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The Orgiastic Future Recedes

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I love my “worry” book. It gives me hope.

The book in question is the one I’ve already mentioned, What  Should We Be Worried About?  It is a collection of brief essays by some of the world’s foremost thinkers. They are organized into clusters of themes, and the one I’m really enjoying now is about the impending end of an era of sustained economic growth.

I have a cousin who is a professor of economics who may have something to say to the contrary, but I will boldly go forward.

Why would abandonment of the concept of sustained economic growth be a positive thing? I would say because we believed that it would ensure a rising standard of living for everyone. That has clearly proven false. To boot, the debt-financed, most recent phase of growth has created the illusion of prosperity at the cost of enormous levels of stress for many.

Edited by John Brockman

Edited by John Brockman

Sometimes it seems as though we Americans are driving ourselves crazy in pursuit of the “good life.”

The evidence is all over the newspapers, in articles about public health for one thing. If the quality of life is so wonderful here, why are so many people medicated for depression and anxiety and sleeplessness? Why do so many people turn to alcohol to cope? Why is the rate of suicide rising steadily? Why do so many people need to get “high,” brains like balloons rising above what must be the desolate terrain of reality?

Lately the news is full of statistics about rising heroin addiction and the people dying right and left from opioid overdoses, both illegal and prescribed. You begin to wonder: Do I know anyone who is an addict? Should I, to be a good citizen, get a prescription for Naloxone to carry in my purse, just in case somebody goes down nearby? No, maybe not. What if it’s just heat stroke and I get sued for a contraindication?

These disorders are moving in too close. The latter question is high profile because I live in New Mexico, which leads the nation in drug overdoses. The Land of Enchantment, you know. Maybe the Land of Disenchantment, really.

Something is profoundly amiss everywhere, though, and perhaps a dead end to economic growth will help us figure out what. One of the authors in the worry book, a man named Satyajit Das, an expert in financial derivatives and risk, quoted from The Great Gatsby in describing the belief in perpetual economic growth that we need to relinquish. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a moment of prescience perhaps, referred to it as  “the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

So if you can’t have perpetual growth, can’t keep filling up your house and garage with evidence of the fleeting joy of shopping, what makes life worthwhile, enjoyable, even joyful? Community? Friendship? Good health? Learning for its own sake? The arts? Clean air, clear waters, beautiful scenery? Long walks with a good dog? What is the shape of a life you don’t need to be medicated, drugged, or inebriated to endure?

And I think a huge part of the problem is the way that the pharmaceutical industry has seduced so many into taking the easy way out, popping a pill to deal with whatever. They make an awful lot of money from treating problems and then treating the side effects of the solution. Now they’re making a lot of money from saving  the lives of addicts they have created. And, of course, the medical community is complicit. Whom do you trust in a world dedicated to perpetual economic growth?

So how do we reclaim the promise that was America? The irony is that it may involve redefining how much of what we need to have to be happy, and that could include emancipating ourselves from the technological hysteria afoot. This is high profile for the moment due to my trip to the dentist Tuesday.

The purpose was simply my regular cleaning. While there, however, I was introduced to a new electric toothbrush. The old-fashioned ones I have used all my life are cheap, and they must work because my teeth are just fine. However, for $170 I could have this newfangled thing. It has several different small rotating heads, plus a timer (!) I can set to avoid brushing too long and a red light (!) that will go off if I brush too hard. Cool.

For a moment, I actually thought about investing. Maybe I was addled by the noise and vibration of that new cleaning device that sprays water and polishes at the same time. Blessedly, though, a moment of delay allowed me to recover. “I’ll think about it,” I said as I prepared to leave.

Satyajit Das played a role in that decision. The last sentence of his essay urges the reader to think about “what a world without growth–or at best, low and uneven rates of growth–will look like.” That worries him, but not me. In the mere act of thinking about this possibility, we may begin to start making a raft of decisions that actually improve quality of life as well as our finances. I’m not worried about the effect on the free enterprise system. It will adapt. After all, isn’t it dedicated to giving us what we want?

 

One Response to “The Orgiastic Future Recedes”

  1. Maheswar Rao

    Ellen,
    I did not read the book, but I do not think that inexorable cadence of Capitalism and it’s side effects could be stopped. Neither you can convince human beings to stop pursuing ” good life” I also do not know any better utopian economic system will cure all the ills of the society. Just say ” bring it on ” and enjoy the show.