Nothing to Lose But Our Illusions: An Interview With David Edwards

After climbing the business career ladder for most of his twenties, David Edwards left his management-level marketing job to become a writer. He had no idea how he was going to make a living, but the standard version of success had increasingly felt to him like a terrible, deadening failure. “Three things had become obvious to me,” the English author says: “the misery of conventional ‘success’; the vast and perhaps terminal havoc this ‘success’ was wreaking on the world; and the fact that no one was talking about either.”

Leaving his apartment, his town, his girlfriend, and most of his friends, Edwards wrote until he ran out of money. Then he moved to a small seaside town and supported himself by teaching English as a second language. “Nine months earlier,” he says, “I had been head of a marketing department, and now I was teaching the names of fruits to fourteen- and fifteen-year-old Thai kids: I was the happiest man alive!”

The problem in modern Western society, according to Edwards, remains the age-old one of struggling for freedom – but freedom from a very different set of chains. “In the past,” he writes in his first book, Burning All Illusions (South End Press), “we have been prisoners of tyrants and dictators, and consequently have needed to win our freedom in very concrete, physical terms. We now need to free ourselves not from a slave ship, a prison, or a concentration camp, but from many of the illusions fostered in our democratic society.”

Activist and historian Howard Zinn calls Burning All Illusions “a wise and acute analysis of the way our minds are controlled, not in a totalitarian state, but in a ‘democratic’ one.”

Edwards grew up in a little English village called Bearsted in the county of Kent, where he was known as “Eggy Edwards” and was infamous for playing practical jokes. His mother was from Sweden, and he spent summers in the country there, an experience he credits with having introduced him to a natural, uncomplicated alternative to modern living.

A few years after leaving his corporate job, Edwards encountered the Buddhist idea that all personal, social, and even environmental well-being is rooted in the desire to help other living creatures. He was surprised to find that it fit perfectly with his own belief in the murderous effects of the self-serving profit motive. “To see my own vague ideas clarified and confirmed by Buddhist sages writing two thousand years ago changed everything,” he says. His second book, The Compassionate Revolution (as yet unpublished in the U.S.), is a plea for readers to confront the underlying horrors of modern Western society with the unconditional compassion of Buddhism.

The boredom and sense of futility and emptiness we feel when working solely for our own benefit, Edwards says, is the first piece in the great puzzle of how best to live our lives. The second piece is the realization that, to escape this sense of futility and find happiness, we have to work to relieve the suffering and increase the happiness of others – not just the poor, or women, or animals, but all living beings. Most people are good, reasonable human beings, Edwards says, but they are prevented from doing good by the delusion that it involves a miserable sacrifice. In fact, he contends, the best way of looking after ourselves is to work for the benefit of everyone else.

Edwards lives in a one-room apartment on a quiet road with lots of trees, birds, and squirrels, just a twenty-minute walk from the English seaside. He works part time for the International Society for Ecology and Culture, writing and doing research on the impact of globalization and the need for localization. He also writes on environmental, political, and human-rights issues for the Big Issue (a British magazine sold by homeless people), the Ecologist, and Z magazine.

Jensen: You’ve said that there are five things everyone ought to know. What are they?

Edwards: The first is that the planet is dying. One way to chart the damage is to look at insurance figures. Between 1980 and 1989, the insurance industry paid out, on average, less than $2 billion a year for weather-related property damage. From 1990 to 1995, however, hurricanes, cyclones, and floods in Europe, Asia, and North America cost the industry an average of more than $30 billion a year. The Red Cross is warning that climate change is about to precipitate a century of natural disasters. We have already seen a number of “superdisasters” in Honduras, India, Venezuela, and Mozambique, all “clearly tainted by human actions,” according to climatologists.

Global warming affects more than the weather. Last year, marine biologists estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean have died due to global warming. Coral-reef ecosystems are home to one-fourth of all fish species. And they’re just the first major victims of global warming. Others will soon follow. Scientists now predict that the polar bear will be extinct in the wild within twenty years.

