sad or displeased because someone or something has failed to fulfil one’s hopes or expectations.”, Oxford Dictionary
This post is about disappointment, what I expect to be the dominant mood of the 2020s. I want to share my view of why this is the case, and look into what we can do about it.
Why are so many people disappointed?
… and why do I think more will be as time goes on?
There is a mismatch between the dominant story of our current culture and reality: “Everything is getting better, and with more technology we will all be better off.” vs. ecological destruction, economic disarray, social unrest.
The main cause for disappointment is too high expectations on what we “should” get, compared with the reality of the world that is currently cracking under the load of a reckless human-driven globalized machine. The second confounding cause is that the economic elites are using monetary policy and other tricks to concentrate wealth into their hands.
Over the globe, disappointment is today manifest in different forms, from Yellow Vests in France (protesting the abolition of wealth tax and increasing taxes on fuel) to the student strikes in Chile (protesting the increasing gap between the rich and the rest). Also the Youth climate movement Fridays-for-Future is driven by disappointment in how governments handle the climate crisis.
Disappointment is driven by both real problems and unrealistic expectations.
We live in a world which has some severe real problems:
- Running out of easy to harvest natural resources and energy – e.g. end of oil, minerals [Meadows]
- Too much load on the environment, best described by the Planetary Boundaries [Planetary Boundaries].
- Human health deterioration – despite being richer than ever, we are getting sicker by the day. “Peak Health”, when human health on the planet was best, was probably 1990. [Hulsegge]
- Economic trickery that shifts wealth from most people into the hands of very, very few. [Martenson]
At the same time, the current globalized culture is infused in optimism. We have created inflated expectations of the future that is blinding us to the reality. Young people today are bombarded with advertisement and propaganda that tells them that they will enjoy a life of opportunity and luxury. Expensive cars are promoted as “intelligent” and international travel for vacation as bringing “unlimited peace”.
Advertisement for an expensive car.
Fly away. To find “Unlimited Peace” in a country waging civil war…
But even without the expectation of luxury and material abundance, we live in a culture that is glorifying technology and stands on a story of “progress”. I grew up completely convinced that everything was getting better, and it was consistent with my observations in the 1990s. Democracy was on the rise, pollution in Western Europe was going down. Everyone was a winner. Or so I thought, until I saw the destruction that we cause in Asia, by moving most of the destructive industry there. As a kid, I witnessed how the Ruhrgebiet was transformed from a dark gray industrial landscape into a green park. However, only when I was 35, I saw the hellscape of Ningbo, and experienced the smog in Beijing.
Despite the earnest efforts of people like Hans Rosling and Bill Gates to explain how certain things improve, there are also lots of things that are moving in the wrong direction in the world today [Rosling]. Young people sense this probably better than us old guys. I guess that is why depression is on the rise among younger generations. The younger the cohort, the earlier we get depressed. [Ilardi]
How should I handle my disappointment?
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”, Reinhold Niebuhr
Of course I am disappointed. The world is not getting better every day, as I was told when I was at school. Even though I belong to a very small privileged elite who is collecting significant wealth from the destructive industrial system, I don’t support the wealth gap increase. I don’t want the biodiversity to get more and more impoverished. I don’t want multinational “food” companies to sell rubbish that makes people sick.
The ecological destruction that we are engaged in as a civilization is of course difficult to remedy as an individual, but each of us can make a difference. It is like democracy – even though one voice is small, there are ways to amplify one’s influence, e.g. by joining a political party or using your influence to build leverage.
The political idiocy of “Quantitative Easing” (printing money and handing it to the owning classes) that we allow central banks to pursue, is something that we need to resolve by political action.
In these global problems, each of us has to decide how much effort and courage to invest to pull the world in a “better” direction, and try to use the resources we have at our disposal to get maximum effect. My own actions are of course minuscule, but I hope that I effect some change by planting nut trees and by talking to people who work at the ECB and the central banks. (And by posting this kind of posts, to share my ideas and hopefully inspire someone else to also take action!)
The other lever I can pull is to adjust my expectations. I can tell myself that life is fine also if I turn the thermostat down and wear long johns instead of burning gas in the winter months. I can tell myself that another business trip to China to boost my ego is not worth it. I seek courage to sell our old car and live without one. I can choose to not go skiing and destroying yet another mountain ecosystem.
I am very inspired by people like David Holmgren, Chris McLeod, Wouter van Eck, Diana Wildschut and Patrik Andersson, who lead by example and show that life can be rich and fulfilling, without destroying the environment. They also generously share their experiences in writing and in dialogues. They help me to adjust my expectations to want what I get, instead of trying to get what I think I want… They inspired me to shift to part time work in the paid economy, and to use the freed up time to improve relationships, health and learn skills of resilience and ecology.
I think that the long term solution is to build a new global culture of “enough”, where we make peace with the ecological limits of our beautiful planet, and where we actively reduce wealth gaps. We can work together to build a world where we look at our real human needs and create structures and rituals that meet them [Rosenberg]. A world where we don’t accept advertisement that creates “wants” for consumption. A world where we don’t accept further concentration of wealth, but work for better sharing.
“The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”, Gandhi
Disappointment is a sane response to the current conundrum of ecological/ energy/economic/health crises inside a culture of “progress”. This will become even more visible in the coming decade, when several natural and social limits are stretching to a point of fracture.
I hope more people will recognize the reality behind the rupture and avoid the populists “simple” solutions to these challenging problems.
How do you handle your disappointment? What do you do to adjust your expectations and how do you decide on which change you want to work for?
What is triggering you most right now?
How can we build a culture of peace?
FootprintNetwork, 2012. Global footprint and earth biocapacity, http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/newsletter/bv/humanity_now_demanding_1.4_earths: s.n.
Hulsegge, G., 2016. Cardiovascular risk factors over the life course (PhD Thesis). Utrecht: http://cdn.gld.nl/data/uploads/2016/04/56fe349cec7ed_proefschrift_Gerben_Hulsegge.pdf.
Holmgren, D., 2018, Retrosuburbia – a downshifters guide to a resilient future, Hepburn Australia.
Ilardi, S., 2013. Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, http://tlc.ku.edu/: Kentucky University.
Martenson, C., 2011. The Crash Course – The Unsustainable Future of Our Economy, Energy, and Environment. New York: Wiley.
Meadows, D., Randers, J. & Meadows, D. L., 1972. Limits to Growth. New York: Signet, Penguin.
Ratcliff, A. Oxfam Global Wealth Report 2019, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/billionaire-fortunes-grew-25-billion-day-last-year-poorest-saw-their-wealth-fall
Rees, W. E., Wackernagel, M. & Testemale, P., 1998. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
Rockström, J. et al., 2009. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society, p. 14(2): 32.
Rosenberg, M., 1999. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. 1st ed. Encinitas, CA, USA: Puddledancer Press.