Do our cultural values center
on the feeling of 'never enough?'
The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where We Go From Here
By Hope Jahren, 2019
This follow up review is about the psychology of “never enough” and the cultural values associated with the patterns of economic production and consumption described by Jahren. In this article, I argue that the Story of More includes a psychology that shapes political policies and cultural values, not just of American society but also of human civilization in the modern era. Personal narratives and cultural ideals, e.g., the American Dream, reflect the economic foundation of modern societies. How could this be otherwise? Economics shape cultural values and vice versa. The sequel to the Story of More is Never Enough, a theme that applies to both economic goods and non-material values. It is a vision of human fulfillment.
In the Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (2020), Dorian Lynskey describes H.G. Wells , an author born in 1866 who “predicted space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs, and popularized in fiction the time machine, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering as follows:
"Well’s hunger for life was maddeningly insatiable. If he achieved wealth and acclaim, he craved more. If he had the love of one woman, he needed (at least) one more. If he formed a friendship, more often than not, he would stretch it until it snapped. Almost as soon as he joined a political group or alliance, he was desperate to quit. Wherever he was in his life, geographically, intellectually, emotionally, Wells longed to be elsewhere, hence his enthusiasm for utopias. The value of the form (utopian novels), he wrote, “lies in that regard towards human freedom, in the undying interest in the power of self-escape, the power to resist the causation of the past, and to evade, initiate, endeavor and overcome.”
Lynskey assets that “This was the story of Wells life.” It is also a variation of the theme that motivates billions of people around the world: never enough of wealth, fame, power, adventure, international travel, new technologies, long healthy lives, love, sexual pleasure, knowledge, art and music and, occasionally (but less often), virtue, compassion and wisdom. The desire for practically unlimited riches and opportunities for pleasure and stimulation is familiar from histories of royal courts, aristocracies, and empires for thousands of years. It is only in the past century that technological advances have transformed societies on every continent and stoked the desire of people everywhere and in all social classes for materially comfortable and fulfilling lives. Economically, the Story of More has depended on cheap energy provided by fossil fuels ; and it is the warming of the earth’s atmosphere resulting from ever increasing fossil fuel emissions which threatens to bring this story to a catastrophic end."
The Insatiability of Human Desire Wealth
Perhaps readers have wondered, as I have on many occasions, why:
Almost all wealthy people want to be wealthier still, seemingly without limit. During recent decades, the richest people in the U.S. have used the political power generated by their wealth to create a grotesque reverse Robin Hood scenario (see Case and Deacon’s Deaths of Despair) in which the richest Americans take from the poor and middle class to increase their share of the country’s wealth. According to Bill McKibben in Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out, “The richest tenth of one percent (in the U.S.) own about as much as the poorest 90 per cent combined.” McKibben asserts that when he was born (1960), CEO’s made less than 20 times as much as the average worker … now they make 295 times as much.” It is difficult to fathom the psychology of a civilization in which “the world’s eight richest men possess more wealth than the bottom half of humanity (3.7 billion people).” Furthermore, the billionaire class in the U.S. is not ashamed of their fabulous wealth, quite the opposite. In a ‘winner take all’ game, they have won and most of humanity lost, so from their perspective they should be celebrated rather than attacked and resented. Some of the wealthiest Americans are generous philanthropists, in a few cases giving away half or more than half of their fortunes; and a few have done much good in the world. However, as Anand Giridharadas comments in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018), the rules that thought leaders who seek to influence philanthropists must follow include: “Inspire them to give back, but never tell them to take less.”
In the U.S. and many other countries in the world, billionaires are more admired or envied than resented and blamed for income inequality. It is the rare American older than 10 who has not fantasized about what he/she would do if they were fabulously wealthy. However, only a small percentage of Americans and the citizens of other developed countries are millionaires or billionaires, but millions have economic advantages, social privileges and opportunities that would have been unimaginable a century ago: education in world class universities, international travel (at least pre-pandemic) and virtually unlimited domestic travel, large nicely furnished homes, more than one car in the family, access to restaurants, museums, theatres, art galleries, concerts, national parks, long lives (by 20th century standards) and many other benefits and privileges. Yet these benefits found in great cities around the world are costly; and even highly affluent families have economic worries. For most families, including well off but not wealthy families, there is never enough income to do even a fraction of what they would like to be able to do (e.g., travel the globe) and what some of their friends already do.