Now, many environmentally conscious people would argue that the scale of the environmental crises threatening us is being communicated. After all, most newspapers these days have environmental correspondents. But the level of coverage in no way matches the severity of the threat. Think for a moment about the media response to the supposed threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War: Hollywood churned out pro-America films; novelists wrote thrillers pitting the “free world” against the “godless communists”; headlines decried the dangers of communism; and so on. By comparison, there’s next to nothing being said or written about the threat of global warming.

Jensen: I know what you mean. I like baseball, but it breaks my heart to see ten pages in the newspaper every day on sports and maybe three column inches a month devoted to the biodiversity crisis.

Edwards: This leads to the second thing that everyone should know, which is that huge numbers of intelligent, motivated people are working all-out to prevent action that could save the planet. No matter how clear the evidence or how stern the scientific warnings, time and again, effective action is obstructed. The Global Climate Coalition, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers are all vigorously opposing even the trivial cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions proposed by the Kyoto Climate Treaty. The irresponsibility is breathtaking.

The so-called debate on global warming is a war between the biggest enterprise in human history – the worldwide coal-and-oil industry – and the planet’s ability to sustain life. And our hearts and minds are battlefields in that war. The corporate press and corporate-financed politicians keep talking about global warming as if there’s significant doubt about it, yet the “debate” pits perhaps half a dozen high-profile skeptics bankrolled by this trillion-dollar industry against the consensus of twenty-five hundred of the world’s most qualified climatologists working as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How is it that the opinions of these six – whose arguments are often shot full of illogical and absurd statements – carry the same weight as all that scientific evidence?

This brings us to the third thing I believe everyone should know, which is that the death of the planet is symptomatic of a deeper, institutionalized subordination of all life – including human life – to profit. Algeria is a typical example. It’s been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. Elections were held in 1991, but the government scrapped them when it became clear a militant Islamic party would win, and since that time some eighty thousand people have died. In some cases, armed attackers have descended on defenseless villages at night to cut the throats of women and children. The violence has been characterized by psychotic frenzy, including the dismemberment of infants. It’s not exactly clear who is doing all of it, although the government is heavily implicated. But one thing is for sure: the world has done nothing about it.

Jensen: Why not?

Edwards: I can answer that question with one word: oil. Algeria has gas and oil deposits worth billions and supplies the gas for Madrid, Rome, and many other European cities. It has a $2.8 billion contract with British Petroleum. Because of this, no Western government wants to make trouble with Algeria. John Sweeney – just about the only British journalist who has written anything about it – called the eighty thousand deaths “Europe’s gas bill.” Instead of demanding an end to the slaughter, the European Union is giving Algerian generals $125 million for “restructuring and democratization.”

This story, of course, has been repeated any number of times: Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Indonesia, East Timor, Iraq, Vietnam – anywhere there are profits to be made. Yet few people in the media want to talk about this pattern in which the economic interests of the U.S. and Britain are synonymous with the systematic exploitation and impoverishment of Third World populations.

It’s the same with the environment. Although the planet is being demolished before our eyes, the media remain content to artificially isolate each new disaster, leaving us to try to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

The absence of discourse about these patterns leads us to the fourth point, which is that the economic and political forces that profit from destruction and atrocity also profit from the suppression of truth. It’s the job of the corporate media and the politicians to prevent us from digging beneath the surface and uncovering the truth.

It’s important to be clear, however, that our delusions are not just the result of some conspiracy on the part of a few business moguls. The real problem is much more structural and psychological. Modern thought control is primarily dependent not on crude, conscious planning, but on the human capacity for self-deception. One of the biggest obstacles to social change is the propaganda system working undetected inside our own heads – mine included.

Last spring, our prime minister, Tony Blair, was talking about New Labour’s “ethical” foreign policy. Now, everyone who’s given the matter any thought knows that the foreign (and domestic) policy in the West is based on the quest for profit, not on ethics. Yet, just because someone said the exact opposite with great sincerity, and many other people took him seriously when he said it, his statement seemed almost plausible.

