The Great Barrier Reef, off the eastern coast of Australia, is the largest structure built by living things. It is made of coral, created by zooxanthellae algae.
The reef is so large that is is clearly visible from outer space. In fact, it is the only structure so clearly visible from space.
Recently a group of scientists concluded that rising ocean temperatures were causing the zooxanthellae algae to die off, and the reef has already begun shrinking at a rapid rate. In only a few years the reef will possibly have all but disappeared, along with its spectacular and unique ecosystem.
In recent newspaper articles on the subject, reporters write breathlessly about how all the hundreds of people that depend on tourism and fishing around the reef will tragically lose their jobs unless something is done soon.
In the same spirit, part of the justification for clearcutting is that it saves the loggers' jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers national forests in the United States, has chosen to subsidize the timber industry so that it can more cheaply strip swathes of trees out of the national forests.
Never mind that the Barrier Reef and the California redwood forests are the result of millions of years of evolutionary development. What seems to count more are lifestyles and livelihoods of people affected by the extinction.
Environmental questions seem to have importance only insofar as people rely on nature for oxygen, food, pristine scenery for hiking, and so on.
Man has become "the measure of all things", to paraphrase the famous maxim, but beyond all measure.
During the past several centuries a portion of humanity has been engaged in a unique and daring experiment based on the premise that the experience and satisfaction of individuals, not monarchs or church prelates, is important above all else.
For those of us who live in the West, that idea is completely self-evident, but it has not been true in all parts of the world nor at all times.
The experiment began in Classical Athens, and by fits and starts has steadily gained breadth and intensity through centuries of migration and colonization. Often the ideas and attitudes that underpin the experiment have been disseminated by means trade, as if those ideas were also stowed aboard cargo ships, adding to the cosmopolitan cultural brew of the seaport cities.
The spread of the experiment has coincided with the development of science. The development of science, in turn, has led to scientific technologies, then to scientific technological economies, and finally to societies based on scientific technological economies. All of those changes depend upon and are enhanced by the underlying notion that the individual is supremely important, including the achievements and viewpoints of the individual.
The Greek experiment has lead to some of the most dynamic societies ever seen, which have been highly successful in meeting the material needs of a majority of their population.
What began centuries ago as a challenge to corrupt authority, an appeal to reason, and a nod toward the dignity of the individual, has edged relentlessly toward ever stronger forms of individualism.
As it has rolled westward, the experiment has gained intensity: from Italy to the Lowland Countries, Paris, then to England and to America, where at the edge of the Western world it perhaps finds its most exaggerated expression in California, which as has often been observed is a harbinger of future trends.
In the extreme, the experiment produces in a society that is skewed toward "stardom", meaning that a few people with sought-after traits or personal connections take the largest share of resources, leaving the ordinary and the less desired people to divide the remaining spoils.
Many significant changes in society, especially in the hyper-individualistic United States, reduce the influence of ordinary people while enhancing the fortunes of the extraordinary few who are talented enough to be competitive, or who have friends who are powerful enough.
Perversely, ordinary people seem to acquiesce to this trend despite the fact that they frankly have little chance of benefitting from it.
Many people seem to implicitly cling to a belief that they also are somehow special enough to one day reap the spoils of stardom, at least in some narrow way.
In the United States, the myth prevails that anyone can become wealthy, if only they have enough drive and work hard. Many ordinary Americans claim to feel that they actually could be fabulously wealthy, but they choose not to be.
That myth obscures the fact that the wealthiest people must always be an extreme minority, regardless of the overall wealth of society or the evenness of its income distribution. In fact, the vast majority of ordinary people could not become wealthy, even if they were totally committed to getting to the top, as the increased competition from new entrants would force the prize even further away. That is the nature of exclusivity.
Personal lifestyle has become hugely important to many people in advanced industrialized societies. Young people devote much effort toward finding a lifestyle niche that satisfies their personal needs. People take their choice of lifestyle, and its accompanying identity, very seriously indeed.
The 18th century American phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" now has a sharper bite. It has come to be understood as "lifestyle, privacy, and the pursuit of personal satisfaction". To some degree, individual liberty has almost begun to mean that every person ought to be a star.
At the same time, the correlation between the emphasis on individual fulfillment and the growth of material, technological production remains strong. The more individualistic the society, the more dynamic and productive it is.
When individuals are free to pursue their own interests, the resulting economy is more diversified and exuberant, as individuals wholeheartedly seek entry into any possible niche.
Whether that productivity is fulfilling or healthful is perhaps a more complex matter. Surveys consistently show that people are no more satisfied with their lives now than they were decades ago, despite all the clamor of more efficient commerce and industry.
