Everything about America is done to the max—super sized—including ourselves. Americans are fond of excess, fond of glitz and glitter, the bright beads and trinkets of capitalism; the symbols of conspicuous consumption. Millions of us live in McMansions, drive fast cars and hulking tanks and work at high stress glamorous jobs that provide enormous financial reward but leave us spiritually empty.
We tell ourselves that these events signal that we have arrived and achieved greatness worthy of respect and envy. They are a declaration that we have played the game and won; that we have acquired economic power that results in elevated socio-economic status and disproportional influence over the lives of the less successful; and those who have utterly failed or refused to participate.
We love to consume and waste with an appalling sense of entitlement. Our lives are enacted amid heaping mounds of swelling garbage and filth, while some of our fellow human beings pass lives of quiet desperation in cardboard boxes beneath our nation’s highway bridges, like beetles that move beneath the bark of trees: out of sight, out of mind, inconsequential—or so we think.
It’s a jungle out there where only the fittest survive. Those who cannot compete must not survive to reproduce; they must be expelled from the gene pool. Modern capitalism is economic Darwinism carried to the extreme.
America is a land of extraordinary contradictions. She has produced not only George Bush and Dick Cheney but also George Carlin, Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs and Howard Zinn. This is a land of extremes; enigmatic even to itself. It is a place of posh surroundings with all of the amenities money can buy; but it is also a land of unknowable hardship and destitution that often exists in close proximity to stupendous wealth.
Just as the continent holds lush temperate rain forests, so it also harbors deserts where only the strong and well adapted survive the harsh conditions of heat and drought and oscillating cold.
Surely the national pastime must be shopping, which has acquired the stature of a genuine addiction; a disease on a par with alcoholism and played with the passion of a competitive sport. Witness the insanity of black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year where people are annually trampled at the doors of Wal-Mart in the quest for the latest incarnation of the X-Box. He with the most toys wins and the losers are trampled underfoot, ground into dust. Possessions matter more than people.
And we are a restless, fiercely competitive people—constantly on the move; a people that cannot countenance open spaces or unmanaged nature.
Hundreds of thousands of shopping centers and strip malls bear ample testimony to our excess, as do the mountains of debt that rise out of our spending habits like a newly spawned volcano swelling above a rising column of molten magma. Eventually they will become our gravestones—monuments to our lack of empathy and testaments to our unbridled greed and contempt for the earth.
The developers cannot relax until every inch of the earth is urbanized and paved and there is a McDonald’s and Wal-Mart on every street corner; a development in place of every orchard and farm. We cannot relax until everything wild and natural has been eradicated or imprisoned in zoos and admission is charged. Imagine a continent sized gated community for the well-heeled and the wealthy. The poor and destitute need not apply.
More than democracy, more than liberty, more than life—give us our shopping malls so that we can purchase happiness and fill our empty lives with possessions. Our senses are incessantly assaulted by merciless commercialism—we are programmed to consume and to be consumed by our programmers in the advertising industry whose job it is to plant the seeds of want in our all too receptive minds. Conspicuous consumption is the cornerstone of mature capitalism and no people in history have been more prominent consumers than we Americans—as measured by the girth of our waistlines and the girth of our mounting debt.
But as much as we are the products of Madison Avenue advertisers, we are also products of arrested psychological and spiritual development. We exhibit extreme pathologies because our lives are not rooted in nature and community; nor are they rooted in reality. Like spoiled adolescents, we have locked ourselves away with our box of toys and we call the world our own. We are a danger not only to ourselves but to the entire world. Quarantine should be drawn around us lest we infect the rest of the world with our madness.
Oblivious to the consequences of our own excess, our sphere of caring rarely extends beyond the self and our immediate families to the communities in which we are embedded that in turn spill into the great world beyond. We have erected psychological and physical barriers that isolate us from the rest of the world which have given rise to pathological visions of grandeur and exceptionalism. And, like a run-away virus, we are replicating our madness to the rest of the world which is, thanks to the disciples of Milton Friedman, seeking to emulate our example.
Better the world turn away and run for their lives as if we were infected with a new strain of pox or rabies. Better they should save themselves and let us perish, as will surely occur when we are consumed by the festering sewers of our swelling vanity.
We call ourselves a free people but we are prisoners of our own petty desires; prisoners of greed and excess and manufactured want; the products of capitalism taken to the extreme—replicating with the ease of cancer cells unrestrained by reason or empathy for others and for the earth. The world cannot tolerate another America. She cannot much longer sustain the one she already has. We have a carbon footprint vastly disproportional to our numbers and we are not only blotting out the sun; we are stamping out countless species of plants and animals and casting them into the abyss of eternal extinction. The ecological cost of our excess is incalculable.
We go on as if there are no consequences to what we do, ignoring the wolves baying at our door and the grim reaper peering at us through the curtain. We tell ourselves they are only apparitions of conspiracy theorists and alarmists, the ghosts of misplaced conscience.
Millions of Americans are experts at self-denial and delusional to the extreme, while others are realists and components of active resistance. But, cause and effect rarely enters our vocabulary. History, science and ethics are not our strengths—we prefer to go shopping or watching television, giving no thought to the kind of world we are leaving our children and their off spring, much less the offspring of other species. We hold that the universe turns on its axis and we are its center; but it is not so.
As a result of our excesses, terms such as ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak water’ have come into existence. Gluttony occurs on one end of the supply chain at the expense of the other; just as food webs are affected by events occurring at all parts of an ecological web the size of the world. One cannot pluck a flower without also troubling a star. All things are interconnected.
How easily we forget that commercial exuberance rests on the broken bodies of the exploited worker; it rests on the scrolls of flora and fauna that have been pushed out of existence because there isn’t enough room for them and us with all of our precious, energy consuming toys.
Thus we live in a world that is not enriched by our example but is diminished by us. Injustice is a byproduct of commercial exuberance as manifested by declarations of superiority through class warfare and other avenues of inequality. And it is felt in the dimly lit sweatshop somewhere in the belching slums of industrialized China, engulfed by the droning hum of sowing machines that never cease behind bolted doors; and guided by gnarled hands attaching Nike labels to athletic apparel destined for upscale Target and Macy’s stores in the US.
True, capitalism has made cheap products available to the voracious American consumer; but it has also given the world preemptive war and famine, global corporatism, pestilence and wage slavery; it has stoked the fires of mass extinction, global warming and ecological collapse—all of which have acquired an unstoppable momentum of their own with unimaginable consequences that extend indefinitely into an already uncertain future. There are consequences to everything we do, just as there are consequences to inaction.
Yet it is increasingly obvious that too few of us care enough to take action, as long as we are free to buy and to consume. We keep the consequences of gluttony out of sight and out of mind and pretend they aren’t there. But they are present and they matter.
And this brings me to the main point of my essay: it cannot go on. The age of exuberance—like the age of cheap oil—is mercifully drawing to a close. So I will say what was never meant to spoken aloud in the land of excess; and I will say it loud and clear so that it cannot be mistaken: Americans must dramatically simplify their lives to want less and learn more. We constitute less than five percent of the of the world’s population while usurping more than a quarter of her bounty. This is not acceptable—nor is it ethical.
No one has a moral right to take more than their fair share when that taking jeopardizes the chances of others of living a decent life, or makes nil their chances for survival—including other species.
Contrary to what one might think, we do not have to live like third world nations or like the hunters and gatherers of the past. But we must dramatically reduce our consumption and shrink our carbon footprint. Not only must we live within our own means but within the means of the planet to support us.
The majority of our food should be locally grown and mass transit must supplant the gluttonous and polluting automobile that proliferates on our nation’s highways. Moratoriums on development and urban sprawl must be enacted in order to protect critical habitat and rainwater recharge areas. Cities and towns must be redesigned and revitalized with sustainable industry. Goods and services, including work and jobs must again, as they were in the past, be rooted in vibrant, small scale local economies; and free trade agreements revoked.
Technological advances—no matter how boldly they are touted as saviors of humankind cannot increase the world’s carrying capacity and they cannot invoke justice. The latter is entirely up to us as sentient beings endowed with conscience. And this brings me to a second point: we must reduce the human population through adoption and cease to procreate for at least one generation—so that the earth can recover her carrying capacity. What better way to save the world, literally.
Simultaneously simplifying our lives by wanting less and reducing the human population will allow room for other people and other beings to share the bounty of the earth. And it will almost certainly have a beneficent rather than pathological social and psychological consequence: it will end our isolation and reconnect us to the rest of the world. We could finally realize our enormous potential to become world citizens and good neighbors worthy of respect and love.
Rather than an economy based upon savage greed and exploitation, let us create an economy based upon justice and equality, need rather than excess; a society that does not leave people behind but invites the full participation of everyone and recognizes that, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Let it be all inclusive and worthy of respect: where every woman, man, and child, every being of this earth is the same under the law and equally respected and valued—a great global community seeking harmony rather than competitive advantage.
In the end, equality is beholden to the system we choose. Did we ask that the world be run on the profits of greed, or the prophets of wisdom? Where was that democratic choice? The profits of greed have given us voracious greed, consuming everything in sight; but they didn’t give us a choice; they took away our freedom and made us into lesser beings. But, if we are to muster ourselves to call ourselves Human one last time, where the prophets of wisdom really did have something to say, where people and the planet are put before profits in the Golden Rule, and where we have one large collective foot standing on the profit of greed then maybe, maybe YES we will turn this thing around: http://www.planetization.org.
Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer, and community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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