Furthermore, well off (but not wealthy) families are determined to pass on their advantages to their children and grandchildren by making investments in their education and development: and are unapologetic about this goal. Equal opportunity for all children which would reduce the advantages of children from affluent families is not an ideal that animates many people in any country, including the U.S., regardless of political affiliation or social class.
Sacrifice of any sort is a dissonant idea in modern cultures unless the sacrifice includes the cultivation of talent that could potentially result in wealth, fame or power. There is no monastic ideal, no secular version of tithing, no ideal of voluntary poverty; rather, the cultural ideal is to expand opportunities for pleasure, enjoyment and personal fulfillment, and to fill out one’s resume for future inclusion in one social elite or another. Celibacy is viewed with pity, as almost a mutilation of the spirit. There is no obvious place for sacrifice in the Story of More.
Somewhere in the U.S., a powerful and famous man wakes up in the middle of the night anxious that sleeping Americans have forgotten about him for a few hours. To control his anxiety, this man quickly unleashes a tweet storm which includes some choice insults and taunts directed at his political enemies, thereby ensuring that the morning news cycle will lead with one or more of his obnoxious tweets. Both his followers and those who hate him must never be allowed to forget this man (even for a day) for whom public attention is life blood, far beyond (and more important than) political strategy. Many famous people want to be loved, but some feed on both adoration and hatred without feeling sated. For such persons, there can never be enough publicity and notoriety, which far exceeds wealth and (even) power in their motivational potential. Celebrities and ordinary citizens who send out dozens, or even hundreds of messages a day on social media, often including “selfies”, share in the motivation for non-stop attention.
Powerful political leaders usually want more power, given that their political opponents continue to oppose their initiatives in a persistent, intolerable way. The historian, Robert Caro, has spent much of his life studying and writing about two of these political leaders, Robert Moses, New York City’s Commissioner of Parks for decades (1925 - 1960’s), and Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) who craved power from early childhood and spent his entire life in the pursuit of more of it. Both Moses and LBJ wanted to accomplish great things and did so, both for good and evil in their political careers. Moses and LBJ are extreme examples of the craving for practically unlimited political power. Their capacity to scheme, manipulate, bring pressure to bear on persons perceived as obstacles in painful ways, destroy the careers of opponents without remorse, and carry a grudge to the grave were legendary. Other political leaders often demonstrate the same tendencies, usually to a lesser degree and with far less political genius. In my limited experience, it is a rare politician in any elected position who does not fantasize about acquiring higher office. The Story of More is also a story of aspirations for greatness, a character trait exemplified by JFK to an extreme degree. For Kennedy, it was not enough to have political power and social pre-eminence, a beautiful wife and adorable children, a multitude of friends and admirers, and to have sex with just about any woman he found attractive. Kennedy also wanted (and needed) to win a place in history and to be regarded as a great president by future historians. JFK may be the fullest embodiment in my lifetime of the Story of More and Never Enough. He also lived with chronic pain for many years and had premonitions of early death and possible assassination. (See JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke)
The Dynamics of Desire
I would be surprised if there are readers of this article who are not personally familiar with an intense need for more of whatever things or experiences they enjoy the most: great food and outstanding restaurants, books, houses, home furnishings, gardens, antiques, cars, boats, art and beauty of every sort, horses and horse racing, world travel, wilderness, computer games, adventure, drugs or alcohol, romantic love, sexual pleasure, sports (both watching and participating), etc.; and/or who has a friend or acquaintance who craves More of whatever they like best in the world, and is willing to go to great lengths to acquire it.
