Consciousness in Action: The Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time by Andrew Beath




Social Ecology: Introduction by Andrew Beath
Aaron Kipnis' comments below

This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness In Action, the Power of Beauty, love and Courage in a Violent Time (Lantern Press, 2005)


The elevation of consumerism to the altar of our highest values creates social dysfunction. The American worldview of rights and liberties promotes the idea that one should be free to artificially stimulate unhealthy indulgences. It has only recently been widely recognized that over-consumption causes obvious diseases like obesity—an apt metaphor for our current values—that have high social costs.

But there are alternative ways to view freedom. One is freedom to engage in any type of marketing. Another is freedom from constant in-your-face advertising and from so many violent images in entertainment. In this make-believe world we manipulate the social imagination that determines how we perceive people’s attractiveness. It’s a cynical process, and the puppeteer people who think up this Madison Avenue material are no happier than the rest of us, because they know how artificial the game is.

If this issue were debated in a courtroom, the opposition’s lawyer would say, “It’s a free country. You don’t have to consume what’s offered; you can do whatever you want. Advertisers have their freedom to present you with things and you have your freedom to take them or not.” In fact, our collective psyche is hypnotized into believing we need more in order to be more. Calculated messages from Madison Avenue bombard us constantly, so there is little freedom from manipulation and crass consumerism.

Acknowledging All the Children

The Columbine High School shootings, in which two teenage boys from a small town killed twelve people and wounded many others, may have been a harbinger of declining social ecology health. This event occurred on one of the days the United States participated in one of the most extensive bombing raids in Kosovo. In addition to military targets the bombs hit a school and hospital.

In the TV news that morning President Clinton announced the bombings. A few hours later he was back to comment on the Columbine shootings, which happened in a white, middle-class neighborhood. The juxtaposition of these two violent episodes was ironic. In addition to these broadcast news events, dramatized stories also desensitize our youth. In some respects, media shows children how to kill.

Another irony of this situation is that youth-gang killings take the lives of many more young people over a few months in Los Angeles alone than the Columbine shootings, but they almost never make the front-page news. Children shooting children is a symptom of something deeper. Our social ecology has lost its connection to natural harmony. But life’s web holds us all, whether we know it or not. So the journey is to rediscover that which has always been in our midst.

Youth Violence: A Plea for Social Transformation

Aaron Kipnis, PhD, is a psychologist, author and leader in the men’s movement. His personal knowledge of the importance of nonviolence, and his advocacy for boys, men and imprisoned youth stems from his own challenged start as an imprisoned youngster. I asked Aaron to talk about social ecology—the ways in which social functioning could be perceived as a study of ecology. This resulted in the following article.

Social Ecology
By Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D.

In my experience, once given the clear opportunity most people will move in a life-supporting direction: towards Eros, towards life, towards connection. It’s natural, like the heliotropic response that causes a flower to move towards the sun. It doesn’t have to be told to do that; it doesn’t have to be convinced, twisted, medicated, modified, scared or tortured into moving towards the sun. It just needs to feel the warmth shining on its skin. In social ecology work we try the same tack in looking for solutions to problematic social issues such as rampant consumerism and elusive freedoms.

The concept of freedom is a founding principal of America. Two and a quarter centuries later, America still imagines itself as a bastion of liberty and defender of the free world. Yet, when we look internally, the lower tier of our economy exists almost as a separate nation. Most of the two million people in prisons and five million more under criminal justice supervision are ethnic minorities or poor whites. Very few from the middle and upper classes are incarcerated even for drugs, which we know all classes of Americans use in relatively equal numbers. And there are simply no wealthy men on death row.

The notion of America as a free nation presents an incredible paradox to me. The unique idea of America was of one nation composed of many who came together from all parts of the globe. Well, that’s a lovely idea that I still salute. It’s also an ecological idea, for it perceives all the seemingly different parts of our social environmental matrix as a unified whole – E. Pluribus Unum.

But we’re not living up to the visions that founded this nation. So rather than constituting anti-American activities, as some on the Right like to paint them, I think environmentalism and progressive movements for social change actually hark back to the original visionary spirit in which America was founded. We want to return to those basic ideals of liberty and justice for all. Of course, the Constitution when it was first written only gave voting rights to white males who owned land. Since that time we have come a long way, but we still have some distance to go to create real equality.

Addiction to Consumption

With all the advances in prosperity for the upper classes in America, there has been no parallel increase in their overall level of happiness. In fact, the general degree of satisfaction with life is widely reported as going down.

How can we feel that we have a right to the level of prosperity that we enjoy when it is so often produced in ways that destroy workers’ health, tear the fabric of the social culture and undermine the integrity of communities? We know that material prosperity and the consumer culture is not producing well-being, happiness, or peacefulness. So, why do we continue to pursue it? One answer is that there is an addictive quality to the consumer culture and that its purveyors are dealers with a vested interest in making consumers dependent on their products.

