Thursday January 3, 2013

The Maya calendar end of times news story has come and gone, but it merits a second look. As Dec. 21, 2012 approached, our news media fed us a bland diet of misinterpretations of what the upcoming end of a cycle signified. They found great interest in misguided apocalyptic theories, then, when the world kept going on Dec. 22, they were able to laugh off the Mayans as just another new-age fad.

Lost in this telling is the amazing degree to which the Mayans understood the workings of their universe, and their place in it. Without any computers or electricity to power their figuring, they were connected enough to know just how the planets would be aligned on this past solstice. They had a sophisticated awareness of the world around them that we do not fully understand today. So perhaps we should try to understand if the end of their 5,000 year cycle could have any meaning for us.

If this is a time to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another, one issue comes immediately to mind. As our carbon output continues to climb well past sustainable levels, climate change is now beginning to take place. Our calculations and understandings of things like ocean geography, weather, crops and livestock farming all have to be retooled as our earth and its atmosphere reacts to the monkey wrench that we are ramming into its works. Whether we will admit it or not, we are entering into a new relationship with mother nature: she's just as powerful as ever, but now has added forces of unpredictability and intensity.

Just like balancing the budget cannot be done without taxes being raised, cutting carbon emissions can not be adequately done by means of improved efficiencies alone. New smart meters or smart phone apps, smart blenders or toasters for that matter will not magically green our power usage and save the planet. The truth is that the American standard of living is no longer sustainable. This is actually good news. For as our standard of living has risen, the quality of our lives has degraded. The standards that have come to define the American lifestyle are based upon a hard driving materialism that demands ever more spending, acquisition and growth until we are each imprisoned in our own personal hamster wheel where we can run all day without ever moving forward. The standards that matter most in our culture are merely things that can be purchased with dollars. We want to believe that there is a natural competitive spirit that lives inside of us that ineluctably makes us want to keep up with the neighbors, whether its about the car we drive, the house we live in or the playthings that we carry with us daily. But the lust for excessive stuff is a learned response that the advertising industry has successfully evoked through their hard work for almost a century now. The standards that denote real quality in a life are the ones that are marginalized and ignored in our collective assessment. Everyone pays lip service to the idea that everyone should have a chance to be happy, but almost everyone one seems to be willing to sacrifice some (or most)happiness in exchange for a fatter paycheck. We all agree that time with our families is of upmost importance, yet we continually make choices that keep us and our family members away from each other doing separate things and we find ourselves with less family time than ever. We all seem to think that we value peace and quiet, yet we fill our lives up with so many duties, hobbies, good works and distractions that we have no time for any reflection, let alone enough to experience inner peace.

Why do we accept these compromises that we have made in our pursuit of the American lifestyle? Why do we grin and bear the now almost round the clock demand cycle that our jobs now hold over us, courtesy of cell phones and the devaluation of the American worker by American management? Why have we allowed ourselves to be lured by the glimmer of shiny things so that their acquisition, no matter how painful the costs, is the only thing that matters? Why do we, as 5 percent of the world population, take 60 percent of the world's medications for various types of depression? If we honestly looked at some of the effects of the compromises that we have allowed to degrade our lives in our quest to fit into modern society, we would be shocked at our own indifference and dulled responses. 

Only when we find the time and space to really think for ourselves will we be able to get a sense of what we each need to make our lives worth living. Left to our own devices, its unlikely that many of us would choose to enter the rat race such as it has boiled down to today. This is precisely why we are bombarded with media messages at such a feverish pace. Our economic overlords are interested in shortening our attention span to the point that we become uncomfortable if something doesn't distract us every few seconds. "I think therefore I am" has been successfully monetized into "I shop therefore I become something." It's time that we each choose for ourselves what we really value in a life well lived.

If the Mayans were right about a transformation being upon us, what better place to start than right within each one of us? The corporations and financial institutions that rule this country could not do so without our willing cooperation. The primary way that they have been able to control us is by perpetuating the myth that money buys happiness. Once we believe that, we are ready for any degree of exploitation and degradation. Once we stop believing that, they will lose their power, and we will begin to experience ours.

Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane. He is also a contributor to www.thiscantbehappening.net.