Every once in a while, social commentary pops up in places you’d least expect it. Take The Flintstones, for example. It had plenty of social commentary in a way, but always on the lighter side. Then there was one episode I remember 20 years later that seemed to come out of nowhere. A man in a department store is just making his last payment on a pop-up toaster. Then he meekly asks, “May I have my collateral back, please?”
The shop owner goes out back and brings out two children, maybe aged 4 and 6. The kids are wondering who this strange man is that they’re being introduced to. And the man responds, “Let’s go home, kids, and daddy will make some nice pop-up toast for you.”
It was a cute Flintstones moment on the surface, but then witness the scathing indictment of the 60’s culture where fathers were pawning their relationships with their children to go out and get all the non-essential domestic crap they “needed” for the perfect surburban home.
Flash-forward a decade or so to Dr Seuss. A Cat in the Hat. Green Eggs and Ham. Red Fish, Blue Fish. Lots of silliness that just sounded cute and made kids laugh.
And then there was The Lorax.
It’s been a good 20 years since I read this book, and I can’t even remember the exact title, but here it is in a nutshell: Once there was a beautiful world where people lived in harmony, surrounded by forests of Truffula trees, these beautiful multi-coloured trees that grew everywhere abundantly. In moderation, the fruits of these trees could be harvested to provide for some of the essentials of life.
But then people started figuring out they could do more, and have more, and produce more, by finding so many more uses for the Lorax trees. So they started cutting down more of them, and they made more beautiful stuff that was nice to have. And then they wanted more, and there was always more to go around, so they cut down more trees and made more stuff, until they lived in this lavish consumer culture where everyone had so much stuff they hardly knew what to do with it all. The Lorax tried to warn them of what was happening, but the message didn’t get through until it was too late: the last tree was cut down. No more Truffula trees. No more stuff. A shocked culture suddenly realized that the resources were not unlimited.
It was all gone.
Flash-forward to today. Sure, we all realize that our resources are not unlimited. So we say. We talk about how oil won’t be around forever, and we should conserve the environment… But then it’s so easy just to fill up at the gas station, and drive everywhere, and we get a job in one city and live in the next, complaining the whole time that the gas is costing us so much and the commute takes forever. And we buy high-speed printers that make it so convenient to spit out gobs of paper, and then we throw out the pages we accidentally printed that we didn’t really need. We can justify it because we are recycling those pages. Those dead trees will come back in the next lifetime as 10% of a roll of toilet paper before going back to the earth, so really, it’s okay, isn’t it?
We have all kinds of rationalizations, and we have the capitalists against the environmentalists, the Al Gores against the George Bushes, but none of it really gets to the heart of it. All the rationalization about how much we have left, and how high the oceans will actually rise, and whether the environmentalists are just scare-mongering… none of it speaks to the heart.
Why do we consume so much? Why do we always need more?
I think we have an inverted sense of scarcity. We feel like the scarce resources will go on forever (even if we know in fact that it’s not the case) and at the same time we feel like our limitless resources are too scarce.
Why do we consume? Because we feel empty. Why do we turn on the radio? Because of the silence. Why do we drive somewhere else? Because where we are isn’t good enough. Why do we buy new stuff? Because we don’t have enough of it. Why surf the net at work? Because work is unfulfilling and boring.
We use up resources trying to fill a hole that only exists in our minds.
What’s wrong with me? What is this hole in my mind? Why do I feel empty? Why do I feel bored? Why do I rage against the silence?
I am not empty. I do not need anything to fill any hole. I am enough. It is what I am that counts, and what I do with what I am. It is not what I go out and get. It is not about getting something out there to fill a hole in here. I must realize that there is no scarcity inside. I can create joy from within. I can create anything in my life that I want. I don’t need to go out and get it. I don’t need to dig it out of the ground or chop it out of a forest or download it from a website. I don’t need to take it off a shelf or pay $12.95 to see it on the big screen.
I create my life from within. The emptiness is just an illusion – a false scarcity.
We have created a world in which we use real resources to solve imaginary problems. In the end, when all the resources are gone, we will have to decide what we really, actually need.
Now, here’s an exercise for you: take a look around you and count 100 things that are made of oil. Hint: plastics and polyester do count. Next, ask yourself how easily you could live without those things.
This is just a practice. The real test is coming in about 20 years.