‘Tis the season of giving and Oprah is in a giving mood. For most of the last decade, the TV personality and cultural trendsetter has annually bestowed upon unsuspecting studio audiences a smorgasbord of gifts large and small. The reaction of audiences is almost impossible to believe, let alone describe. I have to admit to watching clips of this year’s “Oprah’s Favorite Things” over and over again, with a mix of fascination and revulsion.
Of course, we couldn’t help but have a little fun with it:
We make light, but there’s something deeply disturbing about this scene. We jokingly edited the Oprah special to show the audience in fits of ecstatic delirium over The Post Carbon Reader, rather than the gadgets and household products they actually received. But if we were able to give them copies of the book, the very first thing I would have them read is Dr. Peter Whybrow‘s chapter, “Dangerously Addictive.”
It is the paradox of modernity that as choice and material prosperity increase, health and personal satisfaction decline. This is now an accepted truth. And yet it is the rare American who manages to step back from the hedonic treadmill long enough to savor his or her good fortune. Indeed, for most of us, regardless of what we have, we want more and we want it now. The roots of this conundrum—of this addictive striving—are to be found in our evolutionary history. As creatures of the natural world, having evolved under conditions of danger and scarcity, we are by instinct reward-seeking animals that discount the future in favor of the immediate present. As a species we have no familiarity with the seductive prosperity and material riches that exists in America today. A novel experience, it is both compelling and confusing.
Brain systems of immediate reward were a vital survival adaptation millennia ago when finding a fruit tree was a rare delight and dinner had a habit of running away or flying out of reach. But living now in relative abundance, when the whole world is a shopping mall and our appetites are no longer constrained by limited resources, our craving for reward—be that for money, the fat and sugar of fast food, or for the novel gadgetry of modern technology—has become a liability and a hunger that has no bounds. Our nature has no built-in braking system. More is never enough.
And that is not just true for us as individuals. Our entire economy has been built around ever-growing consumption. In fact, it’s as addicted to us buying cell phones, big screen TVs, and anti-depressants as we are. But in the rush to constantly stoke the engine of economic growth, we have exceeded our means.
Not only has this unprecedented abundance of material and sensory stimulus (pick your poison: sugar, porn, gambling, drugs, television…) led to “epidemic rates of obesity, anxiety, depression, and family dysfunction,” we find our bills coming due: climate change, water and food scarcity, biodiversity and habitat loss, social and economic injustice, and increasing conflicts over diminishing resources, including the very energy sources that have fueled this explosion of abundance.
That pile of bills is terrifying to consider (which is probably why we’d all rather run out to the mall than ponder our fate) but it doesn’t make it any less real. And is getting more stuff really all that’s left of the American dream?
Somewhere along the road to affluence—caught up in the excitement of global markets, a virtual world of electronic wizardry, and immediate material reward—America has lost sight of [our] founding hopes and dreams. What is the purpose of the journey in this land of opportunity when individual social mobility lags behind that of Europe, when 45 million souls are without health insurance, and when our educational system is badly broken?
Now with reality challenging the laissez-faire ideology of recent decades we have the opportunity to take stock with a renewed self-awareness, to curb our addictive striving, and to reach beyond immediate reward to craft a vigorous, equitable, and sustainable market society—one where technology and profit serve as instruments in achieving the good life and are not confused with the good life itself.
Perhaps it’s an unfair burden of expectation to place on her shoulders, but Oprah Winfrey is (as The Onion jokingly points out) a hugely influential cultural icon. So, yes we joke, but seriously… wouldn’t it be nice if—instead of hawking throw-away products—Oprah urged her audience to break this dangerous addiction, before it’s too late?
To be fair, this isn’t about Oprah Winfrey. It’s about the society that she and we live in. And to those who would decry of us for the hypocrisy of hawking our own book, we certainly do wish we could give away The Post Carbon Reader for free. Oh, wait, we do. You can download free chapters here.