There is a familiar pattern to the cycle of desire: (a) the thrill of acquisition followed by (b) a feeling of letdown and emptiness which generates an itch that gradually becomes craving, along with (c) development of necessary rationalizations for seeking what one desires, at whatever cost, leading to (d) almost intolerable anticipation. Fulfillment of biological desire results in temporary satiation, the anticipation of which can undermine the enjoyment of the desired product or person. Human beings sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to postpone the state of satiation or contravene this biological law; a tendency which is not new in modern civilization. Only the technological means of combating satiation are new. I recently heard of a young man in India who appeared at a hospital emergency room with a phone charger in his penis! As unbelievable as this may sound, it barely scratches the surface of strategies human beings have used to extend sexual pleasure: stimulant drugs or drugs for erectile dysfunction, use of ice cream toppings on the genitals and the misuse of animals or fish in a way I leave to the reader’s imagination, among many other ways of increasing pleasure and warding off satiation. Some people binge on sweets and carbohydrates and then purge to binge again. Other people run many miles every week so they can eat whatever they want without fear of weight gain.
Psychological desire for things or pleasureful experiences usually follows the cycle of biological desire for reasons that are sometimes not obvious. I used to believe that purchase of things, i.e., books, art, houses, cars, etc., by persons who already have a surfeit of such possessions, masked a need for something else, or was compensation for loneliness or a means of dealing with boredom. While this may be true for some individuals, the most straightforward explanation for Never Enough is that whatever one has acquired or experienced (including consumer goods and people), the recent acquisition or experience is only a tiny fraction of what the world has to offer. For an art collector and lover of beautiful homes such as William Randolph Hearst, there could never be enough beautiful things in his possession. Regardless of his vast possessions, there was always a dazzling array of art and home furnishings he might never acquire. Every Casanova and charming sex addict must finally realize that there are thousands or millions of desirable women (or men) he will never seduce. So many wonderful things, so much potential pleasure, so little time!
There can of course be a powerful desire to harm others, to torture, dominate and kill, and an insatiable desire for status and recognition. Hatred, once fully expressed, may be impossible to satiate. Every combat soldier, every fighter pilot or bomber pilot, is in moral hazard, not for doing their duty, however brutal, but for coming to enjoy killing other human beings, especially people classified as enemies. In these circumstances, shame can be a sign of moral renewal. Fulfillment of desire can destroy character in multiple ways: through excess, disregard for boundaries or the rights of others and by intensifying the enjoyment of destructive behaviors.
Biology sets a limit on pleasure, at least temporarily, but imagination may seem to create unlimited possibilities for affirmation, joy, love. Romantic love consists of (a) one part fantasy of complete acceptance and mutual enjoyment (b) one part sexual desire, and (c) one part idealized self-love reflected in the beloved who usually has traits (perceived or imagined) very different (and better) than oneself. Romantic love is one of the most powerful, ubiquitous, and often life changing experiences in human life, and every generation of writers, filmmakers and moralists comes to term with romantic love anew. The subject is always fresh, never exhausted.
Here is a question for readers: in your own experience how would you estimate the ratio of joy to suffering in your experiences of romantic love? For many people, suffering will far outweigh joy, even when the person one loves returns the feeling. Romantic love feeds on obstacles; the greater the obstacles the more intense the longing for and obsession with the beloved.
Romantic love is often fatally undermined by fulfillment in which bodies and lives are joined, as the fantasy of complete acceptance and mutual pleasure in each other’s company can rarely withstand the experience of constant proximity and permanent commitment. “There is a fine line between love and hate,” is an old saying that reflects the danger of romantic fulfillment. Love can turn to hate, or contempt, gradually or quickly, or evolve into an exasperated tolerance for the deficiencies of one’s partner which are well understood.
Surprisingly, there is another possibility: the possessiveness of romantic love (as selfish as it gets) can be transformed into love that is unselfish, sometimes to a frightening extent. Iris Murdoch, the English novelist and philosopher, wrote in The Nice and the Good (one of her best novels) that “Love did not move towards life, it moves toward death, toward the roaring sea caves of annihilation.” Anyone who comes close to this experience is likely to create conflict to protect against losing oneself in another, as toddler’s have tantrums and adolescents fight with their parents to separate from them and destroy the sense of fusion with overwhelming caregivers.
