Is western society suffering from a collective anxiety attack? Occupy Wall Street may be an expression of just that

I wrote the post below a week or so ago and thought later I should take it down because it was too negative. In fact, a few people unsubscribed to this blog immediately after I posted it.

I do like to use this blog to build hope that there are technologies, policy options, and creative initiatives out there to make the world a more sustainable place. But a few people who read the post before I took it down have encouraged me to re-post it. It’s not my typical entry, but after a bit of editing I have decided to put it back up, for what it’s worth.

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There’s plenty of analysis out there about the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spreading global tentacles. What does it mean? What do the protesters want? Will it continue to grow? Will it fade away as the cold weather settles in? Every media pundit seems to have his or her own explanation, but really there are no clear answers; there is no easy way to explain this leaderless movement that has attracted a grab-bag of interest groups (who don’t necessarily agree with each other on the ideal path forward) willing to ride on its coattails.

I like to think of what’s happening as a symptom of our collective anxiety about the state of the world, our environment, the crumbling of our institutions and shared infrastructure, social inequality and injustice, our ability to feed our families, and the direction all of this seems to be heading. What world are our children and their children going to inherit?

The global population has just hit 7 billion and is expected to rise to an unsustainable 9 billion by 2050. How are we going to supply the rising demand for food, fresh water, oil and other commodities we depend on? We only have one planet. There’s only so much to go around.

Greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to climb, the climate has begun to change as a result, certain industries and coastal cities and island nations are already feeling the effects, and the (real) science tells us it’s going to get much worse. More weird weather — droughts, floods, tornadoes, extremes of heat and cold. Why are we not taking the necessary action to minimize the impacts?

The cost of the products and services we consume continue to exclude the impacts their manufacture and delivery have on the environment — our air, soil, oceans, rivers and lakes, and of course on biodiversity. On this overcrowded planet, where billions of poor aspire to have the same wasteful, energy-inefficient lifestyles as Canadians and Americans, can we continue to treat our biosphere and atmosphere as a dumping ground, without expectation of growing negative consequences?

Major world economies are struggling to manage a debt crisis that has the potential to send destructive ripples through the global economy. An obsession with fiscal deficits and a refusal in countries such as the United States to raise taxes — or, even better, create a carbon tax — has overshadowed a festering infrastructure deficit. Schools are crumbling. Roads are peppered with potholes. Bridges are unsafe. Transit takes a back seat to cars.

Healthcare is suffering from a severe case of angina, and as boomers get up there in years it’s only going to get worse. The pipes that bring clean water to our taps and take away (and treat) our dirty water are old, leaky and neglected only until crisis strikes. And even then, we slap on an expensive Band-Aid instead of invest in the kind of renewal that’s necessary and lasting. In many ways, we can’t even bring ourselves to put lipstick on the pig if it means coughing up more to do it.

Our cities are getting uglier, but like a balding, big-bellied couch potato that keeps touting his days as a star high school quarterback, we continue to rest on our laurels of past greatness. Yet pointing to past efforts of greatness alone — i.e. sending a man to the moon, mobilization during WWII — represent the sacrifices of past generations. What kind of sacrifice is this generation prepared to make?

We know all of these issues exists, or we choose to deny them. We refuse to give serious consideration to putting a price on carbon, even though this could help deal with growing infrastructure, fiscal and environmental deficits at the same time. We outright forbid serious discussion of road tolls and congestion charges and other logical measures as a way to get our cities moving again, fund visionary transit initiatives, and reduce urban smog. We scream bloody murder when electricity rates rise as part of the long-neglected but much-needed renewal of our power system, and we incorrectly pin most of the blame on green energy, yet another propaganda victory for the well-entrenched and highly profitable fossil-fuel industry.

At the same time, one can understand the outcry. This generation is simultaneously being asked to pay for their own and past excesses, decades of infrastructure neglect, and the security of our collective future at the same time. People are squeezed. They’re feeling the rise of electricity, fuel and food costs. New fees seem to arbitrarily appear every few months, gradually chiseling away at disposable income. With all of this happening, people are being told they have to take on more to keep the house of cards from falling down as they watch the top few per cent of income earners and the most profitable of corporations escape similar obligations.

Is this generation the last one into a Ponzi scheme that is close to running its course? It’s easy to see why some feel that way. Each time the music stops there are fewer and fewer chairs for the 99 per cent to sit on. Yes, people are angry — but most of all there is anxiety running deep through the population; a general feeling that we simply can’t continue with business as usual along the current path we’re on. Occupy Wall Street may be but one manifestation of this collective anxiety. Where does it lead? What lies around the corner? Can we keep the ball of thread from unraveling?

On an individual level, anyone who has battled anxiety — which can be quite crippling if left unchecked — will know that the source of anxiety isn’t always easy to identify. What I’ve just described above is not necessarily something the average person on the street thinks about every day, what with their busy lives and focus on work, family and friendship. But it’s in the news — online, on TV, on radio and in newspapers — and it does gradually permeate our subconscious. Over time, this can bring on feelings of worry, uneasiness, fear and even dread. It can be managed at first, but there is a cumulative effect until a breaking point is reached and occasional anxiety transforms into a persistent anxiety disorder. That breaking point could be an anxiety attack, or even more severe, a panic attack.

