The Schizophrenic Society: Lost in a make-believe world while we destroy the real one
By Roger Boyd
210 pp. FriesenPress – Mar. 2015. $14.99.
The society being referred to as “schizophrenic” here is industrial society. The reason it’s described in this way is that it displays, on a societal level, telltale signs of the illness in individuals. For example, just as those with schizophrenia often experience delusions, so too does our society delude itself into thinking that it can continue growing forever on a finite planet. Also, in keeping with the commonness of hallucinations in schizophrenics, those in the industrial world who rely on the mass media to stay informed live in a hallucinatory reality. Moreover, the symptoms touched on above, as well as others detailed at length in The Schizophrenic Society, have driven us to engage in appalling, murderous and ultimately suicidal behavior with complete dispassion. In short, author Roger Boyd’s assessment that we’re “[l]ost in a make-believe world while we destroy the real one” seems all too apt.
Even so, it was a risky move using the comparison with schizophrenia as this book’s central metaphor and the inspiration for its title, and Boyd knew this. Shortly after he first came up with the idea, he admitted as much in a forum discussion that he initiated with fellow Resilience readers in an effort to elicit feedback on his prospective book. One of the respondents cautioned Boyd about the potential for confusion, since people are used to seeing the word schizophrenia invoked in its literal sense—that of being of “split mind.” Many readers would expect the book to address some duality of thinking, as opposed to Boyd’s broader conception of schizophrenia, and would be put off when it didn’t.* Boyd replied that he shared this concern but would stick with his original idea for now. The metaphor stuck, and the result is a book that, while quite good, unfortunately undersells itself by aiming for a narrower readership than it otherwise could have enjoyed.
Yet it must be said that, despite this flaw, The Schizophrenic Society does an outstanding job of fleshing out its main concept and addressing the basic aspects of our predicament. Those who bear with the schizophrenia metaphor will find the insights it brings to light—which draw on psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, politics, economics and the hard sciences, among other disciplines—to be deeply perceptive. And the conclusions Boyd reaches from these insights are no less sharp, owing to his supremely practical turn of mind. Boyd is a consummate realist; not once does he pin his hopes on trite abstractions like human ingenuity or unproven future technological advances. On the contrary, he rightly faults the many others who have done the public discourse an injustice by resorting to such cop-outs.
Our society’s misplaced faith in growth and progress is, in Boyd’s view, rooted in a confluence of factors. The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry some 10 millennia ago was the seed of entropy, since it first set humans apart from nature. Prior to that time, other life forms were thought of as nonhuman persons who deserved our respect; but they henceforth became “resources” to be managed. This anthropocentrism received religious credence with the rise of monotheistic faiths and their view of humans as existing above nature. Additional support came from the scientific method, since a corollary to the tenet that nature can be scientifically studied and understood is that it is under human control. And of course, the technological miracles made possible by humans’ exploitation of fossil fuels indelibly cemented the notion that we have the upper hand over nature.
In addition to those described above, Boyd sees another factor as crucial to maintaining the general public's confidence in endless growth. This additional factor is the manufactured reality that has tricked most people as to the true nature of our world and the troubles that beset it. Boyd argues that this supposed reality, perpetrated by the ruling elites through corporate mass media, amounts to a societal-level hallucination. Within it, implacable crises are either dressed up to look like mere challenges to be overcome by more of the growth that originally caused them—or, when such a cheery spin isn’t possible, are ignored altogether. “Just like small children,” writes Boyd, “we believe that if we avert our gaze from something, it cannot harm us.”
In order for industrial civilization to continue functioning, argues Boyd, the general public must remain convinced that this make-believe world is real. If we didn’t subscribe to such misguided notions as our apartness from nature and our ability to control our own collective destiny, we wouldn’t be able to rationalize our present actions. If our economy’s dependence on the natural capital embodied in land, soil, water and biodiversity were widely accepted, we wouldn’t plunder our planet the way we do. Thus, in Boyd’s estimation, "[t]he very nature and functioning of complex modern human societies rely upon group-level schizophrenia.”
The subject of natural capital accounting brings Boyd to a critique of neoliberal economics. In a chapter titled “The New High Priests: Economists,” Boyd summarizes a handful of the widely held false beliefs about our society’s relationship to its ecology that lie at the heart of common economic wisdom. These include unquestioned faith in the infinite supply or substitutability of any natural resource, an espousal of free trade and deregulation as the optimal ways for a country to develop, the supposition that all economic participants have equal market power and the tenet that everyone makes rational, self-interested decisions. The author points out that these mainstays of economic thought are simply unproven assumptions that benefit the elites by providing “a smokescreen of beliefs” concealing how modern societies really work. While there's nothing really new in this discussion for those already familiar with the failings of conventional growth economics, Boyd does a succinct job of outlining the main ideas.
Some of this book’s most trenchant insights have to do with the workings of the human brain. Boyd skillfully draws together research from neurobiology, cognitive psychology and socio-psychology to explore why most people in the developed world continue to deny the reality of our crises. Particularly revealing is his summary of research by cognitive psychology scholar Richard Gerrig. Gerrig has demonstrated that humans process both fictional and real-life narratives using essentially the same mental processes, meaning that everyone exists in a social reality composed of both real-world and media experiences. Boyd also goes into the psychological phenomenon of confabulation, which occurs when the mind subconsciously produces distorted or fabricated memories to provide a logical basis for questionable or irrational decisions after the fact.
The author is particularly sober on the issue of how path-dependent our available choices as a society are at this point. He describes in detail how our options with regard to both weaning ourselves off nonrenewable energy sources and mitigating ecological calamities are severely limited by our past choices. Indeed, he echoes the observation, made by James Howard Kunstler and other peak oil authors, that America’s decision to let suburbia run rampant committed the nation indefinitely to its oil dependence, as well as to a colossal oil-based infrastructure. He also stresses that industrial economies’ need for endless growth has precluded the chance of meaningful action on climate change, as an ever-increasing rate of growth requires ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels to be burned.
Because Boyd knows better than to look to technology or continued growth for solutions, his closing chapters resonate with a commendably earnest appraisal of our future prospects. He foresees that the economic inequality now spreading across the developed world may well be setting the stage for neo-feudalism. Given what a likely outcome this is, Boyd’s recommendations are focused not on taking action to prevent it but on preparing for its arrival. To this end, he stresses the imperative of knowing one's opponent, since understanding the methods used by societal elites to indoctrinate, co-opt, divide or otherwise disempower the rest of the populace is critical to opposing such tactics. His most pointed case study in this regard is the U.S. government’s response to Occupy Wall Street protesters, which progressed from marginalization and attempted co-option to physical violence and incarceration.
Boyd certainly has a perspective well worth sharing. His background includes a B.Sc. in information systems, an M.A. in global studies, an M.B.A. in finance and most of a master’s degree in “economics for transition.” In addition to his studies, Boyd has extensive experience as a financial sector executive, and he is currently a much sought-after speaker on the interrelationships among energy, climate and the financial system. His one previous book, Energy and the Financial System (Springer, 2014), represents a solid introductory look at the likely near-future impacts of net energy decline on global finance. It will be interesting to see how he continues to distinguish himself within the field of ecological economics.