The revelation that the possessiveness of romantic love can evolve into unselfish love suggests that the depths of human psychology are not well understood. There is more to human beings than the selfish, possessive, acquisitive traits that appear at first (and second) glance, traits that have put our species on the path to the sixth extinction (see Bill McKibben’s book, Falter ). The possibility that exists for romantic desire is available for other desires as well. This is Buddhist wisdom, i.e. that awareness can become appreciative, non-possessive and non-acquisitive. This type of awareness is the best antidote to the Story of More and its companion, Never Enough. However, it is not a likely solution to global warming for a civilization in which 10% of the population lives in abject poverty. Something more is required: in Jahren’s terms, Use Less, Share More, a story of shared sacrifice.
The American Compact: 1950-2020
I was born in 1944 and have lived in the U.S. all my life (Texas, Colorado, Washington State). During my lifetime, I have lived by the following guidelines, usually without giving them much thought, except for a few years in my late 20’s and early 30’s when I was a vegetarian (but not vegan):
No one should question how any other person spends their discretionary income, regardless of a person’s wealth, as long as they are law abiding, or only break the law to buy drugs most educated people believe do more good than harm. Wealthy persons who give generously to others and to philanthropic causes deserve praise and recognition; but it is not ok to openly criticize how wealthy persons use their assets within broad parameters.
Families with economic advantages are expected to do everything within the law to pass along these advantages to their progeny; the support for equal opportunity for all children does not contravene the rules of meritocracy in which educational achievement is the door to social inclusion and privileges of all types in modern economies.
Economic growth is a good thing in principle because all social classes benefit to some extent regardless of the depletion of limited resources or the effect on global warming. No political leader in either party would be elected, or taken seriously, in the U.S. if they argued for zero growth.
No corporation that operates within the law should be pressured to take actions that would reduce its profits, regardless of its assets, for the benefit of a community or to achieve a social good. If a company sacrifices profit to benefit employees or achieve a social good, it deserves praise and recognition, but companies should not be criticized for doing what they were designed to do, i.e., make money, the more the better.
It is ok for some of the richest companies in the world to pay employees half (or less) of a living wage and to fail to offer paid sick leave, even during a pandemic. There is no social duty to boycott companies that engage in such behavior.
Every sector of the economy takes as much of the country’s wealth as possible just because it can; one might as well ask lions to give up predation as ask insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to take less when they meet no resistance from governments or customers.
It is ok for corporations to use their resources to fight tooth and nail against the passage of any laws that would reduce their profits or add to the regulatory burden of doing business.
There is rarely a bipartisan agreement regarding the common good, a concept that does not have an agreed upon meaning in the U.S., except briefly during the initial stages of a national emergency.
Car travel is unlimited for those who own cars and for whatever purpose; and it’s ok for a family to own 2,3,4 cars or more if they can afford it.
It’s ok to eat as much meat as one wants. It’s acceptable to point out the health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet to friends and acquaintances, but not to openly argue that eating meat is unethical. Only cranks apply ethical categories to the slaughter of animals for food.
It is ok to waste food (as much as 40% of food in American kitchens) if a family abides by rules for sorting, disposing of and recycling food containers; and it is regrettable, but perhaps unavoidable, for farms to plow under crops and dump milk for which there is no market, and “harvest”, i.e. slaughter, pigs without producing meat when restaurants are closed down due to the pandemic.
Air travel (pre-pandemic), including travel abroad, is unlimited; in fact, the more the better as travel to foreign countries expands horizons and leads to a cosmopolitan world view.
The purchase of an electric car or installation of solar panels in a home is praiseworthy; on the other hand, there is no duty to make these investments, regardless of a family’s wealth or income.
There is no limit on use of electricity or water unless prohibited by local or state governments. It’s ok to create lush golf courses in deserts, and to tap limited water supplies in underground aquifers without regard to future generations.
It’s admirable when individuals or families contribute generously to philanthropic causes or educational institutions, but there is no social responsibility to do so. Contributing to political candidates is generally a good thing, though fixing the rules so that the richest Americans have access to political power while denying it to most citizens is not ok, regardless of Supreme Court decisions conflating wealth with free speech. Obviously, many Republicans would disagree with the last part of the above sentence.
