The Global Fire of Desire

7818By Andy Coghlan

We’re a gloomy lot, with many of us insisting that there’s nothing we can do personally about global warming, or that the human race is over-running the planet like a plague.

But according to leading ecologists speaking this week in Albuquerque at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, few of us realize that the main cause of the current environmental crisis is human nature.

More specifically, all we’re doing is what all other creatures have ever done to survive: expanding into whatever territory is available and using up whatever resources are available, just like a bacterial culture growing in a petri dish till all the nutrients are used up. What happens then, of course, is that the bugs then die in a sea of their own waste.

One speaker in Albuquerque, epidemiologist Warren Hern of the University of Colorado at Boulder, even likened the expansion of human cities to the growth and spread of cancer, predicting “death” of the Earth in about 2025. He points out that like the accelerated growth of a cancer, the human population has quadrupled in the past 100 years, and at this rate will reach a size in 2025 that leads to global collapse and catastrophe.

But there’s worse. Not only are we simply doing what all creatures do: we’re doing it better. In recent times we’re doing it even faster because of changes in society that encourage and celebrate conspicuous and excessive consumption.

“Biologists have shown that it’s a natural tendency of living creatures to fill up all available habitat and use up all available resources,” says William Rees of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “That’s what underlies Darwinian evolution, and species that do it best are the ones that survive, but we do it better than any other species,” he told me prior to the conference.

Spreading humans

Although we like to think of ourselves as civilized thinkers, we’re subconsciously still driven by an impulse for survival, domination, and expansion. This is an impulse which now finds expression in the idea that inexorable economic growth is the answer to everything, and, given time, will redress all the world’s existing inequalities.

The problem with that, according to Rees and Hern, is that it fails to recognize that the physical resources to fuel this growth are finite. “We’re still driven by growing and expanding, so we will use up all the oil, we will use up all the coal, and we will keep going till we fill the petri dish and pollute ourselves out of existence,” he says.

But there’s another, more recent factor that’s making things even worse, and it’s an invention of human culture rather than an evolved trait. According to Rees, the change took place after the second world war in the US, when factories previously producing weapons lay idle, and soldiers were returning with no jobs to go to.

American economists and the government of the day decided to revive economic activity by creating a culture in which people were encouraged to accumulate and show off material wealth, to the point where it defined their status in society and their self-image.

Rees quotes economist Victor Lebow as saying in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

Insecure society

In today’s world, such rhetoric seems beyond belief. Yet the consumer spree carries on regardless, and few of us are aware that we’re still willing slaves to a completely artificial injunction to consume, and to define ourselves by what we consume.

“Lebow and his cronies got together to ‘create’ the modern advertising industry, which plays to primitive beliefs,” says Rees. “It makes you feel insecure, because the advertising industry turned our sense of self-worth into a symbolic presentation of the possessions we have,” he told me. “We’ve turned consumption into a necessity, and how we define ourselves.”

The result is a world in which rampant consumption in rich countries is rapidly outstripping the resources in the world needed to satisfy demand.

For evidence, Rees developed in 1992 a process called ecological footprint analysis (EFA). Produced by combining national consumption statistics with calculations of the resources needed to meet reported consumption patterns, EFA generates figures that conveniently demonstrate where consumption is least sustainable, and how fast finite material resources are being used up (calculate your own here).

Big footprints

Rees’s latest figures, presented in Albuquerque, show that, globally, we’re already in “overshoot”, consuming 30 per cent more material than is sustainable from the world’s resources. At present, 85 countries exceed their domestic “bio-capacities”, compensating for their lack of local material by depleting stocks elsewhere, in countries that have “surpluses” because they’re not consuming as much.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the encouragement from Lebow, North Americans are the most consumptive, eating resources equivalent to 9.2 global average hectares per capita.

The world can only supply 2.1 global average hectares per person, so already, Americans are consuming four times what the Earth can sustainably supply. “North Americans should be taking steps to lower their eco-footprints by almost 80 per cent, to free up the ‘ecological space’ for justifiable growth in the developing world,” says Rees.

The worrying thing is that if everyone on Earth adopted American lifestyles overnight, we would need four extra worlds to supply their needs, says Rees.

We haven’t yet mentioned climate change or global warming. What’s to be done? Marc Pratarelli of Colorado State University at Pueblo believes we need to snap out of our sleepwalking and begin to take real steps to cut consumption. “We have our heads in the sand, and are in a state of denial,” he says. “People think: ‘It won’t happen to me, or be in my lifetime, or be that bad, so what’s the point of change’.”

What to do?

But there is hope, however slim, according to Rees, both from the top down and the bottom up. The hope from above is that governments will finally realize that never-ending economic growth is incompatible with the finite material resources Earth has to offer, and begin to manage those resources more fairly and equitably through some kind of world government.

Without global management, destruction will continue, producing food and energy “crunches” that make the credit crunch look like a tea party.

“We need to learn to live within the means of nature,” says Rees. “That means sharing and redistribution of wealth, and for that we need leadership at the highest level to understand that the competitive instinct and the drive for power and more resources is mutually destructive, so governments must act in our collective interest.”

