It’s hardly necessary to look for evidence that the world is in need of serious change—that we are in need of change. Indeed, the idea that we are overdue for a revolution is hardly 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 disruption. It is a problem of a unique kind, existing on an unprecedented scale, and predicated on our way of life, and on increasingly popular notions of what it means to be human in this modern world—mainly, individualism, competitiveness, and consumerism. That such features of modern life must either cease or radically evolve is a fairly reasonable proposal. Most of us can agree that revolution in these (and many other) domains is needed. But what kind of revolution are we talking about, exactly?
In a recent 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 idyllic and even utopian visions that feel unlikely if not impossible given our current circumstances. What I found particularly intriguing, however, was that everyone approached the question with a focus on consumerism. This is somewhat understandable, of course—our consumerist ways have played a fundamental role in shaping our current state of affairs, and they have had a lasting impact on the world around us. As individuals and as a species, we take too much, we use too much, and we waste too much. And the by-products of these behaviours—especially carbon—are irrevocably altering the environment, compromising our own existence as well as that of other species. So it’s reasonable to presume that an effective solution might also lie in our consumerist ways. As it was suggested throughout our discussion, we need to buy differently, invest differently, and waste less in order to turn things around. In other words, we need to change our behaviour as consumers.
But as our discussion unfolded, I realized the flaws in this seemingly pragmatic approach. While I agree that a revolution in behaviour is needed, what is far more compelling (and sustaining) is a revolution of the existential kind. It is a revolution of morals, values, and ethics—and one of spirit—that is now desperately needed. This makes quite a bit of sense when you consider that consumerism is fundamentally NOT a problem of human behaviour; rather, it is a problem of human values, identity, and meaning. It is 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 the natural world. And we will forever be at odds with a peaceful and sustainable 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 the connections extend further—to all life and to the world itself. If we want to make this work, we will need to make changes that acknowledge and respect our true nature as Homo sapiens.
The kind of revolution that is now needed is 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.” But what I’m suggesting is that changing the system is not enough. What I’m suggesting is that we need to change ourselves first. Any change in external behaviour will be fleeting without a corresponding change in mindset or perspective. It would be 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 as Homo sapiens cannot be resolved 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 think that a simple change in behaviour will sustain itself in light of these trends? Do we believe that balance and harmony will still be attainable as we become more individualistic and less communal? Do we think for a second that the kind of change we need will happen with less empathy?
So, let’s be real about this: Changing how we spend our money is not a long-term solution. (If anything, it’s an approach that still satisfies and upholds the very capitalist systems that benefit from our consumerist ways.) What is? The answer, again, is not novel. It’s been there all along, yet we continue to deny 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 grounded in our ability to transcend all the stuff in our lives; based not on material possessions but on our connections with all the people and world around us. We are embedded in the world, and the only promising path forward is one that recognizes this in all our actions and intentions. 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.)
The idea that we need to evolve beyond our materialistic and individualistic ways is hardly new. It’s been at the heart of the most enduring notions of spirituality, personal growth, and self-transcendence. And so has collectivism, or interconnectedness, if you’d prefer. What it really comes down to, I believe, is fostering a more authentic existence (as individuals and as a species); 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 everyday 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 change the world.) Anything else is frivolous.
I’m not assuming that any of this will be easy in practice, particularly on the scale that is now required. But it is possible. The human mind is an incredibly malleable thing, and it is highly responsive to social and cultural change. Now more than ever, we must ask ourselves: What kind of change is ideal? Are we in need of a superficial change that does little to address the shortcomings within, which will surely manifest again in problematic ways for future generations? Or do we need a kind of change that is enduring? A 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.