Friday, September 04, 2009

Sustainable Consumption - Our Only Hope for Immortality

Break it down again
No more sleepy dreaming
No more building up
It is time to dissolve – Roland Orzabal

Mankind has always been motivated to create something larger than itself, to seek immortality, and to leave a legacy. The Egyptian pharaohs are a perfect example. The pyramids have lasted thousands of years and will last for many more centuries. Today, we are awed by the majesty of these monuments. Hundreds of our most intelligent brothers and sisters have and will become Egyptologists. Millions of our brethren visit these monuments annually. Most visitors report that the experience of being there is like nothing else that they have experienced in their life. The emotion of elevation is felt by most who visit. The same things can be said about the Great Wall of China, the Roman Coliseum, Versailles, the Taj Mahal, and many other great monuments.

Not only do most of these monuments that honor the capacity of human ambition, creativity, and industry represent times of tremendous inequality among humans (masters and slaves). But they represent moments in time when humans had little or no consideration for the impacts that these massive constructions had on the environment. If anything, they were planned and produced in spite of the environment – they were not only representations of man’s capacity for greatness, they represent man’s dominance and control over the land and the other creatures with whom they share the Earth.

We are impressed by what we have built. We travel the world to experience firsthand the magnificence of our creations. We are perhaps moderately saddened but the number of slaves who lost their lives during the construction of the pyramids. But we rarely feel remorse or embarrassment about the environmental effects that such constructions would have had.

This is one of many components of the human condition that works against a sustainable future. Man’s instinct for a legacy works counter to having a small footprint on the Earth. Having little impact (either physically or figuratively) requires tremendous humility. Most of us are not that strong. We prefer that our constructions be viewable from outer space just in case trans-universal visitors happen across our mostly blue planet.

Much of what we build is symbolic; symbolic of our strength, our courage, and our industriousness. These symbols also play to our needs, desires, identities, and our pursuit of meaning. For many, a small environmental footprint symbolizes a life of little meaning or significance. Though most of us will leave little or no legacy whatever, we feel a deeply rooted hope for something much more. Playing down our lives is counterintuitive for us. We can feel pride for limiting the environmental impacts of our lives. But it is a pride in the sense of martyrdom - paying the ultimate price for doing our part to lengthen the life of the Earth, and to improve the lives of those who follow us.

What can be done? How can we get past this innate striving for something greater than ourselves? How can we alter this innate force to guarantee our survival? If this nut can be cracked, then there is hope for a sustainable future. If we do not crack this nut, we (and all of the other living things on the Earth) are likely doomed. What we are talking about here are the psychological forces within us. I propose that these forces hold the key to a sustainable future. Without unlocking the beliefs and emotions that are causing our inevitable destruction, we are fooling ourselves.

For sure, there is a vibrant sustainability movement afoot in the world. Programs such as “An Inconvenient Truth” have had significant impacts. These impacts have been, for the most part, rooted in awareness. We are learning that our actions are damaging our only home in the universe. We are recognizing the reality of the situation. We see it. But do we own it?

Some people own it. They are working toward a sustainable future through everyday actions and organizational involvement. They are affecting change wherever they can. So far, most of this work has been persuasive in nature. The solutions, up to this point, have been predominantly technical. How do we separate the items in our trash for recycling? How do we reduce our CO2 emissions? How do we convince others to change their habits? What laws can be passed to limit pollution? These actions have been effective. There is clearly a ground-swell of support for much of what is being done.

I argue that these actions are a good first step, but we need to take things to the next level. We need to tap the minds of our greatest thinkers in psychology, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, and other disciplines focused on the human psyche in order to beat a path to the door that leads to our ultimate survival. The irony is that, if immortality is what we truly seek as a species, then only sustainable living will get us there. The old ways of building great monuments to represent our immortality must come to an end. In a sense we need to deconstruct for our survival. We need to deconstruct our physical environments. And, more importantly, we need to deconstruct our minds. If we can identify those emotional levers that will direct our behaviors to be more sustainable, then we can start working those levers in ways that provide for more sustainable living.

It has taken us thousands of years to recognize that our activities are harming the environment. It will likely take us hundreds more to be able to change our minds about what is important, and have that change be in perfect alignment with our beliefs and emotions. This is a problem that will require much more than technical solutions. The great pyramids were built using technical solutions. But the inspiration and reasons for their construction are found in all of us – our deeply held beliefs and emotions. In the same way, sustainable living will require more than just technical solutions. We will need to get to the sources of our inspiration and meaning before we will be successful.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Tyranny of Disharmony

Today's post is from the Zen Master Santee Poromaa (top row, second from left), and captures an interesting perspective of the predicament that many of us find ourselves in today - the feeling that something is not quite right.

