible they become to persuasion, and the more they end up buying into the oversold expectations of consumption. But in unreality culture, hyper-inflated expectations continually collide with the reality of experience. Since nothing lives up to the hype, the world of the consumer is actually an ongoing exercise in disappointment. While most disappointments are minor and easy to dissociate, they accumulate into an emotional background of frustration as deeper human needs get neglected. Continued starvation of these needs fuels disillusion about one’s whole approach to life. Over time, people’s core assumptions can become unstable.

Culture proofing

At its heart, demoralization is a generalized loss of credibility in the assumptions that ground our existence and guide our actions. The assumptions underpinning our allegiance to consumerism are especially vulnerable since they are fundamentally dehumanizing. As they unravel, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with the values, goals and aspirations that were once part of our consumer reality. The consequent feeling of being forsaken and on the wrong life track is easily mistaken for depression, or even unhappiness, but in fact it is the type of demoralization that most consumer beings will experience to some degree.

For the younger generation, the course of boredom, disappointment, disillusion and demoralization is almost inevitable. As the products of invisible parents, commercialized education, cradle-to-grave marketing and a profoundly boring and insane cultural programme, they must also assimilate into consumer culture while knowing from the outset that its workings are destroying the planet and jeopardizing their future. Understandably, they have become the trance generation, with an insatiable appetite for any technology that can downsize awareness and blunt the emotions. With society in existential crisis, and emotional life on a steep downward trajectory, trance is today’s fastest-growing consumer market.

Once our collapsed assumptions give way to demoralization, the problem becomes how to rebuild the unconscious foundations of our lives. In their present forms, the psychology and psychiatry professions are of little use in treating disorders that are rooted in culture and normality. While individual therapy will not begin to heal a demoralized society, to be effective such approaches must be insight-oriented and focused on the cultural sources of the person’s assumptions, identity, values and centres of meaning. Cultural deprogramming is essential, along with ‘culture proofing’, disobedience training and character development strategies, all aimed at constructing a worldview that better connects the person to self, others and the natural world.

The real task is somehow to treat a sick culture rather than its sick individuals. Erich Fromm sums up this challenge: ‘We can’t make people sane by making them adjust to this society. We need a society that is adjusted to the needs of people.’ Fromm’s solution included a Supreme Cultural Council that would serve as a cultural overseer and advise governments on corrective and preventive action. But that sort of solution is still a long way off, as is a science of culture change. Democracy in its present guise is a guardian of cultural insanity.

We are long overdue a cultural revolution that would force a radical revamp of the political process, economics, work, family and environmental policy. It is true that a society of demoralized people is unlikely to revolt even though it sits on a massive powder keg of pent-up frustration. But credibility counteracts demoralization, and this frustration can be released with immense energy when a credible cause, or credible leadership, is added to the equation.

It might seem that credibility, meaning and purposeful action would derive from the multiple threats to our safety and survival posed by the fatal mismatch between consumer culture and the needs of the planet. The fact that it has not highlights the degree of demoralization that infects the consumer age. With its infrastructure firmly entrenched, and minimal signs of collective resistance, all signs suggest that our obsolete system – what some call ‘disaster capitalism’ – will prevail until global catastrophe dictates for us new cultural directions.

John F Schumaker is a retired psychology academic living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa.

Dying for the things we love

'And all men kill the thing they love, By all let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!'

A century on from Oscar Wilde’s immortal poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, death comes gift-wrapped and perfumed, in beguiling guilt-free varieties, delivered with a toothy smile and prophecy of material salvation. Betrayal gets absolved as the consumer age supplants conscience with craving, and duty with self-devotion. Even with our beloved Earth and the future of humankind balanced on a knife’s edge, our killing feels strangely like a bargain.

Aimed squarely at the things we love, today’s big guns pound away from under the camouflage of normality. Greed, discontent, false needs and compulsive desire deal a mortal kiss. Anything still breathing can be clubbed with bloated egos, inflated expectations, grandiose entitlement and a near-zero attention span.

In his book Escape from Evil, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker describes consumer culture as a second-rate religion that has programmed a society of ‘cheerful robots’ to martyr all to ‘a grotesque spectacle of unrestrained material production, perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history.’

With business-as-usual in the face of multiple global emergencies – climate change, global warming, habitat destruction, extinction of species, loss of biodiversity, pollution, deforestation, land degradation, ocean depletion – it is hard to miss the evil, or at least the madness. Spreading poverty, growing inequality, the commercialization of children, collapsing mental health, the ‘death of mind’, the obesity epidemic, and so on – with a culture like that, who needs enemies?

Criminal psychosis

If consumer culture were a separate individual and assessed psychiatrically, its diagnosis would be criminal psychosis of the most fiendish variety. But since its lunacy is agreed upon, we lap it up.

Like psychopathic dung beetles, we let future generations pay as we roll up the latest cultural excretions, coming away with everything except the love that faded as life became a romance with the appetites. In a system that hawks selfishness, vanity and exhibitionism, we become easily excited with the fake orgasm of trappings and tantalizations. Once sold on ourselves, we can be wooed by the most impoverished of ambitions, from ‘having it all’ and ‘living the dream’ right on down to ‘making it to the top’.

Conformity usually reassures, even when a culture is morbidly sick. What makes our rampage so titillating is that it is bound up with cultural heroism. Excess, over-indulgence, over-consumption, dandyism, stylish indifference – all part of the act, all trumpets of conquest, prosperity, success and ‘being somebody’.

Positivity-peddlers are working overtime, but the big picture is sobering. Consumerism and predatory capitalism are not viable long-term organizing principles for a society. Our myths about progress, superfluous wealth, limitless expansion and endless resources are formulas for global ruin. Hyper-competitive individualism is a lonely straitjacket that fuels frustration, alienation and rage. Freedom has cheapened into a demeaning free-for-all in a prison of petty wants. As a springboard to happiness, emotional health and social wellbeing, ‘the good life’ is an exhausting flop.

Cultural insanity

While cultural norms are by definition ‘normal’, they are by no means always sane and healthy. The term ‘cultural insanity’ refers to normative templates that have become so counter-productive and self-defeating, or so misaligned to our basic human needs, that they stand to undo society or its life supports. In fact, normality can be the deadliest of foes.

All human cultures milk illusion for purposes of control and motivation, but never before has a society indebted itself so heavily to unreality. As our unreality bubble ruptures, we find ourselves in an endgame with all-or-none stakes that can only be won by way of a radical and upsetting utopian transformation. Many utopian blueprints have been floated over the ages but, for the first time, Utopia is a matter of life or death. Getting it half right – or even mostly right – is not enough. Idealism and reality have converged. Utopia is becoming serious business.

