“There is something about being constantly, incessantly assaulted by people who want my money that is insulting and demeaning to the dignity and condition of being alive. I can’t walk two feet in this world without being encouraged to purchase something – as if I am the constant prey of ‘predator-humans.'”
In the United States, our raison d’être – our underlying ethic and principle of living – is that of profit and progress, which we continually pursue through our modern forms of industry, technology and capitalism. Through these forms, we seem to be intent on invading, and gleaning of its’ potential material worth and benefit, every nook and cranny of nature, every possible “resource” we can access. After nearly obliterating the native cultures that dwelled here before our arrival, we’ve proceeded by continually clearing land; chopping down trees and plants, flora and fauna, leveling the uneven natural surfaces of the earth and implanting roads, housing developments, shopping centers, gas stations, etc – the basic substrates of our material society. In this way, we are recklessly ever-encroaching upon the sanctity of the earth. Yes, we need to survive, but why can’t we integrate ourselves more harmoniously into the encompassing natural environment? Traditional Japanese and Native American cultures had some idea of this, which we are lacking. Not only does our greed know no limits, but the modern civilization into which we are transforming the natural earth is increasingly becoming a mechanical hodge-podge of repetitive, soul-less and uninspired dreck. Why do we no longer infuse our towns and dwellings with the same sort of sensibility and beauty with which nature grows plants, trees, hills and landscapes? It appears as a sort of calamity of ugliness when homes are built side by side like boxes in a row that all look alike. In Southern California this way of habitation is the norm; they call them “tract homes.” According to popular internet sources, this form of bulk community housing development “allows contractors to reduce prices, which in turn can make homes more affordable … and may also allow contractors to reap higher profits.” Nowadays it’s just all about the money…
An extension of the rule of sameness and monotony displayed in tract homes is also found in the construction of strip malls, which have become the rule of thumb, the latest fashion, in our mortification of culture in the United States. Especially in the newer towns, there is the same conglomeration of stores, shops and fast food restaurants, all mass produced and plastered together in a similar anti-artistic form. There appears to be no originality in this kind of construction – other than that of ease and efficiency – either in design, form or content. You may as well not go to the next town as it looks just like the one you came from. This kind of “township” is really a desecration of the human spirit of creativity, an assault on the senses and an abomination of aesthetics. Of course, as long as we’re getting what we want – coffee, grub, videos, manicures, etc – we all appear to be just as happy as ever.
Over the years, in the United States, we have traded form for function. Think about that for a minute. Although we have gained considerably in the area of accessibility to products and services, we have lost sorely in the area of beauty and style, aesthetics that are more important to our creative soul nature than the architects or the bankers seem to understand. You can see this process clearly in the production of cars. Up until sometime in the 70s, cars were made with a flair for design, as a true craft with attention to the eye; like pieces of wood that have been carved into totems, chairs or works of art, cars resembled art as sculptures of steel and leather that engaged the heart with the magnificence of their form, velocity and power. These days, and for some good reason, cars are made primarily to meet standards of fuel efficiency and comfort. They’re also made out of cheaper materials, mainly plastics instead of steel. However, the typical modern car – like the modern house and the modern strip mall – fails to inspire. Why, for the sake of efficiency and low-cost production, must we sacrifice the incredible style, the inspiring aesthetic beauty and architecture of our cars, our homes and the towns in which we live? These days it seems everything we do boils down to the profit margin, where the bottom line is the dollar bill, not the soul with its aesthetic sensibilities and inherent appreciation of form, i.e. those particular and affecting qualities of place, person and thing.
To ignore the significance of form is to deny the reality that the world around us, the sensate world, the physical, palpable world of forms affects us so profoundly that it is truly a part of who we are, the aspect of ourselves in which we live. Without the world, there would be no self. And in some basic, primal sense the world in which we live is also the world which lives inside us. Herein lies the vital importance of our shaping of the world in which we live. When we create a world of carelessly constructed ticky-tack: cars, buildings, houses, schools, offices, etc that are utterly uninteresting and unappealing to the eye, we must remember that our perceptive interactions with these environments enter into our inner being, belittling our penchant, our thirst (I would go so far as to say it is our “need”) for beauty, our capacity for imagination – and in fact this insults the instinctual nature inside us that is the same cosmic force responsible for the infinitely creative productions of nature. If we put half the time into beautifying our man-made environments as we do into perfecting our body image, our world would be a more inspiring place in which to live.
