Beyond Ownership: The New American Dream

Guy McPherson


We want it all, and we want it for a very long time, and preferably forever, a concept that our deep-seated faith in technology, our fear of death, and our uniquely American vanity allow us to pursue. While seeking immortality, we want a big house with a well-trimmed lawn, new cars, plenty of grown-up toys, a prestigious job, frequent vacations to exotic (but safe, of course) locales, excellent restaurants along the way, and plenty of people at our disposal to care for the details.”—Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Leonard Nimoy, as Spock: “Live long and prosper.”

Leonard Nimoy, as Spock: “Live long and prosper.”

Guy McPherson

SAN ANTONIO Belize—(Weekly Hubris)—July 2018—The phrase “The American Dream” was popularized by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. My 2005 book, Killing the Natives, begins with a comparison of Adams’ ideas to the version of the American Dream articulated by First Officer Spock in the television series “Star Trek” (“live long and prosper”).

Since the historian James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase in 1931 until shortly before Mr. Spock’s eloquent catch-phrase became his signature line, the American Dream meant that ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.’ Adams was clear to note that the American Dream was not about material possessions; rather, it was ‘a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable . . . unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.’

This was a dream in which all Americans would ‘devote themselves to the “Great Society” . . . . We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements. The very foundation of the American dream of a better and richer life for all is that all, in varying degrees, shall be capable of wanting to share in it. It can never be wrought into reality by cheap people or by ‘keeping up with the Joneses.”’

After World War Two, as personified by Spock a scant few decades after Adams popularized the term, the American Dream came to mean something quite different: Increasingly, we seem to be ‘giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements.’ We now spend our lives trying to keep up with the Joneses; in short, we have a burning desire to live long and prosper.

We want it all, and we want it for a very long time, and preferably forever, a concept that our deep-seated faith in technology, our fear of death, and our uniquely American vanity allow us to pursue. While seeking immortality, we want a big house with a well-trimmed lawn, new cars, plenty of grown-up toys, a prestigious job, frequent vacations to exotic (but safe, of course) locales, excellent restaurants along the way, and plenty of people at our disposal to care for the details, such as attending to the house and cars, planning the vacations, and serving the food at our favorite restaurants. Isn’t that what the pursuit of happiness, which is one of our unalienable rights, is all about?

But we don’t want to pay for it, at least not all of it. When the bill comes due, we grudgingly pay a small portion of it. The remainder, which is often the largest share, includes the devastating loss of ecosystems, languages, cultures, and species. Our natural and cultural heritage, the product of millions of years of evolution, is threatened at a global scale by Americans pursuing the American Dream. The following chapters explain how we pass those costs to our children, their children or, in the archetypal version of the American Dream, poverty-stricken people in other countries. Out of sight, out of mind is the perfect version of the Dream.”

Adams’ book was published a couple years into the Great Depression. About seven decades later, a couple of years into the Greatest Depression, US President George W. Bush described his version of the American Dream. In a truly Orwellian turn, “the ownership society” was coined to rally support for tax-cut proposals. According to this view, ownership has become an American right, and the more one owns, the wealthier one is.

It’s no great stretch to suggest that the new American Dream comprises the uniquely American goal of getting something for nothing and calling it entitlement. Indeed, the apex of the new American Dream is to get everything for nothing and call it well-deserved.

My latest essay in this space dealt with the idea of ownership. I’d be hard pressed to find a worse idea than ownership, an idea that lies at the root of our myriad predicaments. In this brief essay, I follow ownership to its logical conclusion: human behavior.

I can already hear the cries of protest. Please, bear with me. Try to listen beyond the frantic, self-indulgent voices of relatively wealthy, heterosexual, Caucasian men. These are the voices we often hear, because these are the voices of the prevailing owners.

The notion of ownership is entertained only at great costs, many of which are unacknowledged by the dominant paradigm and unrecognized by the masses. For example, once we accept the slippery slope of ownership, boundaries cease to exist. We ignore, hate, and enslave those we view as “other.” And we’re easily manipulated into seeing the “other” as anything beyond our own self-identified selves. Witness the Great Lie known as American exceptionalism.

