Terrorism. War. Weapons of mass destruction. Climate change. Forest degradation. Soil erosion. Aquifer depletion. Bee colony collapse. Affluenza. Consumer debt. Globalization. Market volatility. Economic crisis. If one believes the news these days, it seems that we live in an increasingly morally and financially bankrupt society in which our discourse encourages incivility, our politics endorses dishonesty, our religions shelter immorality, our spirituality fosters grandiosity, our media sponsors conformity, our education teaches mediocrity, our industry rewards irresponsibility, our entertainment promotes idolatry, and our economy supports insolvency.
Indeed, intelligent people are left to wonder how on earth human beings could so knowingly, willingly, and skillfully participate in our own self-destruction.
Yet, in many ways, this is old news. After all, we human beings have a long history of blithely contributing to our own personal, professional, and planetary demise while simultaneously bewailing our suffering as if we have nothing to do with it. The prevailing headlines may change, but the underlying issues remain the same, every generation shaping contemporary norms with novelty that both threatens and preserves our existence.
Our world is rife with unsettling contradictions and compromises. We live in an age of excessive wealth creation and wealth destruction, where billionaires are growing in number and in wealth, and millionaires are a dime a dozen while homelessness, debt, unemployment, and poverty continue to rise, amplifying the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Yet, in their own estimation, the latest generations of filthy rich are more philanthropic than filthy, more entrepreneurs than heirs apparent, fervently using their fame and fortune to solve the world’s problems one cause célèbre at a time while simultaneously refusing to address the underlying inequity that supports their philanthropy.
Of course, the silver (platinum?) lining of a wealthy elite funding significant good works on a thundercloud of gross inequity is hardly consolation to common folks unsheltered from the storm. Down on the ground, there are many causes for concern.
Here in the U.S., chemical dependency is no longer merely a euphemism for alcohol or drug addiction but also a heavily marketed and culturally accepted way of life. The FDA-approved agri-pharmaceutical industrial complex mainlines the mainstream with toxic chemical pollutants in everything from our air, soil, water, and food to our soap, shampoo, cosmetics, clothing, detergents, fertilizers, building materials, and more while simultaneously pushing all the prescription mood stabilizers, stimulants, sexual performance enhancers, sleep aids, and weight loss drugs that an anxious, moody, impulsive, hyperactive, sexually-frustrated, insomniac, fat-phobic public could ever want—never mind the medley of life-threatening, irreversible (and usually illegible) side-effects. Prescription drugs now cause more deaths than traffic accidents (Drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in U.S., data show, by Lisa Girion, Scott Glover and Doug Smith, Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2011).
We are literally poisoning ourselves and our planet.
Are we insane? Heartless? Merely ignorant?
These days, ignorance seems more convenient than innocent. For those of us fortunate enough to have internet access, the world is at our fingertips, offering instant access to countless volumes of information and six degrees of separation navigated in clicks. However, in an age of unprecedented media consolidation and public “perception management,” far too often making sense of the copious results in the dubious as hyperbolic truthiness masquerades as truth, and profuse irrelevance obscures any profound significance.
We have more activity, but less efficiency, more transparency, but less privacy, more homogeneity, but less harmony. The same technology heralded as a powerful means for ordinary individuals to organize, publicize, and influence is also used less beneficently to monitor private citizens, track personal data, spread disinformation, and subtly coerce global mass conformity to less egalitarian agendas. Webs, by design, both connect and ensnare, and wise are the bees and butterflies who realize when they’re in the realm of spiders.
Meanwhile, virtual connectivity is fast replacing actual face-to-face, heart-to-heart connection as our supposedly time-saving gadgets often suck the life out of our personal time. Our circles of “friends” now include virtual strangers, collected like business cards into digital anthologies in which texts, tweets, and status updates often serve as rich complements, but poor substitutes, for real relationships based on genuine intimacy, conversation, and community that extend beyond the screen. Like loveless sex, immediacy without intimacy, interaction without conversation, and affinity without community leave much to be desired.
With loved ones often scattered around the world, having various, immediate and economic means to stay in contact is indeed a blessing. Even sharing amongst strangers—from baring hearts to bearing witness—can be liberating, something like secular confessionals for contemporary life. Relieved of the burden of immediate response or the responsibility of real-life relationships, we can experience others from a safe distance cloaked in anonymity—sharing personal stories without the threat or inconvenience of sharing personal space. Yet, our experience of the world is increasingly a bit like being alone in a crowd, simultaneously interconnected and isolated, congregating without communion. Being “in touch” without ever touching is like enjoying the solace of artificial sun lamps in the absence of real sunlight: helpful, but incomplete.
