Where our fate as humans will be decided.
Your mind, a clear mountain stream running burbling through the rocks. Until Pepsi stands up, unzips its billion-dollar ad budget, and takes a leak, staining it forever brown. Your brain, a verdant old-growth forest, until it dies the death of a thousand swooshes. Your soul, filled with the crystal fresh air of early morning, until Philip Morris blows in a cloud of its seductive smoke.
No. Mental environmentalism may be the most important notion of this new century, but the only way to start this discussion is by admitting the analogy is not exact. Whatever the mental environment is, it’s not a pristine wilderness untrammeled by people. It’s not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Antarctic biosphere. No, the mental environment has been shaped by culture as long as we’ve been, well, human.
The mind is, among other things, a tool for collecting, storing, weighing images and ideas. Perhaps earlier in our primate evolution our brains worked differently, but for millions of years we have been shaping our own minds and the minds of those around us. Our mental environment is not the Yosemite of John Muir or Ansel Adams. It has always been more like Central Park, a landscaped reflection of human notions. Every generation, every community, has had a mental environment. The culture. The zeitgeist. It is that almost invisible fog of assumptions in which we live our lives, the set of images and ideas we barely notice because they are so common as to be both banal and overwhelming.
What’s more, this is not the first moment that our mental environment has been polluted. We’ve seen all kinds of toxins poured into the infostream. Check out a Leni Riefenstahl movie if you want to see what I mean. Try to imagine life during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The state, the church have time and again become mentally oppressive until eventually a resistance emerged — a resistance that, from Martin Luther to Vaclav Havel, said at least in part: “We want our minds back.” Not all the way back: We’ve never owned our minds entirely. But more of our minds, in better shape.
Which brings us to the present moment, the moment that we have to deal with, the moment out of which we have to stage our singular resistance. The mental environment is under siege from a particularly difficult variety of pollution. To understand it, consider an analogy from the physical world, where carbon dioxide is threatening to warm the planet disastrously. Taken in small doses, carbon dioxide is not dangerous, just as the occasional commercial or billboard is hardly a problem. In fact, CO2 in small quantities isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as most chemicals, just as Ronald McDonald couldn’t do the same kind of damage as, say, Joseph Goebbels. But every act of a modern life releases carbon into the atmosphere. Spewed from the rear ends of a billion cars and factories and furnaces, this constant pollution now seems likely to raise global temperatures five degrees in this century, altering everything from rainfall to ice-melt to wind speed. Similarly, the modern consumer economy sends up an almost infinite blitz of information and enticement, till the air is so thick with it that every feature of our society is changed. In neither case is it pollution in the usual sense, easily cleaned with a smokestack filter or combated with a more wholesome image. Instead, it’s a volume problem. In the case of the so-called information society, it may be the largest psychological experiment in history.
Here’s another way of saying it: We are the first few generations to receive most of our sense of the world mediated rather than direct, to have it arrive through one screen or another instead of from contact with other human beings or with nature.
If the mental environment we live in has a single distinctive feature, the way that oxygen defines our atmosphere, it is self-absorption. That’s what a mental environment gone awry has produced; that is the toxic outcome of our era’s unique pollution. Some years ago, working on a book, I watched every word and image that came across the largest cable system in the world in a 24-hour period — more than 2,000 hours of ads and infomercials, music videos and sitcoms. If you boiled this stew down to its basic ingredient, this is what you found, repeated ad infinitum: You are the most important thing on Earth, the heaviest object in the universe. From the fawning flattery of the programming to the mind-messing nastiness of the commercials, it continually posited a world of extreme individualism. Even more than, say, violence, that’s the message that flows out the coaxial cable. Characters on television may turn violent to get what they want now, but it’s the what-they-want-now that lies nearer the heart of the problem.
This hyperindividualism is a relatively new phenomenon in our lives. For most of human history, people have put something else near the center — the tribe, the gods, the natural world. But a consumer society can’t tolerate that, because having something else at the center complicates consumption.
This appeal to us as individual fragments grows ever more powerful and precise. Most of the new technologies premise their appeal (especially to advertisers) on their ability to target with frightening accuracy our locations and our psyches.
So far, the assaults on our mental environment have been mainly from the outside, but we are seeing sorties on the inside too. Already we see psychopharmacology rampant, the ranks of people who need such medicine swelled by a creeping malaise: a gradual redefinition of our foibles, of our tiny personal tragedies. There are pills for the camera-shy, for “shopper’s remorse,” for the stresses of personal bankruptcy — it’s getting crowded in the collective bummer tent. Before long, genetic engineers may well be able to literally tweak the brains of our children, offering them “extra intelligence” or perhaps docility, upgraded memory at the price of downgraded meaning. Improved individuals, at the price of whatever individuality should mean in its sweetest sense.
But. The human mind and heart are not dead yet; indeed there are signs that we’ve reached the moment of resistance, that a million Vaclav Havels, albeit often tongue-tied and unsure precisely of their mission, are rising from different corners to challenge this assault. If you ask me what I remember from the WTO battle in Seattle, it is not the sting of rubber bullets or the choke of gas; it is a jaunty balloon rising above the melee with this message painted on its side: “Wake Up Muggles.” If you’ve read Harry Potter, then you know: Muggles are all of us, living in a world of magic but unable to see it, focused as we are on television and mall. But we are waking, in sufficient numbers to ensure there will be the same kind of fight for the mental environment as there has been for the physical one. And, of course, the fights will overlap.
Mental environmentalists may well lose, just like their colleagues working in the physical world. Global warming may be too much to overcome, and so may genetic engineering or push media or the simple warm-bath skill of those designers and marketers who would sap our lives for their own advancement. But the fight itself holds tremendous possibility. The liberation from self-absorption comes most of all in the battle to help others and in the vision of a world that makes sense to our minds, a world where no single idea (“buy”) holds sway.
Forget monoculture, in our fields or in our heads; imagine instead a thousand different communities, adapted to the physical places they inhabit, sharing insight and difference, appreciating small scale and large heart. Where no musician sells 10 million copies, but 10 million musicians sing each night. Where we are freed from consumer identity and idolatry to be much more ourselves. Where we have our heads back.