Nearly everyone within the American-led system of ownership readily capitulates to a system that provides enormous benefits to a few, ample benefits to many, a few benefits to the majority, and horrifying conditions for the remainder. The system has embedded within it a monetary system designed by the few to benefit the same few at the apex of the system. These few are called patriarchs. The system is called patriarchy.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, it is not all men who make up the patriarchy. Not all men rule, and most men are exploited. Patri- (from pater) means “father” in Latin and Greek and can be traced to the Indo-European languages where it first appeared with the emergence of the concept of patriarchy a few thousand years ago. Consider the recent rise of patriarchal societie,s described in the following three paragraphs, virtually coincident with the rise of ownership as a “fine idea.”

In many pre-patriarchal societies the word father did not exist separate from “mother” (one of the oldest words in all regions of the world). From the time “father” was separated from “mother,” the former term denoted the concept of ruler-ship, consistent with its current meaning. Rulership and ownership tend to overlap.

The current meaning of father (aka, ruler) is normal only in the sense that civilization is normal. Of course, it’s all we’ve ever known, and it’s the source of the written record of humans. But to claim civilization is normal is to deny the initial few million, not thousand (ARGH thousand) years of the human experience.

Accepting the concept of patriarchy as “normal” allows us to accept the horrors of civilization as normal. These horrors include destruction, violence, and oppression. They include war, fouling the air, polluting the waters, trashing Earth, extinction, and poisoning fellow humans. For the most part, we turn away, thus becoming willing participants in the horrors of imperialism.

And why not ignore these horrors? To accept responsibility implies alternative action, including actions that might have us arrested, shamed, incarcerated, and worse. Accepting responsibility is painful. Acting on that responsibility is tortuous, for the willing few.

Accepting reality leads to difficult introspection and, in some cases, even more difficult personal choices. It may also lead to counter-cultural acts. Acting beyond the dominant paradigm, which those in the dominant culture claim to support but actually punish, could lead—and has led—to incarceration, torture, and early death. Supporting the dominant paradigm supports destruction, violence, and oppression, as indicated above. For most people, the decision to support the dominant paradigm is easy.

At this late date in the history of Homo sapiens, patriarchy is the only game in the “civilized” world. It dominates every aspect of life on Earth, including our private, personal lives. Consider, for example, our closest relationships. The workplace and the marriage-industrial complex are among the many institutions characterized by patriarchy.

During my early days of teaching college classes, I had a student proudly proclaim that homosexuality was a horrible act, conducted by horrible people. Whether you believe in God or evolution, he said, you have to believe there is no purpose to homosexuality. Ergo, it is wrong.

The student was adamantly expressing his entrenched understanding of the dominant culture. Heterosexual monogamy is good. Every other sexual act is bad. Indeed, every other type of relationship is bad.

Much later, when I was teaching at a small, state-funded university in southern Utah, I stumbled across a similar tragedy. When asked for three sources to support their written perspectives in scientific analyses, students routinely cited the Christian bible and their fathers as two of the three sources. Patriarchy rocks, Dude.

There is expansive evidence for homosexuality in non-human species. There is no evidence of purpose in the entire universe beyond the purposes we assign to our own insignificant lives. The entire concept of divinity is rife with assumptions unsupported by evidence. The assignation of evil to human acts beyond imperialism is ludicrous.

The marriage-industrial complex is a product of civilization. It has become embedded within dominant religions, which are uniformly characterized by the “golden rule.” Marriage, like gold and the associated rule, is part and parcel of imperialism. Men own their women, and also their children. Non-monogamous relationships are weird to the point of being dangerous.

The bottom line, as always within the patriarchal dominant paradigm: There is only one proper way to live. Attempting to live differently warrants, at best, disparagement. It’s small wonder we hover at the brink of extinction.