It’s just as insidious as drugs. We can liberate ourselves from consumerism in the same way that we liberate ourselves from drug or alcohol addiction. We don’t go out and fight the drug companies, burn down the grape fields or bust up the distilleries. We assist one another in liberating ourselves from the addiction. That is part of the transformational power of 12-step communities. The process of de-colonizing the self calls for liberating ourselves from our addictions.

Our wealth is really the quality of our water, the fertility of the land and the freshness of our air. Our real wealth is a tolerant society and diverse ecology. This is the wealth that has sustained humanity for millions of years, not money. Through extracting and despoiling the natural wealth of the earth – and converting it into the abstraction of money, we are not becoming wealthier. We are actually becoming more impoverished.

Similarly, one of the promises of consumer culture has been that it will create more pleasurable leisure time. Instead, we have become an increasingly time-impoverished culture where even white-collar workers function as indentured servants to an ever more demanding corporate master.

The Pursuit of Illusion

Psychologically, a major force driving consumption is the idea that what measures your worth is what you own, what you produce, and whom you’re connected with. Advertising keeps telling us that the answer to happiness is to become a more astute consumer. Our mission – according to Madison Avenue – is to figure out how to situate ourselves to make the maximum possible income so we can acquire the most prized consumer goods to reflect our true worth to others.

This can be imagined as an exteriorization of the self—and the colonization of soul. In the same way that global consumerism is gutting the earth’s resources, we may also be gutting the psyche and exploiting the human libido for short-term rewards at the expense of long term human development. Consumerism consciously exploits people’s deepest hopes, dreams, drives and basic needs. Advertising attempts to interject the following beliefs into the psyche of consumers: 1) you don’t have enough, 2) you’re not attractive enough and 3) you aren’t happy enough.

For women, a lot of the programming is around beauty enhancement or fulfilling their traditional roles as women. For men it’s around rewards for their production and consumption power: “You can have this beautiful woman if you buy a Lexus.” Women are simultaneously manipulated to feel that if a man with a Lexus is attracted to them, then they have succeeded in meeting the highest standards of beauty.

Many American youth today suffer from an impoverished imagination, a virtual loss of soul. Most disturbingly, many feel excluded from the possibility of the good life promised by the American dream, just as people in the third world do. The American dream is like the ideal of beauty seen on the cover of almost every magazine. It doesn’t really exist as it is currently defined.

I live here in Southern California. I have friends in the movie industry and we see these people up close. Most don’t really look like their printed image, because they were made-up, dressed up and lighted in very specific ways before being photographed. And then the photo was airbrushed to eliminate any flaws. So women are spending billions of dollars consuming products to raise themselves to an ideal of beauty that is largely unattainable without smoke and mirrors.

With eighty percent of the nation’s wealth controlled by affluent families, the consumer culture’s promise of affluence in America is similarly unattainable for the vast majority of its citizens and new immigrants. And those who do possess the “good life” are not necessarily any happier. But few of the “have-nots” can really grasp this fact because of the constant propaganda of advertisements.

Our kids are learning more and more each day that their worth is measured by where they are on the hierarchy of the consumer scale. Society does not value the quality of their relationships with one another and the environment, or their cultivation of their heart and the soul. So instead of learning to take pleasure in sports and in the value of a healthy body, many kids today feel that if they are not star athletes they don’t really count. Most courses eliminated from school curriculums today are the arts, recreation, humanities and other studies and activities that enrich young people and give them a sense of self and self-worth. Now the focus is much more on science, mathematics, high-stakes testing and other skills most useful to corporations.

Kids are very savvy to the fact their schools are the “fattening pens” that prepare them for corporate cubicles and their place in the consumer culture. I think that this generation is probably more sophisticated and exposed to the world than any previous generation of Americans. Many realize that we’re selling out their future and giving them a false bill of goods in exchange. Education is not geared to help them become happy, individuated, self-expressive and spiritually developed human beings.


My most progressive colleagues and I are facilitating a confluence of liberation theology and psychology with the traditions of depth psychology and radical ecology. And we’re learning some very important things about the nature of the human psyche in the process. For example, in ecology, we recognize the importance of the interrelatedness of all things. And strikingly, the predominant mental disease of contemporary Western culture is a condition in which individuals don’t experience themselves as interrelated, but rather as solitary and isolated selves.

This whole notion of an “I” that exists independent of nature and community is a signature characteristic of the psyche in most colonizing cultures. It is not an idea that has defined nature-based societies throughout time. Moreover, in a lot of indigenous cultures, a separate identity is actually an unusual – even pathological – idea. Each individual is viewed as an integral part of a unified being that includes all of Creation.

If we want to liberate a colonized self, to liberate our soul, we may need to start asking, “What has happened to the wildness within my psyche? How do I treat the foxes, owls and the rain forests of my imagination, residing in my soul with their own special laws and habits? How do we engage our interior life and approach the intricacy, delicacy and deep mystery of soul? Do we come in riding the pale horse of a colonizing ego wielding an exploitive, repressive, manipulative and utilitarian view towards the self? Or, do we walk slowly, fiercely and tenderly, embracing the wildness, beauty and infinite diversity of the un-colonized self?”

