Monday, December 20, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 1)

People are willing to invest more energy and expense in maintaining the status quo, whatever the status quo happens to be, than they would have been willing to invest to bring those conditions about in the first place.  Psychologists call this lopsided valuation of our current circumstances status quo bias.   In its simplest form, status quo bias reflects a natural distaste for change, as if our present situation carries a kind of psychological inertia.  It’s easier to keep doing the same thing than it is to try something different—even if what we are doing isn’t working out so well for us.  So we put up with a job that is not entirely satisfying, or a marriage that is not entirely fulfilling.  Our willingness to allow the continuation of our present civilization, however, is something more than just an aversion to change.  It is something more closely akin to an addiction.  It’s as if we are addicted to civilization, hooked on consumption, and, as a result, entirely willing to ruin our personal health and the health of the planet in single-minded pursuit of our drug of choice. 

In his book, Consumed, Benjamin Barber suggests that addiction plays a major role in corporate consumer society.  Powerfully addictive substances and behaviors, tobacco, alcohol, sugar- and fat-saturated foods, television and movies, video games, are major consumer items whose use is supported by an enormous amount of corporate advertising.  In addition, the act of consumption itself has been turned into an addiction by corporate marketing, much of which is aimed at children, the most vulnerable segment of the population. I would go one step further.  It’s not just consumption, but the whole of our consumer civilization that we are addicted to. 

And to see that addiction in this instance is not just a metaphor, consider how professionals diagnose substance dependence, the clinical term for addiction, defined in the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals) as “[a] maladaptive pattern of substance use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress […].”  There are seven criteria for substance dependence listed in the DSM.  The first criterion is tolerance, the need for more of the substance to produce the desired effect, or a diminished effect with the same amount of the substance.   We quickly develop tolerance for the material accessories of our consumer society.   And it doesn’t take long before we need more and bigger and faster.  The average size of new homes, for example, has grown dramatically in the last few decades.  And once we’ve actually attained more than we had previously, the positive psychological effects don’t last long.  Research on the change in life satisfaction reported by lottery winners, for instance, has found that the initial euphoria dissipates rapidly, and in a short time the person returns to pre-winning levels of life satisfaction.  Something similar happens following the purchase of expensive consumer goods.  And then there is the cliché of the power hungry corporate executive who is never satisfied with any amount of wealth and power.  Affluence and material wealth are easy to get used to, and the desire for more is proportional to the amount that you already have: the more you have the more additional it takes in order to get the same psychological boost. 

The second criterion is withdrawal, where the person experiences uncomfortable (in some cases life-threatening) physical symptoms when they stop taking the substance.  Force an adolescent to give up their cell phone or favorite video game for a week, and you are sure to see symptoms of withdrawal that would rival a hard-core junkie going cold turkey.  Pick any modern convenience and ask yourself how you would react if it were no longer available to you.  As victims of earthquakes and hurricanes quickly discover, the lack of running water is something more than just a minor inconvenience despite the fact that indoor plumbing is an extremely recent addition to the human experience.  And what about something as central to every facet of our civilized existence as oil?  What would happen if petroleum were suddenly unavailable?  Not only would most all transportation and industrial manufacture cease immediately, but we would also lose access to numerous products that are now necessities, many pharmaceuticals and plastic components used in the health-care industry, for instance, on which people’s lives quite literally depend.  The withdrawal symptoms of our oil addiction are in actual point of fact life threatening.          

The remaining criteria for substance dependence are equally easy to apply to the products of modern civilization.  The third criterion involves the person taking more of the substance than originally intended, or taking the substance for a longer period of time than originally planned.  To see how this criterion applies, we need look no further than that embodiment of a systemic inability to delay material gratification: the credit card.  Many people have managed to rack up so much in the way of personal debt that it is no exaggeration to say that they are living lives of indentured servitude to banking corporations.  The fourth criterion involves the person wanting to quit or cut down but being unsuccessful at curtailing the use of the substance.  Our inability to reduce carbon emissions fits here, as does our reluctance to transition away from gasoline powered automobiles.  The fifth criterion is that the person spends a lot of personal time engaged in activities involved in obtaining the substance or in recovering from the effects of using.  Shopping malls have become entertainment centers.  Buying things, thinking about buying things, shopping in all of its forms represents the primary activity of many Americans.  So much so that we no longer call ourselves citizens; we are consumers.  The sixth criterion is that the person has given up or reduced participation in important activities as a result of substance use.  What we have given up in our quest for ever-increasing consumption is no less than our freedom and our humanity.  We spend more time interacting with things, with our consumer products, with our cell phones and our automobiles and our games and our entertainment centers and our computers, than with the important people in our lives. 

And the seventh criterion—and this is a diagnostic clincher for many addiction counselors—the person continues to use the substance despite “knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.”  Our civilization is destroying the planet and us along with it.  The reckless pursuit of our number one drug of choice has is rendered a substantial proportion of the planet toxic to life.  Anthropogenic global climate change is more than likely already beyond anything we can do to reverse or even meaningfully ameliorate.  Global warming skeptics aside, we are very aware of the causes of the accelerating environmental degradation that is occurring all around us.  Our industrial civilization is vacuuming the planet of all of its irreplaceable resources while the polar ice caps melt and species after species disappears forever, and yet we do nothing.  It’s business as usual.  We drive.  We shop.  We consume.  We wage wars that indiscriminately kill men women and children by the millions and litter the environment with depleted uranium munitions to protect our access to oil so that we can continue to drive, to shop, to consume. 

With respect to consumer civilization, we appear to meet all of the criteria for substance addiction.  Moreover, it should be noted that for a person to be diagnosed with substance dependence according to the DSM, only three of the criteria need to be satisfied—any three.  We clearly have a dependence problem.

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