Dorothea Lange Play street for children. Sixth Street and Avenue C, NYC June 1936
George Monbiot has written a bunch of whoppers in the recent past, his pleas for more nuclear plants as the only way to save mankind in particular raised far more questions than they provided answers. But not everything he’s written since is as nonsensical as those pieces. This week he came with one that I think everyone should read and think about.
In it, he tries to tackle the topic of loneliness among us ‘modern people’. Not an easy topic to address, because there are just so many different sides and approaches to it. I sure don’t have the answers. I do have the questions, though. For starters, when does someone count as lonely? While there are people who feel lonely in the crowdiest of places, others may feel quite content and fulfilled in solitude.
We can all sense there’s something wrong, but it’s very hard even just to simply tell cause from effect. And claiming that our present social lives, and/or the lack thereof, are nothing but some kind of next phase, some development, is something that rings empty in the realization that during our 1 million year (or so) history, we’ve always been very social creatures.
The human being who interacts more with the world outside, and with fellow humans, through screens and phones and other gadgets, does not represent a form of progress. The happiest people in the world, if you discard the myriad of heavily biased surveys based on wealth levels as happiness indicators, live in societies where grandchildren are close to grandparents, and where families are close to their neighbors. It’s simply where we come from, and who we are.
But if you would go stand on some street corner and ask strangers if they are lonely, most would not admit to that. It’s only in other settings, in which people feel more at ease, that they will label themselves lonely. Interestingly, the loneliest among us are the young and the old. Poverty by itself does not cause loneliness, and neither does wealth; but lonely people can be found in all wealth levels. Age, however, does play a role.
We stopped communicating the moment we didn’t depend on each other for bare survival anymore. Resistance to social control is probably a major factor in that. Resistance to churches and other forces that force their opinions about right and wrong on societies and the people that live in them are undoubtedly a huge reason to turn one’s back on that society.
Still, to a large extent we haven’t just changed the way we interact with the societies we were born into, we have withdrawn from them to a very large degree. The nuclear family is a man, a woman, 2-3 kids and the curtains closed at night. Not in the same house as the grandparents, who may live 1000 miles away, and not with anything more than shallow relationships with neighbors.
The nuclear family gave us a lot of lonely housewives. Women then were encouraged to get jobs, and then the kids would find themselves home alone all the time. Everyone’s activities were taking place ever further away, and separate from each other, adults in different workplaces, kids in schools the size of small towns where loneliness reigns like nowhere else, and retired grandparents feeling useless, 1000 miles away.
That is how a lot of us grew up. With societies torn apart, or at least torn from the way they used to be organized. Like lions were forced to turn into tigers. And no electronic or digital inventions can bridge the divide it has ripped through our lives, and our minds. Perhaps at some point far into the future we can grow into the ultimate couch potato, but that is, if we ever ‘achieve’ it, a long time away. In the meantime, there’s a lot of misery. Monbiot:
What do we call this time? It’s not the information age: the collapse of popular education movements left a void filled by marketing and conspiracy theories. Like the stone age, iron age and space age, the digital age says plenty about our artefacts but little about society. The anthropocene, in which humans exert a major impact on the biosphere, fails to distinguish this century from the previous 20. What clear social change marks out our time from those that precede it? To me it’s obvious. This is the Age of Loneliness.
When Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war “of every man against every man”, he could not have been more wrong. We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other. The hominins of east Africa could not have survived one night alone. We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others.
The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before. Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults. Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50, and is rising with astonishing speed.
A good way to lay the foundation of the argument, I’d say.
Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.
Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation.
Loneliness doesn’t just make us lonely and miserable, it makes us sick and shortens our lives. And why would we want to live those lives to begin with, when they’re miserable anyway? But now Monbiot moves into a next, entirely different part of his thesis: what happened to make us what we are, to turn out back on what we once were?
The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage. British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses – more than a fifth say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed.
That last part reminded me right away of something Lou Reed said 25 years ago in ‘Dirty Boulevard’, from his ‘New York’ album (New York was not a particularly nice place at the time).
No one dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything
They dream of dealing on the Dirty Boulevard
Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on them
That’s what the statue of bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses lets club ’em to death
Get it over with and just dump ’em on The Boulevard
Back to Monbiot:
A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?
