There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Symbiosis which focuses on a dependent relationship between two neighboring planets. A long time ago, one of the planets (Ornara) became more technologically advanced, while the other (Brekka) languished. Then, a terrific plague struck both planets, and the cure was found in a plant that only grew on Brekka. The Brekkans began manufacturing a cure for the plague, and trading it to the Ornarans in exchange for technology and goods. Then the Brekkans realized that the drug they were making had cured the plague, but that it was addictive and the Ornarans were hooked. They continued to exploit this relationship for 200+ years, all the while becoming rich off the Ornarans’ technology.
When the crew of the Enterprise stumbles upon the system, many desperately want to help the Ornarans but they are bound by the Prime Directive not to interfere (because their actions would not actually help them in the long run). But you can already see strains in the relationship—the Ornarans’ technology is deteriorating and the trade may not be able to go on much longer because the freighters are falling apart. So the crew of the Enterprise (and we the viewers) are left with some hope that the relationship will break down, and although there will probably be much pain, the Ornarans will eventually be free again.
Could it be that our society has a similar addiction, an addiction to things? Just imagine for a moment that 200 years ago we underwent great hardship to provide enough material wealth for basic necessities, such as food, clothing, shelter. Then, gradually, we ended up getting what we needed (the “cure”), but didn’t realize that we were cured, and continued craving the thing we thought we still needed (material wealth).
And who now plays the role of the Brekkans, feeding our addiction and profiting wildly? Of course, none other than the Chinese. Our household recently received a box of Halloween novelties and candy, that is about 80% Chinese-made toys and trinkets that the world would have been better off without. The toys are so cheap that they don’t perform the function they’re supposed to (e.g. the cars don’t go, the planes don’t fly). As I look at them and think to myself “what is the best thing I can do for the world, given that now this stuff has been made it can’t be unmade?” I’m troubled that the answer very well may be “throw it away.”
- toy gets made, possibly causing suffering for a poor Chinese worker;
- toy gets shipped across the ocean, causing damage to the earth and wasting more people’s time and energy;
- toy arrives at my house, and I promptly throw it away, because it’s actually just a piece of trash;
- toy goes on to create more cost and problems for the earth, laying in a landfill.
Going into the political season, there’s a lot of talk about the trade deficit we have (because we’re buying so much stuff from the Chinese), and all of our manufacturing jobs going to China. Some people even think the government should and can something about it. But thinking about all the people here who are hooked on stuff—who think they want more and more stuff, regardless of what it actually does for their lives or the lives of the rest of us on the planet—I am not so sure. The following quote from Baaba Seth’s Troubled World (from the album Crazy Wheel) comes to mind:
Government, religion, come to the same.
Your troubles, you know it, no one else to blame.
Just as if the Enterprise were to help the Ornarans, if the government steps in to help us, we won’t learn anything and thus we’ll still have the same problem tomorrow. But you can already see the strains on the system caused by our addiction, and it’s clear that this particular pattern can’t go on forever. So it’s just a question of how long before we wake up. Do we wait until we’re forced to wake up, with the cold hand of the market slapping us in the face? Or do we learn not to be ruled by that small part of us that is attached to the glossy pages of the magazine, and see our actions and their consequences for what they actually are, and wake up to our own freedom, all on our own?