Are humans just plain greedy? What drives our apparent insatiability, and how can we escape from it? Andrew Bard Schmookler, author of The Parable of the Tribes and, most recently, Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System, is currently at work on a series of books exploring materialism in human civilization, and he offers us a preview of his thinking here.
With the changing dynamic of superpower relations, the threat of nuclear holocaust is apparently receding. Yet the earth remains imperiled. Even in the state we call peace, lamentably, our species makes war upon the living systems from which we arose and upon which we still depend for our survival.
The materialistic appetite of our civilization serves as the engine of our environmental destructiveness. It is, therefore, important to understand why it is that, having so much, we are still fast devouring the earth in our hunger for more.
The answer has two main dimensions. Part of the problem lies in the dynamic of our economic system; part lies in our psychological/spiritual condition. Both perspectives are necessary to illuminate the sources of our insatiability.
THE SYSTEMIC PERSPECTIVE
Our economic system has obscured the psychological problem of our addiction to wealth by teaching us that human beings are insatiable by nature, and that limitless appetite, being natural, is good. Economic Man is presumed to have infinite wants, and economic theory would have us believe that the millionth dollar of a person’s consumption is as valuable as the first. Wealth and human fulfillment have become equated in the predominant ideology of liberal society, even though the great spiritual teachers of humankind have all taught otherwise. The market has given us great blessings, but it has also in some ways put us on the wrong path.
The market shapes not only our image of human nature, but also the human reality within its grasp. The market shapes us by the rewards it offers, telling the person with musical gifts that it is of greater value to write songs that sell Coca-Cola than to follow in the path of Bach. The market shapes us also by its ceaseless messages fashioned to persuade us of the importance of the goods it provides, telling us that we are the car we drive, and that manliness can be purchased in a pack of cigarettes.
If allowed to operate for generations in a cultural system, the market makes man in its own image. Just as the market is exquisitely sensitive to those things that can be bought and sold, and is unable to register the value of human bonds or the integrity of nature, so do people growing up in the market society tend to value the redwood picnic table over the forest cut down to make it, and to choose career advancement over staying home to care for their infants. The human soul, like the earth itself, is turned into a resource for the market’s endless push toward growth.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
There is a body of evidence suggesting that striving for riches is not an efficacious route to happiness. A famous study by Easterlin found that members of wealthy societies do not seem to be happier than those of poor. Americans apparently feel poorer now than they did thirty years ago when real incomes were just a fraction of their present levels. Today, about the same proportion (only 5-6%) of Americans with low incomes as with high feel they are living "the American dream."
Whatever the forces that have shaped us, we remain human beings who make our choices because of our own psychological makeup. What are the psychological factors that lead people to seek fulfillment in ways that don’t work?
Part of our feverish drive to create abundance may be, paradoxically, a manifestation of our experiencing the world as dominated by scarcity. There is not enough of what really matters, we feel, to go around. Human relationships become permeated with competition, and the pursuit of wealth becomes the waging of war by other means, a struggle for the inherently scarce "goods" of power and status. "It’s about money," says Fast Eddy in The Color of Money. "The best is the guy with the most." But not everyone can be the best, and thus the race for wealth is as futile as the arms race – and similarly destructive.
If the pursuit of happiness through material wealth is like filling a sieve, where do we look for the holes in our being? What disabilities impede our fulfillment? I see two dimensions to the answer.
For one thing, we are insatiable not because we are so "materialistic" but, again paradoxically, because we are so poorly connected with our materiality, with the grounds of bodily pleasure. As Norman O. Brown showed in Life Against Death, the capitalist system was launched in those cultures that were most at war with the flesh, that saw the material world as the realm of the devil. Into the gulf created between matter and spirit, the experience of the body is emptied of its spiritual fullness. Perhaps this emptiness is related to an observation by Ashley Montagu about child-rearing in some of those same cultures: that few peoples give their babies as little tactile contact as do American and northern European (e.g. English and German) societies. People alienated from a primordial connection with their bodies may indeed be insatiable in their material yearnings.
The other part of the answer is that we seek in material possessions fulfillment that is to be found in wholly different realms – especially human relationships – where we aren’t getting what we need and don’t know how to get it. The market system is predicated on an atomistic image of human society. As the philosopher MacPherson showed in his book, The Theory of Possessive Individualism, there arose in the seventeenth century, along with the market, an ideology depicting society as merely a marketplace for exchange between individuals who owe each other nothing they do not contract for. And Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, showed how the market has worked to erode all noncontractual bonds among people. Again, child-rearing appears as part of the overall cultural nexus. Our society insists on the early development of autonomy, and is unusual in the extent that our infants are made to spend time – awake and asleep – separated from their parents. Our society confers on us great liberty as mobile individuals, but we suffer from a deficit in the sphere of community. If, as I would maintain, human nature is such that our deepest fulfillment derives from loving contact with other people, there is a cost to this fraying of the ties that bind.
There are hungers that are not satisfied by a land flowing with infant formula and corn sweeteners. The baby that is given a plastic bottle instead of her mother’s breast may learn to seek in things a sense of security that would come more naturally, and with more true reassurance, from cherished persons. No matter how much one is fed of material things, one may still feel starved.
Being wounded in some way within, we focus more on external signs than on internal states. Money has been described, by Santayana, as "coagulated happiness." Where the capacity for true fulfillment is hindered, people will seek, as compensation, to amass symbols of gratification. But as the tokens of happiness are not the true coin, we can never get enough.
"Growth [of the economy] has become synonymous with hope," one Nobel laureate has said. But hope can be a trap. Our cultural fetish of economic growth is a clue that our consumption is not nourishing us. And our national cult of growth is a sign of the triumph of hope over satisfaction, of the life of promise over the life of fulfillment.
So the culture of mass consumption develops around a core of unfulfilled longing, in which advertising promises that the goods we can buy carry with them the states of consciousness we desire, and in which the broken promise of each purchase leads to new yearnings.
We become addicts, willing participants in an economy premised on growth without limit. With an addiction, there can be no such thing as enough because more of the wrong thing will never scratch the itch. The poet Robert Bly said of his alcoholic father that he thirsted for Spirit, but reached for the wrong one.
The challenge of healing our civilization, and ourselves, has many dimensions – economic, ecological, political, historical, psychological, spiritual. We need an integrated understanding of all these dimensions. Our world will not be made whole unless we can see it whole.