Stranger in a strange land

September 12, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Everything pulses, and pulses maximize the flow of power in systems. I pulsed in a big way this year. After too much time spent thinking, reading, and writing (and sitting in a chair) during the first half of the year, I put down the keyboard and took off on some physical, slow travel adventures for the summer. One of these adventures was a 2,000-mile bike tour, from Bellingham Washington, to Glacier National Park, to Yellowstone National Park, and then ping-ponging around Yellowstone on an event ride, Cycle Greater Yellowstone. We had beautiful, hot, dry weather, and a great trip. I cleared my head, I lost over 15 pounds, and I lived a simple, basic, Spartan life of biking, eating, sleeping (we camped). Touring the national parks by bicycle turned out to be an ideal way to see the crowded parks during summer. Our summer bike tour was purging and restorative, and there was time to think about my life at the personal and the larger scale. Reentry has been a bit disorienting—I feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Life on a crowded planet

Image RemovedI am a science fiction fan, and I look forward to summer sci-fi blockbusters. When I returned from my trip, I watched the movie Elysium, and I was sad to see the failures of logic that were inherent in the movie’s premise. In a crowded world where there is a grossly unfair imbalance between the haves and have-nots, the poor residents of Elysium are saved when a hero suddenly provides access to semi-magical healthcare for all. This healthcare appears out of a scanner without any clear energetic basis–push a button and all ills are magically cured. While Arthur Clarke’s notable third law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” technology requires energy for its discovery and operation. But that is not what our society believes. Why is magic technology with no energetic or economic consequences so believable? And why is the solution to overpopulation, overshoot and inequity to make sure that we can dispense high-tech health care for all? Doesn’t that just make the overpopulation problems all the worse? Where is the consideration of the root cause of growth, which is directly related to our energy addiction?

Image RemovedScience fiction may not be that far from fact in this case. Obama-care is supposed to begin taking effect in October, while most Americans don’t even know that the law was passed. Art reflects our culture, and the idea of expanding healthcare coverage to everyone without changing the existing unsustainable healthcare system that provides easy profit to large corporations such as insurance and pharmaceutical companies simply mirrors the science fiction world of Elysium. The theme of getting what we want in life, such as healthcare, free, without energetic consequences appears to be as prevalent in America as it is in science fiction. I noticed that large corporations such as IBM are now beginning to ditch retirement insurance plans in addition to previously abandoned pension plans. Are Obama’s priorities and values focused on what the corporation needs, at the expense of citizens and their communities?

Noam Chomsky recently related a story from shortly after Obama’s election in 2008. A group of African American women activists met with Obama, and when they exited the meeting, and were asked what he was like, they replied, “this man has no moral center.” In the United States, Obama continues his efforts to become Bush III by beating the drums unsuccessfully for a Syrian war to secure gas pipelines. The divisions between right and left continue to blur, even as the rhetoric of polarization intensifies. Each political party projects upon the other, with little recognition of the direction we are headed in.

Mad, sad, glad

Image RemovedThere is a recurrent theme in the blogosphere this fall that reflects the importance of emotional awareness in the face of our denial of our problem of fossil fuel addictions (Chris Nelder) and the need for relationship therapy with our environment (Dan Allen and James Kunstler). All three authors illustrate parallels between mental health problems of people with those of society. This idea that the self mirrors society was an idea labeled as the “looking glass self,” conceived by Charles Horton Cooley (1902). Self is an amalgam of others’ perceptions, so personal identity is a reflection of others’ perceptions both individually and through societal influence. As in most systems, the downward influence of culture at the larger scale has a larger influence on personal character and behavior than vice versa. Upwards influence to society from people, such as that proposed by the theory of the charismatic leader and the suggestions of our political parties of strong leaders who make a difference is probably not as large as some suggest.

Image RemovedDan Allen suggests that our society needs relationship therapy in our relationship with the environment, community, family, and self. Our society is as sick as some individuals, and denial is the prevalent defense mechanism preventing us from seeking help–that is, if help is even available. This is mirrored by what I see happening locally at the personal level, with lots of turmoil among friends, many divorces, and a lot of somewhat bizarre behavior. What happens when a sick society begins to fall apart, and how much of that is mirrored on the personal/local scale?

Image RemovedChris Nelder’s addiction post makes the analogy between problems of addiction and denial at the personal scale as a mirror for our universal addiction to fossil fuels. The key coping mechanism is denial, with blame, projection, and minimization as secondary mechanisms of coping. This leads to rigidity in thinking, avoidance, and emotional isolation. The dopaminergic, catecholamine rush of addiction leads to aggressive, competitive behaviors that drown out or suppress oxytocin-related cooperative behaviors. Health fails as negative impacts of toxins accumulate. Other addictions accumulate, such as shopping, gambling, and a digital second life, as a substitution for real life. We spend more and more time coping badly through digital proxies for life and while not really living. Meanwhile the toxins from a dysfunctional life may continue to pile up. The addictions enable grandiose thinking which prevents us from considering our limits, thus enabling the behavior of expanded addiction—round and round we go.

