Alexei Sayle on what makes us human: We need to realise that the best things in life are not things

Continuing our What Makes Us Human series, Alexei Sayle reflects on the time Paul McKenna planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in his brain, and how our restlessness has been exploited to devastating effect.

Several years ago I attended a summer party where one of the other guests was the stage hypnotist and motivational speaker Paul McKenna. For some reason we got talking about environmental issues in which I know he has an interest. I was talking about how so much of my own and other people’s supposed environmental activity such as recycling wine bottles or buying organic bread is just a mask for continuing rampant consumerism and he replied, “Yes, if you were truly serious about trying to save the planet then what you would do, would be you would kill yourself.”

I had never heard this opinion expressed before. As the child of communists and a vestigial Marxist myself, my belief had always been that mankind’s depredation of the planet was as a result of our exploitative economic system. I had unthinkingly subscribed to the view that capitalism was the problem and if we had a different, fairer economic system – such as socialism – then we could heal the scars we have inflicted on the earth in pursuit of the wilder excesses of capitalist consumerism. Socialist man would walk arm and arm with nature into a kinder, greener future.

But what McKenna seemed to be saying was that what makes us human also makes us destroyers of the earth, and that – given human nature – there is no way that we could live in harmony with the environment. Therefore the only hope for the planet was if mankind disappeared completely. Once we had disappeared from the face of the planet a great peace would descend – wars would stop, the destruction of the rainforest would be halted and gradually green growth would cover the landscape scarred with our buildings. The beauty of this wonderful blue-green planet would be restored and its only inhabitants – the animals –would live in harmony with Gaia.

A few days later I was having my breakfast and I was chewing on a piece of toast when the unbidden thought popped into my head, “This toast is a bit dry. I might as well hang myself.” Of course, this was Paul McKenna who at the party had clearly planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in my brain. I managed to avoid committing suicide but continued to wonder whether to be human means that I will inevitably be part of destroying the natural world. Or is there some way in which we can live in harmony with the earth?

Given that every other creature except us has always had a benign relationship with the planet, and that before the invention of agriculture we did, too, and that there remain tribal societies in a few remote corners of the earth that still do no harm to the biosphere while the vast majority of us live profoundly unnatural lives, how did this come about? And can we reverse at least some of the worst effects of what it is to be part of the disease that makes us human in the 21st century?

Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And that has got to be at the root of what has gone wrong with our relationship to our environment. We can’t leave well alone; we are never satisfied. This perpetual search for novelty may have made us reach for the stars but it has also led us constantly to seek the better, bigger exercise bike. Capitalism has seized on this flaw in our make-up and refined it so that we think that happiness will come from the next thing – the very next thing – that we buy. Our last phone did not make us happy but this new one with a 13 billion-pixel camera will. Or, if only I had the £300 pair of trainers instead of these crappy ones that I bought last week for £129. Why did I ever imagine they would make me happy?

What obsesses all industrial societies is ceaseless growth, making more and more things, building more and more buildings, eating more and more food. Without continuous expansion, all manufacturing economies will collapse. And in order to continue this expansion, people must be convinced that their happiness lies in buying new stuff. So what makes us human right now in the industrial economies is to be permanently dissatisfied, because, for our economies to grow, we must believe that it is not any of the things we own but the very next thing we buy, the very next holiday we take, that will finally push us over the top into serenity.

Of course, as soon as we buy the thing or finish the holiday, that sense of dissatisfaction returns. The happiness doesn’t last but what is continuous and increasing is the brutal excavation of the earth’s finite resources.

Millennia ago, in pre-agrarian societies, one day was much like another and people lived together in harmony with each other and with nature. There existed a primitive form of communism: since there were no surpluses, nobody could accumulate more possessions than anybody else. And without more possessions there was no incentive to grab more power; decisions were reached more or less by consensus.

We are never going to get back to this Garden of Eden but surely it should be possible to live more in harmony with both our planet and our better, truer selves? The thousand-year experiment to see if happiness can be bought, if possession of more and more stuff can give life meaning, has failed. We need to realise that the best things in life are not things. Perhaps we need to look at and learn from the animal world: few animals living in freedom fail to reach their full potential. To quote D H Lawrence: “If men were as much men as lizards are lizards/they’d be worth looking at.”

Alexei Sayle is a comedian

This article is the tenth in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

A dump for rubbish from across the world in Accra, Ghana

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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