More and more, I hear that folks are feeling frustrated and betrayed, combined with a sense of loss and despair. I feel this way, too.
As I’ve written recently, I observe this is due more than anything else to a widespread demoralization society is suffering from.
Certainly the statistics reflect this. Suicides in the US are up 30% since the turn of the millennium, obesity is at epidemic proportions, mortality rates are rising especially among white working-class Americans, and our national opioid addiction is now the “epidemic of epidemics.”
To these we can also add falling birthrates and the truly startling shift towards a younger age for the onset of depression; declining from age 30 now to age…14(!)
When an organism gives up on self-care, breeding, or its will to live, it’s suffering from a tremendous amount of strain that is cutting it off from its own life force. A dispirited lion wasting away in a cage has a lot in common with the average American today.
At a deep level, what ails us is not a host of unrelated, intractable problems, but the fact that our model of pursuing eternal economic growth simply isn’t working anymore. It doesn’t work for the planet’s increasingly strained ecosystems, nor does it work for the bottom 99% of folks in society (i.e., the non-elites).
The various health epidemics noted above are merely symptoms of a larger acute spiritual crisis.
But viewed at a certain angle, this may be a good sign.
Why? Because in order to shift from one model to another, the old one first has to become unbearable.
And, as the data cited earlier is making increasingly clear, our addiction to growth is killing us and the ecosystems we depend on.
Look, if you’re a well-nourished human being — physically, emotionally and spiritually — then you have a heartfelt appreciation for the Earth. You can clearly see that it’s achingly beautiful, perfect, and abundant. It is your home, your mother, the source of all your sustenance, and the one and only vessel for your children and grandchildren (born or as yet unborn) — stretching as far into the future as you can imagine.
I’m completely in love with this world and with being alive in it. I love the beauty of Nature and all of its life forms, each beautiful and complete in its own way, just like this dragonfly:
Nature and our connection to it is about creation, flux, and regeneration — it’s deeply spiritual. To live in a world solely of materialism, devoid of deeper meaning and connection, is be the caged lion wasting away.
The loss of life on this planet, the diminishment of once complex ecosystems into barren, simplistic shadows of their former selves, is a source of very real and profound sadness. It is my belief that the existential dread many of us feel is our registering this loss of life — consciously or not — as Nature retracts her abundance.
Who hear still hears crickets at night? With the unfolding insect apocalypse, fewer and fewer can make that claim.
The point of all this is that the one and only way out of this box in which we find ourselves is by adopting a better model for living. And to do that, we first need to re-write the narrative that guides us.
If we do this, anything is possible. We can create a future of abundance and prosperity.
But if we don’t, the end will certianly be bitter and full of regret.
Narrative #1: Growth is Always Good, More Growth Is Always Better
Literally every time you read anything about economic growth it’s always, unerringly, framed in positive terms. This serves to reinforce the idea of growth being “good.” It’s virtually never questioned or famed differently.
Here’s an example:
China’s gross domestic product grew 6.9 per cent last year, Premier Li Keqiang told a regional meeting in Cambodia last week. “The overall situation was better than expected,” he said.
Mr Li’s estimate is higher than the 6.7 per cent growth reported for 2016 but the real recovery has been sharper. Corporate results are rosy, commodity imports are hitting new records and producer prices have shifted back to steady gains, signifying better industrial health.
So why will Thursday’s 2017 GDP figures not reflect the good news?
China’s economic growth was described as “better (than expected)” and in terms of “recovery” and “rosy” and “good news.” It doesn’t matter which news sources you read, you always find growth framed as “good”, “rosy” and desirable.
But is it truly any of those things?
Using the ‘Rule of 72’ we can divide the reported 6.9% growth into 72 and discover that at that rate of growth, China’s economy will fully double in just 10.4 years.
It’s already the largest economy in the world in terms of oil imports, raw material usage, concrete poured, and food consumed. But in just 10.4 years it’s going to be twice all of those things.
And then what? Well, another doubling from there of course, all of it rosy, desirable and good. But how many more forests, fisheries, aquifers and fossil fuels will such doublings consume?
Of course, when you read about an economic slowdown you’ll see framing words like “concern” “weakening” and “weighing down.” This subtle and continuous conditioning has most people firmly committed to the belief that economic growth is something we always want more of.
This is psychological programming, pure and simple. It’s so pervasive that it’s thoroughly accepted without question or examination.
The problem, of course, comes in when that unquestioned narrative of growth begins to foul its own nest. When people’s inner guidance systems begin to crash into each other: one committed to the idea of endless growth, the other observing the damage it does. Self-preservation runs smack into self-harm.
Perhaps this explains the mass appeal of such movies as Avengers: Infinity War where the evil Thanos is an eight-foot-tall madman seeking to restore balance to a universe of overgrown worlds by killing half the living beings in it. The entire plot plays on these subconscious belief systems I’m describing. I do wonder if that’s, in part, why the movie has been a hugely successful box office smash.