From the bottom up, there are the glimmers of global grassroots organizations campaigning for global justice and global solutions, such as the internet-based justice organization Avaaz, which collects email votes for petitions on issues of international or personal justice.

Desire to acquire

Solving the other problem—the advertising that feeds our desire to acquire—might be more tricky. In an ideal world, it would be a counter-advertising campaign to make conspicuous consumption shameful.

“Advertising is an instrument for construction of people’s everyday reality, so we could use the same media to construct a cultural paradigm in which conspicuous consumption is despised,” he says. “We’ve got to make people ashamed to be seen as a ‘future eater’.”

Whether we’re capable of such a counter-revolution is doubtful, both because of our state of personal denial and because of the huge power of industry to continue seducing us.

“In effect, globalism and consumerism have succeeded in banishing moderation and sanctifying greed, thereby liberating Homo economicus from any moral or ethical constraints on consumption,” says Rees.

Pararelli is even more pessimistic. The only hope, he says, is a disaster of immense scale that jolts us out of our denial. “My sense is that only when the brown stuff really hits the fan will we finally start to do something.”

This article originally appeared on newscientist.com with the title, “Consumerism is ‘Eating the Future’.”


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9 Responses to The Global Fire of Desire

  1. While I was reading this article I got the sense that modern day economics will be completely useless if everyone was self-satisfied and embarked on a path of renunciation rather than exploitation.

    According to one economics book I have, economics is defined as follows:

    “Economics is the social science that studies the choices that individuals, businesses, governments, and entire societies make as they cope with scarcity and the incentives that influence and reconcile those choices.” (Parkin, Michael, and Robin Bade. Economics. Toronto. Pearson Education, 2006.)

    I know that in one lecture Swami Tripurari mentions that the economy of Jagannath Puri was (or is) centered around the deities and satisfying their wants. So as per the definition above, the choices are selfless rather than selfish. Scarcity applies to material goods but not spiritual “goods”; Krsna likes devotion (BG 9.26 “patraḿ puṣpaḿ phalaḿ toyaḿ”). And the incentives are also not selfish but selfless.

    I’d like to ask whether it is possible in bhakti-marg to accomadate the entire knowledge on economics from basic to advanced within bhakti-marg if we were to make some modifications to it? Also, is it worth the effort to try to prove the irrationality behind modern day economics as a means of purification or is it better to employ that time in some other way?

  2. Great article that goes to the heart of the situation–the psychology of consumption and of forming one’s sense of identity in relation to material objects. No amount of consumption can ever satisfy desire, and forming one’s identity in relation to such objects is the original mistake that drives us to consume–that’s Bhagavad-gita 101.

    Unfortunately, not enough people study and live by the Gita. The existing systems and pardigms of thought that have created the mess we’re in are incredibly resistant to change (tamas!). It’s mind-boggling how people can still bow down to the gods of consumerism when information like this is available. Most people obviously have no idea how close to the precipice we are. And some even say there is no problem–usually egghead economist types like Lebow who have never breathed air outside of their office cubicles.The inevitable consequence of such a setup is that the social conscience of the developed countries has been eviscerated and it will take quite some time to restore it. More time, I think, than we have until 2025.

    I’ve ruminated on the ugly reality of the advertising industry before and thought that the countermeasures mentioned here could help–to use the same machine that shaped public perception and identity in the first place to reshape them. Problem is, there are massive vested interests who do not give a damm about what happens to the planet or to the nonhuman species that live on it (or even other humans who get in the way of making a buck). Oprah gets dragged into court by the meat industry for telling the truth. Sad to say, but my pessimism for any real change short of a major disaster is on par with Pararelli’s.

  3. This article is very interesting, and broad, and leaves us looking around for some solution.

    We live in an overpopulated and over-consumed world, indeed, but as with every other equation, the solution is already inside it.

    Desire and ability to achieve in humans helps us get many amazing things, but it also ruins everything. We do things because we can, but we don’t make an extra step inside our heads and ask “is that really necessary”? Advertising goes in hand with this attitude, and explains ordinary humans the ultimate ease of acquiring things.

    But what unleashes that attitude at such a magnanimous scale? We can ask a question in a following form too: how come, after so many centuries of religious predominance in the world, states ruled together by kings and priests, maharajas and brahmins, the preponderance of strict, God-fearing postulates of life .. we’ve ended up in a world that seems to be an opposite picture of it?

    The sad truth is that there’s no big difference between the industrial marketing and advertising on one side, and the marketing of religious doctrine on other side. Former is advertising a life of possibilities here and now, latter is advertising a better after life (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc), or no importance of existence at all (Buddhism in different forms).

    To a confused human, sick of seeing his father, mother, grandparents and the generations before suffering from diseases, poverty and lack of basic human rights, the choice is obvious — religious marketing offers nothing tangible and does absolutely nothing to help situation here, now.

