Toxic Culture, the Consumer Ethic, and Teaching Biocentrism
Issue #73, April 2005
Biocentrism is a life-centered worldview that sees all life as valuable and does not subordinate any one life form to another. Our 21st century, European-derived, U.S. worldview and culture is anthropocentric (human-centered). It is combative, and it devalues other life forms. In the dominant U.S. worldview and value system biocentrism is counter-intuitive. The middle-class and striving to be middle-class college students I teach just don't get it. It goes against all that they are living for and studying about. They want a degree that will put them into a position to get good, professional, white-collar jobs. They want high wages and purchasing power. They believe that if they work hard enough, then they should be rewarded with material wealth. From their perspective they have a right to buy the best car, biggest home, fanciest clothes and newest electronic toys. And as good "Americans" they are doing us all a favor by stimulating the economy through all this conspicuous consumption.
In class I ask students to step back a moment from this consumer ethic. "What if," I ask, "we define 'quality of life' in terms very different from the way we now measure it? What if instead of gauging our quality of life by the quantity and quality of our relationships to things, we measure it by examining the quality of our relationships to, as many Native Americans say, all our relations; the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged, the fish, the flora, the spirits, the meadows, the mountains?" For many students, these questions don't even make sense. From their anthropocentric worldview in an anthropocentric world, most beings, including most non-American human beings, are of value only inasmuch as they benefit humans, namely, themselves. Those things that we abstractly call "nature" have no intrinsic value; a mountain is merely a mountain unless it provides coal or gold or recreation; a tree is worthless as a tree but valuable as potential lumber. They/We are alienated from life, from each other, from their/our selves.
So, in my classes where we explore "U.S." or "American" identity and culture, I have the unenviable task of teaching material about how our toxic culture has become normalized and naturalized through consumer culture. We examine ideas, practices, and concepts such as "quality of life," "the consumer ethic," "Cartesian dichotomies," "capitalism," and the like. We see how these ideas/practices lead to behaviors that are anti-biotic (against life). We examine consumption patterns and attitudes toward others. The students are prodded to ask themselves: How do my behaviors affect other beings, near and far, known and unknown, big and small?
It is a difficult task. The kind of thought required to ask such questions and to think critically and broadly about our lives and our society is rarely, if ever, taught, and never rewarded. Obedience and conformity are the primary modes of thought taught in the schools, on television, from the President and from our economic sanctions and rewards system. Against stiff resistance and an entire socialization process, I teach biocentrism. I introduce concepts and values that they are familiar with, such as the Biblical "what you do unto the least of my children, you do unto me" and the Seussian ecologism found in The Lorax. I explain other biocentric ideas such as the Seven Generations priniciple of the Iroqouis Confederacy (decisions should be made in light of how a behavior will affect those seven generations from now), the Mayan 'in lak ech' ('you are my other me'), and the Lakota 'mitakuyse oyasin' ("all my relations").
The idea that we are all linked in Spider Woman's web is not difficult for my students to grasp. Most, being Christian here in rural Georgia, understand how god's decree to treat the lowliest creation as you would treat god suggests a certain, more gentle and loving, interaction with all our relations. Seeing each other as kin isn't difficult to comprehend, either. They might want to come along on a biocentric thinking exercise. But how, they ask, in this society where rules about human behavior and morality come from the laws of the jungle where aggressive competition is deeply ingrained from kindergarten, can we survive and prosper with a biocentric outlook?
My students, like a great many other "Americans," have acquired a middle-class morality and outlook that equates "better living" with more material goods. They fail also to understand how our "prosperity" and "material wealth" in much of the U.S. results not from some vague notion of "progress," but from the military-industrial complex (The Pentagon, military branches, and weapons contractors), imperial conquest, and the subjugation of vast populations in the so-called Third World, indigenous peoples, immigrants, and people of color. Our overdevelopment and hyperconsumerism are secured not by any divine right or by our enlightened, progressive society but by the work, lives and resources of a good part of the planet. This, I try to explain, is anti-bio-centric behavior. This "death producing" behavior (Dr. Helen Caldicott's term) cannot continue.
First, subjugated populations are pushing back. The mostly U.S.-led production and proliferation of WMD technology, including chemical and biological weapons, means that those who choose to push back against U.S. imperial theft and violence can produce a lot of death, too. Second, the planet is losing species and becoming toxic. We are making the planet uninhabitable for millions of species including ourselves. Waste, emissions, resource over-extraction, chemical production, radioactivity, and genetically-modified organisms are making it difficult for the planet to sustain life. The planet will recharge after we are gone, I'm certain of this. The questions are: how many more generations do humans want to be here? And, while we are on planet Earth are we going to respect all life and seek justice throughout our world?
This brings the class full circle, back to the subject matter of "American" identity and culture that is, who we are as a people. As the citizens and denizens of the world's financial and military superpower, the dominant country on Earth, will we adopt a posture of maintaining our privilege or will we side with life in its struggle with militarism, capitalism and violence? Will we challenge ourselves to be leaders in a biocentric, peaceful and more humble world? How can we with vast economic resources build a movement that envisions a "world in which all worlds fit" (Zapatista concept), in which all our relations are respected, and with a vision that looks seven generations in the future? These are questions whose answers should be sought in dialogues (coyunturas) with our families, communities, organizations, groups, clubs, classes, teams and other relations. History has given us plenty of examples of how to formulate a biocentric worldview, devise a strategy for behaving biocentrically and create life-based cultures and lifestyles. We have only to seek them out.
Pancho McFarland is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.