“What then is the nature of this psychological sequence from fundamental to fundamentalism? To be secure about fundamentals is to live within an intact framework of larger human connectedness, or what I have called symbolic immortality. In that state one believes in – or at least has no reason to question – the value and everlastingness of one’s relation to the chain of generations, to work and works, to higher spiritual principles, to eternal nature, and to experiences of transcendence that directly affirm the intactness of one’s psychological universe. When these ultimate – that is, fundamental – connections are profoundly threatened, confidence in the over-all continuity of life gives way to widespread death imagery, even to a collective sense of being inundated by death and nothingness.”
Robert J. Lifton, Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism
When the elected leaders of the Untied States used the lie of weapons of mass destruction to justify their invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rest of the world noticed. What had been lost in this event was a tradition of informed citizens holding their leaders accountable for deceiving them. Dictatorships expect the leaders to lie to the people when it is convenient for their own agendas. Democracies are established on the foundation that this is not acceptable behavior. Why this happened is a complicated question to answer, though one of the central factors had to be the changes that happened to the news organizations when they changed from primarily serving to inform the citizenry to becoming profit centers for the networks. No longer was even the establishment of an informed citizenry, the necessary backbone of a functioning democracy, sacred enough to stay outside the forces of economic competition. Truth, which often offends, was made subservient to the dollar.
The transparent exercise of governmental power is freely open to examination by the citizenry of a democracy. Arguably that has become a thing of past in the United States, sacrificed for the needs of “security.” Truth has become optional, as it always has been when in the hands of the propagandist.
The decades since 2003 have seen the United States lose more and more of its moral high ground. The once shining light on the hill has become, for most people on this planet, the source of the greatest risks to the long term well being of our species. Such, anyway, is what the polling agencies find.
I have always thought America played a unique role in the modern world. It’s constitutional government persuaded much of the world that the people of a nation should be listened to, that ultimate political power justly derives from the consent of the govern. There is a darker aspect to the unique role that America has played in modern history as well. We are the only nation to have used nuclear bombs to kill human beings in an act of war. This event, arguably, shortened the war but without a doubt it also brought with it a new responsibility to the citizenry of the United States. If our leaders answer to the will of the people, and they now wield such terrifyingly destructive weaponry in our name, we have a burden laid on us unlike those of other nations.
So far, over the last few decades since the end of WWII, the rest of the world has rested more or less easily with this balance of powers. The leadership choices of the United States remained controversial and far from perfect year in and year out, yet the checks and balances inherent in our system seemed to provide the best measure of sanity in geopolitics we, as a species, could hope for. Most of these previously comforting considerations no longer apply to the American political order, given the evidence at hand.
Democracy has always been messy, with conspiracies and collusions galore. Secrets and Machiavellian politics have been bedfellows throughout the few hundred years of American history. What is being said here is not that there was a golden age in the past we have lost and need to return to. What is being said is that there is every indication that many of the core features of our democratic past, those which made the balance of power balanced, have lost their ability to do so.
The reason, I submit, is due to the cognitive dissonance we as a nation have had to live with ever since confronting the two limits that showed us clearly that we had made a mistake in building Homo Colossus and needed to change our ways. The cognitive dissonance in this case is compounded by the huge previous investment used to build all the colossal machines and their infrastructures which form the ecologically suicidal gigantism of Homo Colossus. We have been escalating our commitment to this obviously mistaken national pursuit for close to half a century now. As James Kunstler has stated, the U.S. build out of suburban sprawl is “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known ”
The two limits that put the American democracy through the wringer were the ecological limits to endless growth on a finite planet and the scientific limits to destructiveness once splitting the atom itself was put to the task. Thermonuclear weapons put an end to the war motivated scientific search for, as Buckminster Fuller taught, weapons “designed to kill ever more people at ever-greater distances in ever-shorter periods of time.” If we as a species do not self-limit our destructive potential, the probability of using these weapons we spend so much effort to build and keep safe increases with each passing year. And that would be catastrophic. The second limit we encountered was, of course, our ecological limits to growth. We learned that the reality of ecology is non-negotiable. Taken together these spell the end of the reign of Homo Colossus.