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

McPherson going dark cover

McPherson Walking Away from Empire - A Personal Journey cover

Guy McPherson

About Guy McPherson

Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 14 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-host his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes.
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16 Responses to Beyond Ownership: The New American Dream

  1. Avatar javier says:

    Gracias Guy. Estoy de acuerdo con todo lo que dices pues presentas las fuentes. Mi fecha para la extinción es 2.02? o 2.02x pues la tierra tiene cancer terminal pero es un planeta. Todo es mas duro y crudo pues somos drogadictos de los placeres y los yonkies ni pueden ni quieren razonar, solo chutarse cada vez mas y mas dólares con menores efectos exponencialmente retro-alimentandose. Solo hay un dios y una única religión…el dinero y el capitalismo, todo lo demás tristemente ilusiones de microbios venidos a mas -Carl Sagan. El exito de una especie es su condena pues hasta un bosque que durante siglos crezca, finalmente los limites naturales, una chispa o un rayo y boom. La humanidad será la 1ª en auto-extingirse pero creo que está en nuestra naturaleza y que el razozinio obedece al instinto. El fuego destruye pero tambien renueva, limpia y resurgira la vida de nuevo, fresca, hacía el tortuoso camino de la evolución/involución. Gracias por todo tanto a ti como a la propia existencialidad.

  2. Avatar David Emery says:

    Thank you for this much needed article! It’s nice, every once in a while, to read something both intelligent and heartfelt. I’ve been a fan of yours for many years and it does my heart good to see you still fighting the good fight and living the good life. I wish you all the best!

  3. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, David. I appreciate your support.

    Thank you, Javier. Any comment quoting Carl Sagan gets my attention!

  4. Avatar Jef says:

    I hear you talking about human bad behavior and patriarchal society but am unclear on your opinion on how the two relate.

    A while back you spoke with Paul Erlich and he made the comment something about …”behaviorism …but we can’t talk about that …” what did he mean?

    I am cursed with the empathetic belief that human behavior could be very different and in fact is desperately wont to be. True we are easily herded but that doesn’t mean that the destiny of humanity need be determined by the few who herd.

  5. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Jef, it seems to be that patriarchy is among the worst ideas in human history. It leads to ownership. I’ve no idea about Ehrlich’s statement. That was years ago.

  6. Avatar michael troy says:

    In 2014 I discovered Guy and I desperately tried to find evidence to counter what you presented, but a year later I accepted your findings and I became deeply depressed for 3 months. I would see children on the bus and realize that they were doomed and I’d see animals and even insects and become deeply saddened. It took me a year to adjust and finally accept the facts. I am depression free. Was it worth it to know the truth? I think so. At least I am not surprised when climate change attacks.

  7. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Our paths were similar, Michael. I had a long head start and I still struggle daily with the knowledge in my head.

  8. Avatar Kristijan Vojnic says:

    Dear McPherson,

    Your bold outstanding expose was main contributor in change of my own expectations of the unraveling future… In this post, it seems to me, like there is still oportunity for change (aka abandonig patriarchism, healing wetiko… getting better society)… but, that stand in great dichotomy with your own expressed execptations and NTHE… eventhough, I do agree with your standpoint about ownership, but… what’s the point anymore? :/

  9. Avatar Fergus Reilly says:

    Thank you for the glimpse of your evolving perspective Guy also enjoyed the growing calmness pervading your writings. I am sure you have opened the door to nightmares for many people – once the nightmares are assimilated it does become possible to view extinction with equanimity (although maybe that may change with the growing imminence) and that is a gift beyond price, bought no doubt with sacrifice beyond price.

  10. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Kristijan, even at the edge of extinction, justice matters. How we act defines who we are. I suspect Fergus agrees.

  11. Avatar Dave Thompson says:

    Guy, You always get my attention with your “hubris “. I want to try and see you again this year in Wisconsin. Thanks for all of your hard work . Dave T.

  12. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Looking forward to it, my friend Dave

  13. Avatar Robert Schick says:

    As always Guy: right on! Thanks. r

  14. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, Robert

  15. Avatar Craig C Johnson says:

    A rather fine piece of writing. I didn’t realize how starved I was for something of substance until I bit into this. For certain, it is worth taking the risk of getting a load of cognitive dissonance if it gets us closer to seeing the reality in front of us. We might even get to take personal responsibility for being part of any potential solutions to our challenges going forward.

  16. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Wow, Craig. Yours is the highest compliment I’ve received in a long time. Thank you.

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