Much as I respect Mr. Monbiot’s views, I hope he is wrong in this respect.
I have long admired the writings of George Monbiot and, as often as not, have republished his essays in this place.
But an essay by George that was published in the UK Guardian newspaper yesterday portrays a frightening picture of modern-day Britain. It was called Falling Apart and is republished, with George’s permission, today.
I want to offer a personal response to the essay, that immediately follows George’s piece.
October 14, 2014
Competition and individualism are forcing us into a devastating Age of Loneliness
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th October 2014
What do we call this time? It’s not the information age: the collapse of popular education movements left a void now filled by marketing and conspiracy theories(1). Like the stone age, iron age and space age, the digital age says plenty about our artefacts but little about society. The anthropocene, in which humans exert a major impact on the biosphere, fails to distinguish this century from the previous twenty. What clear social change marks out our time from those that precede it? To me it’s obvious. This is the Age of Loneliness.
When Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war “of every man against every man”(2), he could not have been more wrong. We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other. The hominims of East Africa could not have survived one night alone. We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before.
Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults(3). Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50(4), and is rising with astonishing speed.
Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day(5); loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity(6). Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut(7,8). We cannot cope alone.
Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is now no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.
British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses, more than a fifth now say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed(9). A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe(10). We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?
We have changed our language to reflect this shift. Our most cutting insult is loser. We no longer talk about people. Now we call them individuals. So pervasive has this alienating, atomising term become that even the charities fighting loneliness use it to describe the bipedal entities formerly known as human beings(11). We can scarcely complete a sentence without getting personal. Personally speaking (to distinguish myself from a ventriloquist’s dummy), I prefer personal friends to the impersonal variety and personal belongings to the kind that don’t belong to me. Though that’s just my personal preference, otherwise known as my preference.
One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people now report that the one-eyed god is their principal company(12). This self-medication enhances the disease. Research by economists at the University of Milan suggests that television helps to drive competitive aspiration(13). It strongly reinforces the income-happiness paradox: the fact that, as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them.
Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of television derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. Television speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction. You have only to think of the wall-to-wall auctions on daytime TV, Dragon’s Den, the Apprentice and the myriad forms of career-making competition the medium celebrates, the generalised obsession with fame and wealth, the pervasive sense, in watching it, that life is somewhere other than where you are, to see why this might be.
So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier. Figures published this week show that while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year (14). The bosses now earn – sorry, I mean take – 120 times more than the average full-time worker. (In 2000, it was 47 times). And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.
The top 1% now own 48% of global wealth(15), but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too are assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness(16). Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money. (And if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1 billion in the bank.
For this we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.
Yes, there are palliatives, clever and delightful schemes like Men in Sheds and Walking Football developed by charities for isolated older people(17). But if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.
Hobbes’s pre-social condition was a myth. But we are now entering a post-social condition our ancestors would have believed impossible. Our lives are becoming nasty, brutish and long.
“Our lives are becoming nasty, brutish and long.“
As closing sentences go, that’s about as tough as it gets.
Nevertheless, I’m going to offer a perspective, something that George doesn’t mention. That is the importance of community.
Back in 2008 BBC Timewatch screened a programme about the revelations that came from the latest archaeological dig at Stonehenge, near Amesbury in Wiltshire in England. I wrote about the programme over four years ago: Stonehenge – a place of healing.
Stonehenge is one of Britain’s most famous historical sites, deservedly so because Stonehenge was one of the most important places in ancient Europe.
But evidence from a dig that was authorised in 2008 has shown that not only is Stonehenge a much older site of human habitation but that it’s purpose is altogether different to what has been assumed. It was, indeed, a healing place, possibly the most important in Europe.
If you would like to watch that Timewatch episode, and it is highly recommended, then someone has neatly uploaded it to YouTube.
The programme clearly offers evidence from the carbon-dating of seeds buried under the famous blue stones that dates this settlement to some 9,000 years BP. The detailed examination of ancient humans buried nearby indicates they came to Stonehenge with a range of diseases, many terminal in nature.
So back to George Monbiot’s essay and the element that screams out at me.
