DARS ADDICTI: W W AR BIICA I-SITD T T RICS MDR AMRICA1 T PST CARB RADR SRIS
Reprinted with permission from Peter C. Whybrow,“Dangerously Addictive: Why We Are Biologically Ill-Suited to the Riches of Modern America,”
Chronicle of Higher Education
55, no. 27 (March 13, 2009), B11.
“It’s called the American Dream,” George Carlinlamented shortly before his death, “because you have tobe asleep to believe it.” Too bad for the rest of us thatGeorge and his signature satire haven’t been aroundfor the wake-up call of the current market meltdown.After all, George Carlin knew something about thedangers of addiction from first hand experience. Heunderstood earlier than most that the debt-fueled con-sumptive frenzy that has gripped the American psychefor the past two decades was a nightmare in the mak-ing—a seductive, twisted, and commercially conjured version of the American Dream that now threatens ourenvironmental, individual, and civic health.The United States is the quintessential trading nation,and for the past quarter century we have worshiped the“free” market as an ideology rather than for what itis—a natural product of human social evolution and aset of economic tools with which to construct a just andequitable society. Under the spell of this ideology andthe false promise of instant riches, America’s immigrant values of thrift, prudence, and community concern—traditionally the foundation of the Dream—have beenhijacked by an all-consuming self-interest. The aston-ishing appetite of the American consumer now deter-mines some 70 percent of all economic activity in theUnited States. And yet, in this land of opportunity andmaterial comfort—where we enjoy the 12-inch dinner plate, the 32-ounce soda, and the 64-inch TV screen—more and more citizens feel time starved, overworked,and burdened by debt. Epidemic rates of obesity, anxi-ety, depression, and family dysfunction are accepted asthe norm.It is the paradox of modernity that as choice and mate-rial prosperity increase, health and personal satisfac-tion decline. This is now an accepted truth. And yetit is the rare American who manages to step back fromthe hedonic treadmill long enough to savor his or hergood fortune. Indeed, for most of us, regardless of what we have, we want
and we want it
. The rootsof this conundrum—of this addictive striving—are tobe found in our evolutionary history. As creatures of the natural world, having evolved under conditions of danger and scarcity, we are by instinct reward-seeking animals that discount the future in favor of the imme-diate present. As a species we have no familiarity withthe seductive prosperity and material riches that existin America today. A novel experience, it is both com- pelling and confusing.Brain systems of immediate reward were a vital sur- vival adaptation millennia ago when finding a fruit tree