Excesses and Externalities

The Problem with our Excesses

My previous post was about our desires to live a life that never involves any pain or suffering. We try to build a life for ourselves and our loved ones where every moment is happy, and where we never have to engage in drudgery, never experience physical discomfort, and never face any obstacles. Today’s post looks at another related aspect of our lives and mindsets that Sam Quinones highlights in his book Dreamland as part of our current opioid crisis: excesses.

 

Quinones is critical of our capitalistic culture that creates a message of buying things to find happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. The marketing departments of everything from soap companies, life insurance companies, to take-out restaurants suggests that happiness is right around the corner, as long as we are willing and able to buy more of what they offer. It is owning something bigger, having more, and expanding our consumption that is branded as a good life. But as Quinones sees it, “Excess contaminated the best of America.”

 

I studied public policy and I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts with economists. A common idea in the world of public policy and the mind of economists is the idea of externalities, secondary consequences of policies and peoples actions. Some externalities are positive, such as people developing a sense of civic pride after participating in an election, but many externalities are negative, such as green house gasses polluting the planet as we drive to and from work. What Quinones describes with the quote above, is the reality that our drive for excesses produces negative externalities that damage our planet and ultimately ruin the lifestyle that we chase.

 

By always wanting more, wanting it faster, and wanting it more tailored to our specific desires to make us feel like royalty, we have put ourselves in a place that is unsustainable. Our single use plastic bags have trashed our cities and open spaces. Having our individual cars to drive to everyplace we want to go emits more pollution than a well developed public transportation infrastructure. Over-purchasing consumer goods produces more garbage that has to go someplace.

 

This post has simply highlighted the reality that we live with negative externalities, and that our consumer driven culture is creating externalities which poison the planet. Quinones throughout his book focuses on the idea that our culture’s excesses have fueled the opioid epidemic by turning us inward toward our own wants versus encouraging us to think of others and how we can work together as part of a community. I think he is correct, and I think the space to start in making a change is by getting people to truly reflect on their lives, their purchases, and what they pursue. As Ryan Holiday put it in Stillness is the Key, “Eventually one has to say the e-word, enough. or the world says it for you.”

 

The way out of our opioid crisis, and indeed the way out of so many of our problems today, is to say enough to our own selfish desires. We need to stop the negative externalities that we produce when we purely pursue our own selfish ends, and instead we need to embrace our communities and put others first, to create more positive externalities which can heal our communities and fill the empty holes that consumerism leaves inside of us.

James Nestor’s Guide to Free Diving

In his book Deep: Free Diving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, James Nestor explains how he learned to free dive. For Nestor the process was not as simple as just getting into the water and learning to hold his breath. At first he had a real fear of reaching new depths, and this fear held him back from truly being able to free dive and experience the physical and psychological changes that accompany free diving.  One of his free diving coaches was a woman named Hanli Prinsloo who helped Nestor learn to free dive by helping him connect with the ocean in an almost spiritual manner.  Prinsloo turned to her own story to help Nestor understand how to connect to the ocean, and Nestor shares that story in the book. Prinsloo isolated herself from society in a spiritual retreat focusing on philosophy and self awareness through practices such as yoga and conscious breathing. Recounting one of Prinsloo’s personal trips to Dharmsala, India Nestor writes,

 

“At the end of her stay, she rediscovered a “stillness” in herself.  it was the same stillness that had first attracted her to free diving fifteen years earlier, but it had been lost in her ambition to keep going deeper.”
“In Dharamsala, I remembered that free diving was all about letting go,” she says. “After Dahab, I was reminded again, that you can never force yourself into the ocean. You do that and” – she pauses – “you’ll just get lost.”

 

To me, and this was apparent when I first read the quote, the idea of stillness seems to also represent complete self awareness.  Our lives are very busy and rushed, and we often force ourselves into situations that are not always the best. Often times we are pursuing goals both good and bad, and without a moment of stillness we lack the ability to truly reflect on our path and realign ourselves.  When you lose this stillness by constantly seeking an outcome you become lost in what you are doing. There must be stillness as a place for you to stay grounded.

 

Prinsloo’s story shows us the power of connecting with nature, and also the danger in chasing after goals without thinking of how your struggle for those goals affects you and those around you.  Philosophy and self awareness helped Prinsloo to see that by diving for deeper goals she was missing out on enjoying the ocean that she was submerged in.  I think this correlates nicely with our lives in many ways.  It is easy to become so focused on a single area in life to forget about the world, interactions, and relationships that surround us.  Prinsloo needed a moment to step away from her goals and chaos to understand her true desires and see what path she should follow.