Our current angst-ridden zeitgeist is influenced by a world that is interconnected in ways that our forebears could hardly have imagined. Thanks to globalization and technological innovation, we exchange currency, goods, and ideas more freely and rapidly than ever. The intersections among social, commercial, and political sectors are growing exponentially within and between nations, as well as within and between industries around the world. Supply chains and labor markets are increasingly complex, transdisciplinary, and transnational. In fact, most paths between points of origin and points of purchase are so convoluted that, even if we are curious, it is practically impossible for us to determine how our purchased goods were produced or understand the resources—human and otherwise—employed for these goods to reach our hands.
Likewise, the workforce supporting the services we use is more often than not dispersed around the world. This phenomenon contributes to more mobile societies in which growing numbers of family members, friends, and colleagues are scattered around the world in response to far-flung employment and educational opportunities. Meanwhile, the free market remains far from free, manipulatively regulated to serve the interests of a few at the expense of common good, common sense, and common decency, all of which in this day and age seem far from common. From the personal to the institutional, everywhere we look, it seems that the establishments, systems and structures that we used to rely on are shifting, crumbling, and collapsing, causing many to wonder if we have arrived at the end of the world as we know it.
You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?
Before we the people conspired with the Madison Avenue mad men, Wall Street profiteers, and K Street puppeteers to trade our deepest yearnings for earnings, we aspired to live the American Dream which promised that with hard work and a little luck, anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, creed or class, could enjoy the “good life”—equal opportunity to personal prosperity, property, and fulfillment. Echoing and affirming our inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the American Dream captured the deeply held American belief that each and every one of us has the right to realize our full potential according to our innate abilities and live a life free from tyranny, monopoly, and nepotism. Even hard-working paupers were assured the opportunity to rise from rags to riches.
In the words of James Truslow Adams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who coined the term, the American Dream is:
that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (The Epic of America, 1931. Simon Publications 2001 paperback)
Although the American Dream has never fully delivered on its promise, frequently reflecting the various prejudices of the majority du jour, it inspired, for better and for worse, generations of immigration and the emulation of many people around the world.
So how, exactly, did the Land of Milk and Honey become the Land of Ilk and Money?
One answer is pretty simple: we normalized and capitalized greed. Over time, we reduced the American Dream’s more holistic origins to mere materialism. Citizens with inalienable rights turned into consumers with insatiable demands, content to cash-in their ideals for deals. People began to conflate the pursuit of happiness and quality of life with the pursuit of more and quantity of stuff, succumbing to global consumption far more contagious and deadly than its like-named, Victorian predecessor.
An increasingly materialistic culture coupled with the reality of a population generally working more for less made us all more susceptible to the easy money, easy credit schemes that could guarantee our success—or at least, sustain the appearance of success in a world in which success is crudely defined as having more stuff while the stuff of our success is more and more difficult to acquire and sustain through hard work. Mistakenly believing that prosperity and fulfillment depends on the acquisition of more property, it’s understandable, if not laudable or sustainable, that many of us sought to acquire the most we could by whatever means available, thus assuring our prosperity and fulfillment in an integrity-challenged culture predisposed to commodifying the essential.
Of course, in an age of rapidly depleting natural resources, a rude awakening was inevitable as our insatiable consumerism collides with natural limits. It seems that excess and distress go hand in hand. In the last twenty-five years, living standards and wages within the general population have indeed fallen while expectations about normative material wealth have risen. Yet, somehow we succumbed to the delusion that decadence would lead to something other than decay.
Did we actually believe that we could climb some gilded stairway to heaven while the homeless, cold, and hungry continue to huddle beneath the stairs? Belly aches naturally follow overeating just as hangovers follow excessive drinking, and despite some very real discomfort, are generally not causes for alarm, but rather symptoms of excess, indicating the need to temper overindulgence.
It seems fairly obvious that when we consume more than is healthy—or more than enough—we suffer painful consequences. What is often less obvious is that the distress involved in shifting from “excess” to “enough” is clearly a luxury problem for those who have more than enough. Unfortunately, gratitude in a culture of gratification is more curious than common, accustomed as we are to counting our money rather than our blessings. Many of us continue to sacrifice our well-being for a standard of living that requires buying stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have, resulting in more debt, waste, and dissatisfaction. Even worse, our anemic definition of prosperity as property remains unexamined and perpetuates our consumption-based economy, which unchecked by equal opportunity, leads to real hunger, unemployment, homelessness, illiteracy, and poverty in the midst of startling abundance.
Meanwhile, those of us who have struggled to have even enough find it increasingly challenging to meet basic needs. Quite simply, if the “stuff” of our dreams is literally only stuff—merely material—then we are all in big trouble. In recent years, the unexamined assumption that each generation is entitled to more has led to widespread disillusionment and discontent as younger generations who were raised to expect more have to make do with less (which incidentally is still far more than what most people have ever had), often puzzling older generations who got more while the getting was good and still expect more of and for their successors.