Do we, as the harbingers of evolution, as the self-proclaimed emissaries of God and the natural world; do we not have a responsibility, a duty, to co-create a world within the world of nature that at least strives to maintain a par with the excellence, the amazing revelatory elegance and delight-inspiring display that She has created? When we make ugly environments in which we live, we are demeaning our God given place in this beautiful world of nature. Isn’t the idea of living well to make the world a better place, to “add unto and multiply” the beauty, the miracle of this living world we have inherited? Ancient cultures seemed to understand this. Look at the fortresses of Machu Picchu, Grecian statues and relics, the Taj Mahal and the Seven Wonders of the World. Or simply recall the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe. In times past, Americans used to devote ourselves to creating things of beauty as well. We used to invest more time, energy, thought and love into our labors and crafts – just look at furniture for instance. These days everything is made as quickly as possible with the main goal of profit – the primary tenet of our capitalism. Our current culture produces a limitless supply of crappily mass-produced ticky-tack at an astronomical rate, so that profit may be maintained and ever-increased. We also produce garbage and dumps equally as fast. According to the Clean Air Council, “In the U.S., 4.39 pounds of trash per day and up to 56 tons of trash per year are created by the average person.”
We live in a disposable world, throwing away the things we use with extreme rapidity. Just go look at the local dump or the loads of trash that are shipped to Asia where materially indigent locals pick through all we’ve thrown away for useful tidbits of value to them. The outward appearance and practices of our disposable culture reveals an inner assumption that the world is viewed as a limitless supply of raw materials and goods which exist primarily for our own exploit and plunder. Because the things we use are so disposable, so easily replaced, they must lack value, and therefore we treat them, and their source, without much respect or care. This also applies to how we treat nature, i.e. trees, land, woods, rivers, oceans, animals, etc. Why and how did we come to adopt such a disposable way of life, in which our valuing of the natural world, along with the manmade world and one another, has become so greatly diminished? Perhaps it is related to our increasing demand for instant gratification. In the “old days,” as people like to say, things were made to last, not just the objects we used, but also our relationships, marriages, friendships, etc.
Perhaps part of the answer to the question of disposability lies in the increasingly capitalistic nature of our economy, wherein it seems everyone is trying to sell you something, and we the common citizens have been reduced to being mere “consumers.” In cahoots with capitalism’s obsession with profit is technology’s obsession with progress, in which we must continually update and improve products, such as computers and cars, so that they become more enticing for purchase by the consumer. In this way, our culture of civilization influences a forward-looking mode of operation in which the past and nature are both devalued – for us, nature and technology are antithetical, as nature is equated with the past, which we tend to ignore, and technology is equated with the future, towards which we eagerly stream. You’re just not hip if you don’t have a new car, a new humungous flat screen TV, and a brand new I-pod or I-phone. In pre-Western cultures, such as those of the Native Americans, the focus of society was not only mindful of the future in which, according to the Iroquois, “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine” but also, in a more balanced manner, upon the present as inherited from the past, including long-standing traditions and ceremonies, as well as a tendency to venerate the aged elders for their wealth of experience and collected wisdom. In contrast, our disposable society holds little veneration for the past, for tradition, for the collected wisdom of its elders, or for nature. “Out with the old and in with the new!” is our ever-raging motto.
How, you may ask, can we blame technology and capitalism for our disposable society and devaluation of nature? Because, in a world that can be bought and sold, we replace the inherent value of life and nature with our own manmade materialistic values that stem from our aforementioned priorities. We cease to see that a thing, i.e. a tree, a river, a field of wheat or a flower – even a person – retains a unique value in and of itself, a value and an essential reality that cannot ever be bought or sold, because it is a reality that man cannot create. We automatically translate the reality of the natural world into a meaning created by humankind – for the sole purpose of benefiting humankind. Thereby, we fail to see the larger picture or context of our human existence. This, of course, is the very definition of selfishness, in which, consumed by our own concerns and wants, we lose connection, empathy and understanding of the world around us. In this way, we have become truly blind to the reality, the significance, and thus, the existence of the natural world in which we live. We distortedly think that this entire terrestrial planet exists only for the benefit and greater glory of humans. Yet, in this belief, we are simply wrong, as it is just this kind of thinking which has contributed to the devastation of the world around us, and increasingly, to our own self-destruction as well. Through our failures and mishaps however, we are beginning to realize that we do not live in a vacuum, and that, as the Buddha advised, all things are truly interconnected.
