Death and Taxes: Real and Artificial Scarcities from an Eco-Psychological Perspective
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” — Henry David Thoreau
From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear. Sometimes I could give voice to this fear, but mostly it remained unspoken. It threaded through all of my conversation, all of my activities, all of my thoughts. The fear was with me even in my dreams.
It was the fear that there is not enough.
This fear appeared sometime in my childhood, and it has stayed with me as I moved into adulthood. It stayed with me as I graduated from college and law school and got a job. It has stayed with me even as my annual income has doubled and tripled. No matter how much I had, there was always the fear. The fear of going hungry. The fear of not being able to pay bills. The fear of not being able to pay for a doctor. The fear of not being able to pay for my kids’ college. The fear of not being able to support myself in retirement.
I would find myself, in my distracted moments, whispering, “If only I had …” or “All I need is …”.
Does this sound familiar? This fear that there is not enough, that there will never be enough?
This fear even played out in my romantic relationships, which had a desperate, grasping quality to them, my need for someone to “complete” me. It even manifested in my relationship with my God, whose love always seemed conditional, something which could be hoarded by the “righteous” and withheld from “sinners”.
The strange thing was that this fear did not lessen as my life circumstances changes, as the objective measures of my economic security increased. Nor was it lessened by the knowledge that I and those like me enjoy a level of material security unknown in other parts of the world, and undreamt of in the history of the humankind. The fear might seem to go away for a little while when I went shopping, when I bought something I didn’t need. But it always returned.
Because this fear is not based on anything real — it is manufactured.
“You can’t take it with you” — Alan Parsons Project
This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it. An artificial scarcity is created by systemic maldistribution. This artificial scarcity creates the fear. It is fed by advertising. It is perpetuated by our public discourse, the things we say to each other, the hidden assumptions behind statements like: “Raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment.” and “Easy access to health care will create consumers with an insatiable demand for medical services.”
This fear is perpetuated by the cycle of boom and bust, economic “bubbles” followed by economic downturns, which encourages both hoarding and conspicuous consumption. It is encouraged by the government in the name of “patriotism”. The fear encourages compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, compulsive sex — all of which feeds back into the system.
There are real scarcities, of course. Real insecurities. But they are hidden, masked by the artificial scarcities and manufactured insecurities. Artificial scarcities obscure the real scarcities, the absolute scarcities. We live on a planet with finite resources and we are growing without restraint, because of an economic system premised on infinite growth, and because of a belief that unlimited offspring are inalienable right. Clean air, clear water, fertile land, trees, fossil fuels — these are real scarcities, but we consume them like they are inexhaustible. We consume resources that are truly scarce in order to stave off the fear of artificial scarcities: money, jobs, consumer goods. I can’t grow enough food to sustain my family, I can’t make my own clothes, and I can’t build a house: these are real insecurities. But they are not the insecurities that are driving me on a day-to-day basis.
So long as we’re caught up in the system, we can’t tell the difference between the real scarcities and the artificial ones. Not only do we mistake artificial scarcities for real ones, we also mistake real scarcities for artificial ones. And so, believing that the real scarcity of earth’s resources is artificial — i.e., the product of artifice — we put our faith in another kind of artifice, a technological fix that we hope will save us from rising temperatures and rising sea levels. And believing that the earth itself is the artifice of God, we put our faith in a divine savior who will rescue us and carry us away to a similarly artificial paradise. All of which leads to more overconsumption — “make hay while you can” — and more hoarding — storing up against the inevitable “end times”.
“And death shall have no dominion.” — Dylan Thomas
We need to root out the source of the fear that drives this cycle. Yes, artificial scarcity is created by maldistribution, but the fear of scarcity has a deeper root. Yes, advertising and our collective myths perpetuate this fear, but they just take advantage of something much more primal. Not enough money, not enough possessions, not enough love: At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of “me”. All fear of scarcity derives from this fear of death.