I often feel a strange internal conflict between what I know is true – what every cell in my body tells me is true – and what I am told is true in the media and elsewhere. It’s almost as if we hypnotize ourselves into believing these absurdities. The key, I suspect, is that everyone around us appears to accept what might otherwise be considered absurd. Then that small, lonely, insecure part of us that likes to belong, that is terrified of being alone, thinks, Well, that must be right – not out of reason, but out of fear of isolation. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that our greatest physical fear is of death, but our greatest psychological fear is of social exclusion, rejection, aloneness.

There’s an even more powerful internal force at work, illustrated by a very interesting study done in the 1960s. A man by the name of Lester Luborsky used a special camera to track the eye movements of people who were asked to look at a set of pictures, three of which involved sexual images. One, for example, showed a woman’s breast, beyond which could be seen a man reading a newspaper. The results were amazing. Many viewers were able to avoid letting their gaze stray even once to the sexually suggestive parts of the pictures, and later, when asked to describe the content of the pictures, they remembered little or nothing suggestive about them. Some people couldn’t even recall having seen those three pictures at all.

What interests me is that, in order to avoid looking at the objectionable parts of the pictures, those people had to know in some part of their minds what the picture contained so that they could know to avoid it. In other words, when the mind detects something offensive or threatening to our worldview, it somehow deflects our awareness. This avoidance system is incredibly efficient. We know exactly where not to look.

Jensen: How does this play out in day-to-day life?

Edwards: We build our lives on certain beliefs, then spend much of our time protecting ourselves from conflicting facts, experiences, and ideas. Such self-deception is made easier for us by our society’s cult of specialization, whereby people are convinced that they’re primarily journalists or arms salespeople or oil executives. Our jobs define our lives, and our job in the vast majority of cases is to make money for business. Any concern that goes beyond our profession is rejected as having “nothing to do with me” or being “outside my field.” This attitude is drilled into us all the way through school and on into our career. We see being professional and talented and knowledgeable as a matter of being specialized. And the first thing you lose when you become specialized is your humanity. To paraphrase the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau: we’ve got plenty of chemists, physicists, and bankers, but there isn’t a citizen among us.

Say a corporate executive is convinced of his or her own fundamental goodness, as most people are. That person would have a terribly difficult time entertaining the notion that the corporation for which he’s worked over a lifetime – indeed, the entire corporate system of which he’s a part – is responsible for terrible loss of life and destruction of nature. To acknowledge that reality would be to acknowledge that he has lent his talents to genocide and ecocide. And he can’t do that. He’s spent years building up a career. His prestige and sense of self-worth are closely tied to his success – in other words, to how much oil he has discovered, or how many cars he has produced.

Given all this, serious consideration of the moral status of his work would create a profound conflict between his morality and his financial – not to mention his emotional and social – needs. (The money, by the way, is no small matter.) It may seem that he has everything to lose and nothing to gain from that sort of serious examination, and so his unconscious will protect his sense of self from a very painful conflict by dismissing or ignoring any evidence that he participates in these atrocities. And it will do so in such a way that it never even occurs to him – even with the evidence staring him in the face, like the breast in the photo – that there’s the slightest thing wrong with what he’s doing. The same is true of journalists whose livelihoods and social esteem are based on serving corporate power; under no circumstances can they allow themselves to comprehend the true nature of the role they’re playing.

Psychiatrist R. D. Laing described this phenomenon perfectly. He proposed that dysfunctional families – those with severe alcoholism and child abuse – are able to keep themselves unaware of their own problems and agree to the delusion that they are a “happy family” if they follow a set of three rules:

Rule A: Don’t.

Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist.

Rule A.2: Do not discuss the existence or nonexistence of Rules A, A.1, or A.2.

