We live in a mythical era, a time that surpasses legend. We’re witnessing a dazzling triumph of technology, an archetypal summoning of powers that are indistinguishable from true magic. But that triumph is hollow and destructive to much of what we value. The more we humans use our powers to impose order on the world, the more disorder there is. There are wars, and premonitory shadows of wars to come, as the world economy becomes ever more leveraged and dependent on scarce and finite resources. In the background there’s a steady slippage toward irreversible climate change and ecological collapse. And the astounding material success of the human endeavor hasn’t brought happiness, wisdom or enlightenment; instead there’s a profound disturbance in our collective human psyche. The best evidence of that disturbance is to be found in our suicidal abuse of nature, but we can also see its effects in the narcissism and desperation that are endemic in our society. Something is wrong at a very fundamental level – something that’s causing us to behave maladaptively.
What could have caused this imbalance? Given our brilliance and our accomplishments, what makes us behave so stupidly? Our innate human failings, our pride and greed and narcissism, must have a major part in it. But that’s not necessarily the whole story. In addition to human nature there’s another causal force at work, a force that we ourselves created: the industrial machine.
We humans have organized our economic affairs in a variety of ways in the past, but the way we make our living now is new in human history. Over the past five decades we’ve created an economy based on ever-increasing consumption, an economy that does not simply satisfy needs, but sets out to create them. We’ve left necessity and restraint behind to enter a world in which gross excess is the norm. This way of organizing life originated in the United States, but it’s spreading rapidly all over the world. It’s the principal threat to the natural world that sustains us and to the health of our culture our minds and our souls.
A self-organizing system, the consumer economy is a force all its own, an entity separate from ourselves. We built it, but we don’t control it. As the Dalai Lama remarked in Ethics for the New Millennium, “Modern industrial society often strikes me as being like a huge self-propelled machine. Instead of human beings in charge, each individual is a tiny, insignificant component with no choice but to move when the machine moves.” The machine operates by its own rules, rules that only indirectly involve humans.
The first rule is that the economy as a whole must grow. A steady-state economy might be possible in a physical sense, but when growth slows, problems like unemployment emerge, and so far no one’s been willing to undertake the tinkering that would be necessary to correct the problems. At present there’s no room in our way of thinking for anything but growth. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in A Journey Through Economic Time: “In modern times growth … has become the accepted test of economic performance. An economy, like a healthy adolescent, is assumed to have an inherent commitment thereto … For economists and many others, the rate of growth is the dynamic of modern capitalism.”
The second rule is that the purpose of economic activity must be to maximize profit for nonhuman entities. The primary actors in the consumer economy are not people but corporations. Corporations are “fictitious persons,” having all the rights of individuals to own property and transact business. But corporations are not human; they don’t suffer and bleed, they don’t have consciences or souls, they don’t go to jail. They are legal fictions. Nevertheless they act as if they were individuals, individuals possessing immense wealth and power – and tunnel vision. A corporation is governed by a “fiduciary duty,” which requires that every act must have the aim of maximizing profit. Stop, halt, end of story. So by law, ethics and moral responsibility are irrelevant in matters of corporate policy. Profit is all that matters. The corporation is mechanical, a simplistic construct without a human capacity for nuanced choice. Think of a ratchet and pawl or a conveyor belt – the degrees of freedom within the system are few, relative to the complexity of the living world.
The imperatives for growth and profit drive the behavior of the whole system. Like a machine, the economy has all the awesome power of mechanism but also its inhuman indifference to consequence. The machine isn’t evil, any more than a shovel or a hammer is evil, but it is complex enough to have its own agenda, which is not a human agenda. Because it’s inhuman and because it has amassed so much power, it is, in mythic terms, the Juggernaut, beyond control, growing ever more vast and more destructive.
The machine has a reflexive quality that gives it power over mind and soul. This artifact, our creation, acts on us and changes us. To fulfill its simple imperatives for growth and profit, the machine must create insatiable desire. It must cause us to want more than we need, more than we’ve ever wanted before, and it must continue to do this forever in order to grow and generate profit. As a result, the machine, through its human agents, exerts an enormous influence on our individual thoughts and beliefs. We are constantly subject to a bedlam of manipulation, slogans and images, tales and fancies whose only objective is to stimulate desire. As years pass we bend to the constant barrage; we become “consumers,” assuming our place in the machine, performing our industrial function.
The influence of the machine is responsible for much of the psychic pain and dysfunction we encounter. Logic and reason have little effect on how it operates. To change our minds and hearts, the machine appeals to the worst aspects of human nature. Greed, pride, fear, sloth, lust – the deadly sins – are the openings, the doors to demand for more products. The machine exaggerates the normal human tendency toward materialism. It encourages narcissism and self-indulgence. It displaces and subtly discredits healthy human attributes and practices such as compassion and thrift. This influence is more than sufficient to account for the malaise in society, in the same way that the physical effects of the machine’s operation are sufficient to explain the destruction of the natural world.
Ecology derives from adaptation. An ecology is an interrelated community of organisms that have adapted together to life in a specific habitat. The nature of adaptation affects the success of an ecology, whether in a specific place or on the whole planet. The psychology of ecology, or ecopsychology, should study and understand the nature and effects of our adaptation to the machine. The consumer-industrial economy is the elephant in the human living room – omnipresent, almost omnipotent, yet almost invisible because it’s simply taken for granted. Yet it affects the whole physical environment and the psychic environment as well, from spirituality and ethics to therapeutic practice. This is the frontier of psychology, the place for inquiry that will yield the deepest insights.
An example of the utility of this idea of the machine can be found in its implications for therapeutic practice. Counseling professionals are used to considering their clients as individuals or families, often without regard for the larger human-generated and natural contexts in which they are embedded. But considering the nature of the machine and the way it affects us, it seems inevitable that there are deleterious effects on psychological health and that those effects are most marked on the weakest and most disordered individuals. We often ask how much of the dysfunction we observe is due to past life experience alone or to endogenous causes. But it may be equally important to consider how much mental and emotional disturbance is in fact the product of living in an alien environment – of stress, anxiety, time pressure and the relentless pressure to have and to earn, to “succeed,” which are the bedrock realities of life within the industrial machine. It may be impossible to parse this question, to determine what caused what, but it seems certain that whatever problems clients present must to some degree be caused or exacerbated by our present specific context, by the circumstance of being embedded in a world that is ruled by an inhuman and unnatural logic.
The whole of ecopsychology is connected to context in a similar fashion. Every discipline – therapy, psychological theory, spirituality, ethics – and every human concern is in play with the machine. The Juggernaut is pervasive, comprehensive, inescapable and definitive. Its fate is our own. It is present on the freeway, in the airport, at the mall. To live with eyes open to this objective reality can be terrifying, but it’s necessary to understanding most of the things we care about.
To confront this overwhelming reality with open eyes is to glimpse the apocalypse. No wonder we behave blindly and maladaptively, when the alternative is to watch the mythic force of the machine bearing down on us. But psychologists, especially therapists, are familiar with the challenges of living with bad situations, and we know that it’s possible to live authentically and with some measure of pride and pleasure even when confronted with the most difficult realities. And who’s to say that nothing can be done, that we’re helpless in the face of the Juggernaut? Our challenge in this time is to live with integrity, to face reality and to save and heal whatever we can.
Richard Bruce Anderson is a leader in the voluntary simplicity movement and a senior fellow at the sustainability think tank For the Future. The essay “Resisting the Juggernaut: The Wild Frontier of Ecopsychology,” copyright (c) 2009 by Richard Bruce Anderson is from Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist. Reprinted by permission of Sierra Club Books.