Still, few people ever decide to give up what little of the "good life" they manage to procure for themselves, regardless of the personal toll achieving and sustaining that lifestyle might claim. No one is forced to accept the gleaming lights of urban or suburban consumer living, but most people readily choose it when given the chance.
The experiment in individualism marches on, and any relentless march provokes the question of how far it can ultimately go.
Despite the considerable technological and economic successes of the essentially secular, commercial, technological civilization that arose in Europe with the Greek experiment, that civilization has during recent decades been less than admirable in satisfying certain important basic needs, such as the need to belong to a close-knit community.
The most prosperous major cities, in particular, fall short. The lack of solid community, probably more than any other factor, is what contributes to stress and feelings of dissatisfaction.
The nuclear family is a relatively recent invention and is not, contrary to what is often alleged, the most basic or natural social unit. That honor more correctly goes to the clan, or extended family.
That most ancient human structure has not survived its collision with the industrial age in the West. Further, a family stripped of the protection of its clan will always be vulnerable and defective. The much-lamented "breakdown of the family" isn't due as much to the "evil influence" of Hollywood as to the earlier disintegration of the clan.
A key characteristic of clans is that they impose rather far-reaching responsibilities on their members. The difference between a clan and most of the small groups in the West is that membership in those small groups is voluntary, generally based on mutual interests, and the commitment is always contingent upon whether the group continues to satisfy those interests, whereas clan membership is all but involuntary.
Most Westerners consider clans much too restrictive. An important component of individuality is privacy, and the loss of privacy in clans would probably be unacceptable to most Westerners. For a group to be a clan, commitment to that group must be unqualified. In that sense, it is rather similar to marriage or extended family.
One need not like or enjoy the company of fellow clan members, but the most important people in a clan member's life will most likely be other clan members.
Strong authority figures often head up a clan, and individual needs and preferences will generally not have much weight. Loyalty and unquestioned sense of duty are what hold clans together, demanding a much greater share of individual freedom than other types of community that have emerged in urban Western societies to replace clans.
Close-knit neighborhoods sometimes function as quasi-clans, with children nearly being raised in common, and families sharing resources in times of need. In prosperous urban societies, younger people in particular often organize closely around shared interests or lifestyles to form a Freundenkreis, or circle of friends.
Although people in such groups may share their lives quite closely, what ultimately holds them together are mutual interests or needs, rather than the unqualified and inalienable sense of duty that binds clans together.
While clans require too much commitment for most people to accept, the continued growth of fundamentalist religious groups, especially in the United States, is perhaps due in part to the fact that many such groups are a close substitute for clans.
Religious authority is one of the only psychological forces strong enough to inspire commitment to a clan. Monks and nuns in religious orders also seem to live in clan-like social settings.
Since blood and faith seem to be the only contexts in which clans can persist, a modern, diverse, and secular form of clan is difficult to imagine.
We might ask whether dropping the clan has been detrimental to psychological health in modern societies. Clans have been a habitual part of human life for eons, and the destruction of clan living has come relatively suddenly.
In leaving such an ancient form of human life, Westerners are truly socionauts, exploring unknown psychological and social territory.
The stress and extremist behavior seen in Western and especially in newly or partially Westernizing societies, such as the Middle East today, may perhaps be at least partially attributable to the breakdown of the clan.
Has the West found the limits of its experiment with individuality? Will more individuality bring possibly catastrophic social sickness?
We need to find ways to address the deeper, perhaps even biologically "hard-wired" needs of people without sacrificing the secular, dynamic, and freedom-driven values of the Greek experiment.
The "every one a star" phenomenon is mainly American, although the trend is probably rising in most wealthy nations. Japan and the rapidly industrializing nations of East Asia have dynamic societies, yet are less individualistic than Western ones.
While their innovation owes much to the Greek experiment, those societies demonstrate that extreme individualism is not a requirement for prosperity. At the opposite end of the spectrum of individuality is the United States, which is extreme even compared to most European nations.
China is in many ways the New West, and the newly prosperous elite in China's dynamic coastal cities seem to be infatuated with wealth and stardom to an extent that would make even a Californian cringe. Bill Gates has been regarded as a cult icon among many younger people in China.
In its extreme, the obsession with hyper-individuality and stardom will actually degrade the dignity of the individual. That is ironic, because it was an emphasis on individual dignity that originally led to a society that embraces stardom.
As stars come to claim an ever greater share of attention in society, ordinary people become merely hoi polloi, the unremarkable many, who are seen as worth increasingly less than stars until eventually they are despised and regarded as nearly worthless. In a star-obsessed society, the winner takes all.
Meanwhile, the stars, who in this case include not just film stars but outstanding figures in any field, will command the full esteem of society.