The Buddha called for a spiritually advanced society that imbued depth of character and full aliveness by way of selflessness, harmony with nature, liberation from worldly desire, and contemplation about truth and reality. Renaissance utopian Sir Thomas More preached for a morality-centred society with no money, no private property, a six-hour working day and no need for lawyers. Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis recounted a cultural Eden that endowed all members with ‘generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, and piety and public spirit.’

For cultural psychologist Erich Fromm, the only defence against our all-consuming social insanity was ‘a radical change of the human heart’. In his 1955 book The Sane Society, he detailed a utopian model called Humanistic Communitarian Socialism, to be overseen by a ‘supreme cultural council’ comprising lofty hearts and minds like Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein. As the last great public figure to brave a utopian vision, Einstein felt that our best chance of surviving our sociotechnical system, which he equated to ‘an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal’, was an entirely new global order that united all nations under a single ministerial authority representing the ‘common moral community of humankind’, as he termed it in his 1946 essay ‘Towards a World Government’.

But, by the middle of the 20th century, we had largely given up on utopias beyond those which could be consumed or ogled. Easier to swallow were anti-utopian scenarios such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as they mirrored our heartless compliance in the face of indomitable manipulation. More recently, we recognize in films like The Matrix and The Truman Show our phantasmagoric world of factory-farmed experience that keeps us blankly suckling on fantasy, and numbed to life beyond our brainwashing.

Traditional hopes must be surrendered if consumer culture is not to fulfil its destiny as history’s greatest evil. Democracy, now a corporate puppet show starring politicians as grandiloquent eunuchs and us as fools, no longer allows for true leadership. Technology, compromised as it is by the profit motive and soaring demand for distraction and techno-trance, is as much an axe as an answer. God, increasingly hell-bent on wanting us to be rich, is resisting the green makeover that some prayed could spare Creation. Mere ‘education’ about impending doom barely dents our cultural programming.

The highest love

The highest act of love in a criminally insane society is disobedience. In his essay ‘On Disobedience’, Fromm warns: ‘At this point in history, the capacity to doubt, to criticize and to disobey may be all that stands between a future for mankind and the end of civilization.’ Normality can no longer be trusted. Unconditional obedience is an unaffordable luxury.

But ‘humanistic disobedience’, as Fromm calls it, requires a fully developed conscience, something rare in a culture pushing narcissism and moral stupor. Because of its unethical design, consumer culture also factors in a predictable amount of disobedience. Its only real vulnerabilities are the same weapons of mass persuasion conjured by our pinstriped soldiers of fortune.

If consumer culture were an individual and assessed psychiatrically, its diagnosis would be criminal psychosis of the most fiendish variety

In his 1928 book Propaganda, Edward Bernays writes: ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.’

Despite its ominous title, there is nothing inherently sinister about propaganda. Intensive use of it was made in the lead-up to the American Revolution, and some of its leading patriots, including Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, are still ranked among history’s most praiseworthy propagandists.

Counterpropaganda for all

Economics, once the boring background affair it should be, is now the cornerstone for cultural consciousness. Thus we play along as commercial tacticians execute a propaganda regime so potent that children are ‘branded’ by the age of four and adults fall victim to ‘consumption disorders’, youth fixations and over-entertainment syndromes. So why are we not deploying similar strategies to rally a revolution that could reverse our death march?

Technically, it is possible. For the same price as the insanity-saving ‘credit crunch’ bailout, we could be well on our way to a society of minimalists, naturalists, humanitarians and debt-dodging vegetarians. Compassion could be chic, and conservationists sexy. Throw in half a year’s military budget and peace could be hip, education could enlighten, and eloquent simplicity could be all the rage. Fashion, fame and flag-waving could be absurd. The ‘beautiful people’ could be beautiful people. As in Zuni culture, winning could be for losers only.

Culture and mind are infinitely flexible. There is nothing that we cannot be or believe. We are as perfectible as we are corruptible. The problem is that consumer culture is inextricably wedded to the insanity bedevilling the world. It would haemorrhage from all spheres if saddled with scruples and principles. Real solutions are unthinkable for elected ‘leaders’. The licence to use propaganda on a mass scale stays in the hands of those with the least conscience. All others are fingered as conspirators or budding tyrants or, if necessary, applauded into submission.

Despite everything, the collision course upon which we find ourselves is marshalling a new generation of utopians. Still in the wings, they speak in different voices to the goal of a post-consumer culture founded on socially, ecologically and existentially sustainable values and lifestyles. While it would be a spectacular leap of maturity on our parts, the deliberate and pre-emptive management of collective consciousness guided by a responsibility-based science of culture is the next and most important step in our evolution. Nature has lost patience with our illusions. Time is no longer our ally. The Age of Idealism has forced itself upon us.

Utopia or bust – that is the endgame. In reality, we gladly die for the things we love.

John F Schumaker is a clinical psychologist and author of In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind (2006).

The triumph of triviality

The results of the cultural indoctrination stakes are not yet in but there is a definite trend – triviality leads, followed closely by superficiality and mindless distraction. Vanity looks great while profundity is bringing up the rear. Pettiness is powering ahead, along with passivity and indifference. Curiosity lost interest, wisdom was scratched and critical thought had to be put down. Ego is running wild. Attention span continues to shorten and no-one is betting on survival.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Half a century ago, humanistic thinkers were heralding a great awakening that would usher in a golden age of enlightened living. People like Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and Viktor Frankl were laying the groundwork for a new social order distinguished by raised consciousness, depth of purpose and ethical refinement. This tantalizing vision was the antithesis of our society of blinkered narcissists and hypnogogic materialists. Dumbness was not our destiny. Planetary annihilation was not the plan. By the 21st century, we were supposed to be the rarefied ‘people of tomorrow’, inhabiting a sagacious and wholesome world.

Today, the demand for triviality has never been higher and our tolerance for seriousness has never been lower

Erich Fromm’s 1955 tome, The Sane Society, signalled the début of the one-dimensional ‘marketing character’ – a robotic, all-consuming creature, ‘well-fed, well-entertained… passive, unalive and lacking in feeling’. But Fromm was also confident that we would avoid further descent into the fatuous. He forecast a utopian society based on ‘humanistic communitarianism’ that would nurture our higher ‘existential needs’.

In his 1961 book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers wrote: ‘When I look at the world I am pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.’ While acknowledging consumer culture’s seductive dreamland of trinkets and desire, he believed that we – those ‘people of tomorrow’ – would minister over a growth-oriented society, with ‘growth’ defined as the full and positive unfolding of human potential.

We would be upwardly driven toward authenticity, social equality and the welfare of coming generations. We would revere nature, realize the unimportance of material things and hold a healthy scepticism about technology and science. An anti-institutional vision would enable us to fend off dehumanizing bureaucratic and corporate authority as we united to meet our ‘higher needs’.

One of the most famous concepts in the history of psychology is Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, often illustrated by a pyramid. Once widely accepted, it was also inspired by a faith in innate positive human potential. Maslow claimed that human beings naturally switch attention to higher-level needs (intellectual, spiritual, social, existential) once they have met lower-level material ones. In moving up the pyramid and ‘becoming’, we channel ourselves toward wisdom, beauty, truth, love, gratitude and respect for life. Instead of a society that catered to and maintained the lowest common denominator, Maslow imagined one that prospered in the course of promoting mature ‘self-actualized’ individuals.

But something happened along the way. The pyramid collapsed. Human potential took a back seat to economic potential while self-actualization gave way to self-absorption on a spectacular scale. A pulp culture flourished as the masses were successfully duped into making a home amidst an ever-changing smorgasbord of false material needs.

Operating on the principle that triviality is more profitable than substance and dedicating itself to unceasing material overkill, consumer culture has become a fine-tuned instrument for keeping people incomplete, shallow and dehumanized. Materialism continues to gain ground, even in the face of an impending eco-apocalypse.

Pulp culture is a feast of tinsel and veneer. The ideal citizen is an empty tract through which gadgets can pass quickly, largely undigested, so there is always space for more. Reality races by as a blur of consumer choices that never feel quite real. We know it as the fast lane and whip ourselves to keep apace.

Rollo May described it accurately in his 1953 book, Man’s Search for Himself:

‘It’s an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when they have lost their way.’ So it’s largely business-as-usual even as the sky is falling.

Some critics did predict the triumph of the trivial. In his 1957 essay, ‘A Theory of Mass Culture’, Dwight MacDonald foresaw our ‘debased trivial culture that voids both the deep realities and also the simple spontaneous pleasures’, adding that ‘the masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial cultural products’.

Today, the demand for triviality has never been higher and our tolerance for seriousness has never been lower.

In this dense fog the meaningful and meaningless can easily get reversed. Losers look like winners and the lofty and ludicrous get confused. The caption under a recent ad for men’s underwear read: ‘I’ve got something that’s good for your body, mind and soul.’ Fashion statements become a form of literacy; brand names father pride and celebrity drivel becomes compelling.

Not even God has been spared. Once a potent commander of attention and allegiance, God has been gelded into a sort of celestial lapdog who fetches our wishes for this-world success. Nothing is so great that it can’t be reconceived or rephrased in order to render it insubstantial, non-threatening or – best of all – entertaining.

The age of trivialization has left its mark on marriage, family and love. In a recent AC Nielsen survey, when asked to choose between spending time with their fathers and watching television, 54 per cent of American 4-6 year-olds chose television. The same study reported that American parents spend an average of 3.5 minutes per week in ‘meaningful conversation’ with their children, while the children themselves watch 28 hours of television a week. To which we can add cellphones, computer games and other techno-toys that are inducing a state of digital autism in our young people.

Out of this cock-up comes the most pressing question of our age. Can a highly trivialized culture, marooned between fact and fiction, dizzy with distraction and denial, elevate its values and priorities to respond effectively to the multiple planetary emergencies looming? Empty talk and token gestures aside, it doesn’t appear to be happening.

Some of the great humanists felt that there are limits to a culture’s ability to suppress our higher needs. They assumed that we are ethical creatures by nature and that we’ll do the right thing when necessary – we will transcend materialism given the freedom to do so. That seems far-fetched given the ethical coma in which we now find ourselves. Yet the ultimate test is whether or not we can do the right thing by the planet and for future generations.

Ethics and politics have never sat well together. When ‘citizens’ changed into ‘consumers’, political life became an exercise in keeping the customer happy. The imperfect democracies we have today have never been tested with planetary issues like global warming and climate change, which demand radical and unsettling solutions. In the race against the clock, politicians appear almost comical as they try not to disturb the trivial pursuits propping up our dangerously obsolete socio-economic system.

Global calamity is forcing us into a post-political era in which ethically driven individuals and groups race ahead of the political class. Soon centre-stage will belong to culture-change strategists who are able to inspire leaps of consciousness independently of hapless follow-the-leader politics. One such person is Jan Lundberg ( Lundberg is an environmental activist and a long-standing voice for pre-emptive culture change. He understands that hyper-consumerism trivializes reality and numbs people, even to prospects of their own destruction. In his essay ‘Interconnections of All in the Universe’, he writes: ‘Unless we broaden and deepen our perception of both the universe and our fellow members of society, we all may perish in persisting to manipulate each other and our ecosystem with materialism and exploitation.’

Culture-change strategists all agree about the urgent need to promote ‘global consciousness’ or ‘cosmic consciousness’ – a broad worldview with a high awareness of the inter-relatedness and sacredness of all living things. It is thought that such a universality of mind leads not only to intellectual illumination, but also to heightened moral sensibilities, compassion and greater community responsibility.

Behind the scenes some noteworthy organizations are working toward the goal of global consciousness, including the World Commission on Global Consciousness and Spirituality (, whose members include Nobel laureates, culture theorists, futurists and spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama. The group points out the huge backlog of positive human potential that is ready to unleash itself once we assume control and carve healthier cultural pathways for people’s energies. According to their mission statement, the fate of humankind and the ecosystem lies in our ability over the next couple of decades actively to revise our cultural blueprints in order to foster global consciousness and create new, more ‘mindful’ political and economic models.

Global calamity is forcing us into a post-political era in which ethically driven individuals and groups race ahead of the political class

Even in the formal education system, a small but growing number of teachers are incorporating a ‘global awareness’ perspective into the curriculum, aimed at dissolving cultural barriers and building a sense of global community ( Some are even encouraging a ‘global grammar’ that links students both to other human beings and to the entire planet.

In the war against trivialization some groups speak of ‘planetization’ – an expansive worldview that can slow our cultural death march. It was the French philosopher, palaeontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who coined this term in calling for a global mind that fused our ecological, spiritual and political energies, and thereby paved the way for harmonious living and lasting peace. The organization Planetization Rising ( sees this next phase as the only means by which we can ascend to a higher knowledge and thereby find a life-sustaining path for ourselves and the Earth: ‘It’s the next watershed mark in our evolutionary journey which alone can provide us with the empowerment and insight needed to overcome the gathering forces of ecological devastation, greed and war which now threaten our survival.’

The cultural indoctrination race is not over. The losers are still winning and the odds for a revolution in consciousness are no more than even. But is there an alternative – other than to drown in our own shallowness?

*John F Schumaker* is a US-born clinical psychologist living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. His latest book is In search of happiness: understanding an endangered state of mind (Penguin, 2006).

