The Siren’s Call
More. Better. Easier. Happier.
From societies, not so long ago, in which lives had less impact, but also much less opportunity, we have come to great possibility. Ensconced in our lives, we hardly ever stop to wonder, but there is so much around. When my great-grandfather sought work in Brazil, taking my grandmother (then a young girl) with him, they went by ship. When I went to the USA for a year in high-school, I went by plane, but kept in touch with family and classmates only through letters and rare phone calls. When I started at university, we started using e-mail – through telnet, a system still found on many computers, but hardly ever used (or even known) anymore. Now, mobile phones and the internet connect me, whether living in Europe or a rather rural part of China, with friends and colleagues around the world. It’s not just the connections, either. You also gain new ideas, new opportunities.
With all the opportunities, all the possibilities, comes the idea that things should be as they are now, or should get even better. What shapes our dreams, our ideals? Books, TV series, movies, magazines, the online world. What do they show? Rarely that you need to work hard, maybe that you should do what you have a passion for – but how do you even find a passion when you are enthralled in a dream world? It is a promise of happiness. Easy happiness, by becoming a star, by finding ways to make a lot of money. Normal happiness, by drudging through life, making a living, and rewarding oneself for all the hassle through some fun and excitement.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Living means consuming. A living being cannot go through the world without any influence on it. For human beings, living also means more than just surviving and reproducing. Within the range of conditions offered by Earth, we create most of the conditions we need, turning natural landscapes into agricultural systems to produce rather than search for food, building houses to have protection from the elements and pleasurable surroundings, even changing jungles into cities. Ever since humans started living settled lives, creating larger societies, the human impact has been rising. Now, we are at a point where geologists have suggested that the present geological epoch should be called the anthropocene – the age of humans, as the primary drivers of change in even the physical properties of the planet.
Traditional societies more directly living off the land were not necessarily thrifty and caring, either. In times of plenty, as sign of being well-off, squandering possessions could even be a social obligation. It makes a difference, however, whether the products came out of nature and could be returned there without having to think much about their recycling. Food and its nutrients cycle naturally and are replenished by photosynthesis. Some impacts were lasting (the residue of ancient copper or iron smelting can still be found in some places, for example). Yet, they were also local, with people being few and land comparatively plenty. Not to forget that the fall of early civilizations or even the extinction of entire tribes would not have been reported, not been of impact beyond the local or regional, nor gone against ideas of human rights and dignity (which have their own historical development, after all). Neither would earlier lives have been preferable in terms of their potential for happiness. They were even more circumscribed than many lives today, offering even less opportunity for advancement, growth, choice. (Admittedly, all the choice we have today can be more problematic than pleasurable, too.)
Living in contemporary times still means consuming. And a good life means having a bit more than the bare essentials. All too often, however, it is not only a bit more: products are made in ways which are resource-intensive and without much concern for what will happen when their useful life ends. Moreover, we who have a lot tend to get caught up in thinking that it’s just normal to have so much, and wanting yet more. Those who have less, understandably, long to live a similar, better, life. The allure of consumerism works at the weakest points in our psychology, fills needs in ways which require the least effort, leaving us feeling good enough (for a while, anyways) but not truly satisfied. Apparently, you have to do nothing but get out your credit card. Of course, ultimately, you need to have a way to make that money you spend – but then, the rat race of working 9-to-5 is tough, unpleasant (at least when you are in it and long to re-connect with nature and have work that is inherently satisfying) so this makes it all the more justified that we also treat ourselves to some good things. Still, E. O. Wilson’s admonishment that the environmentalist worldview is "not yet compelling enough to distract many people away from the primal diversions of sport, politics, religion, and private wealth" (in: The Future of Life) only shows the misunderstanding: these motivations are primal indeed, so they will be a part of life.
Even if consumerism is not really delivering on its promise of happiness, as you may see if you look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are truly happy with your life, follow the stories of stars who seem to have nothing better to do than go from scandal to scandal, or ponder the statistics showing that happiness rises with affluence only as long as you truly gain from it, then levels off more and more – it still seems the best thing we have. Utopias are out of fashion. We have, however, been learning more and more about what truly makes us happy (and about whether that’s really the best question to ask), and we are a species that can change (at least somewhat) through understanding, look ahead and work towards higher goals. Thus, it is time we stopped chasing after the songs of sirens – whether they are those of a world of shopping or those of bucolic nature – and sought to understand and use that knowledge. There cannot be a distraction away from “primal diversions,” but we can increasingly see that the pleasures of life are better or more likely fulfilled by more sustainable ways of life.