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The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.

Soul Searching - 2014


Where is the world headed? There are several trends - some disturbing, some encouraging. It's our choice.

The soul of a nation

There are several strong movements going on that very possibly mark transitions in our society and possibly world, and a new direction. The Western World, and much of the rest of the world, has been driven by capitalism and the never ending quest for more and more of more and more. This supposedly makes us wealthy... if financial wealth is all that matters. The broadcast medium saturates us with a daily drizzle of commercials intended to make us thirst for their products. They tell us that our acceptance, our love life, our esteem, our financial success, our career success, our family life... every aspect of our lives is enhanced by some product. Materialism is one such drive.

Sex is another. We live in a sexually saturated world. It's a powerful motivator. A man is more likely to stop to assist a stranded motorist if she is beautiful. He is attracted to cars that are branded as "sexy" and "powerful." So are women. Sexual themes are very strong in TV programs and movies. We are led to believe that nothing in life is more important than our sexual relationship. Our children, who don't need to be thinking about sex until their teen years, can't escape it in their elementary school years.

Neither money, nor sex, in themselves are bad things. It's the emphasis that we place on them that is misplaced. Timothy wrote, "The... love.... of money is the root of all kinds of evil." Placing too much emphasis on money leads to bad behavior. Same thing with sex.

Confirming this, studies have been done repeatedly, and confirmed repeatedly, in the lab and in real life, that wealth not only leads to less compassionate feelings for others, it also leads to bad behavior toward those who are less fortunate. Scientific American article: How Wealth Reduces Compassion. People who feel wealthier and entitled, are more likely to force their way into traffic and deliberately ignore pedestrians.

We live in a world in which the constant message is, "Getting the most is most important," "Winning is most important," "There can only be one winner," "Whoever has more is entitled to even more," "Me, me, me - I'm the most important." I love the music contests on TV. I enjoy seeing people develop, and get praised for doing better. But in these contests, we are willing to make thousands of losers, to find one winner. I generally have more feeling for those who had talent, displayed it, but for lack of popularity, or because someone else was a little better at this time, was placed in the loser position. I hated to see them go. I enjoyed their music. Obviously not everyone can develop the talent to play in a national market. But is creating losers the best we have to offer?

Well, brace yourself, because this is the way capitalism works. Competition, competition, competition. You go for the gold, because it's most important that you win.

I heard a statement not long ago that I found very profound. It was a definition of ubuntu from Africa. It stated simply, "How can you be happy, when everyone else is unhappy?" It's worth a bit more thought. The global competition for food places wealthier nations, and wealthier people, at the front of the line. Not only are children and their parents starving in many parts of the world, global competition because climate change is destroying crops, is causing prices to go up on many common foods, and people can no longer afford them. In the US, we are again seeing children go hungry because their parents either don't have jobs, or can't find jobs that pay adequately. There will always be poor, but when we feast regularly, how can we be happy when others are hungry or starving? Obesity is a growing problem in the US, with the trend indicating that in not many years, 50% of the US population will be obese. Recent political choices made cuts to aid programs that address hunger in the US.

The above is what is. What is changing in our society is several things. First is the Creative Commons. You may have run into the "Creative Commons License" on software. What you may not know is that many software and other products are made by groups of individuals. For example, when you visit a Web site, there is a 50% chance that it runs on Linux and Apache software made by volunteers and a few paid workers, in a creative commons atmosphere. Their products compete evenly with software goliath, Microsoft, which makes the other 50% of products, and many say they do a better job. The people who contribute their efforts to creative commons efforts, do so as volunteers because they want to. They like what they do. In The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Jeremy Rifkin tries to sell the point that creative commons efforts will bring down the cost of many things in our society, and capitalism will be relegated to just a few companies.

Another very important trend is also moving us toward a more compassionate, less wealth oriented world. For the last 30 years, companies have been on a strong efficiency quest. They bring in technology to replace people, merge companies to reduce redundant personnel, and remove personnel by handing off middle management responsibilities to other workers. The result has been the elimination of many middle class jobs. Spendable income has been going down. The middle class has been steadily trending downward in to poverty.

The Great Recession, 2007 to 2012, changed both the income and spending patterns of our society. It left a lot of people permanently out of work - they can't find jobs that support the standard of living they had, and brings them to poverty level. Incomes have continued to drift downward. People responded by tightening the purse strings. For economic growth, people have to spend money on discretionary items. They haven't been, and they aren't. They are only spending money on necessities.

