Studying Greek mythology and the origins of Christianity and Judaism this spring & summer, I have a banal observation: What a people believes shapes their material reality (and vice-versa). I apply it to contemporary America. We are indoctrinated from birth to believe that Economic Growth Is Good. The mechanisms and forces of this indoctrination are omnipresent. We hear, we read, we soak in the idea that buying things is good, founding and endlessly growing a business is good, inventing things — anything — is good, selling things is good… Indeed, we are told that our very survival depends on these things. We go on to believe that if these things are not happening, are not always happening in ever-increasing ways, we’ll all become homeless, starving and die.*
The indoctrination we receive is so profound that it suggests these are material facts and not beliefs, not elements of a specific mythological system. This is why, in the middle of the Cold War, Noam Chomsky remarked that compared to the United States, propaganda in the Soviet Union was child’s play, ham-fisted, clumsy. In short, on a virtually cellular level, Americans equate economic growth with the persistence of life, with the good.
And this is how Americans vote. If the economy is up, the incumbent wins; if not, he loses. Understanding this, the always shrewd Bill Clinton ran his 1992 campaign surrounded by post-it notes in campaign offices declaring: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Even today, as we live through the first summer wherein the effects of human-forced global warming are undeniable even to the casual observer, climate change ranks around #20 in priority in national voter polls. That all creatures on Earth are interdependent, that planetary biology exists within a web of reciprocity, that the global industrial consumer economy is shattering this balance — these realities stand no chance against the near molecular-level indoctrination equating life and the good with the expansion of the global industrial consumer economy.
My prediction, well, my fear is that this thinking will continue for the majority of Americans, even as we plunge further and further into ecological collapse. That rivers will continue to dry up, that rain bombs will continue to expand and proliferate, that the jet stream will continue to fracture and cause bewildering shifts in temperature and weather conditions, that the oceans will continue to heat and that, astonishingly, twenty years down the road, Americans will still be voting on “the economy” and not for a turn toward actual — not fictional — life.
*One could argue that, as occurred during the Great Depression, economic contraction does result in starvation and homelessness. That is true. However, we are rarely permitted to think to the next step — which is that under the current economic (material life) model of global industrial consumer capitalism, it is true, but under other modes of living practiced by humans throughout history and, indeed, practiced by the rest of the biota of the planet, living in balance and reciprocity with one’s environment does not produce privation, but wellness and thriving.
In a subsequent short essay, I would like to suggest a couple of “Hail Mary” ways that this deep, subconscious indoctrination could be combatted by forward-thinking artists and others.
— DH, Chicago 8/2023