The happiness conspiracy

*‘The trouble with normal is it always gets worse,’ sang the Canadian guitarist Bruce Cockburn back in 1983.* Seems he was on to something. Normal doesn’t seem to be working any longer. The new Holy Grail is happiness. At every turn are ‘how-to’ happiness books, articles, TV and radio programmes, videos and websites. There are happiness institutes, camps, clubs, classes, cruises, workshops, and retreats. Universities are adding courses in Happiness Studies. Fast-growing professions include happiness counselling, happiness coaching, ‘life-lift’ coaching, ‘joyology’ and happiness science. Personal happiness is big business and everyone is selling it. Being positive is mandatory, even with the planet in meltdown. Cynics and pessimists are running for cover while the cheerleaders are policing the game with an iron fist. Only the bravest are not being bullied into cheering up or at least shutting up.

But a society of ‘happichondriacs’ isn’t necessarily a healthy sign. No-one is less able to sustain happiness than someone obsessed with feeling only happiness. A happy and meaningful existence depends on the ability to feel emotions other than happiness, as well as ones that compete with happiness.

‘Happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim,’ said Einstein. ‘I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig. The ideals that have lighted my way are Kindness, Beauty and Truth.’

If we’ve become pigs at the happiness trough, it’s understandable. As higher systems of meaning have withered, life purpose has dwindled to feeling good. Innocence, the lifeblood of happiness, is obsolete. We live on cultural soil perfectly suited for depression.

Other happiness blockers include materialism, perpetual discontent, over-complication, hyper-competition, stress, rage, boredom, loneliness and existential confusion. We’re removed from nature, married to work, adrift from family and friends, spiritually starved, sleep deprived, physically unfit, dumbed down, and enslaved to debt.

Health professionals face new epidemics of ‘hurry sickness’, ‘toxic success syndrome’, the ‘frantic family’, the ‘over-commercialized child’ and ‘pleonexia’ or out-of-control greed. Too much is no longer enough. Many are stretching themselves so far that they have difficulty feeling anything at all. At its heart the happiness boom is a metaphor for the modern struggle for meaning.

We laugh only a third as often as we did 50 years ago – hence the huge popularity of laughter clubs and laughter therapy. We make love less frequently and enjoy it less, even though sex is now largely deregulated and available in endless guilt-free varieties. Yet we’re the least happy society in history if we measure happiness in terms of mental health, personal growth, or general sense of aliveness.

A society’s dominant value system dictates how happiness is measured. The native Navajos in the southwest of the US saw happiness as the attainment of universal beauty, or what they called Hózhó. Their counterpart of ‘Have a nice day’ was ‘May you walk in beauty’.

Personal satisfaction is the most common way of measuring happiness today (via something called the Life Satisfaction Scale). This mirrors the supreme value that consumer culture attaches to the romancing of desire and the satiation of the self. When measured this way, almost everyone seems pretty happy – even if it’s primarily false needs being satisfied. A high percentage of depressed people even end up happy when ‘personal satisfaction’ is the yardstick.

By the middle of the 19th century, social critics were already noticing how happiness was losing its social, spiritual, moral and intellectual anchors and becoming a form of emotional masturbation. In his classic 1863 work, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill scorned this trend: ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,’ he opined.

Total satisfaction can actually be a major obstacle to happiness. Artist Salvador Dali lamented: ‘There are days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.’ To preserve the ‘rarity value’ of life one must resist wrapping heaven around oneself. Keeping paradise at a distance, yet within reach, is a much better way of staying alive. People who have it all must learn the art of flirting with deprivation.

The highest forms of happiness have always been experienced and expressed as love. But happiness is being wooed in increasingly autistic ways that lack this vital dimension. In a recent survey only one per cent of people indicated ‘true love’ as what they wanted most in life. Our standard of living has increased but our standard of loving has plummeted. The backlash against today’s narcissistic happiness is rekindling interest in the ancient Greek philosophers who equated happiness with virtue. Especially celebrated by them were loyalty, friendship, moderation, honesty, compassion and trust. Research shows that all these traits are in steep decline today – despite being happiness boosters. Like true love and true happiness, they have become uneconomic.

If we’ve become pigs at the happiness trough, it’s understandable. As higher systems of meaning have withered, life purpose has dwindled to feeling good. Innocence, the lifeblood of happiness, is obsolete. We live on cultural soil perfectly suited for depression

When author John Updike warned, ‘America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,’ he was referring to the superficial mass happiness that prevails when economics successfully conspires to define our existence. I profit, therefore I am. To be happy, gulp something. Pay later. Novelist JD Salinger was so unnerved by the happiness conspiracy that he confessed: ‘I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people are plotting to make one happy.’ The wrong type of happiness is worse than no happiness at all.

Governments are the biggest players in the happiness conspiracy. Any political action aimed at a more people-friendly or planet-friendly happiness is certain to be met with fierce resistance. The best consumers are itchy narcissists who hop, skip and jump from one fleeting desire to the next, never deeply satisfied, but always in the process of satisfying themselves. Our entire socio-economic system is designed to spew out this type of ‘ideal citizen’. Contentment is the single greatest threat to the economics of greed and consumer happiness.

Our ignorance of happiness is revealed by the question on everyone’s lips: ‘Does money make us happy?’ The head of a US aid agency in Kenya commented recently that volunteers are predictably dumbstruck and confused by the zest and jubilance of the Africans. It’s become a cliché for them to say: ‘The people are so poor, they have nothing – and yet they have so much joy and seem so happy.’

I never knew how measly my own happiness was until one day in 1978 when I found myself stranded in a remote western Tanzanian village. I saw real happiness for the first time – since then I have learned that it has vastly more to do with cultural factors than genetics or the trendy notion of personal ‘choice’.

So it didn’t surprise me that an African nation, Nigeria, was found recently to be the world’s happiest country. The study of ‘happy societies’ is awakening us to the importance of social connectedness, spirituality, simplicity, modesty of expectations, gratitude, patience, touch, music, movement, play and ‘down time’.

The small Himalayan nation of Ladakh is one of the best-documented examples of a ‘happy society’. As Helena Norberg-Hodge writes in Ancient Futures, Ladakhis were a remarkably joyous and vibrant people who lived in harmony with their harsh environment. Their culture generated mutual respect, community-mindedness, an eagerness to share, reverence for nature, thankfulness and love of life. Their value system bred tenderness, empathy, politeness, spiritual awareness and environmental conservation. Violence, discrimination, avarice and abuse of power were non-existent while depressed, burned-out people were nowhere to be found.

But in 1980 consumer capitalism came knocking with its usual bounty of raised hopes and social diseases. The following year, Ladakh’s freshly appointed Development Commissioner announced: ‘If Ladakh is ever going to be developed, we have to figure out how to make these people more greedy.’ The developers triumphed and a greed economy took root. The issues nowadays are declining mental health, family breakdown, crime, land degradation, unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, pollution and sprawl.

Writer Ted Trainer says before 1980 the people of Ladakh were ‘notoriously happy’. He sees in their tragic story a sobering lesson about our cherished goals of development, growth and progress. For the most part these are convenient myths that are much better at producing happy economies than happy people.