We have changed our language to reflect this shift. Our most cutting insult is loser. We no longer talk about people. Now we call them individuals. So pervasive has this alienating, atomising term become that even the charities fighting loneliness use it to describe the bipedal entities formerly known as human beings.
What I think is worse is that we have taken to calling our fellow (wo)men ‘consumers’, even if we would never think of ourselves that way. We don’t do so ourselves perhaps, but the media that provide our ‘news’ do. And we accept it for something entirely normal. Why do we do that, accept that others are called consumers while we don’t see ourselves that way? Monbiot gives a hint:
One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people report that the one-eyed god is their principal company. This self-medication aggravates the disease.
I think we may all of us agree that for far too many older people, TV has become their version of a window to the world. Because the world itself leaves them alone and lonely. Kids and grandkids live far away and have lives too busy with reaching for success to leave time for their (grand)parents. Partners die, so do friends and neighbors. And then they get slotted into highrises with a view of the river. And a TV set.
Almost makes you wonder what older people did before TV, doesn’t it? Sure, people live longer now on average, the prize of progress, but how much of a blessing is that when all you can do is wait for the end while watching, instead of your families, pre-chewed entertainment beamed in from outer space? How do we define progress, again? But George has more intriguing notions:
Research by economists at the University of Milan suggests that television helps to drive competitive aspiration. It strongly reinforces the income-happiness paradox: the fact that, as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them. Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us.
TV doesn’t just numb or ‘entertain’ us, it evokes tendencies we would never have if we were living in the same arrangements our ancestors did. Who fought rival tribes over land and riches, but not their neighbors; that would have weakened their own position. We now fight each other, mano a mano, ‘educated’ by weird kinds of ideas quiz shows and reality TV bestow upon us. Can it be any wonder that we’re lost and lonely?
The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. TV speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction.
I’m pretty sure that’s not just TV, it’s the whole set of models of our world we are fed by the whole set of media we ‘are granted’ access to. And yes, that includes the media you use to read this on. No media are bad in and of themselves, but they can certainly be put to bad use. Simply because they’re not in our ‘genetic consciousness’.
So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier. Figures published this week show that, while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year. [..] And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.
The entire idea of growth has proven to be nothing but a cancer growth for us. It’s all been one step up and two steps back. Not because new inventions and gadgets are bad in themselves, but because we are lost when it comes to using them in our lives. We let them change the very principles by which we live. Like our compassion for each other, and our care for the planet we live on. And we justify this by claiming and believing that is someone can invent an iPhone, he will surely also be able to undo any and all damage that iPhone may do to us. Progress is a religion, and what use is it to question a religion?
The top 1% own 48% of global wealth, but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too were assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness. Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money. (And if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1bn in the bank.
Yeah, it never stops, does it? Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything. But most of us do not have psychopathic tendencies, we’re just stuck in a system than makes those who do, end up in charge. And nothing serves their purposes better than for us to compete with each and everyone of us. Including ourselves: who does not feel inadequate after watching a few hours of popular TV replete with commercials?
For this, we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.
Yes, we have done all this. And we will continue on that path to gain possession of the next gadget, the next empty sign of superiority over all, including those closest to us, over whom we have no need to feel superior. But we no longer realize that: we are all, if not enemies, then surely competitors. Not for happiness, we lost that along the way, and besides we would need each other to achieve it, but for anything that can serve as a placebo for what it is we lost.
[..] … if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced. Hobbes’s pre-social condition was a myth. But we are entering a post-social condition our ancestors would have believed impossible.
Our lives are becoming nasty, brutish and long.
I love that last line. And I think Monbiot is dead on with it. I also fear that it will take a deep dark fall for mankind to ever bring us back, if it is possible at all, to what we are, to where we come from, to what connects our past to our present. For now, we’re stuck in a propaganda machine that we don’t have a way out of, so we’ll have to see everything break down that we see as communication in order to find back what communicating is.
We’ve come a long way, but somewhere along the road ‘we took a wrong turn and we just kept going’. People are not born to be lonely, and if they become it, and in great numbers, it’s time to be afraid for all of us.
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
we took a wrong turn and we just kept going [..]
Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone