An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore
The Fear of Scarcity
The fear of scarcity is a very significant problem in the human condition. When we don’t have enough of something, not only are we aware of this fact but we have feelings about it as well. Those feelings result in fear and anxiety and result in patterns of thinking and reacting that actually reinforce the condition of scarcity we are experiencing. Thus, we actually create the manifestation of scarcity in our lives that results in not having the things we want and need. These wants and needs can be material things, friendships, love, meaning and purpose in life, spiritual needs, meaningful work, recreational pursuits and personal time. The context of scarcity can also manifest itself in unethical behavior to procure those needs and wants such as stealing from others, manipulating others to get what we need, and devising ways of getting what we need that are hurtful to others even to the extreme of physical harm.
An example of this on a larger scale would be the practice of colonialism by many of our wealthier nations as they sought to gain control of natural resources on the planet. Great Britain, Spain and France and other nations come to mind as they sent their ships throughout the world to procure resources from other continents. As they encountered indigenous cultures on these foreign soils, they often manipulated and deceived to obtain the resources they desired without respect for the inhabitants’ needs and lifestyles and many indigenous cultures were annihilated to procure wealth as well. The American Indians’ fate in the United States is another striking example of this practice and the injustice done has never been rectified to this day.
Fear is often a common tool the media uses to manipulate the populous to act or think in a certain way. The maneuverings that go on in the political arena are a stunning example of this practice and was quite evident in the Bush-Gore election battle in the United States. Fear also distracts our attention away from the important things we should be noticing and attending to, especially corruption and unethical practices in our society. When we are preoccupied with fear, we cannot think creatively and critically and can easily be led down the wrong pathways or we will simply not be able to come up with needed solutions and answers to our most important dilemmas. Fear and anxiety also endanger our overall physical and mental wellbeing and drain our energies and disempower us from accomplishing what we really need to do in our lives.
What is necessary is to come from a context of abundance and then figure out how to get what we need by being attentive and pro-active. We can learn from others that are successful and look at problems as opportunities to create breakthroughs. Making mistakes is all right as long as you learn something that is valuable in the process and don’t continue down the same unproductive road when that problem arises again. Many entrepreneurs have been unsuccessful in their initial attempts to accomplish a goal, but because they were tenacious, eventually succeeded in the end. Life is a never-ending learning curve and one must be aware of this fact and be persistent.
The fact that we as a species are in danger of extinction should certainly invoke a sense of fear and dread but this fear can also be the mechanism that will keep us from acting and thinking appropriately. Operating from a framework of gloom and doom will not solve our ecological crisis. Commitment, enlightened thinking and concerted action will ultimately put us in the solution mode and produce viable results.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Everyone wants to be happy or to avoid pain and suffering and to attain a state of joy, peace, satisfaction, fulfillment, bliss, contentment and wellbeing. This is a natural and logical goal that can be achieved, if we know what we want as opposed to what we think we want. Modern society has been increasingly promoting materialism and consumerism as the ultimate means of fulfillment for both physical and emotional desires, rationalizing that the possession of material wealth is the key to true happiness. The motive for this strategy is obviously oriented towards capital gain; not in simply supplying the fundamental and desired needs of society.
Unfortunately, the extravagant use of resources to supply this ever-growing need for goods and the manner in which we manufacture those products has had a devastating effect on the environment. Pollution of our air, water and soil is at an all-time high and there is no end in sight. As our population continues to grow and material needs increase, how are we to balance our progress with the ongoing evolutionary needs of the planet?
We must ask ourselves if the pursuit of happiness is going to be inevitably in conflict with the needs of the biosphere or can we attain the happiness we seek by pursuing lifestyles that fulfill both human and planetary necessities?
Psychological evidence has ascertained that materialism actually does not in itself increase our state of happiness but often has an adverse effect. It appears that no matter how much one has, it never seems to be enough and this notion fuels the quest for more things to fulfill our needs and ultimately make us happy. The goal of happiness seems to have become an addiction in itself. Michael Argyle, an Oxford University psychologist, concluded that the primary conditions that influence the attainment of happiness are social relations, work and leisure. Interestingly, materialism and consumerism, by their inherent nature, prescribe the abandonment of many of those activities that have been defined as healthy and desirable.
Loss of time spent with family and friends, decreased time for recreation and cultural activities and a scarcity of time to be alone and pursue personal interests has become a chronic problem for all the inhabitants of the developed nations and is quickly making its way to its underdeveloped counterparts as well.
We have become obsessed with technology, gadgets, food, drugs, entertainment, attaining altered states of consciousness with drugs and alcohol and needing to be busy and productive most of the time. Being idle is often considered a negative disposition and is highly discouraged. We have a frequent if not pervasive need to be submersed in conversation or music and hardly notice the natural sounds of the world around us. We are working more hours than ever before and trying to fulfill our psychological and spiritual needs in the little time we have left at the end of the workweek. We read about the increase in mental disorders, physical illness, violence, criminal behavior and suicides and wonder about the cause of such concerning developments.
These issues point to the fact that we have become out of touch with our true nature and as we continue to look outward for inner fulfillment, we will continue to be frustrated and unable to comprehend what we have lost or what to do about it.
Progress, Immortality and the Fear of Death
Among the many factors that have contributed to the acceleration and rise of progress in the world, such as the reduction of poverty and pain and the human need to create, Doug Soderstrom has concluded that the chief impetus for progress is the fear of death. Soderstrom supports his notion in that humanity has put tremendous effort into making life as comfortable as possible and at avoiding pain and discomfort by ravaging the fruits of the Earth to fulfill the insatiable desire for power, wealth and material goods. We have done this, however without considering the potential consequences: that the planet may not be able to sustain such intrusions and may ultimately put an end to humanities encroachment in the form of catastrophic ecosystem collapse. Thus, we will have designed and implemented the means of our own destruction.
The question that belies us then, is whether humanities’ progress or values is at the root of the dilemma or could a different scenario produce better outcomes. The greed issue becomes paramount here, as humans have an obsession with self-interest and being happy at the expense of others despite the fact that cooperative relationships could provide the same positive benefits and probably with added efficiency as well. Humans have never been particularly successful at respecting each other’s rights, values and ambitions without some form of interference, sabotage or competitive act to derive benefit for themselves and this attitude has been the cause of failed endeavors throughout history. This attitude of self-interest has also been applied to the environment at great costs to humankind.
Soderstrom suggests that we learn to live with less and be satisfied with less. He asserts that all the achievements and discoveries we might make and how affluent we might become will matter for nothing if we destroy the Earth. He then speculates what historians might say about a society that was able to destroy its own habitat and if progress was such a wonderful idea after all. He concludes that a shorter lifespan with fewer creature comforts would be an equitable exchange for a more pristine habitat and a life well lived.
Psychological Factors That Inhibit Healthy Cognition and Behavior
I would like to illuminate some particular behavioral aspects and conditions that impact on our ability to attend to environmental and social problems.
Apathy is a major contributor to the present ecological crisis we are experiencing. Despite the fact that we are aware of the perils that exist and know if we don’t act expediently, we are sure to face a catastrophic ecosystem collapse, we fail to act in an appropriate manner. Why is this so and what obstacles impede our attention and concerted action?
It appears that the immensity of the ecological crisis is so pervasive and frightening that instead of turning our full commitment to its resolution, we try to forget it exists and distract ourselves with other concerns, especially materialism. We also shirk responsibility and hope others who are experts in these matters will rise to the occasion and save us all. Given the current level of damage already done, it is painfully obvious that humanity will not be saved by a small number of dedicated environmentalists and experts from other related fields, regardless of their vision, commitment and professional skills. We must all take on the task of figuring out what to do and acting appropriately.
Our modern society is overflowing with problems of immense significance that could steadily lead us to peril. We are aware of these issues but we do not often allow ourselves to experience the real pain and thoughts we have about our current predicament. We also don’t tend to share our suffering with others or share support and create partnerships to attend to these sufferings.
Suffering is part of the process of growth and development, and though uncomfortable, is natural and even necessary. Evolution did not bring us to our present state of being without many ups and downs, as we can readily see if we study the history of the evolution of life on this planet. If we can accept that we are participants in the wonders of creation and the process of evolution, we must begin to accept our evolutionary heritage and the covenant that comes with it. We may not like some of our evolutionary makeup, but it is what we are until new changes make their appearance. Our biggest problem then is not our pain for the world but our repression of it.
If pain and suffering are natural and we realize we are growing, evolving beings that can learn from our mistakes and continue to correct our course as we go, why do we, as a species, repress our pain and suffering so extensively?
Repression limits our energy, sensitivity and capacity to experience the dynamic range of our emotional experiences. As we learn to deaden the pain, we also inadvertently learn to deaden the desired experiences of joy and pleasure. This response is called psychic numbing. Psychic numbing works both on an individual level and on a collective level and manifests itself in an extensive list of cultural ailments that include: fragmentation and alienation, escapist activities, addictions, violence, being politically apathetic, blaming and scapegoating, suppression of critical information, cognitive impairment, and disempowerment and burnout. These effects build on each other and intensify our emotional and behavioral reactions in a circular fashion. Cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause. The more we try to avoid suffering, the more we tend to suffer.
Joanna Macy and Molly Brown brought attention to the issue of pain for the world and attributed it to psychological causes. Due to the acceleration of our industrial society, additional factors have now entered the equation. The corporate global economy, by its growth and influence over communications and information dissemination, has exerted increased pressures on humanity, thereby making it more difficult for citizens to respond appropriately to present-day issues and for their concerns to be heard and acted upon.
Joanna and Molly have researched and deliberated on 10 sources of repression and 12 sources of socioeconomic sources of repression. Given their expertise on these two important topics, I refer you to read their published work: Coming Back to Life; Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, by Joanna R. Macy and Molly Young Brown.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books,1995, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, Allen D. Kanner. Are We Happy Yet? by Alan Thein Durning, pp. 68-76.
From Naked Ape to Superspecies, David Suzuki and Holly Dressel, Stoddart Publishing Co, 1999. Sez Who? Dying for Attention, pp. 82-83.
Soderstrom, Doug. “Progress: Man’s Greatest Mistake.” Op Ed News.com, December 2006.
Coming Back to Life; Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, Joanna R. Macy and Molly Young Brown, New Society Publishers, 1998, chapter two, The Greatest Danger: Apatheia, The Deadening of Mind and Heart, pp. 25-37.