Back in the 17th Century Descartes localised reality, making individual consciousness itself the only thing we can truly know. Ever since, Europe has led a growing subjectivism and individualization of consciousness – the strict hierarchies which had dominated our society previously were now recognized as ossified remains ripe for extirpation.
The move in general for the past four hundred years has been towards personal liberty, individual perspective and the right to self-determination. In the twentieth century this political idealism took its most aggressive form in the restructuring of culture along ideological lines in the birth of social orders such as fascism and communism. Very few would have guessed fifty years ago that the dominant force would become the consumerist capitalism which lacks any focus but the sating of individual hungers. In hindsight, it is perhaps obvious – the intellectual tradition of the West has degenerated, collapsed under its own weight and where before a culture could be united under the banner of 'the people' struggling for self-determination against an oppressive historical regime, it seems we have now given up: our lackluster democracies are populated by individuals too wrapped up in passively entertainment to take an active role in the guiding of politics; our governments are bound by dependence on dubiously-gained finance, finance which is essential to any party wishing to remain in power as the marketing tricks of sound bite politics are all the overfed masses are capable of comprehending; the ideological few who may still exist within mainstream politics see their best ideas ignored by the people, who are more concerned with the price of oil or a pair of jeans than in finding a sustainable future for the whole human race.
Has the common man/woman always been too nearsighted to see beyond their immediate comfort? Or is this development merely the embodiment of society governed by a species incapable of rising above our basest desires?
Our intellectual freedom, struggled for, died for by millions, has resulted in a culture where we've decided we can't actually be asked to think for ourselves (god forbid we should actually think about anyone else). 'My own corner's alright, and I happen to like these clothes made by the Gap; where else can I find nice trousers at a price which allows me to run my car, eat well, go out every weekend and do everything else I want with my life? I would buy them from somewhere ethical if I had the money' translates as if I could be asked to live morally without it impinging on my own lifestyle and the fact that we've all grown up expecting to have everything we want at the click of our fingers, then I would. Yes, consideration of others comes only if it's not at the expense of ourselves.
The question of whether these things are (1) necessary, or (2)making us happy, is not even asked.
My prediction is that within the lifetimes of everyone who's going to read this we're going to have that choice taken out of our hands: the luxuries that the western world has come to enjoy are basically the expectation that we can all live the lives that the rich and powerful lived in preceding centuries. These lifestyles are based on manipulating others to provide materials for our consumption: food, clothes, goods and services. The raising of everyone above the status of 'worker' to 'consumer' has effectively transferred that lower status onto other nations. But this trend cannot continue. The yearning for rights, freedom and self-determination follows in the nations which are currently the worlds' working class as a necessary consequence of the imposition of our socio-economic structures upon them. When the rest of the world realizes that it no longer has to be the powerless producers propping up the west's indulgence, the redistribution of wealth and lifestyle will become inevitable. And that means that a lot of what we take for granted is going to disappear.
The dual prong of consumerism is: (1) Dependence on someone else doing the hard work for increasingly little reward, and (2) The numbing of our spirits as a result of having everything provided for us: why bother thinking or challenging ourselves when we can just feed ourselves stupid? The constant need for more stimulation prevents us being able to stop and enjoy life for one moment: we become obsessed with getting and never giving; we suffocate as we refuse to exhale. We are so far distant (both spatially and in understanding) from either the source or the manufacture of physical objects we use in daily life, we no longer have any connection with the wider world. It is no surprise that we no longer respect the planet or the natural forces that have produced what sustains us. When we no longer respect and revere the very food which keeps us alive, as a holy gift, it is no surprise that we are the unhealthiest we have ever been, or that our bodies and spirits are rebelling against us with a host of internally generated diseases.
For the right-minded in the 'developed' world, the task now is also twofold: firstly, we must begin seeing the global consequences of our actions. This means understanding where the products we buy have come from, and understanding the economic forces that our consumerism supports. The 'cheapest bargain' often comes at the expense of other humans who are at the bottom of a long chain. The ethical choice may seem more expensive or demanding, but choosing the alternative which damages other humans, animals and nature as little as possible, is not just helping others in the world, it actively creates a world that is better, and more fair, for everyone. This is a daunting task, but one we must get used to, even if it happens slowly at first. Just because we can afford something, doesn't make it right to use it. Respecting food, alcohol, drugs, books, cars, petrol and electricity, respecting our own bodies and minds, is not just the moral thing to do: it is the sane thing, and will lead to much greater appreciation of our own lives and what we are blessed with. Because, to take one example, to overeat is just as damaging as to under eat. The correct path is to eat respectfully, without waste, using only what we need, and what will be best for our bodies, and actively supporting food that has been produced respectfully. The resources of the planet are not ours for the taking, they are gifts and if we abuse them, they will harm us (as we are now finding out).