It can seem so attractive to just give up and say “fuck it” when we’re confronted day after day with the grim reality of our world today. Staying emotionally engaged with the ongoing industrial destruction of the environment and with pervasive human suffering from war, inequality, isolation, and misery is overwhelming. Many around us are concluding that we’re doomed—they’re giving up on the future and retreating from the struggle for a different world. Whether it’s reeling in terror about global warming, peak oil, 2012, or a coming plague, people are checking out. It can be hip to be cynically dispassionate about our world’s certain doom and the human race’s role as a cancer on the earth.
Corporations and mainstream culture cultivate this attitude because people who’ve given up make better consumers. Mainstream culture depends on a vicious cycle in which economic relations focused on individualism and seeking private profit create psychological conditions of isolation, loneliness, and meaninglessness that in turn support those same economic relations by reducing people’s ability to resist or change the system. Thus system requires constant competition and economic growth as ends on themselves, which in turn increases human impact on the environment. On a finite planet, industrial capitalism has reached the point where its ecological impacts are unsustainable, so without some change, we may in fact be doomed.
Under capitalism, each individual acts selfishly to maximize his or her consumption. A huge part of modern consumption is the quest for ever-more privacy and individuality—private cars vs public transit, houses in the suburbs vs apartments in town, packaged fast food vs group meals, a TV set for each bedroom. All of this privacy comes at a huge environmental cost. But even more costly is the psychological fallout. The more successful an individual gets, the more lonely, isolated, and meaningless their life tends to become. When you only know how to seek satisfaction through consumption and individuality, you’re constantly dissatisfied—always going in search of the next thing as soon as you realize that what you just got doesn’t make you happy. Each new degree of privacy and individuality you achieve leaves you feeling more alone, afraid, and dependent. And the more meaningless your life feels, the more you want to consume to cope with the emptiness, increasing your ecological footprint.
We refuse to participate in the system’s collective suicide. The best way to respond to the terrifying capitalist rush over ecological cliffs is to replace a sense of despair and passive resignation with courage, action, and empowerment. That means fully facing and feeling the depth and seriousness of the ecological crisis, the grinding poverty, and the war and injustice dished out by the system. Rather than turning away in despair and fear, we have to learn how to hold this scary moment in our heart, look deeply, and approach it anew. How can any of us summon so much courage? As individuals, we’re small and weak in a sea of negativity. But just as the individuality of the system makes its participants powerless and scared, when we join together with others and struggle for a different future, we are empowered.
The alternative to consumerism, individual privacy, corporate ownership, and ecological catastrophe is a new set of priorities and human interactions—sharing, collective living, cooperative work. These values and actions also create a feedback loop that makes these alternatives more powerful the more they are used. Psychologically, the more your cooperation with others to get what you need, the less alone and passive you feel. As you increasingly get to control your own destiny as an active participant rather than as a passive consumer, viewer, and employee, your self-confidence and courage builds. When you seek satisfaction inside yourself, in your relationship with other, and as part of all life on earth, your life fills with meaningfulness, engagement, and love. And as one’s life focuses on things that do not cost money and do not come from corporations, your ecological and social footprint declines. Your life connects more with those around you, and you become less dependent on sweatshops, global transport networks, and high tech gadgets.
It is crucial to keep in mind that the trappings of the seemingly solid and permanent system are in fact temporary and fleeting. Some of us can feel left behind when we try to compare ourselves with people who are successful within the mainstream society. But the socially acceptable life path you are expected to take—employment and consumerism—is not intrinsically part of the human experience or even necessary. As we increase our involvement in alternatives to the system, we alter our consciousness. We realize that social interactions that seem “natural” are in fact created by powerful people to serve their interest. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can get together and create a new reality. And we don’t have to be doomed or afraid.