The economy continues to push the middle class ever downward into poverty, inflating the roles of those qualified for government support. They aren't coming back up, which places an ever greater load on taxes. Poverty rates in the US are much higher than in Europe, according to an Economic Policy Institute article, U.S. poverty rates higher, safety net weaker than in peer countries. While Europe has recovered more slowly than the US, due to very difficult economies in Greece and Spain, and in spite of flourishing economies in Germany and Denmark, the US elects not to have a robust safety net like the EU countries, so poverty rates run much higher. All a political party has to say is "socialist," the poison pill, and safety net programs get clobbered.

McKinsey and Company, which I follow, did a survey on consumer confidence, in the last quarter of 2014. This is what they found:

  • "...because inflation-adjusted median household income has dropped over the past few years, consumers are feeling reluctant to increase spending and are instead remaining thrifty." The recession ended in 2012.
  • "40 percent of the consumers we surveyed said they are coping with the challenge of living paycheck to paycheck, up from 31 percent in 2012."
  • "Today just 23 percent say they are optimistic about the economy, down from 27 percent at the beginning of the recession in 2009."
  • "40 percent of consumers saying they have cut their spending over the past 12 months."
  • "(55 percent) say they continue to look for ways to save money,"
  • Millennials are a critical group to understand, since collectively they will spend three times more in most household categories in 2020 than they do currently. In comparison with the general population, 24–34 year olds are more affected by paycheck cycles and are more involved in money-saving behavior"
  • "Cautious spending behavior is the new normal and is unlikely to change in the near future."

If you understand economics, you understand that lack of consumer spending spells trouble for US business... which means trouble for us all. The gap between the upper 1% and the rest of us is projected to continue, according to a Pew Research article, America’s wealth gap between middle-income and upper-income families is widest on record. Wikipedia: "...the top 20% of Americans owned 85% of the country's wealth and the bottom 80% of the population owned 15%." Since the lower 20% can't sustain this transfer of wealth to the upper 20%, prices for goods, and in the stock market, will likely go into a slow decline (deflation). Gasoline prices show what happens when supply of a commodity exceeds demand in a nation.

The other trend is population decline. We aren't at the point of shrinking yet, like European populations. A lot of recent novels make it sound like population explosion is going to destroy the world. European population is actually shrinking. US population has failed to reproduce at a rate that will sustain itself. The US population may grow another 20% at current reproduction rates, tapering off to 0 or less in the next 20 years. Were it not for immigration, the US population would start shrinking in a few years. Immigration is the only thing sustaining European population. Here again, there is negative economic impact. Companies depend on an ever increasing market to supply every increasing profits to investors. There is limited growth opportunity for many products.

Beyond the direct economic impact, less money has another impact. Studies show that compassion for others is increasing, as incomes fall for everyone.

A last important trend is the use of technology, to the exclusion of personal interaction. What many in our society are seeing by experience is that people are not learning how to interact, because they don't have opportunities for interaction. They aren't learning the simple social skills of recognizing facial expressions, and aren't learning the more complex skills of problem solving in relationships. Behavior in social settings is turning ugly. Youth in school can't get along with classmates and get into more fights. People in other social settings are rude to each other. Compassion is declining.

So when you marry these trends, you see a very different picture of our future. On the one hand, money and technology separate us from others. On the other, less wealth makes us more compassionate. Less wealth makes us more dependent on each other, which encourages the use of social commons for getting needed products. Social commons brings us together in interaction.

Is this all going to balance out? No.

The economy has a very small chance of improving - I won't get into why. The trends of less wealth, and use of the social commons will continue. The use of technology will continue to be a problem for social interaction, but we can tame this.

In many studies on happiness, around the world, with people who have much less, to people who have much more, it's shown that we require a minimum of financial support to be happy. Beyond that, contrary to what advertisers tell us, money is irrelevant to happiness.

The soul searching part is this: What do we want to happen? Do we want our society to be more interactive and compassionate, with less drive for wealth and material possessions? Or do we want ourselves, families, and friends to be hooked into a continuous quest for more and more of more and more, while ignoring those among us who are less fortunate, and those who starve to death in the rest of the world? The choice is ours... at least for a time.

- Dorian

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The Zero Marginal Cost Society, by Jeremy Rifkin

McKinsey and Company survey on consumer confidence, in the last quarter of 2014.

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