We’re toast. Stick a fork in us, because we’re done. Let’s face it folks, we are on the fast-track to fossil-hood and the pace is beyond what even the most pessimistic models predicted. Last month, Well Being Trust released its analysis of U.S. mortality data, and the report is grim. Americans are dying from alcohol, drug overdose, and suicide at the highest rate ever recorded. Not only are humans responsible for the current mass extinction event (probably the sixth since life developed on earth), but we are literally killing ourselves into oblivion.
Bizarrely, life expectancy in our country is going backwards; apparently, this die-off is most severe in rural white men. What’s going on here? Why, in the nation with the most money spent on health (by a long shot), are we actually losing ground? Just what kind of crisis are we in?
Psychoanalyst and author Oliver James developed a compelling answer to these questions, and he wrote an eponymous book titled Affluenza. James cites data from multiple sources indicating a relationship between income inequality and emotional distress. He hypothesizes that “selfish capitalist” countries, such as the United States, focus on consumerism to such excess that many residents develop toxic stress, psychological disorders, and alienation. In a word, despair. And chronic despair and loneliness lead to addiction, destruction, and death.
I could be wrong. I mean, I’ve rooted for Washington’s NFL team for decades. Perhaps I’ve developed a Cassandra complex. How great would it be to royally screw up this prediction—watching technology or extraterrestrials or Captain America swoop in at the last second to save us from ourselves!? But put on your paleo hat for a moment and consider that millions of years of evolutionary pressure hardwired in our DNA is not going to change much in a brief 12 or 13,000 years of “civilization.” We are gatherer-hunters to the core—sporting a thin veneer of polyester slim-fit performance wear. If we don’t quickly come up with some new adaptations to the current pressure on the planet, homo sapiens is headed the way of the dodo. So what.
So what? That’s a great question. I’ve always chuckled at “Save the Earth” bumper stickers, because this beautiful ball of iron is perfectly capable of saving itself. Could our homocentric perspective be distracting us from a fundamental truth that seems too strange and impractical to accept? There is a deeper truth we seem to be missing when we focus on our individual needs and fears: we are fully integrated into the four-billion-year-old life on this planet. Indeed, we are inseparable from the rest of the 14.5-billion-year-old energy in this universe.
A transformation of consciousness is underway … we are awakening to the humbling reality that we are not divinely authorized stewards at the apex of creation. We are miraculously conceived, semi-conscious fibers of awareness woven into an astonishing tapestry. We are dispelling a delusional self-image of humanity as champions of some winner-take-all “Survival of the Fittest” throw-down.
Dualistic thinking can be self-destructive, but the realization of our true nature can be liberating. Released from the shackles of identifying with isolation, we can calm down and simplify. We can turn to each other, and to Nature, with loving kindness. Rather than find our success through consumption, we can learn to see the inherent goodness in simpler living. Through patience, compassion, and service to those in need, we’ll cure our affluenza. As we lean in to face our demise, we will find that caring for others, and the planet, is truly caring for ourselves. Barriers will fall, borders will dissolve, and humanity will continue to evolve.
Of course, hard choices are ahead. It is unlikely we can reverse course in time to avoid massive, catastrophic damage to most of our infrastructure. Chances are we will be facing unprecedented death and destruction much sooner than most predict. But we’re 14 billion years in the making. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.
— Dr. Didden is the health officer at the Jefferson County Health Department.