Our Grand Illusions vs. Survival

I was an undergraduate student in anthropology when I saw a remarkable documentary film depicting the lives of the !Kung people. Also known as the San, they lived in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa as hunter-gatherers, still undisturbed by outside forces in 1952-3 when some Harvard ethnographers shot the film. The social structure of the small band met the requirements of that harsh environment in intricate ways. The San people worked very hard to survive yet had plenty of leisure time and seemed quite happy. Later incursions of Europeans seeking diamonds changed all that.

In stark contrast, the victims of America’s “sacrifice zones” such as Camden, New Jersey, and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, live very hard lives in environments devoid of ecosystem resources from which to build a life. They are dependent upon the larger industrial-consumer economy from which they are structurally isolated. The rest of us live in consumer bubbles, where we are equally dependent but allowed to participate. In both cases, people have no direct connection to the land where they live; all relations are indirect, mediated by large national or international institutions over which we have no control.

The Cultural Problem of the Illusions Complex

Having long since abandoned any sacred or direct relations with the order of Nature, industrial-consumer economies have briefly enriched some, excluded many, but at great peril to all. Their elites have constructed a story of unending progress through industrial expansion. But that story of unnatural ambitions is no longer valid on this finite planet. The foundations of our grand illusions crumble as we seek to build more on top of them. The Great Transformation that launched the industrial age began by “enclosing” traditional communities in England and Scotland to accelerate industrialization and never looked back.

I was fortunate to have grown up experiencing much of nature through involvement with the Boy Scouts, despite living in a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. We learned so much about the natural world beyond the suburban bubble that was a small part of the “Great Acceleration” of fossil-fueled economic expansion of the late 1940s and 1950s. I will never forget those adventuresome days. I understood later experiences of people whose lives were entirely urban partly in those terms. Their lives and beliefs develop entirely within the culture of industrial consumerism, devoid of any sense of the natural world.

Devolution of Education

The education system has not helped much. In college, I believed that education could be the source of solving most of the world’s problems. However, educational institutions, like science itself, developed as part of the modern world built on the foundations of rational humanism that viewed “Man” apart from and meant to dominate Nature.

The Earth seemed an unending source of materials to be plundered at will. The emerging industrial system became the vehicle for exploiting the natural world. Education became a means to prepare workers for obedient contributions to the growth of that system, not a method for cultivating the skills of thinking citizens. In the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, the American education system expanded with the rest of the economy. That growth allowed some slack for faculty to explore learning in diverse ways, partially fulfilling the goals of developing thinking citizens.

From the very beginning of my university career in 1970, for thirty-five years I watched the quality of education in the U.S. decline as corporate economic interests pressured for the university to produce trained workers. Elimination of the progressive income tax system severely constrained public budgets, putting additional pressure on education to operate like a profit-making business instead of a public service.

Education became a commodity delivered like a sack of potatoes. Now we have the sister of the head of the private Blackwater mercenary army heading the U.S. Department of Education, attempting to “privatize” all education for corporate profit. Education today sidelines intellectual development, critical thinking, literature and the arts in favor of training new workers for technical performance in corporate environments. From George Bush’s “no child left behind,” to the privatization of educational institutions, the decline of education in America serves the corporate state, not the people, and sets the stage for the rise of fascism.

The broader attack on the public sector through “privatization,” whether schools or prisons, parallels a range of policy choices favoring corporate control of both politics and the economy that Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Trained workers, whether on the factory floor or in corporate offices become technical functionaries with little sense of citizenship other than by adherence to the group- think of the “righteous mind,” cultivated by corporate propaganda and economic insecurity.

Dumbing Down the Culture, Anti-Intellectualism, and Social Chao

Culture is the collection of our beliefs. In our marketed consumer culture, efforts to exploit personal anxieties and collective resentments work directly in opposition to “thinking for ourselves.” Fads grow out of people trying to “be different.” Branding manipulates the desire to express our “individuality.” Persuasion works best on imagery and emotion, not on rational thought. The dumbing down of education aids the dumbing down of the culture, leaving more and more people susceptible to commercial advertising and political propaganda. Demagogues express distinctly anti-intellectual beliefs that exploit anxiety and fear while inciting hatred of any group not part of one’s own.

A shrinking job market and diminished incomes deplete the middle class formerly dominated by white male workers who resent the “browning of America.” Techno-toys provide distractions from dwindling prospects for a life with any intellectual content or personal meaning. Hate speech distracts attention from one’s own problems, allowing their projection onto feared groups of others deemed outside the pale. People form their beliefs in groups of like-minded people, not in contemplation of facts or evidence.

Confirmation bias allows “peace of mind” by acknowledging only beliefs consistent with one’s group perspective. Well-documented facts disappear before emotional imagery supported by group identity. When realities are too hard to face, such as loss of status and opportunity, people become more vulnerable to political manipulation. It all blurs together as opportunists tout scapegoats such as minorities, immigrants, Muslims and uppity women as the source of personal losses.

Two hundred years have passed since industrial culture reduced the person o an artificial commodity known as labor and economic individualism severely constrained the viability of communities for increasingly detached individual workers. Individual freedom became the veil hiding alienation and limiting severely the apprehension of reality.

Defending Society from Its Grand Illusions

Numerous attempts to protect society from the damage caused by free-market economies have occurred throughout the industrial era, with mixed but discouraging results.

The English poor laws and the American New Deal offered temporary palliatives without addressing the underlying problem. The revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba replaced the tyranny of capital with political totalitarianism. Western “democracies” substituted growth and the “McDonaldization” of consumerism for the resolution of social problems.

The grand illusions of multinational dominance over societies have gone global, right when the impacts on the entire Earth System approach tipping points toward collapse. The crises of ecosystem and climate, caused by pushing the limits of economic growth, continue to deepen. The limits to growth are physical, not ideological. Yet, corporate controlled media and political institutions perpetuate ideological illusions that threaten our very survival. Nevertheless, growing numbers of people realize that something is very wrong.

Creative Destruction of Our Grand Illusions for Survival

Here’s the thing. A New Great Transformation of humanity’s relations with planet Earth upon us. If we continue to ignore the deep changes humans have triggered, leading us into the unknowns of the Anthropocene, we will lose all control of our fate. Our grand illusions support a headlong rush to planetary chaos and potentially human extinction. Survival – never mind the “good life” – will depend on whether humans are up to the revolutionary task of paying the debt we have incurred to the planet and finding new ways to live in harmony with the Earth System we have already changed so radically.