Despite the glaring signs of the times, many people still believe—or at least, want to believe—that wanting more results in getting more, and getting more is how one succeeds, thus perpetuating a competitive culture of more and mine in which success in life is reduced to profits, pedigrees, positions, and possessions. However, chasing “more” is a bit like racing toward a finish line that we are constantly pushing farther away from us—exhausting. We are exhausting personal and planetary resources in a race we can never win on a course that will only lead to our collapse.
The inability for any one of us to feed ourselves and our families life-preserving food, enjoy meaningful work (or merely gainful employment), secure affordable housing, invest in an education, or save for a rainy day—this is genuine cause for alarm.
The second answer to how we got here is that we legislated corruption. USAmericans allowed our civil rights to be eroded by powerful agendas and special interests at the expense of the common good. We allowed the militarization of the police force, and questionable NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) that allows the detention of citizens for little more than speculative accusations without due process. We gave our corporations the right to buy elections.
What happens now?
As people struggle to make sense of what’s happening, more and more people worldwide are realizing that the American Dream has been systematically replaced by a nightmare threatening our personal and planetary survival. The “good life” for which many toil, consume, and borrow has become the ultimate “bait and switch,” a manufactured reality in which debt, disease, and death are disguised as wealth, health, and life enforced by increasingly corrupt institutions. Global consumption patterns now threaten our extinction.
Not surprisingly, as we awaken to this new, disturbing reality, many of us, particularly those of us who have benefited the most from the status quo, would prefer to go back to sleep, hit snooze, close our eyes, and roll over. Turning our backs to uncomfortable and inconvenient truth, we ignore certain aspects of our existence and experience that might disrupt our comfortable habits and habitats. We lull ourselves with platitudes, distractions, and coming attractions, choosing to sleepwalk through our lives in a half-awake, imaginary state of innocence-conferring, responsibility-deferring, far-from-blissful ignorance that preserves our current lifestyles.
Our culture’s reigning ideology with its emphasis on material pursuits and appearances undermines our psychological and spiritual well-being. Deep down, we know that money doesn’t buy happiness. We know that the best things in life aren’t for sale. Heck, the best things in life aren’t even things. Money is wonderfully useful in making sure our basic needs are met, but inadequate as a means to or measure of happiness. Beyond the basics, we mostly purchase a lot of pleasures, temporary distractions from anything resembling real happiness. But pleasure is to happiness what corn syrup is to maple syrup: a cheap substitute.
Likewise, most of us realize that a big house and a fast car isn’t real success any more than a fancy job with a fancy title is really who we are. But these are the things we’re supposed to want—and as difficult as these are to achieve, these seem so much easier to achieve than happiness, which even on a good day, seems elusive, exclusive, fickle and fleeting. On a bad day, it seems about as attainable as world peace.
Why not substitute something more achievable like a new pair of shoes, or if we’re really ambitious, maybe a new job—call it "happiness"—and leave world peace for idealists, activists, and other underachievers who want to spend their lives asking for handouts and pushing rocks uphill? It seems that for many of us, the examined life is not worth living if it means sacrificing our hard-won, if unsustainable, success, and choosing substance over stuff.
Of course, we’re not all that shallow and self-serving—at least not every day. There are those among us who embrace the growing sense that a serious shift in the way we live is needed. We fling ourselves into action, frantic to do something, anything to change the situation, regain some sense of control, and exorcise our culpability with newfound responsibility. After all, who wants to live in a civilization in decline?
We become agents, activists, evangelists for change, creating new scenarios, stories, and memes. We are the ones. Be the change. Simplify. Slow food. Fair trade. Clean energy. Corporate responsibility. Net neutrality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite the abundance of news to the contrary, there are countless unsung heroes who are contributing to a better world founded on civil discourse, honest politics, moral religious/spiritual practice, reliable media, educational excellence, corporate responsibility, humane healthcare, intelligent entertainment, real food, environmental and economic sustainability.
Unfortunately, even such laudable efforts are often corroded with blame. We blame the governments, that political party, corporations, greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, lobbyists, immigrants, homeless, welfare moms, and occasionally, even ourselves. The road to cynicism is paved with disillusions—and littered with broken promises and lost ideals. Embittered and embattled, we adopt dysfunctional, defensive stances that inhibit our natural empathy for one another, desensitizing and alienating ourselves from each other and our suffering, as well as our ability to be whole together.
To fulfill the promise of the American dream, we have to wake up and face the truth of our reality. The truth that hurts always precedes the truth that sets us free. Until each of us summons the courage to serve all of us, liberty and justice for all will remain a dream rather than a reality.