In theory, capitalism may arguably appear to be a good method of economy, though in practice it often times causes great harm. One reason for this is that the practice of capitalism does not tend to incorporate morals or ethics. Many would say it is unethical to tear down pristine rainforest, whether in the Pacific Northwest or the Amazon – which in Central & South America includes the decimation of entire tribes of people, horrific harm and/or extinction of many animal and plant species, as well as irreversible devastation to vast ecosystems – yet even to this day these practices go on, so that enterprising capitalists can continue to fatten their cash wad. The bottom line of capitalism has become the translation of any product or service into dollar bills, into the abstract meaning of money which enables the capitalist to procure greater wealth and status in the material society. Yes, it is a never-ending cycle that all too often has absolutely no heart or humanity in it. There is a reason we refer to money as “cold hard cash.” Yes, cash is cold and hard, like ice or a dead body in rigor mortis. Cash freezes the heart and blinds the eyes. We desperately need to infuse our material pursuits with more compassionate ethics and practices.
Of course, there are many small-time business-people supporting themselves, and/or their families, without hurting, or intending to hurt, others. Many of us struggle just to float above the surface of our debts and obligations. We work long hard hours, and should be rewarded and benefited for our labors. I do not dispute this whatsoever. What bothers me is when certain individuals earn unnecessarily vast amounts of money at the tragic expense of others. This sort of behavior has been termed “cannibalism,” because it feeds off the lives and labors of less materially or socially powerful peoples, and may be wholly destructive to both natural habitats and entire cultures of people. In his powerful and alarmingly honest account of the impact that European colonialism has had on the American continent, entitled Columbus and other Cannibals, Jack D. Forbes defines cannibalism as “the consuming of another’s life for one’s own private purpose or profit.” He goes on to state, “imperialism and exploitation are forms of cannibalism and, in fact, are precisely those forms of cannibalism which are most diabolical or evil” (Italics his). All too often, the modern practice of capitalism incorporates cannibalistic tendencies which degrade both people and planet. Only by identifying this process – when and where it happens – and seeking to rectify it, can we potentially heal the damages done.
An example of this can be seen in Chile, where the global thrust of capitalism, via logging companies, is met with resistance by native tribes struggling to retain their traditional way of life. In an article entitled “Chile’s battleground of culture vs. profit” in the Christian Science Monitor (June 2001), Tim Vandenack describes this situation:
Through most of the 19th century, the Mapuches [a native tribe] held dominion over an area covering 20,000 square miles of south central Chile. But government expropriations, colonization, and land deals the Mapuches say took advantage of their unfamiliarity with the Spanish language and the Chilean legal system have whittled that to 1,200 square miles on scattered plots in the area … Marcelo Martini, head of the [logging company] in Temuco, says … “the Mapuches’ main problem is extreme poverty … the Mapuches have lower literacy, employment, and income levels than Chile’s overall population … training and education are key so that they can get well-paying jobs in the mainstream economy, with logging companies or other enterprises.” While acknowledging the need for more education, Mapuche leaders reject assimilation. “If we all become logging company workers or professionals, we lose our cultural identity and the essence of what it is to be a Mapuche,” says Mr. Nain [a Mapuche Indian leader].
The problem here is modern day Capitalism’s tendency to “bulldoze” over other forms of culture, sustenance and economy. Notice how the leader of the logging company suggests that the solution to the conflict is for the native Indians to simply become “educated” so they can get jobs working for the logging company! Of course, this is a complex issue as loggers need to eat too. However, whenever one group infringes itself upon another, thus negating the other groups’ ability to survive, the question of ethics and rights must be raised. An over-riding question may be, can these two modes of living – the ancient and the modern – co-exist? Or will the modern powers continue to subvert, dominate and eradicate the ancient cultures? This last question could also be paraphrased as; “Will technology and capitalism continue to overcome and defeat the earth, until there is no more earth left?”