A contemporary example from the media might be the case of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who, predictably, has just been released from British house arrest. For the media, Rule A, as far as Pinochet is concerned, is “Don’t discuss the fact that the CIA and U.S. business interests were behind the coup that put him in power.” And, of course, “Don’t discuss the pattern of atrocities, of which Pinochet is only one small part, that is repeated all over the Third World to protect profits.” You can discuss the fact that Pinochet was a dictator and that he committed atrocities, but not the real, underlying issues.

Now, to Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist. People reject out of hand any suggestion that there’s a ban on reporting about deeper, systematic issues. Yet, strangely, those issues never get discussed. The mainstream media are happy to discuss just about any weird and wild subject – UFOs, aliens, anything – but somehow these equally “outlandish” ideas we’ve been talking about don’t make it on TV. And this brings us to Rule A.2, which says that, in polite society, you simply can’t discuss the unspoken rules that govern all of our discourse and much of our perception.

Jensen: You’re right: these rules seem to apply across the board, whether we’re talking about – or, rather, not talking about – a father raping his daughter, or a culture destroying life on earth. I saw a grossly upbeat series in a regional paper on what life will be like in a hundred years. Nobody talked about the fact that, if we keep on the way we’ve been going, we won’t have an environment.

Edwards: There’s a strange split in the press. On the one hand, it’s the press’s job to be extremely upbeat about the future and the way things are going: “We’ve never had it so good! Everybody’s out shopping! Isn’t it wonderful?” At the same time, the press has to be extremely negative about human nature, downplaying people’s concern about world problems and their willingness to do something about them. As British journalist John Pilger has said, a major part of the media’s role is to ridicule the notion that people are capable of organizing a better, more compassionate way of life. For example, the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle were so large that the press had no choice but to cover them (making certain not to address the real issues, of course), but since then, the press has totally dropped the subject and gone right back into the required groove: “Nobody cares about anything anymore. Everybody’s totally indifferent. We’re all focused on ourselves. There are no big ideas, no morals, no beliefs.”

These two stances – being positive about the future and being negative about human nature – go together, because they both serve the interests of power. On the one hand, the utopian future is the same promise we’ve been handed since the start of civilization: that we’ll go to heaven as long as we do what we’re told. And in our time, heaven is a sort of technological, materialist utopia.

On the other hand, the reason we need this utopia – and need those in power to give it to us – is because we’re so “flawed” and “evil.” If we were satisfied or, God forbid, happy with ourselves, maybe we wouldn’t need the promise of a utopia, which actually keeps us living in a way that makes us miserable. And if we allowed ourselves to believe that people could come together to solve their own problems, we might reject the authoritarian systems that keep us on our knees – as well as the internalized forces of authority that are central to the maintenance of those systems.

Sheer, naked force has many disadvantages as a means of social control, not the least of which is that, when it’s applied, people are aware of being oppressed and therefore may seek freedom. It’s much more effective to get people to want to obey, to believe that disobedience is sin and obedience is virtue. But all of that conditioning breaks down if you stop believing that human beings are fundamentally evil. If enough people do that, then the powerful few will have real reason to be worried.

Jensen: How did you get started thinking about all this?

Edwards: It started in the mideighties, when I first became aware of environmental problems. The more I looked, the worse the damage seemed, yet there was next to nothing about it in the press. That dissonance pushed me to ask myself, Is the version of reality that I’m getting accurate? Or is it possible that, somehow, a false version of reality is being imposed on me? From there I began to ask, What are the consequences of this for me personally? To what extent are these political issues personal? So concern about global warming and the ozone layer – and the fact that we don’t talk about these in any meaningful sense – led me to question the conduct of my own life.

Most of all, I began to question what constitutes happiness. I’d had the idea that happiness would consist of falling in love and being successful in my career. If I just met the right woman and got a promotion, then I would be happy. On one level, though, I already knew this wasn’t true, because my parents’ friends were all successful in conventional terms, but when you got past the false fronts, there were all kinds of problems: tranquilizers, alcoholism, divorce, and so on. So it began to dawn on me that the official version of success might actually be another deception of the sort I was seeing in regard to the environment.