We have lost sight of the huge healing benefits that come from old-fashioned, shoulder-to-shoulder communities.
Not to mention the healing properties of a loving dog or two in one’s life!
9 thoughts on “Is it really the age of loneliness?”
Paul yes this age of ours we live in appears to separate us from living within the community.. As many youngsters sit behind their Ipads and keyboards.. Something akin to what I am doing this morning.. But Like Happiness.. Loneliness is a state of Being.. We may strive for all of those things which we ‘Think’ will make us Happy!.. Yet do they really?
Some are driven to succeed thinking that the power they gain somehow will make them feel complete, and bring the rewards of happiness, that success is associated with.. Yet are they really Happy?
We are brought up to regard the fact that ‘Fame’ and Stardom’ is what makes for a Happy world.. But this is a falsehood.. .. Why do you suppose the children in some African Village with no clothes, no shoes, no education, smile and appear so Happy.. Could it be their perspective on Life is different.. Yes of course it is..
Here within our material world we place the success of prize of Happiness and contentedness, on being the accumulation of wealth.. People strive here to achieve, and succeed, thinking possessions and gadgets, external to themselves are the key to their happiness.. They soon discover no amount of external trappings brings them that which they were conditioned by their upbringing and educational teachings.. And so many of our youngsters now are detached from feeling loved..
Parents work around the clock, often latch key children spend time alone apart from their social media.. Some I am sure connect much easier to their on line cyber friends than face to face in the playground.
Yes for some we are becoming lonesome… I see it within my own family as conversations are stilted between looking up from their Ipads that seem to obsess their world..
This is why I think ultimately Paul, what we are creating in terms of what we think as progress within this technical age of computers and communication.. Will come to a peak.. And not wishing to appear doom and gloom.. But like within the age of Atlantis.. ( which many I am sure will perhaps scoff at ).. We have got too technical.. And there comes a pivotal point in civilisation which makes us turn yet another corner..
With all our technological devices and nohow.. We are still all of us contributing to the demise of Planet Earth.. We crave and want more and more of her resources, polluting as we go.. We gather our technical wits about us, and yet could we sustain ourselves if the power went out?
What happens if a day arrives whereby a Solar Flare wipes out the energy grid.. No banking, no shopping Malls open, no tills working.. No electric doors opening.. and No internet..
I wonder if those who revere success in their terms of perception.. Could feed themselves after the supermarket shelves were emptied..
We have to get back to living within our communities, because Living in our lonely worlds will not help us survive..
Sorry for this mornings Rant Paul…
Thank you for allowing my thoughts to explode upon my day, as I sit among my cyber space of thoughts 🙂
Sue, that was no rant, far from it. You are simply reflecting what is so obvious to so many. That mankind’s craving for power, wealth and control, greed in other words, is bringing about our own demise. The only hope, that I know is shared by you, and huge numbers of others, is that evolution will favour those who dream of a sustainable future.
A friend in the UK mentioned the stunning messages from the second episode of the BBC series Human Universe – Why are we here? Did you see it?
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I watched some of them, and yes agree with you Paul, I hope some day we wake up to ourselves..
I fervently believe more and more are!
Paul, George Monbiot’s article is heavy duty writing. I went online and read About George to understand his writing about “exploring issues.” He also writes that there is no other work he’d rather do “except perhaps tracking wolves, but not much call for that in Britain.” Of all the things he states he likes there is no mention of a domestic dog or cat or even a fish tank, bird or turtle. I think he needs a pet dog, and all the learning from dogs that you write about. A lighter, more loving side of life!
I felt the same way about this particular essay from George Monbiot. Untypically, in my view, he painted a very gloomy picture although I don’t doubt the statistical accuracy of the figures quoted; George is a very professional reporter.
I got that he’s a very professional reporter. After reading what he went through to get where he is today at age 51, I still think he needs a dog! And I’m not just being flip about it.
Couldn’t agree more. Dogs really offer an incredible refuge, outlet, call it what you will, against an over-pessimistic view of our life. Indeed, against a pessimistic view at all! Dogs so beautifully offer us unconditional love.