As someone who has now had the privilege of experiencing cultures whose values are not almost entirely motivated by consumerism, I can say with some authority that what author Jay Phelan, writer of the book Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, might call “the poison of contentment” is in actuality the only way we as a species are going to remain on this planet.
Perhaps I should be more accurate in reconfiguring this ravenous appetite of ours into something more useful and less destructive. My hypothesis is that should we value knowledge, wisdom, and the understanding of ourselves, each other, and this grand cosmos that we occupy with the same zeal as when we race though the mall on Black Friday and the same frenetic exuberance we exhibit when our team has made a touchdown, we should be far better served by way of equality, happiness, justice, true prosperity, and peace, both individually and collectively.
We, in the West, have been so brainwashed into thinking that our way is the way. This schema is allowed to fester thanks to our media and our collective ego. Our unwillingness or inability to explore beyond the boundary of our personal and national borders has left us bereft of the world-wise wisdom that would show us quite clearly we in fact do not have it all figured out. Not by a long shot.
Do you think that just because you have an iPhone, cable tv, shopping malls, and an endless array of things to buy (but rarely use) that you are better off than someone in a less developed country who may lack such luxuries?
As an aside, it’s getting more rare that such luxuries don’t exist in these cultures, along with the discontent they often breed.
Has it occurred to you that the craving itself is the problem and that mindless consuming only exacerbates the dilemma? Has it ever brought you lasting happiness? No, of course it hasn’t.
It is in our nature to desire. To this I offer no argument. The question becomes can we, based upon thoughtful deliberation and experience, restructure the hierarchy of what it is we desire and how much? Can we, in fact, create within ourselves a “desire pyramid” if you will, that puts drastically less emphasis on desires that do not contribute to a more holistic, peaceful, and lasting happiness and more emphasis on the desires that by proxy, end up as a benefit to human kind.
This is a big question and one rarely asked within the mainstream paradigm for good reason. It upsets the status quo upon which so many are reliant.
Adults are very often like children in that unless they are told how they are lacking they do not think of themselves as such. Marketers know this and prey upon it with calculated precision. You can thank Edward Bernays, the father of the modern PR/Marketing movement (also known as Propaganda). Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who took his uncle’s new found research regarding the capacity of the subconscious mind and used it to line his pockets and manipulate millions into believing that “stuff” could make them happy, powerful, sexy, independent, important and so on. Stuff which, of course, had no actual relevance to any of the aforementioned attributes but once woven so deeply into the fabric of culture became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
These patterns are not new to us. Every culture has some version, but the question I pose is, are we capable of moving past the more primal apexes of our minds and acting as if we are actually something more than meat suits consuming the planet?
Whether or not you believe in a cosmic intelligence of any kind, we can still hold within us the idea that we have the potential to be more than just another species run amuck. We can operate from and make decision based upon higher ideals and not simply scarcity oriented primal, or worse, reptilian, thinking. This kind of thought only works when you are still under the umbrella of nature’s regulatory forces. We’ve obviously moved past that point now, haven’t we?
Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Ok, Jon. I’m with you on the over-consumerism, but what about our standard of living? To which I will ask, has slaving away, doing work you’d most likely rather not do, to maintain your standard of living made you a better, happier, or more joyful person? Didn’t think so.
I personally don’t know where I stand as far as our potential goes. I’ve always believed in humanity’s capacity to do great things; to design, create and deliver in a way that raises us all up, but this can only happen when there are enough of us acting as if it is so. No wishful thinking, no “law of attraction”, no positive self-affirmations are going to get us there.
ACTION is the bridge!
So the question remains, what is the action?
The answer begins within ourselves. A thoughtful re-evaluation of what we think we need in this life is a good place to start.
Unrestrained greed and equality can never co-exist. Your average person will not argue this. The problem is those whose influence on society is often the most profound actually do think unchecked greed is the answer, such as financial greed guru Leon Levy, or the founder of pro-capitolist Laissez Faire League Peter Catsimpiris. Catsimpiris, in his essay, ‘In Defense of Greed’ says, “To unleash the power of greed, we should teach that greed is the great hope of humanity from which can spring boundless prosperity, progress and innovation.” The error could not be more profoundly obvious.
