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Re: Using nature and vital needs

by Betsy Barnum

06 June 1999 18:12 UTC

David Orton wrote:

> Bahro's work forces us to look at
> how to change society from one having the desire to consume,
> to a different kind of society where it is socially
> desirable to be frugal and not a consumerist. How do we
> change human motivation? For Bahro this requires a profound
> spiritual transformation on a mass scale. Left biocentrism
> and any radical ecocentrist philosophy, must confront the
> necessity for a total change in social consciousness and how
> to bring this about.

It isn't "human motivation" that needs to be changed, in my view--at least,
not on a fundamental level. It is more accurately a "social motivation" or a
"cultural motivation" that is urging people to consume. It does have 
implications, too.

Up until about a century ago, maybe a few decades more, frugality *was* the
dominant ethic in the U.S., believe it or not. Sure, there were the rich, 
didn't have to be frugal, but for the vast majority of people, frugality 
was a
way of life and was considered virtuous.

It has been in the past 120 years or so, with the rise or corporate power,
that "consumerism" was invented very deliberately, and fed to the public in
ever-increasing doses specifically to break the hold of 
It has gained momentum throughout this century, particularly after WWII, 
corporate CEOs and marketers were openly saying that the economy needed to
engender and maintain constantly increasing demand for products. Planned
obsolescence, disposables of every sort and rapidly changing fashion became
the means to ensure that people would develop "needs" for every new product
the coroprations could think of to make.

Some people are saying that we are part of the most gigantic, long-term
experiment in the manipulation of human psychology that has ever taken 
Marketing and advertising companies not only have access to--or even are
themselves conducting!--the most cutting-edge psychological research, but 
are now hiring anthropologists to study the way people and groups behave in
order to more finely target all of us with consumer messages.

Lots of people today might really define their cell phone or laptop, or even
their Ford Expedition, as "vital needs," but I'd be willing to bet that in
spite of the barrage of advertising, a lot of people do recognize these as
luxuries and are even conscious on some level of the destruction of the 
that is part of their production and use.

Defining "vital needs" is a challenge, and I think there needs to be
flexibility, not a rigid line drawn for everyone. Myself, I'd define as 
needs, in addition to the basic physical survival needs of food, water,
shelter, warmth, rest and companionship, things like beauty, art, music,
ritual and celebration. These will take different forms for different 

In former days as well as today, people create art in many ways, most of 
using materials from the Earth such as clay, fiber, color, wood, rock. Music
can require materials for instruments--wood, hide, reed. strings of gut, and
so on. It seems to me it is possible to use such materials sustainably. 
beings are creative creatures and the need to express oneself and to
appreciate the creative expression of other beings (not just other humans) 
intrinsic to our nature. Not having the opportunity to do that would, in my
opinion, make life pretty close to not worth living.

> How can an activist work for the equally necessary
> subversion, not consolidation of industrial society?  How
> can reforms help disintegrate not reinforce the system?

Working to restore power over corporations to the people, where it 
and where it belongs, is an area that as yet few activists are working in, 
it holds *great* potential for diminishing the destruction and reversing the
trends of industrial society. The Program on Corporations, Law and 
based in Yarmouth, MA, and Democracy Unlimited in Arcata, Calif., are two
organizations I know of that are pursuing this direction. Instead of
confronting corporations one harm at a time, such as by opposing effluent
releases for a specific plant, or boycotting, or trying to find a way to
regulate that works (corporations were instrumental in setting up the
regulatory system, for just exactly this reason), these groups are 
corporations' rights as individuals and their rights to operate in 
to the public interest. They are asking, as in Arcata, can democracy 
with corporate rights and privileges?

I'd love to see much more attention paid to this approach to our current
crisis. If enough people and organizations *got together* with the goal of
removing from corporations the rights and privileges that have allowed them 
run so badly amok that our entire bisophere is threatened, a huge and rapid
shift could be brought about. This also requires paying a lot of attention 
economics and to creating and supporting alternative economic structures for
employment and meeting vital needs.

Diminishing corporate power alone will not fully address the human-centered
mentality of Western civilization. This mentality, as we all know, goes back
much farther than the rise of corproations. But it is certainly true that
corporations and the consumer economy and culture they have created are an
outgrowth of the human-only way of thinking, and are hugely responsible for
the immediate threats to the biosphere and the human future. Once 
are again subservient to the will of the people, as they should be--once the
static and interference from consumerism is not distracting and deafening 
deadening us--the deeper philosophical issues will be easier to see and talk
about, both as individuals and as societies.


Betsy Barnum

"The new cosmic story emerging into human awareness
overwhelms all previous conceptions of the universe for the
simple reason that it draws them all into its comprehensive
fullness.... Who can learn what this means and remain calm?"

-- Brian Swimme

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