Hungry Ghosts and a World on Fire

We live in a period of evolutionary dysfunction, where humans try to consume our way to permanent satisfaction.

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Everything is on fire.

We are witnessing ongoing ecological destruction, the potential emergence of a 6th mass extinction and widespread ecosystem collapse, all tied up with the escalating climate emergency.

We are experiencing continued, probably worsening wealth inequality, and an increasingly pervasive sense of exclusion and precarity. We are seeing growing proportions of humanity experiencing mental illness, especially the young.

We appear to be experiencing increasing political polarisation, declining trust in institutions, and an epidemic - or even a pandemic - of misinformation. And most recently the violent invasion of one European country by another, under pretext of liberation, with the predictable commission of atrocities that accompanies war.

These are all symptoms of systems out of sync. Our socio-cultural systems have evolved into dysfunctional misalignment with both their own internal sub-systems and with the larger ecological and planetary systems in which they exist.

At the root of this crisis is the mistaken belief that we can permanently satisfy our needs and desires through consumption, possession, and accumulation of goods, wealth, and power. Permanent satisfaction is impossible, but we’ve built our values, our behaviours, our institutions in a vain attempt to make it happen.

Satisfaction is impermanent.

Sure, we must meet many of our needs with physical, material consumption. We’re living beings, physiological systems that ingest and integrate matter and energy. But hunger returns and we need to eat again. Likewise with external objects - tools and toys may satisfy our needs for a time, but they can decay and be lost. With that loss may come suffering, of unmet needs and of grief for the object we once possessed.

The cycle of temporary satisfaction is one of the drivers for increasing extraction of materials, exploitation of labour, and production of more consumables. The promise of a modern Industrial Growth Society (to borrow a phrase from Joanna Macy), is that with economic development comes satisfaction - that with improved industrial processes, productivity, and product innovation, we can meet everyone’s needs and eradicate suffering. But this promise ignores the impermanence of satisfaction, and it ignores the problem of meeting infinite demand in a finite world.

The model for this promise of satisfaction by consumption is the experience of the affluent elite, those who live in luxury. This modern elite is underwritten by the myth of the entrepreneur, the bootstrapper, the relentless and shrewd innovator working their way from a start-up in a garage to a concentration of wealth - whether material or hypothetical - never before seen. The myth tells us that this wealth is well-deserved, and it tells us that it could happen to anyone if circumstances, hard-work, and genius manage to coincide.

But the myth of the modern elite ignores the accumulation and exercise of influence, aimed at increasing and maintaining wealth and power. It ignores the socio-economic system dynamics of value creation by many and value capture by a vanishingly tiny few. It perpetuates the fiction that we many, by working hard and investing wisely in our superannuation, RRSP, or 401k schemes, can one day have money that makes money without effort, through perpetual growth in pursuit of permanent satisfaction.

This is not solely a critique of capitalism, but of systems with hypertrophied mechanisms of extraction and production. These systems have strangled flows and feedbacks, suffocated living systems, and propagated delusions of individual satisfaction.

The failure of these systems to permanently resolve suffering and desire leads them to demand more - more consumption, more production, more growth, in vain hopes that it will one day be enough.

But material, mental, and spiritual satisfaction is only ever temporary and fleeting. Striving to end dissatisfaction and discomfort by permanently and finally consuming our way out of experiencing needs is an anti-life approach.

In Max-Neef’s human-scale development terms, we’ve evolved too many destructive, inhibiting, or pseudo-satisfiers - products, services, processes, institutions that in fulfilling one need inhibit the fulfilment of others needs or the needs of others.

We are dynamic, living systems.

Discomfort, suffering, and need are signals inherent to the operation of our bodies, minds, and spirits.

In trying to escape these experiences permanently, we’ve ended up evolving systems that destroy the world around us, with which we are inherently interconnected. This is evolutionary dysfunction, and the tipping points may not be far away.

We need to replace these damaging satisfiers with synergistic ones. We need to build ecologically, socially, and psychologically regenerative systems. And as we work to evolve these new systems, we can start by letting go of our delusion that we can consume our way to permanent satisfaction of our needs.

Editorial Note

This post was inspired by the prompt 'Why is everything on fire' from a chat with an old friend. We agreed to each write ~500 words and discuss, to experiment with structured collaboration.

If you made it this far down the page, thanks for reading.

Like with every post on this blog, consider this an invitation to join in thinking together, and maybe doing together. Why not get in touch with me on the Get in touch on the Fediverse to share your thoughts?

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All posts on this blog are by Scott Matter and licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0