All that said, I still tried to be a good businessperson, but the more successful I became, the more miserable I felt. Finally, I began to think that I needed not to run away from the feelings I was having – the unhappiness, the doubts, the fears. Rather, I needed to learn the lessons that these horrors could teach me, if I just confronted them. And so I did.

Jensen: What happened then?

Edwards: Well, for a while, I became even more miserable! [Laughs.] I continued to progress in my business career, but my doubts were starting to get in my way. As you know, in business you’re supposed to be very aggressive, and you can’t fight with one arm tied behind your back.

Jensen: It seems significant that you use a violent metaphor to describe business.

Edwards: Business is a form of warfare, no doubt about it. Profit is the primary goal, to which everything else must be subordinated. If you don’t conform to this idea, you’re seen as a traitor in an almost military sense. Any expressions of moral concern or compassion are viewed with tremendous suspicion and hostility, because they represent very real threats to the primary goal. For example, when I was at British Telecom in the late 1980s, I tried to set up a “green initiatives” group, and, as a result, my career with that company was finished. Why? Because I had betrayed the fact that I didn’t share the cynicism, ambition, and aggression required in this military-style corporate culture.

I was living a double life at the time, working as a manager and reading books on green issues at lunchtime. Still, I never thought I would have the courage to abandon my career. Then I came across Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, which raised all kinds of possibilities I’d never imagined. For me, the basic message of that book was: as above, so below. In other words, what’s happening inside people is reflected outside of them, in society. And when society and people both go the wrong way, we end up in what Campbell calls “the wasteland,” which for us is a world of environmental destruction, chaos, and war, and a brutal culture emptied of all vitality and honesty.

If what’s wrong for me, on a fundamental level, is wrong for the planet, then saving the planet isn’t about trying to be righteous and green; it’s about saving your own life, and the life in the world in the process. You find happiness by working for the forces of life, not death. You try to build your life around reducing suffering. As much as possible, you try to be motivated by compassion and the desire to help others. And in the meantime, in my case, you quit your job. I just stood up one Friday afternoon and said, “I’ve had enough. I’m off.”

They said, “Right. See you on Monday.”

I said, “No, I’m off. That’s it. I’m going.”

People reacted as if I were committing some kind of suicide. My sister thought I was going crazy. And maybe, from the perspective of the culture, I was. But given the nature of our culture, that’s a kind of compliment!

Jensen: So how did you manage?

Edwards: I lived very simply – no mortgage, no car (I can’t drive, anyway), no eating at restaurants, no holidays. Of course, the real thrill of holidays was always escaping from the hideous corporate world for two weeks. Now that I was doing what I loved, the distinction between holidays and work was much less clear.

I did go on welfare for a few months while I was writing my first book. Being on welfare was quite depressing and tough, because it was very little to live on. But, before long, I was able to support myself doing part-time work, which left my afternoons and evenings and weekends open for writing. And I was having a much better time than when I’d been working full out and earning lots of money.

I found the exchange of money for freedom an excellent deal. I now earn probably a third of what I did ten years ago, but I’ve got free time coming out of my ears. I can stop working and go for a walk on the beach whenever I want. My “commute” to work is now a walk across the floor, whereas it used to be an hour and a quarter each way trapped in a metal box on the London underground. Above all, I spend my time doing the work I love, as opposed to work that bores me to tears. For me, there’s no comparison in terms of quality of life.

Jensen: Changing the subject: you take a very strong stand against violence.

Edwards: Yes, and also against anger. I believe the primary struggle in the world today is between ignorance, greed, and hatred on one side, and rationality, love, and compassion on the other. My problem with violence is that, even when used for an apparently beneficial end, it strengthens the cause of ignorance, greed, and hatred. The powers that be, for example, love nothing better than the opportunity to fight nationalist groups, whether it be the Sandinistas or the Vietnamese. Those groups provide them with the opportunity to justify and promote the use of totalitarianism, extremism, and violence.

