Doug M. Brown published a book back in 2002 titled Insatiable is Not Sustainable. This topic really speaks to our current predicament. As I have repeatedly pointed out on this blog, environmental destruction is driven by high levels of consumption, compounded by population growth in high-consuming cultures. I have struggled to articulate the links I see between the arbitrary nature of our desires and our need to reduce consumption. Brown is an economist and Veblen scholar, so Insatiable seemed promising. (Thorstein Veblen, by the way, wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899 and coined the term conspicuous consumption.)
Despite its somewhat stilted writing, the book makes a good case that our drive for “self actualization” via competition is not inherent, natural, or good for the planet. He argues that this holds true not only for economic competetion, but for our ambitions regarding things like education and creative expression. Brown holds that taking care of one another should, instead, be our overriding purpose – and that shifting our values would involve a major cultural change. Further, he explains how pre-enlightenment philosophers were clear that “being all that you can be” would never prove ultimately satisfying, and that such desires are tragically insatiable.
I really enjoyed his look at the rhetoric of corporations, who often insist that they value achievement, increased production, and continuous improvement over and above mere profits: how pointless, ultimately! He goes on to examine how professionals (those with minimal supervision) are pressured to profess similar values in their own careers.
I was disappointed that Brown didn’t have more to say about Buddhist ideas about desire (he cites Thich Nhat Hanh in passing), about Bourdieu’s ideas of consumption being largely class-driven, or about just how we might step off the produce/consume treadmill, but the book proves a link to some other interesting writers. Apparently Brown draws heavily on the writings of Daniel Quinn, and this is where I guess I should have anticipated trouble.
A full 205 pages into Insatiable’s 209 pages, after Brown’s discussions on happiness and suffering (distinguishing between needless suffering, accidental suffering, and existential suffering) – he declares that Africa’s problems are unmanageable and that we should leave the “haves to ignore this part of the world and let the pestilence run its course.” He says to “… let the warlords rule; let them fight among themselves for control of resources like clean water; let their child armies fight each other; and disease have its way.” He goes on in this fashion. Let’s leave aside that Brown is a fool to think we can “cordon off” (his words) an entire continent. The heartlessness of his writing is alarming: the fact that Praeger would publish such a book, or that people would review the book on Amazon and not take note of his disgusting conclusions is just crushing.
While I don’t expect that readers of this blog are likely to pick up Brown’s book, I hope they will take note of just how many of the people who speak to environmental and population issues are seriously screwed up. Rather than getting discouraged, I hope we all can realize that it is more important than ever to value everyone, everywhere. To do any less is to live in a world not worth saving.