From Affluenza to planetary collapse and back... what can be done?

Written by nic on . Posted in politics and society

earthJust before lunch yesterday I read of a report by the WWF that the number of species on the planet has reduced by 31% in the last 35 years. If the planet continues at its current pace of using natural resource, by 2050 two earths would be needed to meet current demand, with an almost inevitable consequential environmental collapse.

Then while munching away on my fried eggs on toast, I read an article by Oliver James on Affluenza, his name for the 'social virus' whereby wealth, status, appearance, success and the like are perceived as ways of finding happiness.

The UK has twice the levels of mental health problems as the rest of europe (23% of the population were affected in the last 12 months, the same proportion again are on the verge), which James links to Britain's higher levels of US-style materialism. America has the highest levels of mental illness in the world, followed by Britain, Canada and Ausralia, all the most advance consumerist nations on the planet. The delusion (as James puts it) that status, wealth, material goods and the like will make you happy is most prevalent in these countries, yet, conversely is actually leading to greater misery. As I've found adjusting from life as very well paid Shooting People person to someone signing on, the less you have; the more you appreciate. But battling against that - which I probably couldn't really do if I was still in the affluenza-infected circles of London - is the associated drop in social status which has certainly made my own depresison and moodswings that much more challenging.

As I returned from lunch I sat back down where the BBC WWF article was still on the screen and a comment by reader Sliq Rafik inadvertantly drew a link between the two articles, saying "As long as materialism is the new relegion I can see no way people will reduce their consumption".

I struggle to argue with that one. As I watched Richard Dawkins do battle with Stephen Colbert this morning over the existince of God, I wondered if scientist Dawkins had considered the demons we have chosen to worship in its place. As the world paints celebrities as the new gods, and sells fame as the road to nirvana (after a Big Brother or Pop Idol pilgrims progress), the religion of capitalism offers unconditional acceptence of all your faults. In fact the more faults and flaws you have, the more weaknesses exist to be exploited and hence the more products sold to you, as Adam Curtis's Century of Self so starkly illustrates.

So how does this all add up? The planet is facing environmental collapse requiring urgent action if we are to outlive this century as a species intact. At the heart of the planetary apocolypse is our species' huge hunger for all manner of things we don't need and generally don't make us feel any better - which are typically made by underpaid and overworked people in very poor countries. And if we weren't so busy doing jobs we generally don't enjoy to earn enough money to buy these things from companies we don't really like, we might be able to address some of these issues. But we can't - perhaps because we stuck in a viscious circle where the things we're addicted to give us a short term hit, but generally make us feel worse, and hence increase our need for those things.

Working it backwards, then, it would seem that by curing one's own Affluenza - needless addiction to wealth, status, appearance and material goods - we could both increase personal hapiness and well being, and on a broader level keep off environmental collapse and ensure our continuing survival on this planet. But what will it take? What would make us change? Can cinema effect this change? Or is it part of the problem, presenting to the world an unrealistic image of wealth-driven-hapiness, from Californian comedies backdropped in luxury and sunshine, to every heist film that ever was?