Jensen: Yes, but Vietnamese nationalists first attempted to remove colonialism peacefully, which didn’t work. So I don’t think they can be blamed for the violence that followed.

Edwards: I certainly agree with that, but when you look

at the brutality and suffering that their resort to violence helped to bring down on them, as well as at the fact that capitalism has since achieved with corporations and advertising what it failed to accomplish with gunships, you have to ask whether the violence brought any real benefits. I also think the slaughter in Vietnam made the West even more paranoid, fanatical, and ruthless, with awful consequences in Central and South America, East Timor, and so on.

Jensen: Yet passivity is no defense. As anyone who has

ever been around an abuser knows, any excuse will serve; your behavior can never be “perfect” enough to satisfy them. So if the U.S. wishes to perpetrate violence, it will find an excuse.

Edwards: That is absolutely correct. And I’m not saying that there are no situations at all in which violence is appropriate. In one of his former lives, even the Buddha is said to have killed someone in order to prevent mass murder. But that’s a very dangerous road.

One other thing that concerns me about the use of violence by radicals is the fact that those in power often depend on the creation of fabricated enemies. The big challenge for the military-industrial complex in the last decade has been the disappearance of the Soviet threat. What are they going to put in its place? Single mothers? Terrorists? Drug abusers? The latest plan is a $12 billion “Son of Star Wars” project to defend the West from Korea! It’s not about defense, of course, but about finding an enemy to justify their own violence and irrationality – and lining the pockets of high-tech business executives and shareholders in the process. I just don’t think we should make it easy for them.

Even if we were somehow to start a successful revolution, I don’t think it would work at the moment. People in the West, for the most part, accept the premises of indus-trial capitalism. We are, in a sense, “Homo consumens,” as Fromm called us. All our motivations and ideas and values reflect the system we live under.

So you can really change society only by changing individuals. And the first thing we need to do is expose the illusions on which our culture is based.

Jensen: What are some of the illusions that keep us in our self-imposed prison?

Edwards: I think romantic love is an important one – the idea of finding a mate who will make you perfectly happy. Don’t get me wrong: romantic love can be a tremendous thing. Unfortunately, however, no romance can ever provide an answer to the problem of a life of dramatically limited freedom. I would say that romantic love – like “green consumerism,” “corporate responsibility,” and the Western fight for “freedom and human rights” – often serves to divert people’s genuine concern into a harmless cul-de-sac, while appearing to offer a message of hope for humanity.

Another necessary illusion is that we can trust our leaders. I think Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are the face of tomorrow’s politicians: attractive, friendly, and decent-seeming. It’s important to have a smiley face on the front of this brutal system, because it maintains the illusion that we’re free and decent people. I suspect vicious-looking or aggressive-sounding leaders would erode the fa‡ade. Blair and Clinton fit perfectly because the system requires precisely that kind of individual to front it.

It’s a bit like that story from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, where the hero comes across this beautiful world filled with happy people, and then gets drawn into a temple where they are dismembering a child’s body. A culture that systematically wrecks the environment and tortures and kills people in the Third World needs a smiley face to hide behind. Nowadays, only amateurish bad guys wear black hats.

Jensen: That reminds me of something you’ve written: “To expect our leaders to adhere to basic standards of rationality and morality in their public lives is to indulge in a kind of anthropomorphism: they will not, indeed cannot.” Do you mean that these leaders aren’t human beings?

Edwards: They’re human, of course, but in their role as leaders they often act inhumanly. A big part of a politician’s or a CEO’s job is to look like an ordinary, reasonable person. But whether such leaders are privately moral or not, in their public lives they’re constrained from acting with compassion and reason, because their highest priority must at all times be the defense of profits. Where logic and reason threaten profits, leaders routinely resort to audacious extremes of illogic and unreason – often wrapped in deliberate obfuscation – to hide reality as much as possible. The same is true for morality: where decency threatens profits, leaders have no choice but to put aside their morals or else risk disappearing from the public stage. This tells you everything you need to know about the Bush/Gore “choice.”

