AT THE TIPPING POINT: HOW TO SAVE US FROM SELF-DESTRUCTION

BOOK SYNOPSIS & SAMPLE

BOOK SYNOPSIS

Collectively we are engaging in self-destructive behavior, compromising our present and jeopardizing our future. Rampant greed, irregular regulation, unrestrained urban and resource development, out of control global warming, biased pharmaceutical and biotechnology research, and lethal levels of obesity, are all severely damaging us. Dr. Bowins drills down exposing these forms of self-destruction, and shows why we might be setting ourselves up for widespread revolution and devastation. Also revealed is how our psychological defenses ironically perpetuate major forms of self-destructive behavior. We have reached the tipping point, but the solutions proposed can save us from self-destruction, if we each take action.

BOOK SAMPLE

As a species we are quite unique in our capacity to act in ways that ironically hurt us. Even though in the short range some of these behaviors seem advantageous, in the long run a much different picture often emerges. This occurrence is perhaps not all that surprising, given that during evolution short-term benefits typically trumped longer-range costs. It all seems to happen in the present, and who knows or cares about the future. Our intelligence plays a major role by fostering countless creative actions that go far beyond what nature has instilled in us. However, in many instances these actions raise the question, Are we really that stupid for an intelligence species? As a psychiatrist, I have seen many instances of self-destructive behavior, and have become quite adept at discerning and managing the problem. Shifting my focus to a societal level, the realization dawned on me that we are all hurting ourselves by supporting and partaking in endeavors producing highly adverse consequences. One example is our hyper-consumption of high calorie food, contributing to the obesity epidemic of first world nations, that is spreading to third world nations faster than just on time delivery. The health consequences of all this excess weight provides a graphic example of how we are hurting ourselves, despite how pleasing that high calorie food is in the moment.

     The current endless growth economic model characterized by greed and hyper-growth provides another example of how we are damaging ourselves. Now, you might say, “It’s only the financial elite that are responsible for this system ensuring that they the privileged 1% get 99% of the resources.” However, without all of us supporting hyper-growth through hyper-consumerism, the system would collapse overnight. We seemingly cannot resist all those consumer products driving 70% of hyper-growth. Linked to hyper-consumerism and hyper-growth, is the unsustainable depletion of key environmental resources, such as fish, forests, readily available oil and natural gas, certain minerals, and fresh water supplies. We have already consumed about a third of the natural capital of the planet, and this is with only approximately 1.5 billion of the current world population of 7 billion able to hyper-consume. Once our self-destructive hyper-consumption illness fully spreads to the third world, we will be in a race to the ultimate bottom.

      In addition to our unique ability to engage in self-destructive behavior, we have a well-developed capacity to detach from problems, and/or spin them to make it “all good.” As you are reading this you might be thinking in line with this capacity, What we are doing is not really hurting us, and the system works for most. The tip-off that this is not the case came to me from seeing increasing suffering amongst my patients that is unquestionably related to the economic model of our times. Certainly as a psychiatrist I see much suffering, but something more was going on that has been building over the last several years. My exposure to environmental problems as a senior level volunteer for a major environmental charity, with all the research that went into it, helped tie the pieces together—The economic world that we all play a role in is severely damaging us directly, and also indirectly via ongoing degradation of the environment. Brief clinical case examples will help illustrate how one aspect of this world, the current endless growth economic model, impacts people like you. Names have been changed to protect those already suffering.

     Tim in his mid 40’s worked in the packaged goods industry as a senior level manager earning a very solid salary. Due to corporate purchases of smaller companies and mergers, he was let go from three jobs. Although his fourth initially appeared fine, history repeated itself with the company being bought by a large packaged goods corporation. He was able to keep his position, but with reduced staffing he ended up doing the job of three people. Under the enormous stress of this job he became depressed. Sensing that he was going to be let go and unable to find it within himself to improve his performance, he went off on sick leave. I entered the picture at this point. Tim was completely demoralized by the endless rounds of lay-offs, and now what seemed to be an even worse fate of having to persevere in an incredibly stressful position. He could not see any hope for improvement in his industry, and in fact a repeat of the same scenario was almost certain given the never-ending mergers and buy-outs. During our discussions he realized that he wanted control over his life and was interested in real estate sales. He negotiated a settlement with the company he worked for, and retrained in real estate. The hope this provided greatly augmented the antidepressant and psychotherapy treatment, and his mood fully recovered. A year or so later he returned feeling depressed, because despite his best efforts he could not gain any ground in real estate, largely due to the high number of people that have flocked into this occupation as stable employment for reasonable pay has evaporated. So-called, “corporate refuges,” gravitate to any potential source of income, and with ever increasing numbers of these refugees it does not take long for promising areas to become saturated.

     Illustrating how first world skilled technical jobs are vanishing to the third world, in line with our endless growth economic model, is the example provided by Dirk, a middle-aged man finding himself with almost no options. An engineer by training, Dirk worked in a highly scientific area involving physics. A conflict with a more senior employee resulted in anxiety and depression. When the problem escalated, despite his efforts to resolve it, he had to go on sick leave. With the assistance of a lawyer he negotiated a settlement and left, expecting to find employment, given his impressive qualifications and experience. Despite numerous resumes sent out, he has only had two interviews for an engineering position, and one job offer. Although the pay was barely half his former salary, he tried the job but left after a month unable to stand the relentless demands for even more work for no extra pay. Understandably, his mood worsened further as he envisioned no hope for employment beyond a low-level service sector job. These “precarious” jobs are steadily replacing stable employment, and I even see people competing for part-time minimum wage positions offering no benefits. Although Dirk’s age plays some role, I also have a mid-20’s engineer who is also struggling to find work, and is planning to move back to his homeland, India, where he can find a job. With manufacturing disappearing from the first world faster than corporations can say, “It’s cheaper to hire someone in a third world country,” there is ever diminishing opportunities.

     While corporate revenues have typically been advancing, public funds are decreasing, often with profound consequences for the less fortunate. An elderly patient-Susan-lives with her husband in an apartment. They had to retire early from their jobs to look after aging and ill relatives on both sides. Income from the government with pensions and the like sufficed for quite a while, although their lifestyle has been restricted. Susan has struggled with depression throughout her life, but when she first came to see me the condition was much worse. Due to government cutbacks, combined with escalating costs for rent and food, they are barely able to get by, and have zero luxuries. Neither is employable given their ages, time away from the work force, and competition for service sector jobs. It appears that they might not be able to stay in Toronto, given the higher costs in this city than in outlying areas. However, both have significant medical conditions and their doctors are all in the Toronto area, as are all their social supports. Marie has been in tears stating how she worked for so many years with no sick leave, and only retired early to assist aging relatives that could not afford care, and now treated like this. She has considered ending her life several times, as she sees little hope for the future.

    A person with seemingly much better prospects is, Scott, an early 30’s very bright man nearing the end of his PhD in literature. Despite his youth and intelligence he is demoralized, depressed, and anxious regarding the reality facing him, as are many PhD’s. In early times such a degree would have meant comfortable employment as a professor teaching and conducting research. Now PhD graduates face almost no chance of obtaining such a position, and many like Scott are very discouraged and demoralized. With a science PhD there might be opportunity in industry, but with many science jobs leaving the first world this option can be limited. Samantha, a PhD graduate I treat was unable to get a tenure track position, but teaches at a university for about $8,000 per course, meaning that she earns approximately $32,000 per year, assuming she works hard. She considers herself to be one of the “lucky” PhD’s able to secure such a position, knowing many who drift into even lower paying service sector work. So-called degree inflation and the resulting employment limitations impact on students at all levels. Graduating from a Bachelor program in his early 20’s is John, who after two years out of university has only succeeded in finding jobs in coffee shops and volunteer intern positions, so far leading nowhere. These young, bright, and vigorous people are finding themselves with large amounts of student debt, and no opportunity for a solid future, depriving them of hope. Without hope they are discouraged, depressed, and anxious.

    It appears that we have now reached the tipping point, due to the highly unbalanced and unstable distribution of resources, and how the natural environment is passing a point of no return regarding the declining availability of key resources and rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. As stated by Friedrich Hegel, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Perhaps it is time that we learn that the current state of financial imbalance and environmental degradation is not endlessly sustainable, and if it progresses revolution is unavoidable. History shows that as valued resources become depleted and concentrated in the hands of the few something has got to give, and revolution often discharges the pressure. Unfortunately, the discharge can take many forms, some worse than maintaining the status quo. The Occupy Movement and Arab Spring, both ultimately arising from suffering induced by great resource imbalance, are warning flares of what I believe is around the corner, and such signs are not to be ignored, at least by the wise. I write this book in the hope that we can avert self-destruction, and in the process avoid the scenario of widespread revolution.