“To Have or to Be” is how Erich Fromm framed our ontological dilemma. Because we cannot be infinite, we seek to consume infinitely. We hoard wealth as a hedge against death and squander resources as a way of denying our finitude. We strive for dominion over mother nature, not just to end suffering, but hoping thereby to attain dominion over death. But ironically this fear of death drives us to destroy the very material conditions of our lives, to murder the earth of which we are part. Or if we cannot maintain the illusion of control, then we take refuge in a state of dissociation from matter, from our bodies, from the natural world, surrounding ourselves with artificial world of non-biodegradable plastics and the never-ending stream of stimulation from our electronic screens. Here we can be immortal — for a little while at least.
“Our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
It should have happened on a mountaintop. Or in a redwood forest. Instead, it happened to me in a movie theater, of all places. It wasn’t even a particularly good movie. I guess we don’t get to choose the time and place of our epiphanies. Of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. If I had not been immersing myself in eco-Pagan discourse and practice, I might not have been primed for the experience.
The climax of the movie in question was a montage of images connecting the heroine to her ancestral primate past and to the physical universe as whole. It triggered something in me, and as I walked out of the theater, I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species. I felt both of radical dissociation from the everyday concerns of my life and of deep responsibility to the earth and to universe as a whole.
I didn’t realize it right away, but in the coming days and months, it dawned on me that the ever-present anxiety about my own death was not so ever-present. I’m not saying I was suddenly careless when crossing the street, or that I was unconcerned about what would happen to my kids if I died at a relatively young age. But the end of my life just did not seem to matter that much in the cosmic scheme of things. Yesterday I turned 40, which for many people is an anxiety-ridden transition, but as the day approached, I felt only an increasing lightness of being. It might be an overstatement to say I no longer fear death, but I no longer experience each moment like a stopwatch running backward. And my personal death no longer looms over me like Nemesis with her sword. Instead, I feel that one day I might actually be able embrace it, like an old lover.
I also noticed that the perpetual fear of not having enough was strangely absent. And I started to see how this sense of scarcity which had been my constant companion was an artificial creation of a sick system which actually obscures the real scarcities. Everything seemed different in this new light. I still went to work and paid my bills, but I did this with a new sense of detachment. The anxiety which had previously underlain all of my activities, all of my thoughts, had largely evaporated. There are still days when I lapse back into my old patterns of thought: “If only I had …”. But I can still call back the vision, the sense of being a part of something so vast that my fears are dwarfed by it. And then that fear of not having enough loosens its hold on me.
“For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself?” — The Gospel of Luke
This shift in consciousness which I experienced is what ecologist Arne Naess calls “Self Realization”, an experience of the shifting of the center of one’s identity from the ego-self to the “eco-self”. We realize that we are not who we thought we were. We are not our minds. Even our bodies are not our own, but are colonized by other living organisms, just as we colonize Gaia. Our skin, the boundary by which we measure where “I” end and “it” begins, is not solid after all, but is permeable, the thinnest of veils. As ecologist David Abram explains, we realize “that we are a part of something so much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves […] that our own life is entirely continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, that our breathing bodies are simply a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth”.
We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself, and as such has special responsibilities. Paul Shepard describes this change in this way:
“If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own—or rather, our own as part of it. To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things. Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.”
With this shift in the locus of our identity comes a new perspective on our individual lives and our place in the cosmos. Somewhere along the way, we lose that fear that was our constant companion — the fear of never having enough, and the fear of death. Writing at the end of the 19th century, socialist and nature mystic, Edward Carpenter, described a “cosmic consciousness” in archaic humankind, a sensibility which he hoped to see return in modern times:
“To the early man the notion of his having a separate individuality could only with difficulty occur; hence he troubled himself not with the suicidal questionings concerning the whence and whither which now vex the modern mind. For what causes these questions to be asked is simply the wretched feeling of isolation, actual or prospective, which man necessarily has when he contemplates himself as a separate atom in this immense universe—the gulf which lies below seemingly ready to swallow him, and the anxiety to find some mode of escape. But when he feels once more that he, that he himself, is absolutely indivisibly and indestructibly a part of this great whole—why then there is no gulf into which he can possibly fall.”
With this cosmic consciousness, comes a new perspective on everything. We can see artificial scarcities for what they are and can distinguish them from real scarcities. And we come to see that what matters most is not economic security or personal immortality, but the survival of the human race and of all of life. And so, in loosing ourselves, we gain the whole world.