THE CYCLE OF DISCONNECTION
Dave Pollard @ How to Save the World
Dave Pollard @ How to Save the World
Almost everyone I know is depressed these days. Friends who are renowned as especially intelligent or informed seem to be the most vulnerable to this malaise, so perhaps ignorance is bliss. The brilliant cartoonist at Hyperbole and a Half has just returned after an eighteen-month bout of depression that completely debilitated her — and her latest post explains exactly how this feels. My filmmaker friend Tim Bennett wonders why the insightful writer David Foster Wallace, whose astonishing commencement address in 2005 told us exactly what we need to do to be really alive in this mad, deadening world, was so oppressed by his life he felt compelled to end it at age 46.
Of course, everyone’s experience with depression, and the kind of chronic grief, anger, sadness, and anxiety that afflicts so many of us, is different. Any attempt to “blame civilization” for our modern epidemic of chronic physical and mental disease is fraught with danger. Yet when the advertisers and politicians and media keep telling us life has never been better, the cognitive dissonance with the misery all around us is hard to ignore, and hard not to ascribe to something larger.
The faces on the people I know often carry the looks I see on caged animals, endlessly pacing (if these animals have room even to do that), as if they know something is terribly wrong but they’re not quite sure what it is. Call this what you wish — confinement, disconnection, domestication, oppression — the incapacity to be our true wild selves seems to be at the root of our disease. The problem is, seven billion people cannot be their true wild selves or, like a horrifically overcrowded cage of rats, the result would be large-scale violence and murder. Some would say that’s exactly what we have already.
When human population increased to the point our natural (for two million years) gatherer-hunter way of life was no longer viable, something had to change, and what successfully evolved to deal with that situation is we call “civilization”. There are different speculations about what caused this to occur — climate change, the extinction of large mammals due to our invention of the arrowhead, the reduction in habitat caused by the ice ages — but whatever the cause, we decided we had to leave the leisurely life of rainforest tree-living animals, spread out across the planet, and find some way to avoid mass starvation in lands we are not naturally adapted to living in.
It is not easy to domesticate wild humans, but it can be done. Just as rats in overcrowded cages start to form oppressive hierarchies so that at least the alphas will survive (while the rest perish from starvation, suicide, and eating their own young), human civilizations needed hierarchy, class differentiation, specialization, and a power structure to work. They require constant coercion and propaganda (hence the invention of modern languages, principally to allow instructions, lies and threats to be passed down from the overseers). They require disconnection from the natural world (no more longing for a wild life), confinement (and incarceration for the disobedient, so they are made an example of), constant surveillance, and creation of a state of dependence on the society’s systems and their masters.
When successfully implemented (and they’ve been so successful that they’ve quickly merged into a single, ubiquitous, global civilization culture), these civilizations both support and require a large population of workers, creating a vicious cycle. But there are many unintended consequences of this cycle. One is that, as Quinn and others have explained, the more food that is produced, the faster the population grows to consume it, so civilizations quickly experience population explosions. Another is that domesticated living, though ‘successful’ from an evolutionary standpoint, is extremely stressful and extremely vulnerable to failures (crops, diseases, insurrections, and the natural diseconomies of scale, among others).
Once it reaches a certain point in its cycle (and all civilizations eventually collapse), civilization cultures enter a state of dysfunction and dis-ease. There’s some evidence we reached this point about 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of what we have chosen to call “history” (perhaps because we don’t want to compare modern ‘progress’ against the impossibly high standard of prehistory, so we pretend life before modern civilization was always nasty, short and brutish, when evidence suggests it only became so under civilization culture).
Civilization disease is a complex phenomenon, but it’s easy to see the symptoms all around us: people living in a constant state of stress, fear, anxiety, grief, anger and sadness; endemic boredom, escapism and addiction; endless and escalating wars and intertribal and internal violence; large parts of the population traumatized and dissociative as a result of early childhood exposure to domestic violence, abandonment and rage; epidemics of chronic physical and emotional illnesses; systems collapsing from diseconomies of scale, large segments of the population debilitated and socially dysfunctional; and the kind of constant, numbing grief for the massive loss of biodiversity, the ghastly desolation of our planet and exhaustion of its resources, the endless and horrific suffering of creatures, human and non, in our increasingly brutal civilization cutlure, and our dread and insecurity about the crises we see looming before us.
No one cedes power voluntarily, and we’re now seeing the evidence of a desperate, understandable (and totally uncoordinated) attempt by the currently powerful (and their lackeys and the dumbed-down masses) to ratchet up the collapsing systems to new levels of ‘efficiency’ and global reach and hence prolong the status quo just a little longer. This will only make the ultimate collapse worse, but there’s no telling them that.
So now we see massive incarceration, perpetual wars, ghastly and massive factory farms, genocides, the militarization and bulking up of the police and surveillance state (allegedly in the interests of ‘homeland security’), the pathologization of everything, the total corporatization of the media, ‘health’, and ‘education’ systems, large-scale pharmaceutical sedation of the population, the consumerization and ‘ownership’ of everything (as a kind of new, distracting religion), rampant social escapism and inurement rituals (porn, ultraviolent films, hazing, gang rituals, drug and alcohol abuse), and the intensification of the distracting blame-everyone-else game (terrorists, bad parents, laziness, government, conspirators, evil deranged elites).
Not surprising, then, that anyone who has the time, energy and opportunity to study what’s going on in our world is depressed. Einstein, in talking about the development of the nuclear bomb, confided that the more he and others learned about the state of the world, the more pessimistic they became about society’s capacity to deal with it effectively. Metaphorically at least, the alpha humans in civilization’s global cage are hoarding and exhibiting increasing violence towards the rest, and the rest are showing increasing signs of eating their young.
Look around, and you’ll see the evidence everywhere. The way David Foster Wallace saw it, before he was swamped by his illness:
In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way… If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness… None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It … has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves [about it] over and over… It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
More about this here