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Feeding Hungry Ghosts

Sometimes I feel an inconsolable grief for our collective madness. Sometimes I feel unbounded joy for what could be our immense, collective transformation. Our madness and our transformation are long coming. Perhaps the violence of our nightmare will finally jolt us awake...

In 1951, British philosopher, Alan Watts, wisely observed:

“Our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to ‘dope.’ Somehow we must grab what we can and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless. […] This ‘dope’ we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation.” [1]

His words seem truer now than when he wrote them.

We are like hungry ghosts, the wretched, starving creatures of Buddhist lore, with large, empty bellies and long, skinny necks, unable to receive nourishment, as food turns to ash on their tongues.

With ever-increasing anxiety, we frantically consume that which does not nourish us, as we decimate the very planet that supports us. Yet economic indicators insist that growth is (and must continue) increasing.

The question is: Growth of what?

About 15 years ago, I was touched deeply by a film about Dr. Marilyn Waring, a feminist and former Member of Parliament in New Zealand, who challenged the prevailing wisdom about what was ‘good’ for her country and rural constituents. What economists called ‘growth’ was vastly different than what sustained life. She has since taken up the work of demystifying economic language, which is more likely to intimidate than inform.

Her holistic perspective of economics opened my eyes to the appalling truth that our global economic system is actually designed to value death, not life.

By way of example, the single indicator of a country’s economic health, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), “is utterly unrelated to the wellbeing of a community. It tells you nothing about levels of poverty. It tells you nothing about the distribution of poverty. It tells you nothing about primary health care, education standards, or environmental cleanliness.”[2]

The important history to understand is that this one-dimensional measurement of ‘growth’ did, arguably, help industrial countries rebuild after WWII. That’s when every United Nations (UN) member-county was required to use it in order to belong to the club and receive its many benefits.

Today, the GDP is woefully inadequate to assess the world’s complex needs and challenges. Yet that’s what it does.

Yes, the UN has made recent progress in developing a survey of national ‘happiness’ indicators, with the hope it will inform future policies, but there is enormous work yet to be done. Given the next American president’s displeasure with the UN, and his administration’s deep ties to industries that are old school, GDP-favorites, global progress toward valuing life more than death may be painfully slow.

For now, high-dollar industries that exploit or kill people and poison natural resources, remain economic boons, because there is no accounting for their negative impacts on life. While activities like feeding, clothing, and raising healthy children, or preserving natural resources for future generations, are actually perceived as economic burdens and even encounter life-threatening attack.

Of course long before the GDP, humans were committing all manner of atrocities in the name of progress, civility, productivity, security, and righteousness.

Our global history of colonialism has touched virtually everyone—one way or another. It severed connections to family, culture, homeland, and a sense of our inter-relatedness with all of life, which was foundational to indigenous cultures before a siege of colonial ‘prosperity’ prevailed.

Numbing the pain of that kind of radical disconnection was surely a form of self-preservation, in the short term. But our history of anesthetizing, self-protection has become a raging addiction that is actually eating us alive…and leaving us ever more hungry and bereft of meaning.

If we refuse to account for how our choices impact the whole of life, if we don’t drastically disrupt the status quo, if we continue to prioritize monetary growth and keep ourselves doped-up on a “high standard of living,” then destruction will remain an economic good, death a cash cow.

As the United States is poised to enthrone an icon of our deadening addiction to the ‘good life,’ there is an unprecedented imperative to face the inconvenient truth and learn to kick our habit. We can’t wait for our so-called leaders to show us the way; we must show them.

To do so will require radical self-honesty, to take an inventory of our passive, active, and unconscious perpetuation of a lifestyle that is actually killing what is genuinely valuable.

We will need to gather ourselves in small and large groups, creating safe environments that support this courageous, revolutionary task.

We will surely benefit from each other’s support to feel the rage, fear, and grief that have been long suppressed.

In doing so, may we resist the temptation to look at our human history with a too narrow lens or project all responsibility onto those in power and/or the people perceived to have put them there.

Finally, may we use our individual power and spend or invest our dollars, time, creativity, and life-energy wisely. If we are committed to waking up, together we can create a powerful force that steers markets in a direction that feeds life.

We are in this together. I offer my perspective as a means to catalyze contemplation, encourage healthy dialogue, and inspire meaningful action. As always, your comments are encouraged!


[2] Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics. A feature-length documentary by National Film Board of Canada, 1995.

Photo Copyright : Ryan Jorgensen




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