Friday essay: searching for sanity in a world hell-bent on destruction

May 18, 2021

According to The Parable of the Poisoned Well, there once lived a king who ruled over a great city. He was loved for his wisdom and feared for his power. At the heart of the city was a well, the waters of which were clean and pure and from where the king and all the inhabitants drank. But one evening an enemy entered the city and poisoned the well with a strange liquid. Henceforth, all who drank from it went mad.

All the people drank the water, but not the king, for he had been warned by a watchman who had observed the contamination. The people began to say, “The king is mad and has lost his reason. Look how strangely he behaves. We cannot be ruled by a madman, so he must be dethroned”.

The king sensed his subjects were preparing to rise against him and grew fearful of revolution. One evening he ordered a royal goblet to be filled from the well and drank from it deeply. The next day there was great rejoicing among the people, for their beloved king had finally regained his wisdom and sanity.

In his 1955 book The Sane Society, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm suggests nothing is more common than the assumption that we, people living in the advanced industrial economies, are eminently sane. Nevertheless, Australia’s Department of Health reports that almost half of Australians aged 16 to 85 will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lives.

According to Fromm, we are inclined to see incidents of mental illness as individual and isolated disturbances, while acknowledging — with some discomfort, perhaps — that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture that is supposedly sane. Fromm haunts our self-image even today, attempting to unsettle these assumptions of sanity:

Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.

In an age now widely described as the Anthropocene, the conventionally held distinction between sanity and insanity is at risk of collapsing … and taking our civilisation with it.

The line shifts over time

At least since Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1961), it has been understood that the idea of (in)sanity is an evolving, socially constructed category. Not only does the medical validity of mental health diagnoses and treatments shift with the times, but what has been judged “sane” in one era has the potential to blur into what is not in another — and without announcement.

This can disguise the fact that social practices or patterns of thought that may once have been considered healthy may now be properly diagnosed as unhealthy. And while this can apply to individual cases, there is no reason to think it should not also apply more broadly to a society at large. A society might go insane without being aware of its own degeneration.

One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise, with Foucault, that power shapes knowledge. If profits and economic growth are the benchmarks of success in a society, it simply may not be profitable to expose a society as insane, and even members of an insane society may sooner choose wilful blindness than look too deeply into the subconscious of their own culture.

Man with glasses writing on notepad

How can we be so sure of our own sanity, asked psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, pictured in 1974.
Wikimedia Commons

If our society is not sane — and I find myself pointing towards this thesis — another question follows: what might sanity look like in an insane world?

I come to these questions without mental health training or expertise, but simply as an ordinary member of late-stage capitalist society, one suffering in his own way and trying to understand the mental health burdens that accompany our ecocidal and grossly inequitable mode of civilisation. I make no comment on the very real biophysical causes for mental illness, such as chemical imbalances or physical injury.

Instead, I reflect, at a “macro” level, on the sanity or insanity of the dominant culture and political economy in contemporary capitalist societies such as Australia, asking how the world “out there” can impact the inner dimension of our lives.

Following Fromm’s lead, I inquire not so much into individual pathology, but into what he calls “collective neuroses” and “the pathology of normalcy”. Of course, collective neuroses are not easily observed, for they are, by nature, the background fabric of existence and so easily missed.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

At first, I tried to distil a positive life lesson from the Parable of the Poisoned Well, but I quickly realised this was the wrong way to approach it.

There is arguably no moral guidance in the fable, only an amoral social insight. If there is a lesson, it is that sometimes it is easier or safer simply to conform to common assumptions or practices, no matter how dubious or absurd they are, to avoid being socially ostracised. If you do not go with the flow you may be deemed mad, so it may be better just to blend in and drink the Kool-Aid.

A second reading of the parable points to the relativity of notions of sanity, again suggesting that what’s sane or insane isn’t fixed, but is culturally dependent: a person is sane if they “function” well enough in the society, even if that society is sick.

It is this relativity of sanity that Fromm calls into question in The Sane Society.

