For centuries, world economies have been based on the seizure and processing of natural resources, often called ‘capturing the commons’. These are resources shared by all members of a society, including natural elements such as air, water, and land etc. There was a time when no one owned the planet’s natural resources. They were shared by everyone, humans and non-human. We co-existed together foraging for only what we needed. Gradually, natural resources fell into private ownership. Firstly, through staking claims to land for farming, then through sharing the spoils of war following conquest and then through industrial acquisition. Today, virtually all of planet Earth’s natural resources are privately owned. Natural resource-based economies are reliant on industry taking what we once collectively owned, adding value through some sort of processing, and selling them back to us in the form of products.


We enjoy the benefits of the products and the financial security gained from a growing economy. We don’t want to know about the flip side of these benefits. To fully enjoy the economic benefits, our consciousness needs to blind us to the pain we are causing nature. As a society, we have found it acceptable to let companies carry out deforestation, overfish seas, extract minerals, turn oil into plastic, spray pesticides, create mountains of rubbish, and use non-sustainable intensive farming, etc. It’s vital that, as a consumer society, we don’t feel nature’s pain and react en masse to prevent its exploitation and destruction. Maintaining our consumerist lifestyle requires us to separate from nature.


If Earth is to remain hospitable to humans both in terms of living within the planetary boundaries and preventing future pandemics, there needs to be greater protection, and reverence, for wildlife, their habitats and the natural environment. Industries cannot continually capture common natural resources and convert them into products. For economies to grow continually, industries need to find, capture, process and sell us commons that aren’t finite natural resources.


We’re now seeing a transition to the capture and exploitation of non-finite resources taking place. Capturing of the ‘commons’ of our social relationships for economic growth is already happening. For example, the care of children and the elderly used to be performed by the family, the local community or the government. It’s now increasingly carried out by commercial businesses. Equally, healthcare and education used to be provided within the local community and/or provided by the state. In many countries today they are wholly or partially in the hands of commercial businesses. Social media is another example of industry capturing, processing and selling our social relationships for economic growth, i.e., Facebook and dating apps.


We allow our relationships to be captured by businesses because we enjoy the benefits sold back to us. We can choose to be home carers or pursue other careers and outsource some of the caring roles. Through an explosion of social media, we can share our thoughts, ideas and creations with other people without leaving our sofa. We can meet people on-line more easily than in our neighbourhood. What we don’t feel is the flip side of these benefits. We are losing our communities.


Industry is increasingly capturing our psychology for economic gain. This is being done by medicalising normal, and everyday, psychological conditions. The ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM) defines and classifies mental disorders in order to improve diagnoses, treatment, and research. The forerunner of the DSM was created in 1917 and contained just 22 diagnosable psychological conditions. Over the years the number of diagnosable psychological conditions has grown to 265 in DSM-5, the latest edition. Although our understanding of psychological disorders has increased over the years, this substantial increase has been attributed to the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Psychiatrists are increasingly concerned that diagnostic thresholds are being lowered and too many new conditions are being introduced. Consequently, there is a fear that once relatively normal and common psychological conditions, such as shyness, are now being medicalised. Once a condition is included in the DSM then the pharmaceutical industry can sell us medication for its treatment.


The pharmaceutical industry is not the only industry looking to capture the commons of our psychology. Self-help is an industry that has grown significantly over the past few decades, selling books, seminars, apps and coaching, etc. In 2015 the Global Wellness Institute estimated the industry to be worth $3.72 trillion and identified that the market was growing at 5–6% per year. Meditation is particularly popular and, according to Marketdata Enterprises Inc., is estimated to be growing by around 11.4% per year and set to be worth $2.08 billion by 2022.


Governments are fully aware of the environmental, community and psychological crises facing us today. Strategies are being formulated, initiatives implemented and money invested to tackle each one. However, what is missing is a recognition of their interconnectivity. Even though we are aware of how the environmental crisis and inequality impacts on our psychological wellbeing, there is no talk of how inequality and mental illness fuel the environmental crisis. There is no recognition that all of these crises are being driven by something much deeper, our consciousness.


Written by Terence Sexton

Date 9th June 2021


Extracted and abridged from Consciousness Beyond Consumerism: A Psychological Path to Sustainability.

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