There are other parts of the American Compact that are politically contested such as tolerating homelessness, leaving millions of Americans without medical coverage, or turning a blind eye to racism, and many others.
Americans who have lived by these guidelines for decades (or their entire lives) may underestimate how peculiar they are from a cross-cultural perspective, or how they will likely be viewed by future generations when, to have any chance of combating global warming, most of these guidelines will have to be abandoned. In the U.S., there is a tendency to fixate on needed political changes while underestimating the potential impact of social norms. It is one thing to oppose greatly increasing the tax rate on billion dollar incomes; it is another to allow one of the richest men in the world to increase his wealth by $34 billion dollars during the current pandemic without applying maximum social pressure on him to invest most (or all) of these earnings in pandemic relief. Citizens in every country should apply unrelenting pressure on billionaires in their country to use most of their assets for social good, rather than buying more political influence so that they can increase their “take” of the society’s wealth; ditto for millionaires.
The American Compact has distinctly libertarian features; it is individualistic to an extreme and has little or no concern with social responsibility. Some faith communities, e.g., Mormons, Orthodox Jews, have different cultural norms; and there are racial/ethnic groups (e.g. Native Americans) whose cultural traditions emphasize the needs of tribe and community before the needs of individuals. These groups have a dissonant relationship with the American Compact. Nevertheless, every social group in America is animated by the Story of More, and most low-income Americans of every ethnicity would like to discover for themselves what Never Enough means in affluent neighborhoods and communities. The Story of More acts as a centripetal force on cultural traditions that view the welfare of extended family, the community and environment as the source of ethical principles.
The Story of Shared Sacrifice
One of the most famous brief poems in the English language is by William Blake:
Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
At first glance, Blake’s poem appears to sort out persons destined for heaven or hell. However, from the perspective of the possible extinction of most species, the last two lines of the poem may refer to the same persons, or our civilization as a whole, intoxicated with the ‘sweet delights’ created by new technologies and threatened with ‘Endless Night’ by misuse of the energy source that has fueled those technologies.
The world is in terrible peril as an extinction scenario resembling other extinctions of species caused by global warming is well under way. According to Bill McKibben in Falter: “We’re currently injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere ten times faster than during the Permian (extinction) which was the worst event in earth’s history.” Furthermore, countries around the world are steadily increasing fossil fuel emissions despite repeated strong warnings from climate scientists that to do so is (in Jahren’s words) to risk everything. What is the explanation for this reckless behavior in a species smart enough to increase its life span by 12 years since 1969?
Humans have effective defense mechanisms when they are resistant to changing their behavior, first and foremost denial and rationalization. Some rationalizations which once seemed heartfelt have begun to seem half-hearted:
Climate scientists could be wrong about the cause of global warming, i.e., maybe the cause is not human caused carbon emissions. I have heard this argument from educated people who have never read a single article or book on climate change; it is no longer a serious argument, if it ever was.
It’s too late to do anything about global warming given that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years; anything humans do now will be too little, too late since there is no way to stop a 2 degree Centigrade increase in global temperature. The novelist, Jonathan Franzen, has articulated this position in published articles. But what about heading off a 2.5 (or 3) degree centigrade increase in global temperature? A difference of one degree in global temperature could translate into millions or hundreds of millions of deaths in future decades.
Someone will come up with a technology that will save civilization, an understandable expectation in a technology-based civilization. All climate change experts I’ve read regarding the prospect of a technological solution to global temperature which does not involve doing away with use of fossil fuels are skeptical, and for good reason. Imagine the following scenario: twenty years from now scientists figure out a way of creating a gigantic sunscreen in the upper atmosphere, by which they calibrate (with the help of computers) the optimum global temperature, and then engineer the earth’s weather to produce the desired result. What if the continued existence of life on earth depended on the outcome of this incredible experiment? Rate your level of confidence on a scale from 1-10. Nevertheless, desperate governments may eventually decide to gamble everything on some hairbrained idea to save life on earth.
