2001 : WHAT NOW?

mihaly_csikszentmihalyi's picture
Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author, Flow
What Now?

Actually, despite Colin Tudge's skepticism, I found the Edge responses to the Sept.11 catastrophe on the whole much more thoughtful and potentially helpful than what one finds in the media, and especially in the pronouncements of our political leaders. Given that I agree with so much that has been said so well by, e.g. George Lakoff, Peter Von Sivers, Luyen Chou et al., I will just focus on just two points I don't think have been much discussed so far:

1. We must make sure that the new Secretary of Homeland Security (or whatever it's going to be called) understands that one of the major reasons our nation is structurally vulnerable to terrorist acts is the concentration of vital resources and services (sources of energy, water, transportation, communication, etc.) As long as we keep building ever larger skyscrapers, oil tankers, planes, and so on, we present increasingly easier targets to those who want to do us in. The reason a few barely armed opponents can hold our technological might at bay in places like Vietnam, Bosnia, (and certainly Afghanistan) is that they are part of an elusive network, decentralized and able to survive without long supply lines. We can't compete with them on that score, but we should realize that in this new climate small is not only beautiful, but also more healthy.

2. As I was driving through Montana on September 13, I read the editorial ofThe Missoulian with a sinking feeling: it's response to the tragedy was, in essence: "Don't let the bastards change the way you live — we will show them they can't beat us by going on with our lives as usual. If you wanted to buy that new dishwasher, go ahead and buy it. If you planned that vacation to the Caribbean, go ahead and make your reservations right away ..."

I have seen this idea that consumerism will win the war resurface again and again. It seems to me equivalent to someone having been bitten by a malarial mosquito in a swamp who then says: "I won't let that bug change my lifestyle; I will go back to the swamp and live there." Ironically, the evidence is rather conclusive that fancier dishwashers and dreamier cruises don't make our lives better in any meaningful sense. The material goals that have become our raison d'etre have a very short shelf life. People are happy when they have a job that is fulfilling, a family they can rely on, a faith that sustains them, and a government that respects their freedom.

The United States provided a beacon of hope in the last century because people around the world saw it as a place where these goals could be achieved within reasonable material conditions. Now we are perceived increasingly as a country willing to trample underfoot anyone who interferes with our God-given right to the latest appliances and diversions. I don't see us solving the problem of anti-American hatred unless we find a way of including the hopes of the rest of the world in our plans.

"Globalization" should not be a code-word for exploitation, but for a sense of solidarity and responsibility extending to the rest of the planet. And we should realize that while this would involve material sacrifices, in terms of quality, it would actually make our lives more happy and meaningful. In previous times this message would have come from the churches. Now it is time that men and women of science take on the responsibility of telling why life will be better if we acted less selfishly. It may be a dangerous line to take in these volatile times, but it comes with the territory.