Anthropocene Mind

The human side of climate change

The Midas Effect

In this season of merry aquisition

King Midas had it all. He was rich, owned a beautiful waterfront palace, and had a stunning daughter. When Dionysus, the Greek god of pleasure and festivity, offered Midas anything he wanted as reward for being a nice guy, Midas requested a golden touch. Most of us know what happened next. A gentle stroke of his finger transformed all of his food into the precious yellow metal. People too – he turned his daughter into a statue. When Midas realized that his blessing was a curse, he pleaded with Dionysus to lift the spell. After a quick dip in the Pactolus River, Midas was his old self again.

This homily on greed was created for an ancient audience, but its lessons are germane to 21st century citizens. Many people have unprecedented access to an abundance of stuff – just check the Black Friday or Cyber Monday advertisements. Who needs divine intervention when you can drive to the mall or turn on the computer to fill a shopping cart with bargains? Midas quickly realized the folly of his choice because the consequences were so immediate, but the damage done by a shopping spree is elusive. Our focus is carbon powered comfort and contentment. We are less likely to link our individual acquisitions with global climate change. Yet the damage, however difficult to see, is real. Consider the island of Kiribati where residents are training for exile. In a recent Business Week article, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg discussed his visit to this low-lying island chain in the central Pacific near Fiji where rising seas already threaten to swallow the country within two decades. Goldberg laments that:

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We now have an idea of what will happen to people in low-lying places when the industrial powers of the world burn fossil fuels with reckless abandon. Climate change is the ultimate gift of the West, of those who produce greenhouse gasses, to the people of Kiribati, who don’t. 

One could reasonably argue that our current culture of conspicuous consumption is caused by a capitalist infrastructure that equates buying with patriotism. Daily news programs report on the health of the economy and job security, both of which depend on how many objects we purchase in a day or month. Yet Midas, a character from a pre-petroleum age of oral tradition, behaved like a modern consumer. He had plenty of gold, wanted more, and did not calculate the consequences of his cravings. Anthropologist Donald E. Brown assembled a list of traits that he calls “human universals.” About halfway down the alphabetical roster, between marriage and mealtimes, is materialism. For better or worse we seem to be wired to acquire.

Dionysus cannot save us from the perils of procurement. So, in this season of merry acquisition, Anthropocene Mind will probe why we, like Midas, acquire until we might expire and how we can alter our consuming habits.












Michele Wick, Ph.D., is a writer, licensed psychologist, and Research Associate in the Psychology Department at Smith College.


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