When normality fails, as it has today, happiness becomes a form of protest. Some disillusioned folks are resorting to ‘culture jamming’ and ‘subvertisements’ to expose the hollow core of commercial society. Others are seeking refuge in various forms of primitivism and eco-primitivism. Spurring this on is intriguing evidence from the field of cognitive archaeology suggesting that our Paleolithic ancestors were probably happier and far more alive than people today. The shift toward ‘Paleo’ and ‘Stone Age’ diets also reflects the belief that they had happier bodies.

There is an exquisite line by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche which touches on one of the keys to happiness: the need to appreciate ‘the least, the softest, lightest, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a moment’. Paradoxically, happiness is closer when we kneel than when we soar. Our own nothingness can be a great source of joy.

We usually hitch our emotional wagons to ego, ambition, personal power and the spectacular. But all of these are surprising flops when it comes to happiness. Today’s ‘success’ has become a blueprint for failure.

Visionaries tell us that the only happiness that makes sense at this perilous juncture in Earth’s history is ‘sustainable happiness’. All worthwhile happiness is life-supporting. But so much of what makes us happy in the age of consumerism is dependent upon the destruction and over-exploitation of nature. A sustainable happiness implies that we take responsibility for the wider contexts in which we live and for the well-being of future generations.

Sustainable happiness harks back to the classical Greek philosophies in viewing ethical living as a legitimate vehicle for human happiness. Compassion in particular plays a central role. In part it rests on the truth that we can be happy in planting the seeds of happiness, even if we might miss the harvest.

Some argue that as a society we are too programmed to selfishness and over-consumption for a sustainable happiness to take root. Democracy itself is a problem when the majority itches for the wrong things. But if we manage to take the first few steps, we may rediscover that happiness resonates most deeply when it has a price.

The greatest irony in the search for happiness is that it is never strictly personal. For happiness to be mature and heartfelt, it must be shared – whether by those around us or by tomorrow’s children. If not, happiness can be downright depressing.

John F Schumaker is a US-born psychologist currently living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa, is the author of _In Search of Happiness: Understanding an endangered state of mind_ (Penguin).

In greed we trust

CHINESE philosopher Lao Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago: ‘There is no calamity greater than lavish desires, no greater guilt than discontentment and no greater disaster than greed.' If he's right, we've concocted a mighty sick world for ourselves. The infamous ‘greedy Eighties' turned out to be a mere dress rehearsal for one of the most spectacular greed surges in history, with jaw-dropping degrees of stockmarket folly, corporate skullduggery, decadence, excess and high-octane narcissism. But, just as with the ‘lessons of the Eighties', the ‘lessons of the late Nineties' fall on deaf ears. The overriding lesson seems to be that greed is sweet for the economy.

As human beings continue to be reshaped by consumer culture into restless, dissatisfied, and alldesiring economic pawns, greed is being redefined as a virtue and a legitimate guiding principle for economic prosperity and general happiness. In the process, it is steadily eating away at the cornerstones of civilized society and undermining the visions, values and collective aspirations that made us strong.

However in his essay ‘The Virtue of Greed', Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University, maintains that without greed, our current economic and social structures would implode. He echoes the view of many economists in saying ‘greed produces preferable economic outcomes most times and under most conditions'. Many economic rationalists agree that greed's proven superiority as the psychological launchpad for economic activity is due to its being the only consistent human motivation. Most alternatives have revolved around altruism, and failed. Even the respected economist Lester Thurlow, in an essay entitled ‘Market Crash Born of Greed', holds that ‘altruism does not seem to be congruent with the way human beings are constructed. No one has been able to construct a society where communal altruism dominates individual greed.'

When we salute all-consuming America as the standout ‘growth engine' of the world, we are in many ways paying tribute to the economic wonders of greed. William Dodson's essay ‘A Culture of Greed' chronicles America's pre-eminence as a greed economy. He writes that the US enjoys a relative absence of constraints, including tax and labour constraints that would otherwise burden corporations with a sense of social responsibility, plus various system advantages and historical traditions, that together allow greed to flourish and be milked for purposes of profit and growth.

Jay Phelan, an economist, biologist, and co-author of Mean Genes, feels that greed could be our ultimate undoing as a species. Yet he theorizes that evolution programmed us to be greedy since greed locks us into discontent, which in turn keeps us motivated and itchy for change. In the past at least, this favoured survival. Conversely, he believes, it would be disastrous if humans lacked greed to the extent that they could achieve a genuine state of happiness or contentment. In Phelan's view, this is because happy people tend not to do much, or crave much – poison for a modern consumer economy.

Recent years have seen the publication of a wide range of studies casting doubt on whether economic models aimed at increasing personal wealth and consumption are actually conducive to human happiness. In fact, the large-scale General Survey of the United States found that, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, the percentage of people who are ‘very happy' actually dropped from 34 per cent to 30 per cent, despite higher incomes, more possessions and improved living standards.

Such findings are being hailed by social critics as proof that the greed economy is toxic to well-being, and that it is hastening our slide into a collective state of ‘unhappy consciousness', as sociologists call it. But they may be missing the main point if, indeed, greed and unhappiness are the fire in the belly of a consumer economy. There is little doubt that the cultural sanctification of greed is creating a deep existential void that cannot be filled – whatever the degree of material indulgence, personal achievement or private gratification. Despite that, this ‘Empty Self' of modern life, with its insatiability and alienation, may actually be what is necessary to power greed economics.

The eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes in an insightful essay, ‘The Self in a Consumer Society', that greed itself is changing in order to better serve consumer capitalism. In the past, says Bauman, greed was not constant because people's desires were still attached to needs and objects, as well as a credible social world, which meant they tended to pause from time to time in satisfaction or reflection. Over time, however, consumer culture has upped ‘consumptive capacity' by honing its members to be immune to satisfaction, and thus immediately ready to desire the next thing that comes along. Of this, Bauman says that desire no longer desires satisfaction. In the modern age, ‘desire desires desire', which is the basis for our new ‘constant greed'.

Research is starting to show that we have come to see ourselves as incorrigibly greedy by nature. According to one survey, nearly 90 per cent of people agree with the statement ‘Humans always want more, it is part of human nature'. But in truth, a society's culture determines the extent to which our propensity for greed is activated or suppressed.

Judith Ann Johnson's groundbreaking 1999 doctoral dissertation drew the connections between maximal greed and the cultural combination of capitalism, materialism, hyper-competition and discrimination. It is the presence of all these factors that makes greed what she calls an overarching ‘map of Western consciousness'.

Another of Johnson's key findings is that greed operates best at very low levels of wisdom, awareness and understanding. It may be that the relentless dumbing down of consumer society is a valuable cultural strategy that paves the way to ever more efficient greed economics.

