Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 2)

Thinking about civilization as a kind of substance to which we have developed, both individually and collectively, a powerful addiction helps explain the sometimes very strident reaction people have to suggestions that we should change the status quo, and especially their reactions to the “radical” suggestion that we should be directing all of our energy and intelligence toward eliminating civilization altogether.  A similar reaction might be expected of a drug addict who discovers that his drug supply was going to be permanently cut off. 

Often the drug along with the activities that surround its procurement and use become such an intimate part of the addict’s daily life that it is difficult for the addict to imagine anything different.  The addictive substance becomes an organizing principle, providing an otherwise hollow life with purpose and meaning.  The addiction, despite its clearly negative consequences, provides a level of comfortable certainty and predictability.  To suggest life without the drug is to suggest a different life.  And it’s not just the drug itself, but everything associated with its use.  When heroin addicts run short, many will stab themselves with empty needles, finding some relief in the ritual itself.  In the same way, during an economic downturn many people find enjoyment in shopping for consumer items that they cannot afford to buy.  Buying, consuming commercial products and services, working in exchange for money to spend on commercial products and services, acquiring an education in preparation for a career in order to work in order to be in a position to continue to buy commercial products and services are what gives life its meaning.  We are consumers; it’s what we do.  To suggest that we need to put an end to the status quo and replace it with something radically different, is to suggest that we need to acquire an entirely new sense of purpose, that we find entirely different ways of giving life its meanings, that we abandon our comfortable consumer chains, that we embrace the uncertainty of a life of freely chosen goals, that we become entirely different beings.

That’s not what anyone wants to hear—especially this time of year when meaningless material consumption becomes a religious imperative.  

Viewing our problem as one of “civilization dependence” provides a way for us to understand the unyielding support of our dehumanizing and unsustainable civilization even as its malignant tendrils wend increasingly deep into the tissue of the biosphere.  The dependence metaphor also provides a potentially useful way of anticipating people’s reactions to the civilization-dismantling process and the dramatic life changes that will be necessary if we are to pull it off. 

A psychologist by the name of James Prochaska and his colleagues developed a theoretical model of the process of change, originally designed for use by addiction counselors.  The model has application beyond substance addiction to virtually any circumstances in which personal change is involved.  The theory views change as a five stage process: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.  In the precontemplation stage, the thought of change is not being actively entertained.  During this stage the person does not recognize that there is a problem to begin with.  Or if the person does acknowledge that a problem exists, it is seen as something minor, not serious enough to do anything about.  This stage is marked by deep denial.  For addicts at this stage, the positive benefits of the drug outweigh any perceived consequences, or if there are perceived consequences, they are not seen as directly relating to the use of the substance.  For some addicts, the largest hurdle to cross is the transition from precontemplation to the next stage, the contemplation stage, to the realization that there is a problem and a need to take some action to change things.  Unfortunately, just knowing and accepting that there is a problem and wanting to fix it is not sufficient to bring about change.  And acquiring insight into the causes of a problem might be an illuminating experience, but insight by itself is not enough to fix the problem.  What is missing at this stage is a meaningful commitment to change.  During the preparation stage the person has committed to change and is in the process of putting together a strategic plan of attack.  Acceptance of the severity of the problem is accompanied by a willingness to do whatever it takes to change.  The action stage involves the actual enactment of the plan; this is where the “rubber meets the road” and the person begins to change his or her behavior.  The final stage, the maintenance stage, is one of continued vigilance following successful change.  The stages of this process are sequential and obligatory.  A person can’t jump straight from contemplation to action, for example.  And regressive periods in which a person “relapses” back to previous stages are typical and to be expected.  Also, the time course of each stage varies widely from person to person and situation to situation.  Some people can spend years in the contemplation stage, where they know there is a problem that they need to address, and yet never advance to the preparation or action stages.

As a society, we are collectively in the precontemplation stage both with respect to making changes necessary to deal with our addiction to global consumer culture and with respect to our civilization’s impending disintegration. 

Hmm.  Maybe what we need is a large-scale “intervention” in which the collective social consciousness is forced to acknowledge that there is a real problem.  What would such an intervention look like? 

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