Is Occupy Wall Street one of those breaking points? Are the protests seen around the world a collective anxiety attack, or even a panic attack — one that may go away but, as with any untreated anxiety disorder, re-emerge with more intensity? That’s my take. More and more people are anxious. They’re freaking out. And they feel helpless.

Who knows where it will lead unless some meaningful action is taken to clearly identify and seriously address the source of this anxiety. There are solutions — technologies, policy options, economic models, etc. — out there if we choose to embrace them. Left ignored, however, you can bet the anxiety won’t permanently go away, and even if it does fade this time around it’s very likely to come back with more ferocity.

8 thoughts on “Is western society suffering from a collective anxiety attack? Occupy Wall Street may be an expression of just that”

  1. tyler:

    It is an important post. Too much of the talk around energy sources is about cost effectiveness and impact on the environment as if people did not actually exist. Collective and individual stressors, whether from $100 to fill your gas tank, or living in the potential fallout zone of a nuclear reactor, or having a loved one involved in health or other issues related to energy use are important to recognize. I participated in many forums about Fukushima and what was always missing was any accounting of the collective stress on several 100,000 people who may never be able to go back to the lives and communities they loved. That is a huge price for people to pay, but no one puts a dollar value on it, and it certainly not assessed in any of the nuclear plant approval processes. I think it is time to look at collective societal psychological damage (and costs) caused by the impacts of dangerous and environmentally disruptive energy systems and find a way to compare energy systems on such scales.

    I am hopeful that most renewable energy systems will improve the planet, not only by being cleaner, but also reducing collective stressors that resource tight and high impact energy sources create. I drove a Nissan LEAF last week and it felt good to know that some PV panels could charge that car for the next 20 years without a big circle of damage. Yes, the battery can be recycled.

    Cheers

    Steve

  2. Well I can see why you took down the post initially – pretty gloomy. I think there is great danger in taking on too much at once, you risk adding up all the adversity into a single insurmountable obstacle. Sitting and thinking about the list becomes an exercise in futility, leading to a complete lack of motivation to do anything at all, because its all just too much to deal with.

    The solution is to do a quick stock-taking, then prioritize, and consider possible remedies. Usually one issue will quickly stick out as being clearly defined, and easily remedied with the tools and resources at hand. This is where you immediately spring into action, and take all steps necessary to resolve that one issue.

    Your problem pile is immediately smaller, and solutions to the rest clearer and closer to reality. Not everything can be dealt with this way, obviously, but it does tend to promote solutions instead of debate.

    My advice: keep this blog focused on “Trends, happenings and innovations in the clean technology market”

    “Perfect is the enemy of good” Voltaire

  3. Tyler,

    I am happy you weighed into the Occupy debate. I am finding that the Occupy Movement has created a wonderful “mental space” for us to ask questions about our World. You are right that there is not one issue or statement that the Movement stands tall behind, which gives it more power since it can not be co-opted, fully embraced, or chastised easily. At this point in the dynamic of the Movement, our thinking should rest on questioning our values, our society, our lifestyles, and our economy. This is what will fuel any actions in the future, be it reforms or, as you put it, panic.

    Things are already changing, starting with an Occupation of our mental space. People are feeling squeezed and soon enough all aspects of life will require Occupation.

  4. Thank you for re-posting this article Tyler. Unfortunately this type of honest commentary is lacking in the main stream media. Yes, as Bud Bundy and you pointed out, this is a gloomy and negative post BUT it I think it is necessary. If someone has cancer, they’re better off receiving the diagnosis early then determining the possible solutions. The same thing applies in the global sense. People on a mass scale need to stop sticking their heads in the sand and pretending everything is alright.

    Once enough people acknowledge the harshness of the true situation (and before they feel totally hopeless) then groups and organizations can bring back the hope by introducing the solutions. We now have 7 billion people on this planet which means a higher chance people thinking of innovations and solutions to the challenges facing us. There is so much hope and potential in these new emerging technologies but more so in the people working on them.

    You do an incredible job bringing that hope to your readers when you write your posts. Those people you write about are determined to make a difference and they know that humanity’s greatest moments are during times of crisis.

    “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

  5. People are really getting fed up with Wall street executives helping themselves to fat bonuses, with the blessing of the politicians. Wall street needs a major overhaul and the politicians need to get their collective asses in gear and pass financial reform to make the fat cats pay their fair share .

  6. In regards to gloom and doom journalism, I want to post this video to help put our current happy-go-lucky media messages into perspective.

    http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/03/17/rsa-animate-smile-die/

    Hearing a bad message should not be castigated as anti-establishment. Just think about the old prophets of the Old Testament screaming out to the public about the coming disasters. Their message was scary, yet people did not pay attention or even act to change.

    Keep up the great work, Tyler!

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