“The fact that millions of people share the same vices,” he wrote, “does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

He felt that society needed certain objective conditions to be sane, including environmental sustainability. If too many of humankind’s most basic needs were not being met despite unprecedented capacity, he felt it would be proper to declare a society sick, even if the behaviour producing the sickness was widespread and validated by its own internal cultural logic.

What is “normal” behaviour today? The climate emergency points to our fatal addiction to fossil fuels. We know their combustion is killing the planet, but we can’t help ourselves. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 to advise us on the science of climate change, yet here we are, more than 30 years later, and carbon emissions continue to rise (excepting only the years of financial crisis or pandemic). We emit 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, in full knowledge of their impacts.

In 2019, fossil fuels supplied around 85 per cent of global primary energy demand. Driven by a fetish for economic growth, voters support politicians who bring lumps of coal into a parliament for a laugh and enthusiastically build new fossil fuel power stations. It is a tragedy disguised as a grim joke.

Scientists warn that current trajectories of climate heating are not compatible with civilisation as we know it, with potentially billions of lives at risk this century, both human and non-human. You know something is wrong when the Arctic is burning. And yet nothing is more “normal” than hopping into a fossil-fuelled car or consuming products shipped around the world to satisfy the carboniferous desires of affluent society.

We’re deforesting the planet and destroying topsoil to feed a population that is growing by over 200,000 people every day. The United Nations projects we’ll have reached almost ten billion people by mid-century.

This human dominance of the planet under global capitalism is contributing to a holocaust of biodiversity loss, with the World Wildlife Fund recently reporting that populations of vertebrate species have declined by 68 per cent since 1970. We are living through the sixth mass extinction, driven by human economic activity that is not just normal but encouraged, rewarded and widely admired.

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Empire marches on like a snake eating its own tail, pursuing growth for growth’s sake — the ideology of a cancer cell.

Unmoored, lost at sea

A spiritual malaise seems to be spreading throughout advanced capitalist societies, as if the material rewards of consumerism have failed to fulfil their promise of a happy and meaningful existence. Scholars publish books about it: Robert E Lane’s The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, David G Myers’ The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, and Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss’ Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough.

For whom, then, do we destroy the planet? Is a greater abundance of “nice things” what we are lacking in the overdeveloped world? Or is there, as historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford once opined, an inner dimension to our crises that must be resolved before the outer crises can be effectively met?

rubbish in waterway

Nice things that fail to meet our needs become trash, polluting the planet. Alexander Schimmeck/Unsplash, CC BY

How easy it is to live life regurgitating the prewritten script of advanced industrial society: cogs in a vast machine, easily replaced. Perhaps we see our disenchantment reflected in the eyes of those tired, alienated commuters, a class into which it is so easy to fall simply by virtue of being subjects of the capitalist order. We all know that there is more to life than this.

We find ourselves living in an age where the old dogmas of growth, material affluence and technology are increasingly exposed as false idols. Like a fleet of ships that has been unmoored in a storm, our species is drifting in dangerous seas without a clear sense of direction.

Where are the new sources of meaning and guidance that all societies need to fight off the ennui? Pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim used the term “anomie” to refer to a condition in which a culture’s traditional norms have broken down without new norms arising that can give sense to a changing world. Perhaps this is the term that best explains our existential condition today.

I am reminded of a poem by Michael Leunig:

They took him on a stretcher

To the Home for the Appalled

Where he lay down in the corner

And be bawled and bawled and bawled.

‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’ he wailed,

When asked about his bawling,

‘It’s the world that needs attention;

It’s so utterly appalling.’

What is a sane reaction to an insane society?

One could go on, but it would be perverse to do so. “Doom porn” is not my business or purpose. But there is a case for diagnosing our society as insane — not as rhetorical strategy, but in the pursuit of literal truth.

If an individual knowingly destroyed the conditions of his or her own existence, we’d question their sanity. If a mother only fed her children if she could make a profit, we’d doubt the soundness of her mind. If a father took all the household wealth and left the rest of the family in destitution while building bombs in the basement that could destroy the neighbourhood, we’d call him psychopathic.

And yet these are characteristics of our society as a whole. Fromm would not permit us to diagnose ourselves and our society as sane just because the actions that produce the features outlined above are considered “normal”. There is a pathology to our normalcy — my own regrettably included — and this pathology is no less pathological just because it is shared by millions upon millions of people.


