insight

Indra Adnan

The Politics of Waking Up 3: Why We're Hooked on Our Own Self Destruction

We like to believe that we are autonomous, but advertising has hijacked our human needs so totally that we are destroying our planet.

Politics
In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part three. Read parts one, two and four here.

I can’t describe it. But sometimes I’m out walking and I get ‘the call’. I need something – can’t be sure exactly what it is, but I know that feeling. Sometimes a can of Coke will do it. Not because I’m thirsty – a glass of water is better for that. And coffee is better for the buzz. But Coke gives me a more fuzzy feeling: having enough money in my pocket for a can, makes me feel safe. Like I’ve got what it takes. Sometimes though, I find myself walking towards the bigger shops. I can usually find what I’m looking for – it’s amazing the stuff on offer.

***

We sat, intent, listening to the politician. What the people want, he explained, is jobs. Security. Money in their pocket. We looked at each other then: all we needed was time, precious time. Later on, the kids asked, how did he find out what the people want? Did he ask you?
How could we possibly have let slip our concern for our very survival as a species?
At this moment of intense crisis, we could be forgiven for asking ourselves: how did it come to this? How could we possibly have let slip our concern for our very survival as a species? We have ignored the science that links climate breakdown directly to human behaviour – excessive-consuming, extracting, wasting, flying. How could we have carried on, knowing what we knew? 

It’s easiest to blame our leaders. After all, they have the power and the resources to make meaningful changes. Increasingly we look at each other – shaming whoever is doing less well than we are, in living up to Greta Thunberg’s model of integrity. 

And in our dark moments, we might turn on ourselves. What am I being so defensive about? I agree with everything XR is saying. Why do I keep copping out?
Emotional needs are not preferences – secondary to our physical needs. They are essential from birth, present so that we can create the conditions for our survival..
None of this is unreasonable behaviour. But its angsty defeatism arises from the belief that we are fully able human beings, free to act according to our will. Any failure can be corrected simply by determining to do things differently. But the evidence is that we can’t. Our internal motivational system– our programming if you like – is consistently creating outcomes we now need to change. 

What is this programming? Is it deeply personal, or broadly cultural? Did someone design it on purpose to keep us all in thrall to the growth economy? Or is there a bigger evolutionary story at the core? More importantly, where can we find the agency to re-programme ourselves and our communities in sufficient numbers, to avert disaster?

When I first came across the Human Givens model of psycho-social therapy, it appeared deceptively simple. Founders Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell describe how we are born with ‘given’ – or evolutionarily adaptive - emotional needs. Together with our physical needs, these givens enable us to survive and thrive as social entities. These are: Attention; Security; Autonomy / Control; Status; Achievement; Belonging; Meaning and Purpose; Privacy; and Intimacy. 
Members of a community, giving each other the time of day when they meet in the street are exchanging vital data, forging bonds of trust.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is misleading from this perspective. Emotional needs are not preferences – secondary to our physical needs. They are instead essential from birth, present so that we can create the conditions for our survival. We need to be seen, heard and counted in a community—or we die.

While each given is worth dwelling on at length, one or two stand out as acute drivers of our current crises. For example, the need for autonomy/control is being politically harnessed as a rationale for Brexit. We know we need it – it’s a deep trigger. Where autonomy overlaps with the (forever debated) notion of freedom is another political driver. It’s a clear emotional need, but society has not yet understood how to meet it with the necessary depth and complexity.

Social media meantime, for all its pros and cons, is an extraordinary vehicle for our desire to give and receive attention and status. Would any of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram have become the major industries they are now, if people were not crying out for ways to express themselves and be counted? 
In a media landscape of newspaper headlines, advertising, TV, we are constantly seduced by the spectacle of lifestyles we should aspire to.
While we may have been shamed as children for being ‘attention seekers’, there is in truth no other way to download into our physiologies the information we need to thrive. Parents gazing into the eyes of their infants while feeding are programming them for empathy and connection. Members of a community, giving each other the time of day when they meet in the street are exchanging vital data, forging bonds of trust.

Nature did not design us as dependents. Alongside ‘given’ needs we are born with ‘given’ faculties for getting those needs met. Joe and Ivan itemise these as complex memory, rapport, imagination, a rational mind, the ability to know, to observe the self and – in order to regulate our emotional lives – the ability to dream. 

But the time available for us to stream from our natural environment has only got shorter over the years. In a media landscape of newspaper headlines, advertising, TV, we are constantly seduced by the spectacle of lifestyles we should aspire to. We turn away from the communities that might provide mutual nurturing and get on the hamster wheel. In stressful jobs, often with physical and mental constraints –  it’s hard to put our natural resources to work. 
Keeping us in the trance of trying to get our needs met is what has allowed the growth economy to prosper unchallenged.
Even so, in the small gaps in our work schedules, our need for attention continues to drive us. We pore over posts, images and websites that give us the tiniest clues about the world. Shaping our own comfort zones by liking and boosting others as we go. While society is increasingly fragmented, Facebook , Instagram and others have become the spaces in which we  ‘find the others’ like ourselves, for mutual appreciation. It’s hard to pull ourselves away.

Add to this, the more clearly defined activity of the consumer economy. Even if citizens are only dimly aware of the psychology of emotional needs, the advertising industry is built on these insights. Being able to make the connection between a pair of trainers and the need for belonging is a skill that business has been willing to pay for. 

More insidious are connections like those between Coca-Cola—teaching the world to sing— and our need for meaning and purpose. Deathly was the connection between smoking cigarettes and achievement, aimed in more recent years specifically at women.
Keeping us in the trance of trying to get our needs met is what has allowed the growth economy to prosper unchallenged.
Keeping us in the trance of trying to get our needs met is what has allowed the growth economy to prosper unchallenged. Precisely because no amount of buying stuff can satisfy those needs, we keep going back for more. The promise of fulfilment, met by only a fleeting moment of pleasure, is the very mechanism of addiction. This is what keeps us on the hamster wheel.

This drag into the whirlpool of unmet needs has ever escalating consequences. Depression, frustration, anger – all the symptoms of a society instrumentalised by the demands of unrelenting growth.

But the worst impact has been on our loss of responsibility – which we could rephrase as our ability to respond - to what we see happening around us in real time. When Greta Thunberg asks why we do not act to save our world, the only possible reason is that we can’t. 

We’re hooked on our own self-destruction.

Indra Adnan is a psychotherapist and the founder of the Alternative UK, a political platform which aims to support all citizens to engage with the complex issues that face our society.

In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. Part One. Part Two.

Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.
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Words by Indra Adnan
Indra Adnan is a psychosocial therapist and Co-Inititator of The Alternative UK, a political platform which responds to the question: if politics is broken, what’s the alternative? She is also a lifelong Buddhist and the founder of the Soft Power Network, consulting to Finnish, Brazilian, Danish and British governments.