There’s plenty of analysis out there about the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spreading global tentacles. What does it mean? What do the protesters want? Will it continue to grow? Will it fade away as the cold weather settles in? Every media pundit seems to have his or her own explanation, but really there are no clear answers; there is no easy way to explain this leaderless movement that has attracted a grab-bag of interest groups (who don’t necessarily agree with each other on the ideal path forward) willing to ride on its coattails.
I like to think of what’s happening as a symptom of our collective anxiety about the state of the world, our environment, the state of our institutions and shared infrastructure, social inequality in the world, our ability to feed our families, and the direction all of this seems to be heading. What world are our children and their children going to inherit?
The global population hits 7 billion this month and is expected to rise to an unsustainable 9 billion by 2050. How are we going to supply the rising demand for food, fresh water, oil and other commodities we depend on? Technology might delay the crunch, but we only have one planet. Blind faith that everything will be okay won’t change that.
Greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to climb, the climate has begun to change as a result, certain industries and coastal cities and island nations are already feeling the effects, and the (real) science tells us it’s going to get much worse. More weird weather — droughts, floods, tornadoes, extremes of heat and cold. Why are we not taking the necessary action to minimize the impacts?
The cost of the products and services we consume continue to exclude the impacts their manufacture and delivery have on the environment — our air, soil, oceans, rivers and lakes, and of course on biodiversity. On this overcrowded planet, where billions of poor aspire to have the same wasteful, energy-inefficient lifestyles as Canadians and Americans, can we continue to treat our biosphere and atmosphere as a dumping ground, without expectation of growing negative consequences?
Major world economies are struggling to manage a debt crisis that has the potential to send destructive ripples through the global economy. An obsession with fiscal deficits and a refusal in countries such as the United States to raise taxes — or, even better, create a carbon tax — has overshadowed a festering infrastructure deficit. Schools are crumbling. Roads are peppered with potholes, like open wounds on skin. Bridges are unsafe. Transit takes a back seat to cars.
Healthcare is suffering from a severe case of angina, and as boomers get up there in years it’s only going to get worse. The pipes that bring clean water to our taps and take away (and treat) our dirty water are old, leaky and neglected only until crisis strikes. And even then, we slap on an expensive Band-Aid instead of invest in the kind of renewal that’s necessary and lasting. In many ways, we can’t even bring ourselves to put lipstick on the pig if it means coughing up more to do it. Our cities are getting uglier, but like a balding, big-bellied couch potato that keeps touting his days as a star high school quarterback, we continue to rest on our laurels of past greatness. Yes, America sent a man to the moon. But what have you done for me lately?
We know all of this exists, or we choose to deny it. We refuse to give serious consideration to putting a price on carbon, even though this could help deal with growing infrastructure, fiscal and environmental deficits at the same time. We outright forbid serious discussion of road tolls and congestion charges and other logical measures as a way to get our cities moving again, fund visionary transit initiatives, and reduce urban smog. We scream bloody murder when electricity rates rise as part of the long-neglected but much-needed renewal of our power system, and we incorrectly pin most of the blame on green energy, yet another propaganda victory for the well-entrenched and highly profitable fossil-fuel industry.
At the same time, one can understand the outcry. This generation is being asked to pay for the mistake of past excess and neglect and the security of our future at the same time. People are squeezed. Electricity and food costs are rising. We seem to get slapped with new fees every day. We have all received a massive credit card bill — having purchased so much crap from China that’s supposed to make us happy — and now at the same time we’re being told we have to pay to not just make the world a better, more sustainable place for future generations, but to keep the house of cards from falling down. In many ways our generation is the last one into a Ponzi scheme that has run its course. The music has stopped and the 99 per cent is now being told there’s no chair to sit on. Yes, people are angry — but most of all, there is anxiety running deep through the population. Occupy Wall Street is but one manifestation of this collective anxiety. Where does it lead? What lies around the corner? Can we keep the ball of thread from unraveling?
On an individual level, anyone who has battled anxiety — which can be quite crippling if left unchecked — will know that the source of anxiety, or “angst” if you prefer, isn’t always easy to identify. What I’ve just described above is not necessarily something the average person on the street can fully articulate, what with their busy lives and focus on work, family and friendship. But it’s in the news — online, on TV, on radio and in newspapers — and it does gradually permeate our subconscious. Over time, this can bring on feelings of worry, uneasiness, fear and even dread. It can be managed at first, but there is a cumulative effect until a breaking point is reached and occasional anxiety transforms into a persistent anxiety disorder. That breaking point could be an anxiety attack, or even more severe, a panic attack.
Is Occupy Wall Street one of those breaking points? Are the protests seen around the world a collective anxiety attack — one that may go away but, as with any untreated anxiety disorder, re-emerge with more intensity? That’s my take. There’s a reason why selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are among the top-selling drugs in the world and prescriptions continue to grow. People are anxious. They’re freaking out. And they feel helpless.
Unfortunately, the problems we have to deal with today can’t be medicated away. The first step to dealing with them is to admit they’re there, and Occupy Wall Street may be the first necessary step in an collective awakening.
By. Tyler Hamilton of Clean Break
Tyler Hamilton is a business columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper. In addition to this Clean Break blog, Tyler writes a weekly column of the same name that discusses trends, happenings and innovators in the clean technology and green energy market.