In practice, it means that, while all but the most de-praved individuals would agree that it is wrong to steal food from starving children, our leaders are required, in effect, to disagree, as they are doing in Iraq, where five hundred thousand children under the age of five have been killed by Western sanctions in eight years. This is a crime against humanity on a vast scale, yet nobody talks about it. The need for profit can never be completely satisfied, and so stealing food from dying children to benefit the wealthy is permissible within the capitalist system.

Jensen: What is it that causes some people to opt out of the system?

Edwards: I don’t know. It’s certainly not because they’re smarter than other people. Maybe it’s courage, being willing to face the possibility that your life so far has been a waste of time. Maybe it’s faith in the idea that truth – however frightening it might seem – will always bring benefits.

Jensen: So how do we get around that fear? How do you encourage people to question the basis for their beliefs, their sense of self, and their sense of worth?

Edwards: If you say to people angrily, as I did in the past, that it’s completely immoral for them to earn a fortune in this economy, they react with fear and defensiveness; they put up walls. So then I tried an appeal to their self-interest. We should care about the planet, I said, because our loved ones are dying of cancer and so on. Pretty consistently, the response was “Oh, you could get killed crossing the road,” or “You’ve only got one life. You’ve got to enjoy it.” This coming from people who are working seventy hours a week and on the verge of nervous breakdowns. But, in any case, my tactic didn’t reach them.

So I began challenging the idea that a life motivated solely by desire for personal gain can lead to happiness. I began to consider the remarkable argument proposed by Buddhism: that your life and happiness – indeed, all life and happiness – are best served by working for the benefit of others. But the biggest obstacle, still, is getting people to recognize that there is a problem. They believe there’s so much for them to lose just by thinking that way.

Jensen: It’s as you’ve written, “There is no greater ob-stacle to freedom than the assumption that it has already been attained.”

Edwards: What prison could be more secure than one we’re convinced is “the world,” where the boundaries of action and thought are assumed to be, not the limits of the permissible, but the limits of the possible? Democratic society, as we know it, is the ultimate prison, because who’s going to try to escape from a situation of apparent freedom? It follows, then, that we must be happy, because we can do whatever we want.

Jensen: And if you’re not happy, it’s your own damn fault.

Edwards: If life is tough and difficult, then that must be the way life is. You’re born, you suffer, and you die. This idea is deeply ingrained in people. Our society really doesn’t believe it’s possible to be truly happy.

Jensen: Which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Edwards: This system breeds a deep cynicism, because on some level – the level at which the mind saw the breast in that experiment – we know it’s the culture that’s awful, not life. But because negativity about the culture isn’t allowed –

Jensen: – because it would call into question all of the lies on which we base our lives –

Edwards: – it gets transferred over to life itself. People remain unaware that there are many other ways of life on the planet. I work with Helena Norberg-Hodge, who spent many years in Ladakh, the trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir. One thing she said in her book Ancient Futures is that, when she first got there, she couldn’t believe the people were really as happy as they seemed. She thought, My God, how can they go around putting these smiles on? It’s a social pathology. Eventually, however, it dawned on her: they really were that happy. You read the same thing time and again in the accounts of the European explorers. Columbus’s primary impression of the Tainos – an aboriginal people in the West Indies that he and the Spaniards slaughtered – was of how happy they were.

Jensen: What, then, are we afraid of in this culture?

Edwards: Emotions, for one thing. We in the West seem to take it for granted that emotion and reason are in conflict. We think that to be rational is to be like Mr. Spock from Star Trek; that being unemotional gives one the capacity to see clearly. You see this often among business-people and scientists: when they want to be taken seriously, they speak in a cold, unemotional manner. On one level, this is quite reasonable; we’ve all experienced what infatuation or anger can do to our ability to perceive something accurately. But Buddhists believe that greed, ambition, and selfishness keep us from perceiving the world as it is, whereas compassion and affectionate love (as opposed to romantic infatuation), actually help us perceive the world more clearly.