One specific way that greed sparks the modern economy is by suppressing savings rates via unending craving for all things consumable, which translates into frivolous spending and a hearty appetite for credit. There is an economic formula, made famous by financial legend and greed guru Leon Levy, that states: ‘For every 1 per cent rise in savings, corporate profits fall by 11 per cent.' This means, for example, if greed-inspired overspending in the US would ease to the extent that savings rose to a modest 5 per cent from the current subzero mark, corporate profits would fall by 50 per cent or more.

Greed is the backbone of the prevailing ‘philosophy of more' that supports the profitable ‘big is beautiful' trend (as with ‘mini-mansions', four-wheel drive SUVs, and so on) as well as the worldwide ‘investment-driven' property boom/ bubble. The gluttonous aspect of greed-mindedness carries further short-term advantages by way of increased tendencies toward overconsumption, waste, premature disposal and replacement, needless upgrading and general disregard for conservation.

Greed drives entrepreneurial investment. It also facilitates the manufacture and commercial exploitation of false needs. It is no wonder that greed enthusiasts insist that nothing can beat greed when it comes to the economy, and that we should not give up on it as the epicentre of economic and social life, or fixate on burst stock-market bubbles, or sticky- fingered Enrons and Worldcoms.

Peter Catsimpiris, co-founder of the pro-capitalist Laissez Faire League, even scolds us in his essay ‘In Defense of Greed' for stunting our children's greed potential with commands such as ‘Give some to the other children'. To unleash the power of greed, he says, we should teach them that greed is the great hope of humanity from which can spring boundless prosperity, progress and innovation.

But others point out how greed, and its ‘dying with the most toys' cultural hero system, is infusing children around the globe with selfdestructive degrees of materialism, avarice and self-preoccupation. The commercialization of childhood is being led by greedy corporations that put profits before social responsibility and children's health. Over the past two decades, for example, aggressive advertising by the soft-drink industry has seen high-sugar soft-drink consumption double in children aged 6 to 11, a major contributor to the worsening epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes. Today, with greed still their main moral compass, these companies market an ever-expanding array of caffeinated drinks to children that have health experts worrying about a new wave of youth addiction.

The globalization of greed is being facilitated by agencies such as the World Trade Organization, whose mission it is to eliminate obstacles to the proliferation of transnational corporate activity, but which in effect merely pumps up corporate profit sheets at the expense of workers' rights, local environments and communities.

The notion that individual greed can serve the common good has wormed its way into political philosophies, even some with long-standing socialistic leanings. The ultimate expression of this illogic can be seen in the current US administration of George W Bush, which pins most of its hopes on a government-by-greed strategy. But, as antigreed psychologist Julian Edney argues, there is a fundamental flaw in this method as evidenced most conspicuously in the ever-widening gap between rich and poor: ‘Greed demolishes equity. Simply, you cannot have both unrestrained greed and equality.'

In the end, unchecked greed erodes freedom, undermines the social fabric and is an undemocratic force

According to Edney, the celebration of greed has spawned a ‘schizophrenic haze' that numbs society to the tragic and dangerous consequences of the present ‘apartheid economy'. In the end, unchecked greed erodes freedom, undermines the social fabric and is an undemocratic force.

More and more mental-health professionals are saying that greed is not nearly as good for people as it is for economies, with some warning that greed is beginning to overwhelm conscience, reason, compassion, love, family bonds and community. Moreover, existing levels of constant greed are causing clinical depression and despair in many people.

The term ‘pleonexia' is being used to diagnose pathological greed that can contribute to a host of ills, including stress, burnout, gambling addictions, compulsive shopping, ‘affluenza' and loss of moral grounding.

American psychologist and greed treatment specialist David Farrugia, sees greed as a mistaken, empty and shortsighted goal that contains many seeds of destruction, in particular those that destroy families and marriages. Beyond that, in his article ‘Selfishness, Greed, and Counseling', a chronic orientation toward greed has been shown to result in inflexibility, anxiety and diminished reality testing, all of which tarnish a person's overall experience of life.

Extremes of greed may even make a greed economy sick. For instance, Leon Levy feels that the greed factor in the US has actually gone too far in subduing savings and raising debt, and that consumption and the economy generally will be seriously hampered for some time to come.

Unchecked greed can also be so harmful to the environment that it comes back to haunt the economy. In fact, the single largest hitch with greed culture and greed economics is the long-term crushing effects these have on the planet. That is a monumental problem that none of today's greed enthusiasts have been able to solve.

John F Schumaker is an American-born clinical psychologist now living in Christchurch, New Zealand. His latest book is The Age of Insanity.

Earth Warrior

JS: Your worst critics claim that you are crazy.

Watson: The film Trashing The Planet implied I was insane because when I was 12 I shot another boy in the ass with a BB gun who was about to shoot a bird. I thought this amusing because in my neighborhood in New Brunswick, in eastern Canada, every 12-year-old boy shot at other boys with their BB guns for fun. The difference between them and myself was that I actually had a practical reason for shooting the kid. He received a bruised posterior and the bird lived. I was happy with that.

JS: Why are you so pessimistic about the prospect of governments making a difference?

Watson: To me government is an organized body that oversees the mass destruction of human and non-human life. Governments sell the licences to over-fish, to clear-cut, to hunt, to drain swamps and to destroy wetlands. Politicians seem to be incapable of action unless they are reacting to situations that force them to take action. Even then their actions are unimaginative and indiscriminate. For example, the US acted in reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Government’s motivation ever since has been fear, primarily the fear of appearing impotent. Their actions have for the most part focused on curtailing the freedoms of their own citizens and imposing more restrictive immigration policies against innocent peoples wanting to enter the United States. The US Government has also reacted by waging war against Afghanistan and then Iraq to cover up the failure to destroy al-Qaeda. War is always good for making it appear that something is being done. However, none of this will end terrorism. Terrorism won’t end until the root causes are removed. The removal of the root causes – poverty, totalitarian regimes supported by the US, environmental destruction – requires an imagination and an applied intelligence that government bureaucracy is simply incapable of providing.

JS: Will any of our current world leaders make ‘a good ancestor’, to use one of your terms?

Watson: I have struggled over the years to identify a world leader who has made a difference with regard to conservation and the environment and I haven’t found one. There are many who pay lip service but none who have taken action. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway spoke strongly about sustainability and the need to take action yet her country is involved with illegal whaling, ruthless over-fishing, destructive salmon farming, over-exploitation of its forests and the eradication of the wolf. Norway has talked the talk, especially when lecturing to Third World nations. But the reality is they dictate solutions they do not support in practice in their own country.

JS: You once commented that the ‘average Joe’ lives in a world of illusion and fantasy, and prefers it that way.