Narrative #2: Growth Is Now The Enemy
When I was a child, our family measured the growth of me and my siblings on a door frame in pencil. I so looked forward to being taller at each new measurement.
But I’m certainly glad I stopped growing by age 18. Otherwise I’d have grown over 9 feet tall, likely dying from a heart attack by age 26.
There’s nothing wrong with growth, in and of itself. But its context matters critically.
Endless growth that exceeds biological parameters? Well, that’s just bad — whether we’re talking about unchecked height, deer populations, or cancer cells.
There was nothing wrong at all with we humans expanding into our biosphere as it could support our population, as does any and every organism in existence. The problem was in failing to self-regulate our consumption to a sustainable level.
Heck, it’s worse than that because we didn’t just fail to regulate ourselves; we just ignored the math.
Here are some simple math problems we could have easily seen coming, but chose not to:
- We’ve lost half the world’s topsoil in the past 150 years
- There are 10 or maybe 12 calories of fossil fuels silently embedded in each food calorie we ingest
- Fossil fuel supply will peak and slowly decline beginning around 2030
- At the current pace, it will take 400 years to transform the energy system upon which we current depend
- World population will continue to climb until 2100 reaching 11.2 billion
- In the years immediately following the peak in fossil fuel energy the world will have to replace nearly 100% of all the concrete structures ever poured or built due to spalling and crumbling induced by the use of steel reinforcing rods
- Pensions and entitlements are a simple math disaster that’s already beginning to unfold
Simple math says more people trying to eat dwindling fossil fuels is a predicament. Who’s actually doing anything serious about that on the world stage right now?
Even easier math says that our pension and entitlement promises to ourselves cannot ever be met. What’s realistically being done about any of that? Nothing as far as I can tell.
What’s the plan for replacing 100% of the concrete ever poured in the world? Where’s the energy for that going to come from?
Humans have never transitioned from a more- to a less-concentrated energy system before. And at current rates it will take 400 more years to get there. Where will the energy for that transition come from?
The above is just a very partial list of bad math functions we are facing along with some very obvious questions. The simplest way to resolve them all is to finally admit to ourselves that more growth is not the solution here, it’s actually the problem:
Which brings us back around to the idea of demoralization which is both running rampant and gaining ground. It’s what happens when your cognitive map no longer functions:
Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment.
The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction.
Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing battle. The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to the circumstances impinging on the person’s life.
Did you get that? Demoralization is actually a realistic response under certain conditions.
Those conditions are manifesting themselves now, which means that the waves of dispiriting statistics we are seeing are not ‘bad’; they are telling us something important. People are right to be deeply disturbed by the ways in which the main narrative of their culture no longer maps to reality. Worse, the endless growth narrative is killing life on this planet and therefore harming each of us in ways both overt and subtle. More and more people are detecting that, and that’s a good thing, because that’s the necessary first step in crafting a new narrative and adopting a different model that hopefully serves us better.
We often say here at Peak Prosperity that if you’re feeling anxiety (or demoralization), it means that there’s a gap between what you know and what you’re doing. Since you can’t unlearn something, your best course of action is to change your behavior.
Take action to align what you know with what you do.
I totally get the frustration, anger and bitterness on display in politics all across the West right now, but these are almost universally misdirected at the wrong targets. Whether by intent or accident, this is usually the case and heavily supported by a media system that actually promotes divisiveness over unity, and isolation over connection.
The deeper truth is that we’re all experiencing painful shocks, and are therefore reacting like rats in a cage, fighting each other because we cannot properly detect the true source of our pain.
So, what to do?
Yes, the math just doesn’t work out. Yes, there’s no uber strategy in play of which you aren’t aware. Sadly, what you see is what you get. The one and only plan the central panners have is to redouble their efforts to drive more growth. And to do that by creating more and more artificial money to drive up stock and bond prices.
The only plan of any government is to grow its economy and secure more power for itself.
This means that it is up to you, to me — to us collectively — to work out the new narrative, or at least support it as it is painfully birthed. We have to become the change we wish to see. We live in the era where The End of Growth is taking place. It’s a critical and important time to be alive and we each have a vital role to play.
For certain, there are many steps you can and indeed should be taking to build your resilience to prepare for a very uncertain future. These are well outlined in our book Prosper! and encompass the 8 Forms of Capital (Financial, Social, Material, Cultural, Time, Knowledge, Living and Emotional) all of which you should each be working to develop more of at this moment.
But in Part 2: How To Engage Others I share the skills I’ve developed over the past decade in effectively communicating this tricky information, which many ‘regular folks’ aren’t eager to hear. Done correctly, you can engage new minds, recruit their support, and contribute to shifting society to a new, better narrative.
Plus, these techniques and best practices have real practical value. Whether you’re trying to inform someone about these emotionally-challenging predicaments we face, or influencing your workmates to undertake an important project you have in mind, or asking for your spouse’s support during a major life/career shift, the principles are the same.