This comes back around to the last of the five things everyone should know, which is that, if the planet is being killed by institutionalized greed and the sacrifice of life for profit, then the solution is to undermine the illusion that greed is “normal” and even desirable. And one way to do this is through compassion. When we reinforce our capacity for compassion and love and concentrate on other people’s needs, rather than on our own, we begin to weaken the psychological system that powers the selective inattention and self-deception we were talking about.

Of course, it’s not enough just to sit there and have compassionate thoughts. Your compassionate thoughts need to be reflected in what you do, how you behave. How can you aspire to compassion and yet work for an arms manufacturer? You need to help other people, or at least experiment with working in that direction.

And trying to be more compassionate should include being compassionate toward ourselves: we shouldn’t expect to start out being fantastically, perfectly compassionate. It’s like becoming a weight lifter. Your ability to feel and act out of compassion and love has to be developed through learning and practice. Just as no one expects you to come out of your first weight-lifting session and lift up a car, there will be situations where you’ll try to be compassionate, but it will be beyond you; you’ll get angry, be selfish, whatever. Sometimes the best thing to do is just to run away.

I think compassion is especially important for dissidents seeking to change society. Think about it. The distinguishing characteristic of writers like Howard Zinn, Ed Herman, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Sharon Beder, and Mark Curtis is that, unlike many mainstream writers, they refuse to place their personal concerns for wealth, status, respectability, and even physical safety above the needs of the wretched of the earth. Compassion is at the core of what libertarian radicals are about, or should be, yet we rarely discuss it.

Jensen: Compassion sometimes seems a fairly abstract concept. What do you expect people actually to do?

Edwards: As I said earlier, you need to begin by challenging the results of the self-serving life. Then maybe you can start to see the benefits of trying to help others. How you specifically work to help others may be less important: I work at spreading ideas that challenge our culture’s destructive illusions. Activists tend to focus on the suffering caused by political injustice. But life is full of everyday suffering – loss of loved ones, old age, sickness, death – and working to relieve that is valid, too. For me, working for others in any way at all is a kind of political act, because our political problems are rooted in a culture of obsessional greed and selfishness. Reorienting your life away from selfishness and toward helping others, however you do it, is the first step in working against the greed system that is destroying us.

Jensen: What do you say to people who feel they are busy struggling to get by and don’t have time to help others?

Edwards: Once you start to see through the myth of status, possessions, and unlimited consumption as a path to happiness, you’ll find that you have all kinds of freedom and time. It’s like a deal you can make with the universe: I’ll give up greed for freedom. Then you can start putting your time to good use.

Jensen: And if someone says, “But the problems are so big, what can one person do?”

Edwards: I have a twofold answer to that. First, once you realize that helping others is also helping yourself, the size of the overall problems becomes irrelevant. You’re not a one-man or one-woman army out to save the whole world. You help simply because it does good and it feels good. (And, incidentally, it’s even good for your health. There are studies now that show that caring for others, even just having affectionate thoughts, has measurable benefits for your physical and mental health.)

The second part of the answer is that one motivated person can actually accomplish a disproportionately large amount of good. Selfish illusions are just lies based on nothing, and even one moment of honesty arising from the desire to relieve suffering can destroy vast numbers of illusions. If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is “Don’t talk about it,” then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be.

There is a certain joy that comes from telling the truth. I think that people underestimate its power. They worry: How will I pay the rent? How will I eat? Where will I publish it? People think they have to identify a market, find out what people want – even radicals do this – but they’re wrong. The book that spent the most weeks on the New York Times bestseller list last year was The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, which is a good book with hugely positive ideas.

So don’t ask yourself what people want. Ask instead, What is true? What really inspires me, excites me? What will really help people and take away their confusion and suffering? It’s sort of a funny, crazy way to go, but I think it’s the only way to bring water to the wasteland Joseph Campbell described. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, “Fantastic – I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!” So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this external and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.

Originally published in the June 2000 issue of The Sun

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
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