    The existence cannot be denied — the poor human surely experiences it — and the only one marketing option there that supports it is consumerism, which uses achievements of science to penetrate into every pore of human society.

    But, it cannot go like that forever, and, as said above, the solution is already within the complex equation. Both consumerism and religion need a good dose of de-marketing, or getting down to Earth.

    In the world of religion it would mean that there should be emphasis on life here, and now, and not only on life after. In the world of consumerism de-marketing would mean the opposite: if I only think about now, I’m gonna ruin the future of my children and the future of life.

    When they both turn their heads in opposite direction to where they were going so far, they’ll finally look at each other, and see each other face to face. And that’s where something new and positive, and above all — life-affirming — can happen.

    • Zvonimir,

      You raise some very interesting points. I would love to see you expand on the points that you have made and submit it as an article to the harmonist for publication. I think you’re onto some thing.
      Each of the religions wants a monopoly on their message. Each corporate culture wants a monopoly on their messsage. So what we see in the world is a huge tug-of-war. Everybody is trying to undermine everyone else’s message and put their message as the dominant message.
      But the time for absolute messaging is gone. It is a time for moderation and integration. As such, I feel that the future is going to be dominated by those who can see many points of view and who can bring it togethor and present it in a way that the masses can consume it.
      I feel that the people who will be respect-worthy authorities in the future are those who can see the economic perspective, the scientific, the spiritual, the social and psychological perspectives and who can bring it togethor.
      Humans have many needs. I feel that being educated means understanding all the different needs that humans have and understanding the resources and knowledge available in society that is conducive for fulfilling the different needs that we have.
      Unfortunately, I don’t see many institutions in society that teach from that broad perspective. But that is what we need.

  4. I apologise, a paragraph inside my previous reply should read:

    The sad truth is that there’s no big difference between the industrial marketing and advertising on one side, and the marketing of religious doctrine on other side — they’re both very poorly constructed forms of marketing. Former is advertising a life of possibilities here and now at all expense, and latter is advertising a better after life (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc), or no importance of existence at all (Buddhism in different forms).

    Thank you for consideration.

  5. Really good article. It shows how human society without spiritual purpose is just a society of two legged animals that are dangerous for themselves and everyone around.

    I do not think that people can destroy Mother Earth. She is powerful enough to deal with the problem but the way she will choose may not be very pleasant to us.
    “There is still time, brother” said the slogan from one old film about nuclear war… but this time is shorter and shorter…

  6. Kula-pavana dasa

    I would not worry too much about ‘end of days’ scenarios. Once human population reaches the limit of readily available resources there will be lots of vicious wars that wipe out excess population. Global elites have way too much at stake to let the resources simply get used up. People like Andy Coghlan who wrote this article often work for them (their hired ‘experts’ are known as ‘think tanks’). This article promotes Malthusian approach in not so subtle way. Promoting the idea of global government as the only solution is another clue.

    Can population growth and resource consumption be brought under control? Certainly… but not with the model suggested above as it gives global power to the came people that caused current crisis: international capital and their croonies.

  7. We have been familiar with the problem for a while, without being able to do a lot. Luckily, we are not alone in looking for solutions. There are very
    well funded and high motivated organizations that are way ahead of us
    in both identifying the problem and in working towards the solution.
    The Discovery Institute, a Christian organization, is working on the
    solution which they have code named: ‘The Wedge Strategy.’ It is in
    our best interest to join them and assist them. It benefits them by
    giving them a more ‘diverse’ voice. We all become stronger by having a
    common voice of dissent, though coming from different backgrounds.

    The wedge strategy

    Instead of re-writing, I will quote the wikipedia article:
    “The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by
    the Discovery Institute, the hub of the intelligent design movement.
    The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as
    the Wedge Document,[1] which describes a broad social, political, and
    academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to “defeat [scientific]
    materialism” represented by evolution, “reverse the stifling
    materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with
    Christian and theistic convictions”[2] and to “affirm the reality of
    God.”[3] Its goal is to “renew” American culture by shaping public
    policy to reflect conservative Christian, namely evangelical
    Protestant, values.[4]”

    The article further goes on to say:
    “In twenty years, it is hoped by the group that they will have
    achieved their goal of making intelligent design “the dominant
    perspective in science” as well as to branch out to “ethics, politics,
    theology, and philosophy in the humanities, and to see its influence
    in the fine arts”. A goal of the wedge strategy is to see intelligent
    design “permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life.” By
    accomplishing this goal the ultimate goal as stated by the CSC the
    “overthrow of materialism and its damning cultural legacies” and
    reinstating “The proposition that human beings are created in the
    image of God”, and thereby “renew” American culture to reflect
    conservative Christian values will be achieved”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy

    As we can see, we all want to see the same impact on mainstream
    society. I feel it is in the best interest if qualified members of the
    Hare Krishna movement step forward to see how we can contribute and
    get funding from this initiative. Right now the Discovery Institute
    seems primarily focussed on the issue from the Christian perspective.
    This is a great opportunity for Hare Krishnas to make their voice
    heard.

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