Jessica Del Pozo (JD): As a society with many people harmed by overconsumption, what types of things might we start doing to change this?
Kevin Gallagher (KG): One of the first steps as a society would be to rebuild a sense of belonging and community. As a result of a system that only values that which can be measured and accounted for financially, we live in a society that experiences chronic loneliness, as human existence has been degraded over time.
Humans are tribal beings and yet, the human experience has over the last ten millennia devolved from communal living within a tribe marked by many close relationships to clans, to extended families, and then to nuclear families. Today, even healthy nuclear families are an exception and far too many people live lives of isolation in which they experience an excruciating lack of healthy human relationships.
Under a homeostatic viewpoint, we are separate, independent entities that try to maintain our internal equilibrium in the face of external changes. If we were to recognize our interconnection, one result might be that we begin to see the value of communal relationships and see how we can benefit from interacting with others in a close, deeply personal way.
Rather than trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in personal consumption in the form of entertainment, food, and material wealth, I think we might begin to see a culture that placed more value on relationships. We would see that our personal health and wellbeing would be supported better through those types of relationships than through the things that so many of us currently look to find happiness and satisfaction.
JD: Peter Sterling might possibly reframe that as finding internal or intrinsic sources of dopamine that are natural and don't lead to a crash afterward, rather turning to things that give us an external source of dopamine, such as food, drugs, or social media.
KG: Right. That is saying the same thing using the vernacular of human biology. We all inhabit bodies that evolved over the last three million years or so to have a certain set of needs. Humanity for the vast majority of those three million years lived in small bands of anywhere from 20 to 70 individuals and the sense of connection between the individual and the group is an inherent part of the human condition.
While human culture has evolved rapidly over the last ten thousand years since the Agricultural Revolution, and even more rapidly over the last three hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, our biology has not kept pace, nor could it. The difference in the rates of change of human culture and human biology has led us to a place where many of our most basic human needs are not being met. That gap between what our biology demands and what our culture provides is growing bigger every day and we are starting to see major dislocations as more and more people recognize how badly this consumptive, extractive industrial capitalist culture is meeting our human needs.
JD: The world population continues to grow rapidly at a time in which we are so digitally connected, but possibly more disconnected than ever. This is such a global problem, what can we do?
That question points to one of the major challenges we face in this moment where we are living as biological beings operating in a social context that is not designed to fit our biology.
One place to look for an idea of how to respond is what has happened in the food industry over the last few decades. The concept of localization: eating food that is local to your bioregion and that is appropriate to the time of year in which it is being eaten.
I would apply a concept to our social relationships. Rather than having a virtual network of 700 friends on Facebook, it may be more useful, and more supportive of our health and wellbeing to have a smaller local group of friends that you see in person, and that are able to support you in a more well-rounded way. So it's beginning that process of localization and expanding it beyond food to our own interpersonal relationships and even to how we choose to be in the world.
For so many of us, we are conditioned to think that our jobs are such a key part of our identity that we’re supposed to be successful and wealthy and important. In terms of our satisfaction, it's actually much more useful to be connected to the people that are around us and to serve those people in a very local way to make your own community better.
The things I am talking about here are big, systematic, structural changes. They aren’t easy and they won’t happen overnight. I think it is important to remain aware that while these big changes are needed, there are many ways to work for that kind of change. Social scientist Erica Chenoweth, who has studied non-violent social movements, has found first that non-violent social movements are far more successful than violent ones. And second, that the tipping point for the creation of major, lasting social change is 3.5 percent — meaning that a non-violent social movement becomes far more likely to achieve the change it seeks once its active support reaches 3.5 percent of the population.
For me, this idea reinforces the work of creating the social change we need, creating a society the better supports our health, wellbeing, and happiness at all levels. It happens at the level of politics and policy, it happens at the level of organization, and it happens at the level of conversation. Each of us, no matter what our gifts, our skills or our education can help move us toward that 3.5 percent. Every conversation matters.
It also tells us where to apply our efforts. We don’t need to focus on changing the minds of those who are on the opposite side of the spectrum, those who believe in separation or who believe that the objectification of the natural world and of other human beings is acceptable or appropriate. Instead, we are best served by focusing our efforts on gathering together those closest to us, those most likely to support the transition to a better society. We should concentrate our efforts on enabling those people to become engaged and activated around these issues.
Another important idea comes from activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy . She describes three different types of actions necessary to support the transition to life-affirming society: holding actions, which attempt to prevent or limit the damage being done by the dominant culture to other people or the natural world; structural change, which works to develop the new institutions and organizations that will support are healthier society; and shifts in consciousness, where we do the inner work of overcoming our limiting conditioning and creating the space for operating in the world in a new, more connected way.
These actions will all need to be done, but each of us does not need to be involved in all of these actions. We can focus on the areas that suit our interests and abilities and trust that others will be working in the other areas. This recognition that we are part of a larger movement that we are working together with others to create the change we want and need can be important for avoiding being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge that we face.