Watson: The great majority of people live in a reality defined by the mass media. Modern media defines morality, political and spiritual views, as well as our heroes and our ideals. The industry of illusion is one of the most lucrative on Earth and it is certainly the industry that has the most profound impact on our daily lives. Media entertains us and in return we sign our soul over to the media moguls and worship at their house of commerce.

JS: Whatever happened to freedom?

Watson: In the US we are slaves to a perverse definition of freedom. We are free, by god, and if you don’t agree that we are free we might have to throw you into jail until you agree with us. We have freedom of speech until we speak. We have freedom of assembly until we assemble and then we are dispersed by riot police. We have the freedom to express ourselves until we actually express ourselves. Freedom in the United States is a concept not an actuality. You agree with us or you agree with terrorism. The US has the best damn government money can buy. The Parliament of Whores in Washington is more loyal to the idea of commerce with the People’s Republic of China than it is to the freedom of its own citizens. Unfortunately most human beings believe that the oppressor is their saviour.

JS: Since the ‘average Joe’ inevitably votes out of self-interest, isn’t democracy a curse from an environmental standpoint?

Watson: Democracy may or may not be a good idea. It really has never been tried. The real problem is that people can be controlled. The citizen is a crop to be cultivated and harvested for the money required to support the bureaucracy. All the citizen sheep require is a shepherd (leader) to provide bread and circuses and to whisper electronic promises of security into their ears at night. And it is so easy to do in a media culture with television and sophisticated technologies to supply a diverse smorgasbord of entertainment.

JS: Speaking of circuses, you describe celebrities as the aristocrats of today’s ‘cultural circus’. Yet you rely heavily on them for support. Aren’t they some of the biggest ecological hypocrites on the planet?

Watson: In our culture people who make a living pretending to be other people have the most credibility. I don’t look on our celebrity spokespeople as hypocrites. I see them as having the wisdom and courage to harness their celebrity status for causes they believe in.

JS: We hear a lot today about the collapse of compassion in consumer society. Is that hampering the environmental movement?

Watson: Yes, compassion is declining. Add to this the internet – the latest media narcotic – and you find a wholesale retreat, especially amongst young people, into the matrix-like world of cyberspace. This is creating the perception of the natural world as an alien place and removing humanity even further from nature than before.

JS: You said recently that we are losing the battle. Why?

Watson: We are losing the battle because we live in a culture that nurtures us on materialism and promotes greed as a virtue. We are also taught to deny the consequences of greed. I do see a solution but my solutions are unacceptable. I would curb the powers of corporations. I would implement serious educational programmes to reduce population growth. I would take away control of the media from special interests. I would outlaw advertising. I would create an international organization to police international conservation law. I would outlaw animal experimentation and give rights to other species and ecosystems. We give rights to corporations so why shouldn’t trees have standing before law?

JS: Isn’t it a colossal irony that our species is, as you put it, so ecologically stupid?

Watson: It is very much a cultural problem. Our story is self-centred. We equate intelligence with technology. Our religions are exclusive to our species. We have excluded ourselves from the natural world. We are the Titanic sinking slowly into the darkness of extinction due to our own stupidity. We saw the iceberg coming but we were too busy dancing in the ballroom to take action to avoid it. And as the ship sinks ever deeper we toss out other species to make more room in the lifeboats for even more human passengers. Meanwhile, governments are more concerned about arranging the deck chairs and organizing the shuffleboard games even to notice that we are sinking.

JS: You mentioned religion. I see that your name has made the ‘Celebrity Atheist List’ next to Bruce Willis and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Watson: I reject any religion that places humanity at its centre and all the world’s religions do that. A biocentric planetary religion that promotes ecological ethics would be ideal but I do not envision such an innovation until it is too late.

JS: Do you see a link between overpopulation and biological meltdown?

Watson: I regard the diminishment of ecological carrying capacity and the extinction of plants and animals as the most important problems facing the future of evolution on Earth. Both problems are the result of out-of-control population growth. In 1972 when I attended the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm human overpopulation was the number one issue. Twenty years later when I attended the UN Conference on the Environment and Development in Brazil the issue of human population was not even on the agenda. If humanity does not implement a solution to the population problem, nature will deliver a very unpleasant solution and our lack of action today will guarantee an ecological nightmare for the people of the next few generations.

JS: What do you make of the latest emphasis on ‘family values’?

Watson: Family values have become a distraction. Concentrating on the nuclear family has led to wholesale ignorance and neglect of the family of nature. We share this planet with millions of other species and we ignore their welfare at our peril. We must get out of this vicious circle where we live only to perpetuate our family name. There are more important things than the nuclear family – like conservation of biodiversity, the need to lower human populations and the interdependence of species. The family is a concept used by government to keep us under control. So many people tell me that they would like to help protect endangered species and habitats but they can’t do much because of family obligations. In the end what is the good of family without a healthy environment to make life liveable and possible? Conservation and protection of the carrying capacity of the planet must be and should be the first priority of every person.

JS: In 1994, you predicted the collapse of the cod fishery in the North Atlantic. That’s now become a tragic reality. Any more predictions?

Watson: I can safely predict that we will see more single-hulled oil tanker spills. My predictions for this new century are that in addition to oil wars we will see water wars, more fishery wars and other resource wars. A war will be fought over control of the resources of Antarctica. Canada and the US will go to war over water. Europe and Africa will go to war over fishing in African waters. And of course the media will continue to report that the experts from government and industry assure us that everything is all right.

John F Schumaker is a psychologist living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. His latest book is The Age of Insanity.

Dead zone

On a recent visit home to Wisconsin I found myself sitting alone in a crowded shopping mall, feeling the same intangible revulsion that eventually banished me from America. Above me towered a brutish vending machine, complete with celestial chimes, rotating lights and a steely synthesized voice beckoning the assembly of dupes. A miserable young lad approached, dragging the body of his package-laden mother. He searched her eyes repeatedly until she finally fed the machine, got a Rocket Ranger toy and stuck it out to her child.

He slapped it onto the floor and screeched for still another selection. Mom stuffed in more bills until finally the boy was out of choices. ‘Well, for God’s sake, what do you _want_,’ she bellowed.

In a confused rage the boy bawled, over and over again, ‘I want _something_, I want _something_, I want _something_.’ As I watched the boy I thought that, after all these years, America is still shooting up the town, still digging its heels unnecessarily deep into the precious elements that sustain us, and still making me glad that I now live in New Zealand.

The boy seemed to forewarn of capitalism’s psychological dead end where life masquerades as a kaleidoscope of consumer choices. His was the collective voice of mindless consumerism as it has been perfected and amplified in America. It spoke too of the existential loneliness that gnaws at me whenever I return to the ‘all-consuming society’ as some sociologists have come to call America.