If the trend continues, ordinary people in Western societies will have the same nameless, anonymous status that menial, undocumented laborers from Latin America, Africa, or Southeast Asia have in Europe, Japan, and the United States today. As the obsession with stardom intensifies, it leads to the weakening of civic values.
Throughout the industrial era, social values have vacillated between an adoration of the stronger members of society, and an interest in improving the conditions of the weaker members.
Nazism, which enthusiastically received the writings of Nietsche, worshipped strength and despised weakness in individuals and society as a whole, including the stable, 19th-century bourgeois society of Europe. In contrast, the era after the Second World War and the decade prior, emphasized helping less successful citizens in order to build a stronger society.
The post-War era saw some of the greatest economic growth in history, and was an era of comparative peace and prosperity, arguably due in part to a relatively strong emphasis on civic values over individual aggrandizement.
As civic values have eroded since the post-War era, public infrastructure has decayed in many Western countries, and the political scene has been dominated increasingly by extremism and populism, especially in the United States, which has arguably become the least civic-minded Western nation.
In many ways, the Greek experiment is at a crossroads. The nations of the West can either hurl themselves toward star-obsession, or they can commit themselves with renewed vigor to civic values, education, and an efficient infrastructure upon which enterprise can flourish.
It is worthwhile to draw a distinction between individualism and independence.
Independence implies freedom to pursue a path separate from what institutions, conventions, or despotic rulers dictate.
On the other hand, individualism in some sense implies that the interests of a single person ought to be elevated above all else, including the good of the group or of the environment.
Hyper-individualism, or star-obsession, suffers a built-in contradiction, as not every individual can have elevated worth. In other words, not everyone can be a star.
Further, for stardom to remain a special thing to have, the selection criteria will quickly become more stringent as ordinary people grow more competitive.
When too many people reach the level of stardom in a particular field, that field will immediately become devalued and will lose its cachet in favor of a more exclusive area of competition.
If too many people become multi-millionaires, then soon only billionaires will be seen as stars. In a starstruck society such as the United States, only "superstars" attract much attention.
That tautological fact drives an overly individualistic society to be relentlessly and insatiably competitive.
Not only are independence and individualism distinct, they actually contradict each other, especially in the extreme.
Individualism amounts to an obsession with one's own experience. Independence means freedom to make wise choices without being subjected to any compelling force.
The urge to become a star, to be someone special, someone who has more money, power, or renown than the thundering herd of ordinary people, has become a remarkably common compulsion, to the extent that pursuing an alternative lifestyle has become commonplace.
Alternative lifestyle movements have also become commodified to some extent. An example is the group of mostly younger people who see themselves as stridently anti-consumerist, neo-hippie, non-conformists.
Although they dress differently than the mainstream, they dress strikingly similar to one another. They have in fact become consumers of their own alternative lifestyle and its associated sub-culture. "You non-conformists are all alike", as the phrase on the car bumper sticker says.
The hyper-individuality seen in parts of the West is a kind of societal obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is interesting, because although OCD patients know perfectly well that their obsessions are irrational, they feel that they are powerless to avoid the compulsive behavior, such as repeatedly washing their hands or checking to make sure that a door is locked or a stove is shut off.
Neuroscience has shown that those feelings of dread come from deep in the brain, and are the brain's way of indicating that something in the environment is dangerously wrong. In a healthy person, that feeling prompts the person into action in order to correct the error. In OCD patients, those neural circuits are hyperactive. The impulse to perform some sort of ritualistic behavior comes from an urge to balance the inner pressures, but the behavior only brings temporary release, until the next surge of anxiety. That is the nature of the disease.
In a similar way excessively individualistic people seem to feel a deep anxiety about being part of the herd of ordinary people. Only by gaining status and power can they relieve themselves of the gut-wrenching terror they feel of being just a generic person. Of course, the relief is very temporary, as there is always a higher rung to climb. The obsession with status is irrational, and many driven individuals fully realize that they are absorbed in a no-win cycle of striving which no amount of success will every satisfy.
Could it be that hyper-individualism is an adaptive response to their emotional void felt as a result of the social conditions arising from the dissolution of clans and other small committed groups, which forces people into an individualistic environment at an early age?
People who as teenagers feel alienated and are troubled by problems of identity may as adults become hyper-individualistic. In turn, many but not all hyper-individualists grow obsessed with becoming stars or some other unmistakably unique type of person.
Certainly much of this is no different from any other period in history. However, the peculiar intensity and voraciousness of hyper-individuality may be understood in terms of being a kind of societal OCD.
Humans are complex creatures, and to attribute the rise of star-mania solely to the media, for example, would present an incomplete picture. Likewise, the breakdown of the clan and other forms of committed community is also not the complete explanation.