Each of us must ask ourselves some very important questions. If we are honest, we may not like the initial answers. A few such questions may be;
1. How are we perpetuating this unjust system through our own actions?
2. What in our lives really and truly brings us the peace, joy, and happiness we so desperately seek?
3. Are we what we own, do, or think or is there some other aspect of our nature we are missing by thinking what makes up our material world pretty much sums us up?
4. What is the basis for the beliefs we hold most strongly and who gave them to us?
5. What tools are available to give us more clarity and consciousness regarding who we are and what our lives are about?
Would it really be so bad if people simply stopped buying needless things? Would it be so bad if our economy was actually re-structured into one that valued sustainability over greed; collaboration instead of competition; preservation over exploitation?
We have shown how we can weave a web of networks virtually. Can we create them in the real world? Can we solve problems within our own communities without the oppressive nature of some outside influence that has little or no idea what is happening locally? Can we reach out to our fellow humans, wherever they may be from, and ask them to share what insights they may have about the challenges we face, while being humble enough to accept and incorporate their advice?
What are these people, who fight tooth and nail to remain inside their gilded cages, so afraid of when the idea of economic collapse is presented to them? What exactly is being lost? It does not have to be life itself. I’ll tell what you they are afraid of: ego death. Everything that they have built for themselves or have decided consciously or have often unconsciously adopted as their own is facing extinction and this, I can also say from experience, is not terribly enjoyable. To really be faced with the truth that our whole existence may be utterly pointless and that our beliefs, ideas, and opinions about life are utterly meaningless except to us and, if we are lucky, a select few around us. If by some happenstance your thoughts do live on you’ll get, at best, a few thousand years, but you certainly won’t be around to enjoy the fame.
Yes, the system that we are all (some more than others) engaged in is going to collapse. It’s simply a matter of time. Since many of us have, in fact, built our house of cards on a foundation of sand, yes, this shift is going to be difficult, but think deeply about what it is that actually sustains your life. It is breath. It is healthy food. It is clean water. It is a decent roof over your head and it is the love of your friends and family. What do you really need to do in your life to maintain those things?
We have now come to a point of what I like to call “Peak Greed”. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes in his essay, ‘The Self in a Consumer Society,’ “desire no longer desires satisfaction. In the modern age, ‘desire desires desire’, which is the basis for our new ‘constant greed’.”
I have lived a very minimalist existence all of my life and I can tell you I do not feel any sense of lack by having done so. Rather the opposite. I feel rich! Because I have placed value on things that truly sustain my existence.
Though we have been programmed to believe we are far greedier than our nature actually shows us to be, our nature is not set in stone. Richard Dawkins writes in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, “Our brains are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them. We do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too.”
Biological organisms are constantly adapting to their environment. It stands to reason that an environment where greed is not only nurtured but celebrated would, by default, cause us to experience greed as inordinately more important than all of the other emotions humans posses. It also stands to reason that the pervasive and persistent dumbing down of our consumer society is a calculated strategy by those who are so obviously benefiting from greed economics.
One of Judith Ann Johnson‘s key findings in her groundbreaking 1999 doctoral dissertation revealed that, essentially, greed operates best at very low levels of wisdom, awareness, and understanding. Hmmm. Where else have I read similar sentiments? Oh, yeah! In every major holy book ever written; particularly in the one the western world holds so dear.
Lastly, I want to be clear. This is not about the means. I take no issue with the tool that is money. I take no issue with material goods obviously. My challenge to you, and to myself, is the recognize the difference between the material we need in order to function in a happy and holistic way on this planet and materialism. It is one of discernment and discretion. It is one of mindful awareness and the question of how each one of us can contribute to the solutions or the problems facing our world. I have often said that no great work of art, no revolutionary scientific discovery, no life affirming and transforming innovation was ever, at its seed, motivated by greed. If we can truly hold that truth within our hearts and know without a doubt that wellspring within that inspires greatness in us all, we may just have a chance.
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