Living in a material world
10/03/2015 § 1 Comment
This morning, Madonna’s song “Material girl” kept replaying in my head: “Cos we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.”
What does it mean, to live in a material world? To me, it means a world where we pay a disproportionate attention to what we can touch, feel and see, and downgrade things like feelings, love and other subtle energies that we can’t see. It means we value possessions and external beauty and discount things like creativity, courage, compassion and connection.
One of the ways in which this manifests is in our drive to create artificial versions of everything. Artificial flowers over the years have become steadily more life-like – I’m frequently fooled into thinking a flower is real only to find when I try to smell it or touch it that it lacks the essential vibrancy of a living thing. In films cartoons are becoming more life-like and films with people in them are becoming more cartoon-like, with computer generated images becoming more and more clever and common. Dolls too are becoming more and more life-like.
On the face of it, much of this is relatively innocuous – what’s wrong with having an artificial flower that brightens up the home? If someone is fooled by it, does it really matter? Yet there are other areas of life where this move to mimicry is far more unsettling. I think particularly of our food. There are reports that food companies are becoming more sophisticated in mimicking the texture, taste and feel of naturally occurring foods. As the Guardian reported last year, “Since the end of the second world war, a vast industry has arisen to make processed food taste good. During the past two decades the flavour industry’s role in food production has become so influential that many children now like man-made flavours more than the real thing.” This is in effect an experiment at massive scale. When I was young in the 1970s it was common to hear talk of the food of the future being simply pills. Most of us dismissed such stories as fantasy – eating just pills would be too boring. So instead we are being presented, on our supermarkets shelves, with “food” every bit as artificial as a pill, but designed to fool us into thinking it is natural. Can we live and thrive on it? Who knows.
Of course the industry won’t admit that there is anything wrong with fooling people. Apparently “consumers” (that horrible, demeaning label for people who buy things) would prefer not to know what really goes into their food. Hence there is lots of resistance to proper labelling – there have been huge battles in the US over labelling genetically modified (GM) products, and this will come here to Europe if we bend and allow them in to our supermarkets shelves.
The most unsettling thing about this is what drives the industry to do this. It’s always bold to make assumptions about people’s motives – people are complex and rarely have just one motive for anything. However it seems pretty plain that the prime motivation for companies like Monsanto and the food manufacturers is to maximise profits. It’s one thing when this applies to artificial flowers. But when it comes to the food we put in our bodies, it is quite another thing. And if you think that there is nothing wrong with the food “industry” being motivated primarily by profit, just think how you would feel if you went into doctor’s surgery and saw a sign saying “Our prime purpose is to maximise our profits.” Would you be willing to trust those doctors with your health? Would you not wonder, when they sent you for tests, whether the tests were necessary or useful? So how is it that we are trusting profit-motivated large companies with our food? So much of our food systems are controlled by large multinationals – up to 90% of world trade in grains is in the hands of just 4 companies, 66% of food and drink sold in the UK in 2011 was sold by 4 supermarket chains, filling the shelves with branded products produced by yet more large companies. We have no real choice.
Yet that’s not true. We always have a choice – it is just not always visible to us. Not only can we choose to shop in smaller retailers, and to buy organic and fair trade goods (much of which is run by social enterprises, for whom profit is merely a means to an end, like any good doctor). At a deeper level, we can remind ourselves of what the mystics tell us, that all we see and touch is maya – an illusory material world. The only true reality is the one that we cannot see and touch. Superficially we can be fooled, for a while. It is part of our journey, to let ourselves be fooled, taken in by maya. But eventually we wake up and realise that we have all been kidding ourselves – that an artificial flower no more meets our need to marvel at nature’s beauty than a blow-up doll can take the place of a human companion. That man cannot live on bread (or amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate – all milk shake ingredients!) alone. That love is more real and more powerful than all the combined forces of the largest companies in the world. And that if enough of us wake up, no power on earth can stop us. 🙂