American culture has assigned its fate to institutionalized overconsumption. This radical psycho-economic device lies at the heart of the country’s much celebrated economic boom. What we see unfolding in the US is a human tragedy that was foreseen by Thornton Wilder in _The Bridge of San Luis Rey_. There he describes a people who are ‘drunk with self-gazing and in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires’. Scratch the surface of the economic boom and you see a grotesque epidemic of desire and greed. This is what America’s bold experiment with radical consumerism is all about.

As I sat in the mall that day I wondered what my hero Albert Einstein would think about the patterns of cultural consciousness that are encouraged in present-day America. In an interview he once said: ‘The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty, and truth. The trite subjects of life – possessions, outward success, luxury – have always seemed contemptible.’

Late in his life Einstein expressed grave concerns that trite commercial values were beginning to silence loftier human motivations among Americans and he feared the wider consequences of the social sanctioning of greed. Yet not even he could have foreseen the degree of authority that would eventually be commanded by all things trite.

However, as we all know, the person-as-customer cultural strategy is a sure winner from the standpoint of an economy driven by overconsumption. The percentage of total economic activity that is generated in America from personal spending has reached 70 per cent, far more than any other nation.

In a spending showdown, no-one is faster or more deadly than Americans. We spend hugely more on ourselves than our closest rival. Private spending is between 50 per cent and 90 per cent greater than in all major European countries. Over the past five years the savings rate in the US has fallen to a negative rate so that we now spend around $35 billion more than we earn. Virtually all shame has been erased from indebtedness. In 1999 US citizens racked up credit-card debt of $1.5 trillion, while total consumer debt reached a mind-boggling $6 trillion. The one million bankruptcies filed annually due to credit excesses are readily absorbed by an economic system that flourishes on consumer foolhardiness.

When it comes to the physical-waste side of the equation, Americans are leaving Sasquatch-sized footprints. The strategy of overproduction, overspending and overconsumption sees Americans piling up far more solid waste than any other nation. The typical US family of four amasses a seemingly impossible 13 kg of solid waste per day.

Like guns and God, overconsumption has very special meanings to Americans. Most feel proud as well as fortified by the cultural assumption that overindulgence is good for the country. By sheltering them from all the bad news about overconsumption, the US media has suppressed most environmental awareness, even in the face of an impending ecological holocaust. The bulk of the American public accepts the primitive economic reasoning underlying their collective assault on the world’s resources. The triumph of consumer consciousness has seen banality and vulgarity anointed with respectability. The utterly superfluous has become a noble pursuit and the quest for personal and intellectual growth is fading quickly. Greed has lost most of its negative connotations.

So just how shallow have we Americans become under the reign of consumerism? In 1970, a large-scale survey of US university students showed that 80 per cent of them had as a goal ‘the development of a meaningful philosophy of life’. By 1989, the percentage had fallen to 41 per cent. During the same period, the number of those aiming ‘to be very well off financially’ increased from 39 per cent to 75 per cent – which explains the wholesale shift to studying ‘marketable’ subjects.

American-style radical consumerism has succeeded to the point that social analysts now speak of things like ‘consumer trance’ and ‘ecological dissociation’. Take the fascination with sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Who would have thought in these delicate environmental times that the public could be sold a popular mode of transport that consumes one-third more fuel and creates 75 per cent more pollution than ordinary cars? And who would have guessed that the average fuel efficiency of US cars in the year 2001 would be less than in the hog-car days of the 1950s and 1960s? Environmentalists have calculated that the SUV fad has caused Americans to waste 70 billion gallons of gasoline in the past 10 years – an immense price for an outdoorsy image.

An article just appeared in my local _Christchurch Mail_ newspaper, titled ‘New Zealand Fails To Measure Up Against United States’. Comparing ten economic indicators across the two countries it left no doubt that America was leaving New Zealand in the dust. It is a standing joke that New Zealand is 20 years behind developments in the US. Yet many Kiwis are catching up. Imported SUVs parade through the streets of Auckland, 24-hour shopping is being tested and Kiwis are becoming gradually fatter. But New Zealand has not yet made overconsumption its national pastime and the core of its national identity.

Eighty-five percent of Americans indicated in a recent poll that a ‘six figure’ income would be required to service their yearned-for lifestyle. Yet nearly 30 per cent of those actually earning six figures reported that their ‘basic needs’ were not being met. This dizzying degree of consumer desire and the exquisitely concocted discontent underlying it cannot be achieved overnight.

While most societies throughout history have organized themselves in order to curb natural greed, America’s devoted consumers are encouraged to respect, nurture and act on the subtlest stirrings of their avarice. As a result materialism has reached fever pitch and continues to rise sharply. In a 1976 survey of US high-school students, 38 per cent indicated that having ‘a lot of money’ was a primary goal in life. In 1988, the figure had risen to 63 per cent. Today one would feel downright silly for even asking if ‘a lot of money’ is important.

Of special concern to mental-health professionals are studies showing that high degrees of materialism have a toxic effect on psychological and social well-being. A strong materialist orientation has been associated with diminished life satisfaction, impaired self-esteem, dissatisfaction with friendships and leisure activities, and a predisposition to depression.

Escalating materialism may be the single largest contributor to Western society’s tenfold increase in major depression over the past half-century. It certainly features in the worrying rash of ‘consumption disorders’ such as compulsive shopping, consumer vertigo and kleptomania.

Hyper-materialism also features prominently in the emerging plague of ‘existential disorders’ such as chronic boredom, ennui, jadedness, purposelessness, meaninglessness and alienation. Surveys of therapists reveal that 40 per cent of Americans seeking psychotherapy today suffer from these and other complaints, often referred to as all-pervasive ‘psychic deadness’. Once materialism becomes the epicenter of one’s life it can be hard to feel any more alive than the lifeless objects that litter the consumer world. In a recent study of US university students, 81 per cent of them reported feeling in an ‘existential vacuum’.

And children are on the frontlines of the consumer blitz. An average eight-year-old in the US can list 30 popular brand names. More than 90 per cent of 13-year-old girls in one survey listed shopping as their favorite pastime, followed by TV watching. In 1968 US children aged 4-12 spent around $2 billion a year; today they spend nearly $30 billion. And savvy marketers now concentrate on ‘cradle-to-grave’ indoctrination strategies.

The world seems hellbent on following America’s lead. But there is nothing useful to be learned from the American Dream in its present hyper-commercialized form. The toxic consciousness that it fosters has transformed the dream into a nightmare. Finding an antidote to the Americanization of the world must be the top priority of the international community.

As a very first step we can discipline ourselves to be critical of all the ‘positive economic indicators’ that we hear about the American economy. We do not want to measure up to the cultural greed and shared mindlessness that has earned America its pre-eminent economic status.

The footprints of tomorrow’s people must be very light indeed. Let it be our job to set an entirely different example that can take us more safely into a highly uncertain future. Buy nothing for a day and try to rise above your sense of cultural failure.

*John F Schumaker* is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. His latest book, The Age of Insanity (Praeger), will be released later this year.

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