Here are some I could think of:
- Global warming
- Increasing debt both consumer and national
- Decrease in marriage rate/increase in divorce rate
- Increase in depression
- Depletion of natural resources
- Contamination of soil, water, and air
- Increase in work hours
Of course these are interrelated, you’ll say. Because we consume so much, we’re depleting our resources, contaminating everything, and create global warming! Yes, that’s true. I would like to step back a bit further, though, and ask why: why are we consuming so much? What need(s) are being met here? Certainly marketing and advertising have something to do with it but again, I don’t quite buy the story of need-creation. I don’t think marketers can create a need out of thin air. I do think that they can take a need and redefine it so that it will be met only if you buy a certain product. And I think there are some very fundamental needs that our modern society does not meet in the most direct way. The two fundamental needs that are not being met well are belonging and meaning.
We want to belong, be a part of something. This need used to be filled by the family clan, by the community, by church or synagogue. With the increasing emphasis on the nuclear family, which began about 200 years ago, the family clan became less important. The reason for marriage shifted from political and/or economic to romantic with the idea of a male breadwinner and a female homekeeper, which was economically feasible only beginning in the 1950s (I am reading Stephanie Coontz’ fascinating book “Marriage, A History” – more on this topic once I’ve finished the book). The emphasis now is on the unit of two partners (with some rather unrealistic expectations thrown in). Friendships and community have become less important because of this emphasis on partnership, which is supposed to meet all of our belonging needs. With this shift in emphasis, communities started to fall apart, people became more mobile, and slowly the communities largely disappeared. Additionally, churches and synagogues became less influential in our lives. Science has answered many of the questions religion used to answer. Thus the domain of religion is continuously shrinking and with that the importance of the religious community. I suspect that some of the fundamentalist backlash we’re seeing is driven by a desperate attempt to maintain this source of belonging. It is strongly intertwined with meaning as well.
Victor Frankl wrote about the existential vacuum more and more of us are experiencing. He is not the only one who has observed that we are searching desperately for meaning, for purpose in our lives. Again, the traditional fillers of this need are disappearing, most importantly religion. When it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain theistic beliefs against the overwhelming evidence against the existence of an almighty, omnipotent god, it is also problematic to claim that we’re fulfilling god’s purpose on earth. Admitting this to ourselves, we quickly slide into a meaning crises, which, according to Eric Maisel, might be the reason behind a lot of depression. The increasing popularity of spirituality and New Age religions is probably a direct result of this meaning crisis. And that might be one of the healthier ways of filling this vacuum…
So, these fundamental needs are not being met because the traditional ways of filling them are no longer existing or are falling apart. And, of course, this has been going on for at least a couple hundred years now: while the non-commercial ways of meeting the needs are falling away, commercial ways are increasing. With that comes overconsumption and the destruction of the earth. There are other factors playing into this (for example, part of the reason for overpopulation is the condemnation of birth control; the unequal distribution of wealth is certainly behind a lot of this as well). Yet, could it be that strong drivers behind the symptoms I listed above are our (desperate) search for meaning and belonging?