What is clear, however, is that the world is increasingly being run by obsessed individuals. No longer is it enough simply to be talented, hardworking, or even necessarily well-born. To make it to the top of almost any field, one must be utterly obsessed.
The repercussions of that fact are quite striking. Just as OCD patients feel helpless to resist urges that they know to be irrational, stardom-driven people are unable to resist destructive behavior it that behavior relieves their dread of being ordinary.
When such people are in positions of power, which they often are, there is always a high risk that their obsessions will compel them to make decisions that are harmful to other people, or even to entire nations or ecosystems, just to escape the psychological pressure that they feel within.
What can we do about a society that is pathologically obsessed with status or stardom? How can we treat a societal case of OCD?
The first step in overcoming any compulsion is to recognize that the compulsion is separate from oneself, in that it ultimately derives from undampened hyperactivity in the brain.
Once the patient realizes the full meaning of that, the patient can begin to let go of the feelings of anxiety (caused, for example, by the thought of being a socially low-ranking person), and to choose to focus attention elsewhere.
In the case of obsession with achieving high social status, the patient has to come to realize not only that the urges that trigger the obsession are induced by the brain, and that they need not be heeded, but also that those urges are buttressed by the cultural conventions of a stardom-obsessed society.
The notion of being a star arose in the Hollywood film industry, of course. We might imagine that in the nascent film industry in the early 20th century, those who appeared in front of the camera might have the same appeal as the photographers behind the cameras. Of course, that isn't how things turned out.
What gives stars their allure? Why do ordinary people find them so fascinating?
Much of it may have to do with elite identity and social networking effects, but much of it may have to do with how the media portray the stars.
It is obviously in the media industries' best interest to exaggerate the importance of stars. The most pitiful example of that kind of manipulation is the Motion Picture Academy's televised annual awards ceremony.
People living in a stardom-conscious culture become especially sensitized to cues about what is "hot", or in demand. In the United States, perhaps the most star-obsessed nation, the use of hot in this sense has become commonplace, even in formally edited media such as newspapers.
People who are high achievers, or who perform extraordinarily well at whatever they do, are featured so consistently and centrally in media content, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that such people truly are extraordinary. Ordinary people eventually grow inured to seeing such people on television, in magazines or newspapers, wherever they turn. The implicit message, however, is that truly ordinary people are less than worthwhile.
Elevated sensitivity to signals about what makes up star material in a stardom-obsessed society restructures the content of social communication. The public becomes brand-conscious to an exaggerated degree, choosing brands that somehow connote success on the road to stardom.
In a hyper-individualistic society, brand-consciousness predominates, and almost any choice becomes colored by the question of branding and the emblems associated with success. People become conditioned to seek out and to respond reflexively to branding.
As reputations become finely honed, people can have a brand of their own. A brandless person or commodity attracts little interest in a brand-saturated society.
Hyper-individuality presents the West with one of the most insidious challenges to independence and personal liberty since the Stalinist and Fascist regimes of the 20th century. The Greek experiment in personal liberty is being undermined by a superficial form of individual freedom.
The creativity and dynamism that comes from independence of mind is squelched by hyper-individualism, which leads people to think in lockstep with the latest trends in marketing, branding, and the strategic quest for status.
Independence means to be free from compulsion, but compulsion may come from one's own obsessions just as well as it may come from a coercive police state. The hunger to obtain stardom and to climb to the top of the heap is a form of intellectual and emotional coercion.
The obsession to pursue or at least to be influenced by stardom and star-centric values threatens genuine and effective independence of mind.
Hyper-individuality degrades the personal interactions that are necessary for creativity. Despite the rare burst of solitary genius, creativity usually emerges through discourse. Hyper-individuality also encourages people to use others merely as stepping stones to achieve higher status, making meaningful and productive discourse more difficult.
To continue the Greek experiment, and to press it forward, we need to counter this latest challenge to liberty.
One of the only realistic ways to meet that challenge is to raise awareness that star-centrism is a social and psychological disease. By spreading awareness of societal obsession, we can perhaps eventually learn not to have our buttons pushed by star-oriented cultural values or symbols.
The trend toward star-worship will probably continue to gain strength for now, but as all things do, it will eventually reach a zenith, and then wane and recede. Maybe some future generation will be savvy enough to regard stardom as truly uninteresting.
Meanwhile, those of us who care about the Greek experiment must work to keep it alive and healthy by cultivating independence of thought in the midst of an increasingly hyper-individualistic society. By refusing to become star-obsessed ourselves, we can help society take a step beyond stardom.
Michael Webb, 2004
[ home ]