Conditioned to consume: How the economy grew past its natural boundaries

There is a point when you have enough of what you need, says author, speaker, and social innovator Vicki Robin.

Vicki Robin: We talk about the old roadmap for money, and the old roadmap was born really out of the industrial revolution.

It was born out of the sense of the “wild west,” of “anything is possible,” of manifest destiny, of American exceptionalism, whatever you want to say.

Or you can go back even further to capitalism itself. But the roadmap is: “growth is good, more is better, whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

It’s a materialist roadmap, and the part of the roadmap is not only that; it’s an empty world.

“Uh oh, there were people here before the white people came. And, you know animals. There was already a living mature society—“ “No, no, no. It was empty.”

And then the other part of it is that one of the essential ingredients of it that still people, even if intellectually they understand it they do not get it, is that in that roadmap the economy can grow forever and the Earth is like just sort of a toy chest. You just keep reaching in there and pulling out resources, reaching in and pulling out resources. So the economy can grow infinitely because the Earth is an infinite cornucopia of resources.

The fact of the matter is that the economy is a fabrication, our economy is a fabrication, a set of rules inside a finite planet.

There’s a way to measure. There’s a way to measure the human impact, the impact of human consumption on the Earth. It’s called the ecological footprint, and they can measure every little scintilla of, you know, my watch and my eyeglass. Everything I have, everything we sit in, everything we walk around on, they can measure that in terms of the amount of the planet it took to develop that.

So we have measured the amount of planet we have and humans are consuming more than the amount of planet we have every year (that can be regenerated) ever since 1986.

That, to me, that data about overshoot has been a central feature of my life. When I learned that, it was just sort of one of those things that’s obvious, like, “certainly we want to change.”

So the old roadmap this idea that the Earth is a set of infinite resources, and the economy can harvest those resources every which way from Sunday in order to produce economic growth.

That’s fundamental and then it trickles down to the human as: “More is better.”

And part of that is as the economy grew, as industrialization permitted more products to be produced with less human labor there was a sort of a peaking out of consumption around the 1920s and it became a problem, like what are we going to do?

So there’s several ways to expand markets.

One is you export and another is to educate your citizens to want more than they need.

And then you’ve got an infinite market called the endless willingness of people to buy into the story of ‘more is better’ and ‘keep buying stuff.’

So that is the old roadmap: Growth is good, more is better, game over. Not talking about the context of our lives, the social context where fairness is sort of like built into us.

Babies all come with that stamp on them, you know. Fairness is important and so you cannot stretch fairness and believe that there’s no breaking point. So injustice aside, environmental integrity aside, more is better, growth is good, party on.

The new roadmap says that there is something called “enough” and “enough” is not sort of like this oppressive ceiling that, you know, “Okay, I’ve got enough and I can’t have any more.”

No, enough is this sort of vibrant vital place. What we teach is an awareness about the flow of money and stuff in your life in light of your true happiness and your sense of purpose and values. And that your “enough point,” having Enough, is having everything you want and need to have a life you love and full self-expression with nothing in excess. It’s not minimalism, it’s not less is more, because sometimes more is more. But it’s that sweet spot. It’s the Goldilocks point.

And so Enough, for me, is like one of the absolute fulcrums between the old roadmap for money and the new roadmap for money.

And our surveys of people who follow this program confirm again and again that once people start to pay attention to the flow of money and stuff in their lives in this way, their consumption drops by about 20 to 25 percent naturally, because that’s the amount of unconsciousness that you have in your spending. So when you become conscious that falls away. Many people say they don’t even know what they used to spend their money on. They are just—“Oh, surprise, I’m spending less. I don’t know how that happened. I just paid attention. I just asked myself is this purchase of something making me happy?"

There is a point when you have enough of what you need, says author, speaker, and social innovator Vicki Robin. And anything past that is just overindulgence and doesn't take into account your environmental impact. Once you become aware of your financial sweet spot and how much you really need to consume, you will naturally spend less and be happier.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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