     Major forms of self-destruction are examined—Greed, irregular regulation, unsustainable development both urban and resource, global warming, research bias, and obesity. In the Greed: More Is Never Enough chapter, we investigate the all-important role that greed plays in how we are hurting ourselves. As it turns out we are all greedy, it is just that some of us are better at it than others. I propose that beyond general and emotional forms of intelligence, there is FQ (financial quotient), representing a type of intelligence facilitating the acquisition of resources. Wealth has become concentrated in the hands of corporations and members of the financial elite, consisting of senior personnel of corporations, wealthy shareholders, and others with high financial intelligence. While this very small percentage of the populations is advancing in prosperity, suffering for the many is steadily increasing, such that a revolution is in the making, an event that will almost certainly target the financial elite. Consequently, the excessive wealth accumulation of this privileged few will ironically end up damaging them. The many faces of greed are covered including traditional crime, financial fraud, corruption, and individual and corporate activity. The frightening and prominent role of tax havens and the offshore shadow economy is revealed. Greed has become the new world religion transcending physical, political, and historic religious boundaries. The fascinating story of how greed evolved based on resource acquisition in a social context, deceit, and the power of hierarchies, is also described.

     The Irregular Regulation chapter examines the pivotal but typically under-valued role that regulation plays in our wellbeing, and the damage that ensues from degraded regulation. The importance of solid regulation for ecosystems, and our own physical and mental health, is presented to demonstrate how nature relies extensively on it. Progressing to man-made forms, we look at how essential regulation has been to financial stability. A period of extensive deregulation ensued from 1980, culminating in the massive financial meltdown of 2008. The shock waves from the ultimate financial weapon of mass destruction-derivatives-are still echoing around the world. Although it would be nice to believe that we just forgot history and let regulation slide, deregulation was actually carefully orchestrated by an elite segment of the population, in their quest for levels of wealth difficult to realize with tight financial regulations designed to protect the people. They were able to achieve this remarkable result, demonstrating high financial intelligence, by of all things “capturing” politicians and regulating agencies to ensure that their own needs, and not those of the larger population, are looked after. Politicians are captured by lobbying influences involving campaign contributions, consulting contracts, and in some instances cash bribes. Regulators are captured by revolving door employment opportunities of various forms. With politicians and regulators working for corporations and the financial elite, democracy has essentially ceased to exist beyond a pretense, an occurrence that hurts us all in the long run.

     Problems of urban and resource development are presented in the chapter—Taking The “Devil” Out Of Development. Urban developers have hijacked municipal politics via their funding of politicians, who in turn reciprocate by voting in favor of the developer’s projects. Consequently, we end up with car dependent urban sprawl replacing fertile farmland and urban forests, leaving us vulnerable to food shortages and depriving us of urban forest benefits. Meanwhile, non-urban resource development is rapidly depleting the natural capital of the planet. The influence of the resource development industry on politicians and regulators ensures that the deck is fully stacked in favor of corporations and the financial elite, while ecosystems and people incur the costs. Unsustainable resource development supports hyper-growth that is relied on by corporations and shareholders to generate wealth. We learn how hyper-growth is impossible both mathematically and practically, and is fully dependent on of all things, a major accounting error. All of us play a pivotal role in supporting hyper-growth through hyper-consumerism. Despite the short-term allure of this endless economic growth model, it will end up destroying us all, rich and poor alike.

     Hyper-growth supported by hyper-consumerism contributes greatly to global warming. We all love energy derived from fossil fuels, and the world is heating up as a result. In the Too Hot To Handle: Global Warming chapter, we examine this glaring example of our self-destructive tendencies. Impacts such as ocean acidification, melting of land and sea ice, forest fires, and extreme weather events, are covered, keeping in mind the tendency of media and some global warming scientists to exaggerate these effects. The ultimate result of global warming is evidenced by what transpired 56 million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a story that should motivate all of us to take the problem seriously. Many interventions have been proposed to stop and reverse global warming, but all fail largely due to the so-called iron law—Whenever, economic growth and global warming concerns counter each other, economic growth always wins. However there is a winner that is completely natural and will return the planet to how it was prior to the advent of agriculture. This intriguing option actually aligns with the iron law because it saves money, and could be a reality in even 20 years. However, resistance from agricultural and biotech companies earning huge profits from the current system, might well block this incredible option from becoming a reality.