There are negative mental health effects that might naturally and justifiably arise when otherwise sane people find themselves living in an insane world. The paradox that threatens to emerge has already been variously noted.

In Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut Jnr writes, “a sane person in an insane society must appear insane”. Thomas Stephen Szasz contends: “Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society”. And the British psychiatrist R. D. Laing said insanity was “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”. I think I recall Star Trek’s Mr. Spock saying something similar.

How can we not get depressed when reading the newspapers today or watching our politicians go about their business with such confident incompetence? How can we not grieve the wildlife and natural habitat being destroyed each moment? What parent can look to the future and not feel a foreboding dread at what world their children and grandchildren will inherit?

At the same time, and because of that dread, it is hard to maintain the emotional resources to care for strangers or “join a movement” when stress, agitation, worry and busyness clutter our mental lives. This can make society seem like a harsh place, lacking in generosity of spirit or compassion.

Whether it’s from watching white supremacists march or listening to climate deniers speak from platforms in parliament and mass media, a nausea sets in, a sickness not so much of the mind but of the soul.

This is an existential diagnosis, not a medical or psychiatric one. It would be wrong to make peace with this madness. The world we live in should not be treated as normal, and it should not be a sign of good health to become “well adjusted” to a society that is casually practising ecocide, celebrating narcissism, institutionalising racism and assessing the value of all things according to the cold logic of profit maximisation.

It is okay not to feel okay

We must not assume behaviour that makes an individual “functional” within a sick society is sufficient evidence of their sanity. In such a society, it is okay not to feel okay, to cry and feel grief, to feel dread and alienation. In our tears, let us find solidarity, for we are not alone.

Remember this when you wake up prematurely in the morning with an anxiety without object, or as you stare at the ceiling late at night as you try to fall asleep. You are not losing your mind. It is precisely because you have a grip on reality that reality seems so out of whack.

On my third reading of the Parable of the Poisoned Well, I noticed something I had missed — it was the watchman, the man who warned the king not to drink the poisoned water the rest of the citizenry had already consumed.

book cover: Griffith Review journal 72

Wanting to quash the revolutionary sentiment, the king succumbed to public pressure and eventually drank from the well in order to fit in. But what about the watchman? Is it possible he never drank the poisoned water and remained sane in an insane society? Did that made him seem mad?

Perhaps my thoughts here are those of a watchman, someone who has tried not to drink the Kool-Aid, who has attempted to resist the pathology of normalcy.

Admittedly, I have questioned my own sanity at times — when, for example, I’ve found myself dancing in the middle of a busy intersection with Extinction Rebellion, risking arrest. What had driven me to act in a way that sees me surrounded by police with batons, guns and pepper spray? They sure looked mad.

Call me crazy, but I’ll finish with the words often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”.

This piece is an edited extract of this article, republished with permission from GriffithReview72: States of Mind, edited by Ashley Hay.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Feature image: Unsplash/Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona, CC BY

Samuel Alexander

Over the last ten years Dr Samuel Alexander has been a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Economy: Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ as part of the Master of Environment. He has also been a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and is currently co-Director of the Simplicity Institute. Alexander’s interdisciplinary research focuses on degrowth, permaculture, voluntary simplicity, ‘grassroots’ theories of transition, and the relationship between culture and political economy. His current research is exploring the aesthetics of degrowth and energy descent futures. His books include Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary (2019, co-authored with Brendan Gleeson); Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future (2018, co-authored with Josh Floyd); Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth (2017); Just Enough is Plenty: Thoreau’s Alternative Economics (2016); Deface the Currency: The Lost Dialogues of Diogenes (2016); Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits (2015); Sufficiency Economy: Enough, for Everyone, Forever (2015); and Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation (2013); he is also editor of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) and co-editor of Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future (2014). In 2016 he also released a documentary called A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity, co-produced with Jordan Osmond of Happen Films. Alexander blogs at www.simplicitycollective.com.

Tags: catabolic capitalism, environmental crises, insanity, limits of growth, mental health, mental illness