We were still … and we were solitary. The wind had been mute for two days. Our only companions were our brethren in the sea and the sky. No other human presence disturbed this deep blue mirror, stretching to the horizon. AVENTURA and I were becalmed but content.
I rigged a shade awning and went below for a chilled drink. My tiny refrigerator is powered by a solar panel. A cold young coconut was awaiting me. I opened it with my machete, inserted a straw and savored it beneath the awning. My back rested against the mast and my thoughts drifted as aimlessly and contentedly as my boat. Gradually, the word “contentment” inspired a meditation on what I consider one of the great curses of the modern world … Stuff.
We have been led to believe that acquiring more stuff bequeaths us greater freedom and happiness. I heartily disagree, and to support my position I will call three wise men as witnesses. Here is Thoreau’s opinion on the subject: “A man is rich in direct proportion to the number of things that he can live without.” Mark Twain had an apt quote on the issue as well: “We have turned a thousand useless luxuries into necessities.” And Bertrand Russell was even more emphatic with this quotation: “It is our preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else that prevents us from living freely and nobly.”
In other words, we are enslaved by our stuff! And it is more insidious and malignant than traditional slavery, because we are not forced to submit to this enslavement, we voluntarily do so. Materialism has become the true worldwide religion. If most people were told that for the rest of their lives they could only go to either the church or the mall, which would they select? They would choose the Temple of Shopping.
What makes this situation even more tragic is that our worship of stuff is not just some innocent, unavoidable human trait. Almost any anthropologist who has spent time amongst the 85 or so indigenous tribes, who still survive far from the tentacles of industrial-techno civilization, will verify that there is an amazing lack of private property amongst these (misnamed) primitives. They possess very little stuff, and much of what they do have is communally shared. So, the greed for things, which consumes modern humanity, is not intrinsic to our nature, it is manipulated into us.
And the exploiters who condemn us to the treadmill of “more, more and still more,” do not do this benevolently. Their motive is to further enrich themselves and to increase their control over us. Does the concept of “planned obsolescence” profit the makers of the products or does it benefit the consumers of these items? After you have answered that obvious question, step back a bit further and ponder how we have allowed ourselves to be reduced to the status of “consumers.”
Our culture programs us so thoroughly and yet so subtly that we do not even perceive our captivity. Just as the fish is unaware of the water that it is immersed in, humanity is unmindful of the severity of its enslavement. Certainly the desperately poor in the world realize that they are captives to the daily struggle for survival, but the more well-to-do have also lost much of their freedom. Consider this downward human trajectory:
Our hunter/gatherer ancestors survived independently for over a hundred thousand years using their amazing physical and mental powers in a fairly hostile world. When they encountered a mirror-like pond, they could look at their reflection and see a strong, lithe, smart, human animal that could fend for itself and protect its tribe.
But with the advent of agriculture came the ascension of rulers and priests. These ruthless manipulators swiftly recognized that in order to exploit the human animal, they would need to domesticate it. A person that could feed, clothe, shelter and protect herself or himself, would not consent to subjugation. So the rulers imposed dependency through division of labor. The hide tanner relied on the barley grower who needed the well digger who depended on the tool-maker. Life became compartmentalized and the subtle slavery began.
Shortly after that came a further diminishing of the wondrous, free, and empowered human animal. This arrived with the imposition of political boundaries. People were now designated as Assyrians or Egyptians or Babylonians. Next, came the religious divisions which further reduced human autonomy. So the wild, independent, almost feral, human animal had now been domesticated so thoroughly that they had morphed into a citizen and a churchgoer. What a sad and pathetic degradation.
And as the human caravan continues down the centuries, rulers and priests still dominate us. They constantly rein in our independence as they transform us into serfs or slaves or soldiers or salesmen. And now, without even realizing it, we are suffocating beneath the ultimate indignation. We have been degraded so profoundly that we don’t even cringe when we are called consumers. Step out of the cultural programming bubble and contemplate that. On the one luxuriant planet amongst millions of dead ones, we are the most highly-evolved species, and yet we spend our brief time here … SHOPPING. This is insanely tragic and repellant. It is also why the few dozen hunter/gatherer tribes still in existence, feel sorry for us. And why they do not wish to adopt our “civilized” ways.