What this means in practice is that the multi-trillion dollar build out of the highways and byways, parking lots and side streets, gas stations and refineries – all the infrastructure for cars (just considering the concrete, structural aspects and not psychological) – is no longer serving the immediate, real world needs of the people. To give the U.S. leaders credit, just about every recent President has said to the public, in one way or another, ‘we have an energy problem, we have an oil problem.’ To be fair about our leaders performance on these issues we must also admit it has been dismal. To admit you have been mistaken, now there is a serious test for Democracy.
We all know how difficult it can be when we personally encounter our own mistakes. We work hard to justify all our choices in one part of our mind while another is busy examining everything critically. The critic hopes to make things better. To do so, by definition, means seeing where things need to be repaired, that is, where one has made mistakes. Mistaken assumptions, mistaken behavior, mistaken beliefs; we learn to recognize each of them within ourselves as we grow and mature. Difficult though the process is, there is no getting around it if one is to flow with the natural way of increasing skill and wisdom. Knowing just how hard it really is for us to change as individuals should give us some compassion for our societal failure to admit these same things about our commitments to progress through giant industrialization.
It turns out we were mistaken in our assumptions. Wealth does not buy happiness. After a certain level of security is met, additional income does not measurably increase people’s happiness. But it sure wreaks havoc on the earth. We turned the engines of giant industrialization towards the manufacturing of luxury items, not equal distribution of necessity. This too was a mistake.
Valuing luxury items for the few before necessities for the many did not come naturally. The years since the end of WWII have hosted the largest mind manipulation experiment ever conducted, for that is exactly what a world awash in mass media has become. Like any good experiment, no one knows the results before the experiment being carried out reaches some conclusions. I think it has run long enough that we can tentatively draw a few. The conclusion I submit is proven, is that these technologies do have the ability to directly influence people’s behavior. Shopping in one form or another dominates our social landscape. The only expressive activity of our human genius currently rewarded with social recognition are those which make a buck. The only expressive activity of our human genius left to individuals is the act of choosing what they will buy, be it a wardrobe or a vacation or a religious affiliation. The ecological critique of giant industrialization insists this was all mistaken behavior. It sounds like that is an ethical judgment but it is scientific fact since it would take more than four earths to have most people on the planet living like this. Constant distraction and programming by mass media, including the internet, allow us to pretend our mistaken behavior is normal. In our heart of hearts we know these lifestyles are not adaptive, they dismiss the needs of the poor, our own posterity, and all the other non-human inhabitants of the earth. Only this echo chamber of non-stop distraction keeps us all from screaming.
Consumerism, the belief that it is good organizing a society around the central activity of shopping, has proven itself to be a mistaken belief. This tide is never going to lift all boats. The moral justification given for turning the world into a shopping mall was that it was the best way to lift the suffering billions out of grinding poverty. In other words, the argument is that the only way we everyday people can serve human dignity and help all suffering humanity throughout the globe – is to make the rich more wealthy. Then, as they taught us to say, the wealth will trickle down. It does not matter how many think-tanks they employ to explain these things away, the facts remain. Facts are stubborn that way. This tide is never going to lift all boats. On a finite planet, consumerism without justification is simply greed.
When President Ronald Regan said the lifestyles of the American people were non-negotiable, he could not have been more wrong. No leader of the American people has the right to make such a statement, for you see, our lifestyles are exactly what we as individual citizens have immediate control over. This is where our freedom lives. Further, once one becomes mindful of ecology, it is these American lifestyles that are the very first thing to address on the road to social sanity. If we speak of what truly ails us we can muster the famous American can-do attitude to tackle realistic adaptations. All that stands in our way is this set of mistaken beliefs.
From beliefs come behavior, from both come assumptions. So walk your talk after educating yourself. Today consumerism seems a straightjacket we as a society have no chance of extricating ourselves from. Yet alternative lifestyles abound. Each of these people have turned their backs on the competitive credo of dog eat dog capitalism for an ethos of sharing and learning to walk lightly on the earth. Each one of these alternate lives bear witness, to whomever cares to look, that there is in fact viable alternate values and rewards to be had searching out a meaningful life with integrity in these troubled times. To throw your weight in with the mass foolishness eventually becomes impossible as one wakes up to what ecology is teaching us about the real world. It becomes a matter of conscience. This is no small development. A change of conscience can be a very powerful shaper of history. Perhaps even more powerful than bombs.