     Biotech innovations applied to genetically modify crops comprise a major component of current agricultural practices. Research conducted by the biotech industry consistently finds that genetically modified organisms are safe for human consumption. Meanwhile, research funded by other sources often finds the reverse. These inconsistent findings underscore a major problem-research bias-that is compromising our health, and draining financial resources that might otherwise be diverted to interventions that truly help people in need. In the chapter, A Conflicted World: Research Bias, we learn how bias in biotech and medical research is so extensive that we are led to believe that genetically modified organisms are safe, when they actually might be very harmful, and prescribed pharmaceutical products that are often not effective, or have side effects that exceed benefits. Health outcomes are jeopardized, and countless taxpayer dollars wasted on biased and hence meaningless research. While some of the bias involves outright manipulation for profit, most of it is much more subtle and largely unconscious. The “publish or perish” world that research scientists live in plays a key role by establishing a “distort or despair” reality. Amazingly, due to a major statistical error that few research scientists are even aware of, most medical research results are likely false! Medical and biotech research bias represents a form of self-destruction, because it is jeopardizing the health of everyone including those who profit financially.

     Health is also worsened by the modern day epidemic of obesity. In the Weighing Down The World: Obesity chapter, we learn how weighty a problem it truly is. Essentially, we are killing ourselves with food! Highly processed and energy intensive packaged food contributes to the problem, while generating major gains for corporations producing, marketing, and selling it. To counter the obesity epidemic, an extensive weight loss industry has arisen yielding great profits for many providers. Unfortunately, weight loss is a losing proposition. Virtually everyone who loses weight ends up gaining it back, and the small percentage who manage to avoid this outcome are likely only those able to resist our natural homeostatic mechanisms prompting us to regain lost weight. As we discover, the whole emphasis on weight loss and dieting is entirely misdirected, necessitating that we lose the focus on weight.

     A key force serving to maintain our self-destructive behavior is of all things, our own psychological defenses. In the Defending The Indefensible chapter, we learn how psychological defenses have evolved to safeguard mental health. Two major categories of defenses consist of, positive cognitive distortions and dissociation. Although these defenses help keep us sane so to speak, they work against us by attenuating or blocking awareness of negative reality. It seems that it is all about positive spin as media is well aware of. For example, even today many people distort the overwhelming evidence for global warming and our role in it, viewing the problem as just a natural fluctuation that will self correct. People tend to believe that medical research results are valid and take medications on this basis, a positive cognitive distortion relative to the reality that medical and biotech research is largely characterized by bias. Many individuals see themselves as being fitter and safer from disease than they are, even as the weight piles on. Dissociation is evident in how people simply detach from distressing or disturbing viewpoints, finding it more comforting to focus on positive scenarios. If we are to avert self-destruction, it is crucial that we check our defenses, as painful as that might be in the short-term, and work with the realities facing us.

     A theme throughout the book is the role that money plays in our self-destructive behavior. In the Enlisting Entropy: Ordering Disorder chapter, the question is raised, “It’s all about money, but what is money all about?” It is all about the purchase of sources of highly ordered input to counter the ongoing natural slide of everything to disorder. Entropy is a measure of the disorder in a system, with low entropy representing order, and high entropy disorder. We require highly ordered fuel to power our cars and heat or cool our homes. Everything we build requires ordered materials, and must be maintained with skilled ordered intervention. Our bodies naturally decline over time and health products help slow the decay to disorder, or at least provide the comforting positive cognitive distortion that we are maintaining order within our physical selves. By applying low entropy resources we can maintain greater order and slow the slide to disorder. Although we all seek these resources, monopolization by the elite few provides an order suited to them, namely one characterized by the quest for endless economic growth. To support this pursuit, low entropy sources are extracted from society and the environment. However, despite the social and environmental justice costs endless economic growth ends up being impossible due to entropy.

     A limitation of many books and articles discussing major problems of the world is that they present the concern without providing workable solutions, or at best only partially viable interventions. This type of presentation leaves readers feeling discouraged and hopeless. My experience as a clinician has instilled in me the importance of providing workable solutions, circumstances permitting, even when facing very challenging problems. Patients cannot just be given a diagnosis and sent away. Workable solutions are formulated and implemented, assuming that the patient is willing to cooperate. This crucial theme is applied in the form of effective solutions for the major ways that we are damaging ourselves, thereby providing realistic hope. The thinking is big, but this is no time to think small given that we are all on course to go over a very steep cliff. Major course corrections are required to avert what appears inevitable if we maintain the status quo. A world with less suffering and environmental degradation is indeed possible, if people are motivated to both adopt and advocate for the proposed solutions. Although changing the status quo will be challenging, the effort is worthwhile because it will save us from self-destruction. 

Ultimately, though, it will be up to you to decide!

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