From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers

The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead by Sue Gerhart

We’ve substituted money and things for relationships, argues Sue Gerhart, and we must train the next generation of children to be different. We have become too self-centred, self-absorbed, self-interested and self-regarding, with consumer capitalism having fixated us on things at the expense of people. As a result we have weaker family bonds, weaker friendships and weaker social ties, all because we have become entranced by both our ‘stuff’ and ourselves.

Gerhart, a practising psychotherapist, also examines what makes some people behave unselfishly in certain circumstances, while others seem only concerned for themselves. She contrasts the example of ‘rescuers’, who acted to shelter and protect Jewish families during the Holocaust, compared to ‘bystanders’, who did nothing. The principal difference, she argues, is down to early childhood, and in particular the extent of emotional development and learned empathy. Amongst her other observations Gerhart is critical of the concept of ‘problem families’, commenting that it is the other families and individuals in the ‘problem community’ that have failed to be interested and provide support.

If we wish to construct a more caring, collaborative and less divided society, Garhart argues, we need to support the caring qualities that are learned in early life and can best do this by giving responsive care and attention to all our children’s wants and needs. Negative and critical parenting, along with neglect, disinterest, lack of time or attention, and family breakdown all may significantly reduce the degree of empathy in adult life, and this, Gerhart argues, will shape the future of our society. [Amazon UK US]


Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More by John Naish

For millions of years if we liked something, we chased after more of it – more food, more status and more stuff. In the West we now have more of everything than we can ever use, enjoy or afford. Yet we still want more – even though we’re destroying the planet in the process and it’s leaving us sick, tired, overweight, angry, unhappy and in debt.

Enough covers a lot of ground, spanning aspiration and celebrity culture, how our ownership of things defines our status, the brain chemistry of shopping and ‘buyer’s remorse’, our quest to constantly ‘know’ more information, through to how our desires can overpower our appetite, so it can’t tell us we’re full. Much of the analysis is from an evolutionary and biological perspective, explaining how our impulses for more fulfil sensible functions in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but have failed to adapt to life in our modern culture.

The book presents a compelling argument that our desires for more of everything have driven us almost to the point of planetary ecosystem collapse. Will our wiring for more force us into decline and demise, or can we learn to control our impulses ? Fortunately the book doesn’t just present an analysis of modern consumerism, it also tries to offer practical advice for ‘curing’ ourselves of the affliction, by identifying the elusive ‘enough point’ – the point at which having even more makes us no happier.

The author, John Naish, is also the man behind the Landfill Prize, an award given for the most pointless, gimmick-laden piece of junk produced that year, with previous nominess including laser guided scissors and automatic cucumber peelers. [Amazon UK US]


The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy by Michael Foley

Happiness is elusive, observes Michael Foley, and many aspects of modern life are making it even harder to find. Ironically the book also ponders the futility of trying to obtain happiness and meaning through the purchase of books, which often remain unread on people’s shelves !

In a deep analysis of many aspects of modern life Foley identifies several cultural preoccupations which  form barriers to our happiness. We have a damaging ‘culture of potential’ he argues, obsessively focussing on the future and not concentrating sufficiently on the present. This leads us to over-value youth and under-value experience, to obsessively travel to new destinations and seek out new experiences, to constantly desire the next thing, job or partner, which results in an belief that we’re constantly missing something.

Another of the barriers he identifies is the ‘culture of entitlement’, leading us to feel we always deserve the best, that we should be allowed act as we wish, or that we are in some way special. The expectation, status-obsession and inflated ego that this inevitably gives rise to, often struggles to come to terms with the harsh reality of life, leading to anger, injustice, resentment and depression.

Instead, Foley argues, we should work to change the way we think about the world, being more focussed on the present, more willing to find pleasure in simple everyday experience, more accepting of whatever the world throws at us and less driven to define ourselves in terms of symbols of  success. [Amazon UK US]


The irony of promoting books opposed to consumerism is not lost on me :)  Borrow them from a library if you can. If not, then pass on to a friend when you’ve finished with them . . . don’t just leave them sitting on your shelf.

Photo by Coolinsights