Hedonism is the answer to the question how to live life “to its fullest degree”, to search for pleasure and avoid discomfort. To do only what pleases us and in that way fill our lives with maximal pleasure. Hedonism today lives as the ruling religion in our secularized societies. Just as before, hedonists today seek to shape their life and spend their time so that each moment will be as comfortable, pleasurable and joyful as possible. Since we no longer believe in higher powers and a predetermined world there is not much left but to enjoy each moment as if it was the last.

But the difference between the hedonist of the past and those of today is worth reflecting upon. The image of a hedonist in ancient Greece is perhaps the one of a person, laying on a daybed, sipping a good wine and listening to divine music. The hedonist of today however, has not time for that. He’s rushing ahead in a fast car, listening to his MP3 player while talking on his cell phone. Today we’ve convinced ourselves that the more we can fit into the moment, the more meaningful it becomes. Our simultaneous capacity is stretched to its fullest and in our inner sphere numerous different voices now live, fighting for space. We want to do so much, see so many things, live so much more. SMS, MMS, Java, Bluetooth, DVD and MP4. They’re all fighting for a place in our inner sphere, now known as Our inner sphere, the place where we are free and present, lucid and attentive, has been occupied by demons fighting a war for our attention. Most of these demons come from the special hell known as the Market.

The truth is that modern life demands a lot more from us than we have time for. The only solution is to do many things at once, to pay attention to many different voices at the same time. The effect of this “multitasking” is a sense of disharmony, or what the writer Saul Bellow described as “an unbearable state of distraction”. This state of disharmony is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of our time. The feeling of having too many forces fighting for our attention and demanding something of us is causing more and more of us to live with a constant feeling of not “having enough time” - as if everything was going faster and faster. The paradoxical effect of trying to fit more life into each moment is that we never seem to be quite in it ourselves; the moment we want to enjoy is the place and time where we are not. “Life is what happens while making other plans”, John Lennon sang. Life goes on while we are someplace else.

At the same time this extreme disruption has had another effect as well. It has made us bored. We can’t stand long pieces of music anymore, but prefer classical favorites in short version. While watching films from the fifties and sixties we feel an almost subconscious urge to fast forward through the “dead time”. Impatience and a disability to do nothing is the result. We all, compared to older generations, suffer from attention disorders. In other words, we have become addicted to our own simultaneous capacity and constantly demand new impressions, just as a junkie needs his fix. In the fifties, before television, an entire family could sit at home and listen to the radio. Just listen. Without cleaning or talking on the phone or play video games at the same time. Just sit silently and listen.

Nowadays we rarely give something our full attention. We may give the radio twenty or thirty percent, hardly more. It is more and more common that we call someone to talk and hear how the person on the other line is simultaneously tapping on their keyboard, perhaps answering mails or just surfing. Radio producers today are of course aware of this disharmony and no longer communicate with us as adults - intelligent and independent individuals. Instead they’re fooling around and being silly, preferably as loud as possible since they know that that is the only way to catch at least a fragment of our attention.

Conclusively one can say that our modern hedonism and shopping frenzy has given our lives, not more life, but these side effects: we have become disharmonious and stressed. We have lost touch with our inner clarity. We have lost our ability to concentrate and are easily bored. We’re practically never completely present. And the things that are supposed to entertain and feed our minds - books, theatre, music, movies have become shallower and louder, less serious. The finer shades of life have been lost. Our inner, mental room has been sold to the market forces. The consumption demons run our lives. We are the losers.

Zen masters have a completely different idea of how to live life. In Zen we admit that the moment is all we have. To a Zen master the present isn’t a piece of time in between the past and the future - there to be filled with as many “experiences” as possible. It is instead “an eternal spring”, an infinite place outside of what we call time and space. Release from sufferance and dissatisfaction is, according to this ancient wisdom, about learning how to live consciously. To live consciously is to live now. Not by filling the moment with more but by being completely present. Not to constantly divide our minds and chase after only that which gives us pleasure, but learning how to find pleasure in what one does. In the future it is therefore likely that more and more people willingly will give up shopping, choose to live simply, or, at least, avoid the excess. Not because of an ascetic wish for self-sufferance, but from realizing that happiness cannot be bought. – Santee Poromaa