How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stuff - Part I

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).”

The basic stuff from which all other stuff is made can be divided into two groups. Some stuff, like iron, gold and other minerals have been with the earth since she first swirled together from fragments of star dust save the odd meteorite that adds a bit from time to time. Materials like coal, natural gas and crude oil take such a long time to develop (hundreds of millions of years) that they are also considered a finite, non-renewable resource. When we use up non-renewable resources, we need to be aware that we have consumed something that cannot be replaced.

But nature also has some witchcraft up her sleeves. With a little bit of sunshine, water and nutrients from the earth, she makes plants grow and multiply through the alchemy of photosynthesis. Plants, animals and all living things multiply with the magic of reproduction. The moon makes the tides rise and fall. The wind blows, and the sun continues to shine. Forests are cut down, and with nothing but sunshine and rain, they will grow back. A field can grow cotton, corn, flax and vegetables, and when the crops are harvested and all used up; the same field will grow them again. A chicken will lay a new egg every day. Nature is creative and fecund. She wants to be fruitful and multiply. Wind, air, sunshine, moving water and all the living things of the earth are renewable resources will perpetuate themselves indefinitely if nurtured and cared for.

Back in the days when Homo sapiens was wandering in nomadic tribes across the face of the globe, material possessions were limited to the clothes on one’s back, small trinkets and totems carried for spiritual reverence and protection and a few useful tools that one could carry. Any things beyond these basic necessities would have been deemed absurd and burdensome.

Even as humankind settled into agricultural communities and villages, personal possessions were usually limited to the basic necessities, objects of art and worship and tools required for subsistence. The stuff our ancestors possessed and valued was made from the natural materials available. The reality of limited human possessions continued throughout the ages right up until approximately World War II when the manufacture and collection of stuff became an epidemic phenomenon.

If one puts a monkey in a cage, gives it a button to push for an addictive drug and leaves it to its own devices, eventually the monkey will push the button until it kills itself with a lethal dose. Humans are not much different. With a population now just in excess of 300 million, the United States contains a mere 5% of the world’s people, yet it is the largest consumer of energy and consumer goods on earth. As a nation, we are addicted to stuff. Like all addictions, we are suffering because of it, and without treatment, it’s going to kill us.

An addict uses substances for a quick high, a momentary sense of well-being that obliterates whatever emotional and/or psychic pain he or she may be feeling. The fix is temporary and acts like a catalyst on the original source of discontent causing it to spiral downward into the depths of gloom so that only larger and larger doses of the drug will suffice in alleviating the suffering, albeit only temporarily.

Some telltale signs of addiction include weight loss or gain, erratic behavior and degradation of familial and societal bonds. Our economy is deflated and bleeding to death through massive trade inequalities, personal debt and federal deficits (i.e. weight loss). We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a war (erratic behavior). The divide between the haves and have-nots grows wider every day, and in spite of being the wealthiest nation on earth, many of our people live in poverty. It is estimated that one in four teenage girls has tried methamphetamine pointing the finger at an alarming and growing trend. Divorce is at an all-time high. Families are disintegrating. Crime is rampant. Our country, which prides itself on family values, is in a social and familial crisis. The last symptom of addiction is, of course, denial.

A popular definition of economics is “the social science that studies the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy unlimited wants.” Advertising creates artificial ‘needs.’ When we watch the TV, we are bombarded with messages telling us that our problem is simply that we need to take the right pill, or go on the right diet plan or shop at Macy’s to be happy, and we are susceptible to the suggestions. In fact, we don’t actually need anything that is advertised on TV or in magazines or anywhere else. We do need clean air to breathe and water to drink, healthy food, shelter, energy and other living beings around us that offer companionship and whom we can nurture and be nurtured by. The iPods, Nintendo game consoles, designer footwear, makeup, prefabricated diet foods and pills to alleviate our social anxiety, we can really do without and ultimately do nothing to enhance our sense of well being or our quality of life. So why do we buy into the delusion that this stuff is going to make us happy when the real solution is right under our noses, or sitting next to us on the couch with their nose in a PSP?

In fact, the advertising actually feeds our feelings of desperation and inadequacy before they offer a miracle cure for what ails us. The reason we need Nutrisystem is because we are not as sexy as the cute blond mother of 5 who weighs 110 pounds thanks to Nutrisystem. Our aging skin that sags around the jowls is not as wrinkle free as the beautiful model who claims to be 50 but upon whose face a single age spot cannot be found. The people on TV are all well-adjusted, beautiful and happy, and we can be too if we would just buy what they have.

From stressed out parents to their neglected children, when we are devalued as individuals, an emptiness of spirit that ensues. Advertising seeks to fill in this void in our psyche by telling us that consumer goods can satisfy us, which leads to consumerism rather than addressing the basis for the problem in the first place. But the capitalist economic model has no other choice than to proliferate this vicious cycle of unfulfilled need because according to its very definition, economics allocates the resources to satisfy unlimited wants. If our wants match our needs, which are limited and few, the whole flawed model collapses. But we don’t need to literally and figuratively buy into the lie. Rather than plugging into video games, we can take our children for a walk, take them on a picnic or plan a family game night. We can go to the library and check out some good books and then sit by the fire and read them. We can go fishing, cook a family meal and sit down and eat together. None of the really satisfying activities in life have to cost anything. The time has come to match our wants and our real not manufactured needs. Then we will be truly happy.

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