I no longer believe climate change denial is based on these flimsy rationalizations. It would be more accurate to describe climate change denial as resistance to initiatives that would fundamentally change the American way of life. In the Story of More, the demand for sacrifice is anathema. Who, after all, is willing to rewrite the American Compact as outlined above in every particular? Hope Jahren recommends cutting meat consumption in developed countries by half, air travel by 80%, use of electricity in the home by 70%, as well as quickly increasing the use of renewable sources of energy. Others (myself included) have more extreme views such as eliminating the use of gas powered cars and trucks (all of them) by 2030, and phasing out the use of coal fueled power plants within 8 years, along with increasing the tax on gasoline by at least $.50 per gallon and dedicating all of this tax revenue to increasing the availability of solar, wind and geothermal energy while reducing their cost.
I question whether any single one of these initiatives, presented as a referendum, would be passed by voters in any state, red or blue, much less if the initiatives are presented as a package. I live in Washington State where Hillary Clinton soundly defeated Donald Trump in the 2016 election. I doubt that eligible voters in Washington would approve a referendum that established a $.25 per gallon gas tax to support increased use of renewable sources of energy. Support for shared sacrifice is not likely to dramatically increase during a Biden Presidency. Hopefully, I’m wrong, and hopefully we’re about to find out.
Changing the Story
Political leaders in democratic countries cannot support major policy changes that conflict with their society’s deepest aspirations. Any elected leader of a democracy must respect the cultural narrative that animates the society. A political leader can play a modest role in reshaping the Story of More and Never Enough, but must depend on thought leaders, i.e., writers, artists, filmmakers, scholars, advocates, journalists to first question and then change this story in major respects. It is inconceivable that a Story of Shared Sacrifice to save the planet as a fit habitat for life can coexist with the Story of More. Only one of these stories will prevail; and no hard-nosed realist would bet against the Story of More in any country in the world.
Still, life is full of surprises. Few people anticipated a pandemic that led elected leaders in the U.S. to put bitter partisan differences aside and commit trillions of dollars in governmental assistance by large majorities within a few weeks.
In a ruthless, horrible way, the pandemic has revealed social vulnerabilities and strengths: countries that moved quickly and decisively to follow the advice of public health experts to lock down economies, shelter-in-place and invest in testing, contact tracing and quarantining of COVID-19 victims have defeated coronavirus in phase 1, or escaped the worst. As Nicholas Kristof has pointed out, most of these countries have leaders who are women, some of whom have a scientific background. Countries such as Brazil, the U.K. and the U.S. stuck with vainglorious male leaders who have little respect for (and no knowledge of) science, and who believed they could cause COVID-19 to disappear through fantasy and bluster have been hit hard, with no end in sight for Brazil and the U.S. Countries whose citizens actively supported shared sacrifice as required are done with phase 1 of the pandemic. Countries such as the U.S. in which the tolerance for shared sacrifice was exhausted in a few weeks are stuck with coronavirus until there is an effective vaccine. There will be no phase 1, phase 2, etc. in these countries, only a pandemic that alternatively surges and recedes.
The social virtues which have been effective in responding to the coronavirus pandemic have included respect for science and decisive leadership that follows the guidance of public health experts. Administrative competence in a pandemic requires the capacity for long-range planning and the ability of leaders and experts to communicate to the citizenry the urgent necessity of social solidarity and social discipline. It is also critical that political leaders and citizens recognize and reward the courage of first responders and others who deliver essential services by doing everything possible to ensure their safety and well-being, and by inspiring young people to follow their example.
However, there is one major difference between the challenges of the pandemic and the challenge posed by global warming. It is likely that the pandemic will be over within a few years after an effective vaccine is developed. Global warming is here to stay for centuries. Human behavior during the past century (and especially during recent decades) has already created the conditions that will severely test the next several generations of humans around the world. There is no quick way out of global warming. From this perspective, the coronavirus pandemic (with all its suffering and death) has been practice for the crisis that awaits our civilization, post-pandemic.