Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Trouble With Prosperity

Unlike birds, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds."--W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

As our day job is in the financial markets, we have spent the past several months watching the slow-motion train wreck in Europe with a mix of fascination and bemusement. (If you are wondering how we can possibly find such a difficult situation "bemusing," well...welcome to our blog!) Indeed, it is not just the Europe debacle we find interesting, but also the "Occupy" camps that have sprung up around the world.

We find ourselves can so many current human beings, the majority of whom (particularly in the developed world) have luxuries unimaginable to the richest kings of a few centuries ago, be so unhappy? How do we square the unprecedented abundance of "stuff" with increased angst...and even anger? We read a story this morning of a well-paid US financial advisor who got so far in over his head (even as he advised others on what to do with their money) that he couldn't figure out how to get "connected to the simple ordinary stuff of my family’s life." Meanwhile, one of the more surreal quotes we have seen from the Occupy protests featured a protester angry about her $5500 laptop being stolen. (We were not even aware such an expensive machine existed...)

Again, the question is it that the most privileged group of creatures in the history of this so freaking unhappy?!? Consider that up until about 100 years ago, humans did without electricity, medical care, mechanized transportation, and any sort of safe food delivery system. Human life was indeed "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Forgot about iPhones--for the vast majority of humans, life was, as it remains for other animals, a constant struggle for survival, preoccupied exclusively with acquiring food and protecting oneself from predators.

Had you queried such people about the prospect of a world where food is not only readily available, but so plentiful that one of the biggest problems is overeating; where transportation from city to city can be accomplished within hours, if not less, and travel halfway around the world takes about half a day; where one can communicate instantly with people worldwide on a device that fits in one's pocket, and is affordable to large swaths of humanity; well, we dare say they would have predicted a virtual utopia, with people not only spending much of their time relaxing and enjoying a life of leisure, but free of the tensions and anxieties that consume one when there is not enough to eat.

And yet.

Mystifying as this seems, we have a theory. Indeed, it is a remarkably simple one--freed of the daily struggle for survival, humans find themselves at a loss for how to do something "meaningful," due mainly, if not exclusively, to the nagging suspicion it is all futile anyway. Other animals--which do not, so far as we know, imagine their own deaths--do not suffer such existential angst, which explains why it is far more common to see a content lion than a content human.

Interestingly, it seems the wealthier people become, the more problematic this is, as they spin ever more elaborate wheels designed to distract from the one thing that "matters"--i.e., that none of it does. Thus, we have friends who speak fondly of their younger years, when they had far lower incomes and much less stuff, even as they spend and spend and spend, and work and work and work...all in pursuit of some mythical brass ring. As Chuck Palahniuk put it so eloquently in Fight Club: "you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you."

This, we would argue, is the fundamental paradox of human nature--our sentience frees us from the worries of daily survival, only to supplant them with fears of our eventual demise. A cruel joke, indeed...