Once we are engaged in the process of liberation psychology I think our only question should be, “How can we serve the liberation of subjugated, silenced and marginalized aspects of the psyche?”

Canaries in the Coal Mine

I believe that in the same way we see the collapse of certain species having an impact on an entire ecosystem, the collapse of one segment of the social ecology presents serious potential consequences for the entire web of community.

We’re largely looking in the wrong direction for the source of youth violence. When those boys were shooting up Columbine, the TV commentators were saying, “Why would white middle class boys from ‘good’ families with all the ‘advantages’ do something like this?” Then the newscast cut away to the bombed-out hulk of the Chinese Embassy on fire, and then back to the commentator saying, “Why are boys so fascinated with guns and explosives?” And then a cut away to a general saying with pride that, “Our laser guided ‘smart’ cruise missile systems are the next evolution in war technology and now we can put a missile right down a target’s chimney.”

America is the world’s largest arms exporter, by far. Gun manufacturing and sales proliferate here and hunting and target practice are encouraged as a uniquely American activity. We’re fascinated with weaponry and military might. Understandably, children mimic the behavior they see in adults. We have the world’s highest handgun mortality rates for our youth. If we see that the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, then instead of asking what’s wrong with our children we begin asking what’s wrong with us? What’s wrong in our economic system? What’s off in our educational system?

Those who make and enforce most of the laws don’t seem to realize that something is desperately wrong with America’s children. Despite technological advances and the tremendous wealth of our nation, many American children are lacking something essential to life. Turning them into good consumers of disposable goods does not really satisfy them.

America’s Collective Imagination

I believe we are all linked in collective consciousness, just as the seabed beneath the ocean joins all islands. Moreover, it appears to me that at the subsurface level of the link, there’s a disruption in the collective imagination of America.

When we suppress, isolate, incarcerate, behaviorally modify, manipulate, medicate and literally force increasing numbers of people out of the wild ecology of psyche into a narrowly defined sense of consuming normalcy, we may also be doing damage to our social ecology. If so, then individual, seemingly senseless behaviors like school shootings may be as much a product of a disturbed national psyche as it is the actions of a few “bad boys.”

There is a parallel between the way resources are extracted from wild places without concern for consequences and the way people are guided by many mental health professionals to fit into the dysfunctional culture rather than to discover, explore and express their own untrammeled nature. Clearly, there is something happening in the collective psyche and youth are particularly sensitive to it. They are the most sensitive members of the human ecosystem and they are sending us messages through their failure to thrive – similar to the way a canary passing out in a coal mine alerts the miners to bad air.

We may need to look at the increase of autism, attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities, acting out behaviors, defiance and rage in our children as more homeostatic than strictly pathological. That is, we can view dysfunctional behavior as unconscious strategies to bring a malfunctioning system into balance.

When we look at it from this point of view, then youth violence doesn’t seem so senseless. Youth aren’t necessarily out of control, evil or even bad. They may simply be trying to draw our adult attention in the same way that pain and disease draw our attention to the body. We can either try to make the symptoms go away – take painkillers and not feel the symptoms as our health gets worse – or we can pay attention to the pain of the disease and take appropriate action so our health can improve.

When we lock our children away in institutions, censor them, and increasingly subject them to behavioral medications and manipulation, we are essentially killing the messenger and ignoring the message. We are also dragging our children further away from the wildness and passion of their interior lives – the mystery, magic, richness and artistry of life. To really tend to their pain inevitably means looking at the duplicity of the culture they inhabit.

Social Disruption and Dislocation

Middle-class consumer culture is also incredibly impoverished in the same way that white bread is stripped of vitamins. White consumer culture lacks soul in its nourishment of children. For boys who are violent, the most powerful technique for change is not incarceration or medication. It’s not in trying to scare them straight, modify their behavior or perform psychosurgery on their brains.

Real transformation happens when we can find a way to make a relationship with them. We have to create within ourselves a willingness to meet them just as they are – to not see them as simply bad, evil or flawed the way most of the penal system does. Maybe what they did was very bad; something that’s repugnant to us. But if we can make a connection with their soul, and establish a meaningful relationship with them, then transformation can occur; for this allows them to see the ‘other’ as a part of themselves.

If you see the environment as part of yourself, you are less likely to destroy it. If you see other people as connected to you, then to hurt them would be to hurt yourself. So that’s why discovering our interrelatedness – this idea that ecology has brought to us about the interconnection of all things – is as essential to solving our social challenges as our environmental ones.

What I’m suggesting is that we each ask ourselves what we are dedicating our lives to. If we are not dedicating ourselves to beauty, to the nurturance of our healthy connection to the earth and other beings – and if we are not endeavoring to help others to become free to enjoy their lives in harmony with our natural and social environments – then what are we really about? What is it on a personal level that each of us is pursuing that is more important than this?

©2005 Consciousness in Action | All Rights Reserved