Last week in class I asked my students how many of them had friends who were taking antidepressants. This is a question I’ve asked fairly regularly over the years, and for different reasons. Without exception, whenever I ask, almost every hand in the room goes up.
It was true again.
When I asked the question this time, though, I had a different idea in mind. This was a couple of weeks after Superstorm Sandy had torn a hole in the eastern seaboard, where almost all of my students live. Many of them had stories of damage to their homes; roads and bridges washed out; favorite beaches destroyed. My own sister-in-law, I told them, had eight feet of seawater in her Long Island kitchen.
So, I asked, can any of you make a connection between depression and climate change?
Silence. I waited.
Well, one student volunteered, climate change causes intense storms, and intense storms cause a lot of damage, and that makes people depressed.
Okay, I said. But what about the other way around? How does depression cause climate change?
Silence. Again, I waited.
We had spent a few weeks reading Wendell Berry essays about how family (and national) economies have been torn asunder by endless consumption and mounting piles of debt; about our collective dislocation, as we pursue jobs promising wealth rather than meaning; about small American communities fracturing as money and natural resources are extracted by global conglomerates. All of which, Berry argues, has caused us to lose our way. We’ve lost our sense of ourselves, and of our place in the world.
And all of which bears down on us, albeit in subtle and insidious ways.
This was also a few days after Thanksgiving, and my students had spent the previous class recounting astonished stories of holiday shopping. Some had had their family feast ruined because their retail jobs required them to work Thanksgiving Day; others confessed amazement at how members of their own families had jumped up from the table early to hit the mall. One girl, following what she called an anthropological impulse, had gone to a mall “just to watch,” and witnessed a woman actually biting the arm of a competitor grabbing for the last Xbox on the shelf.
Black Friday had bled backwards into Thanksgiving Thursday, and now one more national holiday had become contaminated by a national shopping mania.
What was going on? I asked. How would you diagnose this behavior?
One student related a newspaper story he’d read claiming that people drink more alcohol on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving than any other day of the year. People get stressed out over the holidays, he said. They get depressed, so they drink before the holiday and they shop afterwards.
A young woman raised her hand. A lot of people I know, when they get depressed, they go shopping no matter what time of year it is. A murmur of recognition bubbled up from the rest of the class.
Why is that? I asked.
Well, people see advertisements all day long that promise their products will make them happy. People see pictures of happy people wearing this company’s sweater, or driving that company’s car, or wearing that company’s mascara, and they think: maybe if I buy that product, I’ll be happy.
Does buying the product make you happy? I asked.
For a little while.
What happens then?
Another hand. You buy the iPhone 4, and it makes you happy for a while, because it’s cool, and all your friends have one. But then they come out with the iPhone 5, and you’re unhappy again, because now all your friends have that one, and all you can think about is how you don’t have the iPhone 5. So now you need to buy the iPhone 5.
And does buying the iPhone 5 make you happy?
For a little while.
Again, sounds of recognition.
So what’s going on? I asked. Are you saying that it’s our unhappiness that keeps us shopping?
And as long as we are unhappy, we will keep buying?
More nods. And don’t forget the pharmaceutical companies, a student volunteered. As long as people are depressed, they can keep us hooked on their drugs.
Okay, I said. Agreed. What about pesticides? Ever wonder why people spray pesticides on their lawns, when it’s pretty clear that the minute it rains, all those chemicals will wash straight into the river down the hill?
To kill the dandelions, one student said. No way, said another. It’s because they worry what their neighbors will think if they don’t kill the dandelions.
So you’re saying social anxiety will make a suburban homeowner spray toxic pesticides on their lawn, even when they know the same chemicals will one day end up in their own drinking water?
Nervous laughter. Yes, one female student said. Same with cosmetics. People know there are chemicals in cosmetics that are bad for them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop buying them.
Right, I said. So you’re saying that as long as we are unhappy, companies will continue promising us relief from that unhappiness by selling us their stuff, even if it’s stuff we don’t really need, and even if it’s stuff that is demonstrably bad for us.
So again, what about climate change?
Someone from the back: as long as we keep buying cars and iPhones and flat screen TVs and pesticides and Xboxes, companies will keep making them. The more we buy, the more they make. The more they make, the more pollution they create. The more pollution they create, the more damage is done to the climate.
So what’s the solution to climate change? I asked.
A young woman raised her hand.
We need to remember how to be happy.
McKay Jenkins is a professor of English, journalism, and environmental humanities at the University of Delaware. His latest book is What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World, published in 2011 by Random House.