The mandate to “buy, buy and buy some more” is so all-pervasive in our society that it is difficult to even notice it much less escape it. But emancipation IS possible. Through the help of Thoreau, Twain and Russell, I managed to liberate myself. Perhaps, as homage to these wise ones, I can help a few of you to unshackle yourselves. Settle in for a few minutes and let me acquaint you with some of the Evils of Materialism that the consumer culture cheerleaders never mention:
· WE ARE NOT OUR STUFF - People who wish to get rich by selling us things that we do not need, try to convince us that unless we purchase the hot new item we will be conspicuously inferior to our peers. They are trying to manipulate us into the belief that a person’s character corresponds to the size of their stuff-pile. Things become status symbols. Because my car is pricier than yours, then I am a better person. But only an advertizing-addled fool believes that. For the most successful accumulators of stuff are usually the most ambitious, immoral and ruthless members of society. Almost everyone knows in their heart of hearts that the qualities that are the true measure of a person’s worth have nothing to do with stuff. Character traits like wisdom, compassion, serenity, humor and subtlety of mind will always surpass garish mansions and shiny cars.
· STUFF-LESS HAPPINESS – I have fewer things than almost anybody I know, and yet on a day-to-day basis, I am happier than almost anybody I know. In fact when people visit my boat for the first time there is often an awkward silence as their eyes glance around the cabin. Then they will sheepishly ask, “Ray, where’s all your stuff?” My honest answer is that indeed, I am poor in stuff, but I am rich in time, friendship, health, adventure, freedom, relaxation, travel, etc. This perspective is reinforced as I watch the nearby Indio kids play joyously with just a stick and a coconut, while the ex-pat kids are cursing at their electronic games because their batteries are low.
· CONSUMERS VERSUS THINKERS – Those who have gained control of any society do not want the vast majority of the people to engage in critical thinking. If the population did so, they would no longer tolerate the obscene wealth disparity or the ever-growing police/surveillance grid or a reverse Robin Hood economy that robs the poor to give to the Wall Street rich. So the citizenry must be distracted and placated. Stuff is the opiate that the Elites use to defuse any rebellious tendencies. Give them gigantic plasma TVs and iEverythings and the latest violent video game, and they can control them like two-legged sheep.
· STUFF STRANGLES INTEGRITY – When I was in Vietnam I often tried to unravel the mystery of how anyone could invent Napalm and still live with himself. It took me decades to realize that even that horrendous depravity was connected to our worship of stuff. The thinking runs like this: Since everyone else has nice houses and new cars and the latest HDTVs, then I need those things too, in order to maintain my self-respect. Therefore, if the job pays enough, I will just ignore the consequences of what I am inventing. So even though this high tech weapon causes grotesque tomato-sized tumors on innocent children, I will rationalize that away with the delusion that I am spreading democracy. But if stuff wasn’t so godlike, more people would refuse to accept despicable jobs just because they pay well.
· CONSUMERISM IS CONSUMING THE PLANET – By worshipping stuff and embracing an extravagant, constant- growth lifestyle we are poisoning the air, fouling the rivers, sweeping away the topsoil, decimating the ocean fisheries and generally wreaking havoc on our biosphere. Those 85 indigenous tribes are not doing this. It is our shop til you drop mindset that is fueling this human engine of destruction.
I lost track of time as I pondered these things, and was momentarily startled when my thoughts returned from the real world to this, my preferred world. AVENTURA and I were still becalmed, but as she knows even better than me, the sea is never truly still. The undulating movement is so miniscule and yet so monumental that it seems like the pulse of the planet. It comforts me deeply, because it feels like Gaia is breathing.