Painting over the problems

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ABC news via Sean McAfee

Our industrial strength society at this point is motivated by growth, and lets nothing get in the way, be it raccoons on the road or responses to problems that don’t result in more consumption. In health care, we believe in waiting until things are broken, and then propping them up by painting over the problems with medications, rather than fixing root causes of problems. When people are upset, instead of finding out what situation is causing the sadness or anger and fixing that, we paint over the feelings with powerful psycho-pharmaceuticals that alter neurotransmitter pathways in the brain. Is it any accident that the rise of psycho-pharmaceuticals and the emphasis on biological causation in medicine coincided with Americans’ turning our backs on the environment in the 1980s when Reagan said it was a new morning in America? We distort reality so that we can fit into the Matrix, and perhaps dispense with the option of coming to grips with our true authentic selves.

We respond the same way when treating physical problems, with reductionist thinking and tertiary care. We wait until people are too old and sick to treat adequately, and then spend most of our health care dollars on futile intensive care in the last days of patients’ lives, instead of preventive care to promote health and wellbeing at an earlier age. As a society, we spend a lot on chemotherapy drugs, and very little on prevention of risk factors such as environmental toxins. We select symptoms and not root causes and opt for aggressive symptom treatment.

Image RemovedFor example, instead of tackling our worldviews to address the problem of growth, we choose the symptom of climate change as the problem, with the option to treat CO2 production with geo-engineering. When we opt to treat symptoms instead of causes, we double down on the impacts on the body or on the environment. Treating symptoms can compound the error, as it doesn’t impact the root cause, and symptom treatment adds to complexity, and creates more damage to the infrastructure, be it to our psyche or the environment. Numbing our emotions through denial, medication, or distraction through addictions simply allows us to continue the trauma, supporting the Matrix and marching along with the consumption society.

How does this translate into individual action?

Image RemovedAs usual, I’ll end with a take home message for personal action. The discussion of societal addictions, denial and anger has direct applicability at the personal level of scale. We paper over our emotions in our post-modern society, and it is important that we recognize these emotions, as they are often bellwethers for the need to change. The authors mentioned here avoided talking about the anger, which our society deems an unacceptable emotion. But the evidence of accumulating anger is piling up in our post-modern landscape, as we ignore our worsening problems. Our permanent wars may even be, in part, a reflection of Americans anger about our non-negotiable lifestyle. Anger is a signal that we are not addressing emotional issues or that too much of ourselves (our beliefs, values, desires or ambitions) is being compromised. In The Dance of Anger (2005) Harriet Lerner suggests that anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can afford to give. Ideally, anger motivates us to take action and make change, by saying no to how we are defined and saying yes to the dictates of our inner self, by taking control of things we can change within ourselves and locally. What are your sources of denial? Are you being true to your values, and are you acting in congruence with who you really are and what you believe?

Image RemovedFor my own actions, I am not teaching my freshman honors seminar course on the limits to growth this fall, as the course needs an overhaul. Society has moved past some of the topics that were in the original outline from five years ago. What every university in this country needs is a freshman humanities course that examines the big questions and bridges science and humanities from a philosophical and energetic standpoint, during this era of pivotal change. One author describes courses springing up all over the country addressing “the Meaning of Life.” A course like this could be followed by an introductory, required, environmental systems science course with some common core content adapted by faculty for teaching in each college with relevant examples (Odum, 1997, pp. 23-24). Perhaps then our society would no longer believe that health care for 300 million or for 7 billion can be had without consequences by passing a law or making more scanners.

Someone recently high-jacked the Emergy Wikipedia site, redirecting the links to other methods of energy accounting, deleting the content, and replacing it with content suggesting it was pseudoscience. The idea that the environment is highly valuable and necessary to our economy may be getting on someone’s nerves. I’ve noticed many more hits on the website related to emergy content. And there has been discussion on the blogosphere recently about pros and cons of various methods of energy accounting. So one upcoming post will be a discussion of the emergy basis of processes. What is the true cost to society of a process, material, or source of energy, in emergy terms?

Image RemovedOther ideas are bubbling up like a geyser. I would like to look at tipping points. How much reduction in energy flow is enough to create a change in society? Generic models of countries that I played with in Mark Brown’s Emergy short course this summer suggest that the tipping point for change is fairly quick when energy is reduced, as societies are sensitive to energy flow. What are the energetic, structural, and cultural differences in countries that impact tipping points and sustainability? And at what point in energy descent does the status quo simply become irrelevant, as the unearthly cost of an increasingly irrelevant college education that is based on reductionist science meets the increasingly irrelevant make-work jobs within a collapsing economy?

Trade imbalances are another important topic. Darren Fleet of Adbusters asks a good question; ”why is an apple grown in Chile cheaper than an apple grown next door?” And I would add, why has that situation developed and how long can that last? How fair is predatory capitalism and where will it end? Other possible topics for the fall include digital overshoot in academia, priority questions for science, and more on the principles of transformity, autocatalysis and hierarchy. And we need a new needs pyramid. Maslow was close, but we need a more energetic perspective. In Technology; Taming the Beloved Beast, Callahan suggested that we need to redefine necessity from individual good to social good. What would that pyramid look like? There are so many interesting topics to explore when a world is in transition–where do I begin?

Mary Odum

Author Mary Odum is an adjunct nursing professor with a background in critical care, and a PhD in Health Policy.

Tags: Consumerism, limits to growth, neoliberal ideology