Ironically, by devising a “better, more developed world” for ourselves – which, of course, requires money to sustain – through our efforts to procure the money needed, we often sacrifice those very human qualities and conditions that we most value, and which, ostensibly, our “new and improved society” was designed to engender in the first place! Qualities and conditions such as sanity, peace of mind, happiness, getting enough sleep, rest and relaxation, being creatively engaged, having adequate physical exercise & expression, a sense of security and safety, and a compassionate, respectful work environment. Could it be that we are caught up in a self-destructive loop? Although a few of us do have our needs met in our vocations, more often than not we feel “burnt out” by our jobs, assaulted by our bills and the cost of living, and spend much of our existence clamoring just to earn enough cash to keep the vultures at bay. One has only to look at images of Wall Street or the rush hour madness of any given city for a glimpse into the mad world of earning a living. At every turn it seems there is another bill to pay – be it car repair, taxes, unforeseen expenditures, even “a night out on the town” or just the general upkeep of our status quo – and, if that wasn’t enough, we are constantly accosted by commercials and advertisements on how to spend more money!
The very nature of living in a capitalistic world is that we are constantly exposed to more things and opportunities which we are influenced to procure, thereby indebting ourselves through payment plans, credit cards and financing which is repaid with interest. There is something about being constantly, incessantly assaulted by people who want my money that is insulting and demeaning to the dignity and condition of being alive. I can’t walk two feet in this world without being encouraged to purchase something – as if I am the constant prey of “predator-humans.” Capitalism exalts the survival instinct into an ultimately grotesque and monstrous reality; a dark foreboding fog with a glittering neon lining that is ever-threatening to devour you. And yet, we seem to be the happiest and most excited when we’ve got “money to burn,” at the mall or shopping center where we are empowered by our cash or credit card, finally freed from the oppressive chains of the workplace, and rewarded with the freedom to purchase some marvelous thing that helps to justify, or compensate for, the long, endless hours we spend in our mortifying pursuits to earn a living.
According to Wikipedia.com, compared to other leading industrial countries around the world, the United States ranks rather high in the number of hours worked – an average of 1,777 per year, or about 34.17 hours per week. A few countries rank higher than us, among them Mexico and Japan; however, Korea tops the charts at 2,390 hours per year, a whopping 45.96 per week. Canada and every European nation work fewer hours than do we – France and Germany average about 1,350 hours per year, or 25.96 hours per week. Europe’s lower number of hours worked is said to be due to their tendency toward longer paid vacations, a standard of 4-6 weeks per year, as opposed to the United States standard of 2-3 weeks per year. In high contrast, the Kung Bushmen, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of the African Kalahari desert, “work just two-and-a-half days per week, rarely more than six hours per day.” As they say, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…
Sadly, most of us are held hostage by the ongoing cycle of work, pay and debt. It goes something like this: we work hard, get burnt out, get paid, buy something to compensate for our feeling of burn out, incur more bills, and then must work harder to pay the bills. See the cycle? Many of us are truly trapped in this cycle. But this is what capitalism wants; this, we’re convinced, creates a good, healthy economy. (It also creates job security for employers who need to keep their employees working for them like indentured servants, so that profits and progress can be maintained.) But does this way of life create “good, healthy and happy” citizens, families, and societies?
Capitalism and technology are economic-based functions of our modern culture that support our definitions and understanding of who we are as a collective humanity. Although we take their existence for granted as essential, unalterable aspects of our society, as our understandings of our purpose and potential in life expand so technology and capitalism must change as well. I believe ultimately that both will transform from their present focus on material profit and progress, to more sustainable, inclusive and spiritual goals, embodying values that acknowledge our unity as human beings with the entire planet – values such as beauty, compassion, and interconnection, in which caring for one another replace our incessant drives for competition. Why can’t profit and progress be re-defined in more internally referenced or spiritual ways – as in profitable emotional or psychological states that progress our feelings of well-being – rather than exclusively in terms of materiality and production? In an increasingly holistic world, we must realize that there is more to life than material advancements. Jesus Christ said: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” The basis of human life is the experience of the soul, through which we come to grasp the miracle of being alive, which neither profit nor progress can ever change.
Salvatore Folisi is a freelance writer and owner of Xander Stone, Ink - a creative writing and editing company which provides services such as ghostwriting, website content, and academic research. His previous publications include Daimon: A Journey of Poems, as well as articles in the genre of philosophy, cultural psychology, and spirituality which have appeared in Adbusters Magazine, Vision Magazine, and various online journals. Salvatore is currently completing his first full-length endeavor, Eros Over Logos: Eruptions in the Fabric of Consensual Reality. Learn more about his love of writing at xanderstone.org and contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.