Is altruism sustainable?

Recently I found a documentary on the Gaia channel called “I Am” (2010) that I really thought I would enjoy. The narrative involved movie director Tom Shadyac’s recovery from a severe concussion and his awakening to the consumerism and overconsumption that plagues our planet today. This is a theme of my own work, so I sat back excited to absorb his particular take on the problem and further inform my own understanding.

The program started well enough. Shadyac’s story is inspiring and his journey mirrors one we all must take in awakening to our own unsustainable economic behaviors. He first pointed his camera inward, then outward at our country’s gargantuan levels of resource depletion and rightly concluded that overconsumption is a bad thing. It fuels war and destruction, not to mention unhealthy levels of conspicuous self-indulgence. But it’s clear Shadyac doesn’t understand where all this consumerism came from and why it’s now the overriding program played out in the world today. He seems to blame it on us and our lack of awareness that we’re all hard wired for connection and cooperation.

But a clear history of the creation of today’s culture of overconsumption exists, and it’s a history we must understand if we’re ever going to correct it. What is that history? One of the New Deal’s principal architects, John Maynard Keynes, was worried about underconsumption during the Great Depression. He convinced FDR to construct an economic framework that stimulated consumption and spending and that we still operate under today. (You can find more information on that by clicking here.)

The “I Am” documentary, however, ignored any useful criticism of consumerism’s origins in favor of typical left-wing economic platitudes (we should cooperate more to honor our vagus nerve) and baseless criticisms of capitalism, markets, and self interest.

I’m sorry, but I find it exceedingly difficult to inform my understanding of any topic using the left/right political paradigm; I can’t take its false dichotomy seriously. It does nothing but spur arguments and accusations. In fact, the whole idea of taking sides in a giant political war turns my stomach. So I was surprised to find this approach on Gaia; most other programs I’ve watched there actually warn against this type of black and white thinking and dinner-table dualities. I’ve believed for some time that our propensity for “taking sides” is a clear manifestation of emotional disconnection and separateness. Even more confusing, then, was the fact that one of Shadyac’s themes of “I Am” was human connection.

I’m also a big believer that economic understanding should be holistic or what E. O. Wilson described as consilient: informed by evidence from independent, unrelated sources and not garnered from the biased perspective of one side of the political spectrum. Economic consilience / economic holism also seems to demand (in my view) that we include, rather than shun, the concept of “self interest,” especially if we’re to ever correct the problems of consumerism and over-consumption that plague us today. Such is a theme in the book I’m currently writing (the next in the sci-fi series that started with Halving It All), in which self-interest is shown as a necessary yang to the yin of communal sharing. Both are necessary to achieve balance.

I’m not the first to suggest this. While working at the Santa Fe Institute, complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman found in his NK computer models that landscapes tended to freeze up when the rules governing node behavior were too altruistic. He called this effect the “Stalinist Limit” of sustainable altruism. What worked better was to divide the landscape into smaller patches of self-interested nodes. But all must participate. Balance here requires a community of self-interested nodes. Lop-sided self interest is destabilizing. And without understanding such lessons from the fields of economics and chaos/complexity theory, we’re doomed to repeat the over-consumptive, market-ignorant history we’ve been forced to endure for the last century.

Two moments from Shadyac’s documentary stood out with respect to this prevailing market ignorance: First, Thom Hartmann (a prominent left-leaning bias promoter) presented a blatantly false dichotomy when he wondered if we’re meant to cooperate or predominate. Where was the balancing response to suggest that self interest doesn’t require or even promote dominance? Self interest demands cooperation; most who bother to ponder market incentives understand this. I can only work out my own self interest by acknowledging and supporting yours and mine is much more at risk if I become unhelpful, selfish, or destructive within my social environment.

The second stand-out moment involved environmentalist David Suzuki claiming that markets aren’t a natural force of nature. I don’t have time to refute this idea at the mo, but would simply suggest he (and Shadyac) read the book, Bionomics.

After watching “I Am” I am… left wondering why Shadyac didn’t include some practical solutions to the problem of overconsumption, ideas like removing the tax code’s penalty for saving money, putting a stop to the Federal Reserve’s monetization of debt and insistence on keeping interest rates artificially low, or even just drawing attention to the billions spent every single week by the military under both Republican and Democrat administrations. These are all governmental policies intended to keep consumption levels artificially high — policies that people like Shadyac continue to passively support with a vote for either “side” of the two-party political system.