(The following presentation was given at 10th Annual Sustainability Summit and Exposition held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on March 6-7, 2013 <www.sustainabilitysummit.us>)
Americans are not living in a very happy place right now. There are looming threats to an already problematic health care system. Wages have been stagnant for decades and two-income families struggle to keep their heads above water. Meanwhile, the 1% are making off like bandits. A spate of bad weather phenomena is making us uneasy about the developing apocalyptic dimensions of climate change. The American Dream seems to be slipping through our fingers.
There are many and complex reasons for these problems, but today I will focus on an issue that goes to the core of our unhappiness—consumerism. Seventy percent of our economy is driven by consumerism and the American consumer and the American economy supports a substantial proportion of the world's economy through our exports and imports.
There are two main problems with consumerism. First, our poor planet can't sustain the high levels of consumption in America and the rest of the developed economies. We are destroying the very fabric of our existence as we contaminate our air and water. We engage in ever riskier means of obtaining oil and gas; runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides pollute our streams and rivers; and we are contemplating an open pit mine in northern Wisconsin that will destroy an entire watershed feeding into Lake Superior and sustaining an Indian tribe. The second major problem with consumerism is its very premise---you can buy your way to happiness This runs contrary to every form of perennial wisdom. “Can't buy me love!” the Beatles sang.
Why is consumerism so powerful? Again, there are many and complex reasons but, as I see it, there are two outstanding factors. The first major problem is the corporation as the dominant economic form. Corporations are given the rights of a person but international corporations are often more powerful than people's governments as they suppress worker's rights and environmental standards in the name of greater profits. Corporations are amoral at best; they have no concern for any children or grandchildren let alone the seventh generation. Their only concern is with making a profit for the shareholders in their quarterly reports, and most of the shareholders are very wealthy people.
Advertising is the handmaiden of corporate dominance and the power of consumerism. Some of the best and brightest, some of the most creative individuals, earn huge salaries for generating desires and creating brand identity. Nothing is sacred: even the drool factor in babies is exploited to begin to establish brand identity. Advertisers prey on our fears and anxieties, our instinctual desires and lusts, envies and greeds, to sell products often harmful to our health and to the environment. And thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, corporations can now pump unlimited sums of money into political campaigns driven by clever and often deceptive ads: welcome 1984! Jung said big organizations like big corporations and big businesses, big machines and big militaries, are the modern day versions of the monsters in the myths and fairy tales of old. (1)
The second major reason for consumerism is the empty, meaningless lives most people live. True, a good portion of this arises from being constantly bombarded with the message that consumption will make us happy. This cultivates a narcissism which undercuts a basic human need—the need for intimacy and a sense of community. Research has show that beyond a modest income and adequate amounts of food, clothing, and shelter, plus decent health care, the most important elements in a happy life are the time to cultivate good relationships with family and friends, pursue topics of personal interest, and involvement with community affairs. Before the age of television, working men, and it was mostly men, used their evenings to engage in political discussion and community activities.
There are many, including the renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who maintain that the most important need for humans is to have a sense of meaning and purpose in one's life. “Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Jung said. (Jung 1977, p. 439) Religions and the great spiritual and philosophical traditions have forever facilitated and guided humans in the quest for meaning and purpose. Many modern men and women no longer feel contained within these forms; they are what Jung said are modern men and women in search of a soul.
This search, what Jung called the process of individuation, is basically Jung's antidote to consumerism. Having a sense of soul, living a soulful life, is much more precious, more priceless than anything a VISA card can buy. Jung told Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, there had to be something positive and equally powerful to replace the core of an addiction. (Jung 1976, p. 623-625) This became the central concept in AA—the need for a sense of a Higher Power. Consumerism is a craving, an addiction, and soul-making is a positive way to fill the void in the consumer. Jung said the journey within to discover the breath and depth of one's psyche is like a voyage into the immensity of the cosmos. (Jung 1964, p. 103)
There are two central concepts in individuation/soul-making. The first is what I call an ecology of the psyche, an important aspect of ecopsychology. Ecopsychology is a new and important field of that began to emerge in the mid 90s. It studies how our attitudes, values, perceptions and behaviors affect our relationship with the environment. It calls for a new relationship to our inner world and a re-formulation of our social, economic, educational, political and spiritual systems which will enable us to live sustainably. I call ecopsychology the psychology of ecology and the ecology of psychology. It is the subject of the four volumes of my books, The Dairy Farmer's Guide to the Universe—Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology.
An ecology of the psyche is best illustrated by thinking of a dream that we are in along with several other people. Our dream ego is closest to our conscious ego state. But who are all those other people? They are, and are more than, parts of ourselves. They can represent aspects of ourselves that we can't stand and which we project out onto others, thereby proceeding to belittle and persecute them. They can be aspects of ourselves that are positive potentials which we recognize and envy in others. They are often people of our opposite and complementary psychological types: if we are a strong thinking type we may dream of a strong feeling type person; if we are a strong introvert, we will probably dream of a lot of extroverts and being in extroverted situations like public places and larger gathering of people. We should think of ourselves as a walking tribe composed of our ego and all those little people within. Our challenge is to be in good relationships with the “little people within.” How well we relate to them is how well we are related to others in our waking state.
The second important aspect of individuation/soul making is Jung's concept of the Self. The Self is described as the center and centering force in the psyche. It's what brings all aspects of the psyche into relationship with each other. The Self can be thought of as whatever it is that creates our dreams with their cast of characters and the interactions and relationships between them. The Self is experiences as the image of God within if you are a Jew or a Christian, and at the cultural level as Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Wakan Tanka (Lakota Sioux), etc. It can also be experienced as a magnificent tree, a sacred landscape, or what an indigenous person would call a “spirit animal.”
The process of individuation is dependent on developing a good Ego-Self axis, best illustrated by the Chinese glyph, or picture-word, for the Sage—“The ear listening to the Inner King,” the Inner King or Queen being the Self in this case.
How does one connect with the Sage and develop a relationship with it? Dream work is an excellent way and many Self images come through dreams. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis with an approach that works with symbols are also good ways. So is meditation, deep reflection, intensive journaling, artistic and creative expression, and following personally meaningful spiritual and religious traditions.
These all require a certain degree of living the simple life. They require a preoccupation with one's inner journey, a valuing of reflection, time out and time away from it all, removal of clutter and a slowing down of the pace of things so one can be in a good “listening” position. Jung commented on how difficult it is to live the simple life (2) and railed against such things as an increasingly noisy world, time-saving gadgets that just increase the pace of life, and a goal of “keeping up with the Jones.” (3)
The last central concept for living sustainably and establishing a simple life is Jung's idea of the “two million-year old man within.” One of his biggest challenges was for modern men and women to unite their cultured side with “the indigenous one within.” Such a person would be connected emotionally, spiritually and symbolically with the land; a person for whom that is one of the most important goals in life. To do this we need long periods of immersion in nature, a lot of “hang time” with it—this is pretty simple. It includes a myriad of things like hiking, nature study, birdwatching, and gardening. (4)
The antidote to consumerism and an important aspect of living sustainably is to cultivate a simple life and carve out the time to spend with family and friends and soul-generating activities. It is not that “time is money” but what you spend your time on indicates what your values are, what you value. Just remember all those priceless things that credit cards can't buy.
1. Jung saw “such great abstractions” as large organizations, powerful systems, political ideologies and enormous machines as being demonic--autonomous archetypal phenomena seemingly beyond our control. (Jung 1977, p. 16-18) The modern archetypal dragons, as Jung saw them, are the “great machines, cars, big guns, [big organizations]…[that are] new terms for old things…but just as valid as the old ones.” He used the example of “all the little merchants…crushed by the Standard Oil Trust” who must have felt it to be “a great crushing monster” (Jung 1984, p. 538, 539):
After a while, when we have invested all our energy in rational forms, they will strangle us. They are the dragons now, they became a sort of nightmare. Slowly and secretly we become their slaves and are devoured…We are already strangled by our rational devices. One can see that also in enormous machine-like bodies of men, armies or other organizations, which all lead to destruction…Great organizations eat themselves up. (Jung 1984, p. 542, 543)
I have done without electricity, and tend the fireplace and stove myself. Evenings, I light the old lamps. There is no running water, and I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple! (Jung 1961, p. 226)
I personally detest noise and flee it whenever and wherever possible because it not only disturbs the concentration needed for my work but forces me to make the additional psychic effort of shutting it out…Noise is certainly only one of the evils of our time, thought perhaps the most obtrusive. The others are the gramophone, the radio, and now the blight of television...We must now add the nerve-shattering din of our modern gadgetry...Fear seeks noisy company and pandemonium to scare away the demons…Noise, like large crowds, gives a feeling of security…Noise protects us from painful reflection, it scatters our anxious dreams, it assures us that we are all in the same boat and creating such a racket that nobody will dare to attack us.
The dark side of the picture is that we wouldn’t have noise if we didn’t secretly want it…The real fear is what might come up from one’s own depths—all the things that have been held at bay by noise. (Jung 1984, p. 388-390)
Concerning our world of gadgets and time-saving devices, Jung opined:
Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly, they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before…All haste is of the devil, as the old masters used to say....
All time-saving devices…merely cram our time so full that we have no time for anything. Hence the breathless haste, superficiality, and nervous exhaustion with all the concomitant symptoms—craving for stimulation, impatience, irritability, vacillation, etc. Such a state may lead to all sorts of other things, but never to any increased culture of the mind and heart. (CW 18, ¶ 1343)
“Keeping up with the Jones” leads to a focus on material possessions:
All too often an American worker who owns only one car considers himself a poor devil, because his boss has two or three cars. This is symptomatic of pointless striving for material possessions. (Jung 1977, p. 202)
Meaningless jobs lead to meaningless lives:
See how men slink to work, only observe the faces in the trains at 7:30 in the morning! One man makes his little wheels go round, another writes things that interest him not at all. What wonder that nearly every man belongs to as many clubs as there are days in the week, or that there are flourishing little societies for women where they can pour out, on the hero of the latest cult, those inarticulate longings which the man drowns at the pub in big talk and small beer? (CW 7, ¶ 428)
Jung, C. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung [CW]. 2nd ed. H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler and W. McGuire, eds. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.CW 7. 1966. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology.
CW 18. 1976. The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings.
1961. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Aniela Jaffe, ed. Richard and Claire Winston, trans. Random House: New York.
Ed. 1964. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday and Co.: Garden City, NY.
1976. Letters. Vol. 2. 1951-1961. Gerhard Adler and Aniela Jaffe, eds. R. F. C. Hull, trans. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.
1977. C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters. W. McGuire and R. F. C. Hull, eds. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.
1984. Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930 by C. G. Jung. W. McGuire, ed. Princeton University Press: Princeton.
Merritt, D. L. The Dairy Farmer's Guide to the Universe, Fisher King Press: Carmel, CA.
2012. Volume 1: Jung and Ecopsychology,
2012. Volume 2: The Cry of Merlin: Jung, The Prototypical Ecopsychologist.
2012. Volume 3: Hermes, Ecopsychology, and Complexity Theory.
2013. Volume 4: Land, Weather, Seasons, Insects: An Archetypal View.
Sabini, M. 2002. The Earth has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C. G. Jung. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA.