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Culture Change

Materialist culture and the ego: expendable artifacts? 

by Jan Lundberg 

To cope with the demands of modern society, the majority of people must erect and keep up psychological walls. We can convince ourselves it is necessary and are not overdoing it, when we consider short term needs. However, happiness, harmony and humanity's long term future are pushed aside in our conscious minds as well as in today's socieoeconomic priorities. 

The ego is an indispensable defense mechanism as well as an origin of offensive, aggressive behavior. The ego, or the mind-set of mental and emotional separateness, can be considered the opposite state of yoga ("union" in Sanskrit). The ego is not the only identity, when we can feel that we belong and don't have to promote self interest. 

In a natural state where bliss predominates, the feeling of oneness or wholeness unites people as well as all creatures (even when eating each other). That kind of cultural basis would be -- as indicated by anthropological evidence -- sharing, mutual support, and tribal or band identity. It was easier then, compared to today, when there was so much food to merely collect or hunt, with materials abundant for housing, clothing and heating, not to mention a plant-based pharmacoepia and -- most important -- clean air and water which are becoming an obsolete concept. 

To imagine the new cultural environment (economy, social relations, spiritual grounding) after the global corporate economy implodes -- when energy is sorely and continually diminished -- we must examine the role of the ego both today and in a sustainable future. 

In these times of rising tension and upheaval, we hasten our complete fall from enjoying a supportive social fabric as we must constantly compensate for added stress. Thus, compassion has to be sacrificed for efficiency. Modern economics and one's personal "agenda" have less and less room for kindness or other unprofitable distractions that slow us down from keeping up with the treadmill in the rat race. 

It is becoming much more common in "advanced" societies for antidepressant pills, and that old standby, alcohol, to keep people going and going. To spice up their lives and buy some happiness they may use credit cards to achieve a temporary euphoria. 


In a society that honors material power through money and other "assets," the attainment of sexual gratification is frequently through controlling others. It may be innocuously called marriage. Nonetheless, the ego is at work to both concentrate one's intellect and energy on obtaining material ends (e.g., a needed job), and packaging oneself as a desirable or powerful sexual partner. However, since the ruthless members of society at the top of the social pyramid are more loveless than almost anyone, we can assume that money and power are the real goal, with sex as a perquisite or commodity. This assumes such persons have the refined egos that society seems to mainly exist for: the ruthless and the loveless. 

For all the build-up that an ego strives to provide, normal people commonly enough opt for expensive plastic cosmetic surgery to increase their sexual power and social standing. Their self-images must be poor indeed, that they would have no pride in their natural process of aging, and instead conceal their bodies' real condition. 

In a political system that enshrines greed, private property and supports vanity, the most common act of kindness may be the handout on the street to a beggar or busking musician. Meanwhile, as the typical citizen of any major city in the world walks along in the throng, or motors through traffic (with more frequent road rage), the normally protective ego is fully engaged. It's me, me, me. Get and have, rather than be and love. The extreme individual case is the out and out predator, present at all economic levels. In public places it is the obvious predator or crazy person that one must be on the lookout for. 

Such a state of consciousness locks the mind, individually and collectively, from examining or challenging the inequities that have added to the tension and fear. Moreover, the ruling elite employs fear to keep order, such as when it fosters competition for jobs for survival. We are supposed to suck up to the opportunity to hear Donald Trump bellow to us, "You're fired!" Or, feel grateful for very little self-determination when society maintains "terrorist alerts." What is most absurd is for society to practice terrorism (calling it defense or patriotism) which clearly adds to present and future terror (i.e., collateral damage, although the "bad guys'" actions aren't afforded that euphemism). 

The ego that achieves life-and-death control over others -- wasting thousands or millions of lives in the name of freedom or the fatherland -- appeals to the simple, cruel member of society who is striving to be among or atop the elite. An ego that shows (i.e., wearing it on one's sleeve), or that is out of control, has at root a fearful, compensatory attitude and delusion that boosts an insecure character. An inferiority complex may promote bullying, thieving and domination. These nasty attributes of the eco-tyrannical (bossy?) person happen to be hallmarks of government and capitalistic ventures. Militarism and police power, when enforcing the status quo of oppression, racism, sexism and speciesism, are essential for society's ego: the head leads the body and heart. 

Heart leading the mind 

The heart and body leading the mind is where we need to get to! From the straight jacket of our egos -- imprisoning us with nonstop scheming and calculation (interspersed with fantasizing, worrying, and drug-altered states) -- how can we drop our "defenses" and start to work together cooperatively and rationally? Some try mightily, as they may mediate, do yoga, make art, activate themselves for a social cause, or walk around saying to themselves, "Think positive thoughts!" As helpful as those practices are, they do not appear to be working wonders as yet. Some believe that a huge awakening will explode in a benevolent shower of goodness and beauty, aided by alignments of stars and planets. Or that a messiah will come. 

However, none of such admirable optimism and (unjustifiable?) faith in a (magic?) solution address what we are to do about a matter such as overpopulation which is present in both the "developed" and "developing" "worlds." And, if climate change is out of control already, and about two dozen countries have nukes, we are going to need every tool and lucky break to pull through. In all this analyzing, we must begin to honor love and compassion and reject self aggrandizement. For those of us who can feel we are not part of the problem because we do our best to improve society and are not greedy, we have to remind ourselves that our usual state today is unnatural, harmful and going nowhere: our egos guide almost all our thoughts, feelings and actions, despite any achievement of elevated self-awareness and pseudo enlightenment (in such difficult circumstances). 

Meanwhile, we are under pressure to meet others' expectations that are often short-sighted: "The ego is promoted by our society as in 'I have enough ego to want to do this.' Our society runs on ego. It depends on it." [Richard Hansis, environmental studies professor]. For this reason, the changes needed must be on all levels, not just in our personal dealings with our own egos and the many daily consequences. 

Perhaps the collapse for the petroleum economy will be just thorough enough to sweep away the despicable, and allow a fertile rebirth of a throwback to our pre-civilization sustainability. 

- November 30, 2004, Santa Barbara/Long Beach, California 


For the preceding 80 essays and reports by Jan Lundberg, see

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