existential revolution

A Call for Existential Revolution

It is hardly necessary to look for evidence that serious change is needed in the world. Indeed, the idea that we are overdue for a revolution is far from novel. The need for large scale change is substantiated by a variety of global developments, from rising nationalism and xenophobia to unabated environmental destruction. And none is more pressing than global climate change. It is a problem of a unique kind, existing on an unprecedented scale—and predicated specifically on our way of life, and on increasingly popular notions of what human existence entails; mainly, individualism, competitiveness, and consumerism.

That these notions of human existence must either cease or radically evolve is again not in itself a novel proposition. Most of us can agree that revolution in these (and other) areas is needed. But what kind of revolution are we actually talking about?

In a recent Café-Philo / Psych Café discussion with my students, we addressed the question of whether humanity will ever strike balance with the natural world. It’s a loaded question, of course, and it has no easy answer. It brings up idealistic, even utopian considerations that feel impossible given the circumstances. What I found especially interesting about our discussion was that everyone began addressing the question with a focus on consumerism. This is understandable, of course—our consumerist ways have played a fundamental role in our current state of affairs, and they have had a lasting impact on the world around us. We take too much, we use too much, and we waste too much. And the by-products of these behaviours—particularly carbon—are irrevocably altering the environment, compromising our own existence as well as that of other species. So it’s reasonable to assume that an effective solution also lies in our consumerism. As suggested throughout our discussion, we need to buy differently, invest differently, and waste less in order to turn things around.

But as our discussion unfolded, I realized the flaws underlying this seemingly pragmatic approach. While I agree that a revolution in behaviour is needed, what is far more compelling is a revolution of the existential kind. It is a revolution in morals, values, and ethics—and one in spirit—that is now desperately needed. This makes sense when you consider that consumerism is fundamentally NOT a problem of human behaviour; rather, it is a problem of values, identity, and meaning. It is undeniably a problem of the existential and spiritual kind. If we do not stop defining ourselves by the money we make, or finding meaning and purpose in the things we buy, we will forever be at odds with nature. We will fundamentally remain at odds with a peaceful, sustainable, and communal existence. As American psychologist and philosopher William James once said, “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” Yet our connectedness extends further—to all life, and to the world itself.

So that’s the kind of revolution I’m proposing—an existential one. The young climate activist Greta Thunberg suggested that “if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.” What I am suggesting is that changing the system is not enough. What I am suggesting is that we need to change ourselves first. Any change in behaviour is ultimately pointless without a corresponding change in mindset. It would be fleeting, and superficial at best, to move forward with our old values and morals in tow. The change wouldn’t stick, as the shortcomings of our inner nature cannot be solved by focusing solely on outer behaviour. This set of challenges must be solved within. As I have discussed previously on this blog, there is evidence that we are (on average) becoming less empathetic, more individualistic, and more materialistic as time goes on. Do we really believe that a simple change in behaviour will sustain itself in light of these trends? Do we believe that balance and harmony are feasible as we become more individualistic and less communal? Do we think for a second that the kind of change we need is possible with less empathy?

So let’s be real about this: Changing how we spend our money is not a long-term solution. What is? The answer, again, is not novel. It’s been there all along, yet we continue to avoid it. The answer lies in what is the alternative to a materialistic and individualistic existence. We must (somehow) cultivate within us a disposition that is nonmaterial in nature; which focuses on quality over quantity; and which concerns itself with meaning and purpose rather than money and status. Furthermore, we must define ourselves in these terms, fostering a self-concept and identity that are founded on our ability to transcend all the stuff in our lives, as well as on our connections to the people and world around us. We are embedded in the world, and the only promising path forward is to recognize this in all our thoughts and actions. We must stop caring about things, and buying things, and owning things, and using things. There is far more to life, after all. (And most of us know this, but most of us don’t live it—myself included. This is going to be a hard one to crack.)

As I’ve suggested repeatedly, nothing I’m saying here is new. The idea that we need to evolve beyond our materialistic and individualistic ways has been around for centuries. It’s at the heart of most enduring notions of spirituality, personal growth, and self-transcendence. And so is collectivism, or interconnectedness, if you’d prefer. In many ways, it’s about fostering a more authentic existence; shedding the stress and burden of a consumerist society; and recognizing the importance of our relationships to each other, to other species, and to the world, and prioritizing those relationships in our daily lives. As William James also said, “Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” By changing ourselves, we will more radically and fundamentally change the world around us. (Change yourself, and you change the world.) Anything else is frivolous.

I’m not assuming that any of this is easy, in practice, particularly on the scale that is now required. But it is possible. The human mind is incredibly malleable, and it is highly responsive to social and cultural changes. We need to ask ourselves: What kind of change is ideal? Are we looking for superficial change that does little to address the shortcomings within, which will surely manifest again in problematic ways for future generations? Or do we want a kind of change that is lasting? Change that strips us of our unfulfilling deficiencies, enriches our lives with depth and meaning, and reaches far into the future to realize a human existence that is both sustainable and purposeful. (“Sustainable change for a sustainable future.”)

I choose the latter.

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