Suffering & Satisfaction in Patterns of Consumption (and Zombies)

Sam Webster —  August 23, 2014 — 14 Comments

Today there are engineered foods designed to not trigger leptin, the hormone that tells us we are full, so we eat the whole bag. Planned obsolescence has us throwing away rather than repairing appliances and other consumer goods, so they go to landfills and scrap yards. Advertising is intended to cause desire and dissatisfaction, so we buy things we don’t need and don’t even want.

We are told that economic growth is the way for all of us to financially succeed. Yet the growth since the 2008 crisis has been entirely to the benefit of the ownership class; this tide floats only the yachts. The exemplars of things that grow uncontrollably are cancer and algae blooms. The first kills its body; the second drowns itself in its waste. How can we believe in an economic doctrine that contradicts how we know Nature works?

The Pagan way of walking lightly on the earth is a value, even if often only an aspiration. It is a way of expressing the experienced sanctity of this world in which we live; a way of positively valuing the natural and the sustainable. It is rooted in our experience of ourselves in integration with the world, especially the natural world around us. This spirituality (spiritual knowing) leads to ethical decisions and policies regarding our patterns of consumption, intended to reduce their negative effects.

The alternative to this are the zombies. The current form of this trope is the deceased, and the newly so, become mindless consumers…of consumers: us. In this image, ‘we’ are the prey-food. But we also represent all consumer goods, and the zombies are the ultimate consumers. They have no limits to their consumption, nor any apparent goal, save to consume, and perhaps to make more consumers; that is zombies.

Zombies from "Night of the Living Dead" (Public Domain)

Zombies from “Night of the Living Dead” (Public Domain)

Zombies are also lacking one other critical component: interiority. They are mindless and unfeeling, relentless and untiring. There is “no one home” in the mass-consumer zombie. From this comes the zombie hunter’s ethic: zombies can be killed without qualm. Humans have long had classes of beings that can be thoughtlessly killed: slaves, infidels, foreigners, never mind the animals, even plants, ecologies and so many more. Their otherness makes them easy to slay. The zombies are aggressive, which makes it ethically easier.

Where does this lack of interiority in the zombie trope come from? There is a place in life where we meet humans that appear to have no interiority. They are silent until their stop comes. Then they all move without any apparent cognizance of each other. These are the people on the street, on the bus, the train, even in the other commuting cars on the road ways. Deep down inside, with the flickering of the subway lights, do the fellow riders look pale and bloodshot, ready to rise up and eat you? Consumers, consuming all in their path. It is the image of our society.

This image is a failure of spirituality. It is a failure of the lived experience of the interiority of the Other. Most folks can barely conceive of the feelings and thoughts of others; not naturally, of course. The dulling of their lives on the treadmill of indentured servitude servicing debt narrows the horizon of the ‘cared for’ to their families, if they are fortunate, or only to themselves. Arms stretched out to clutch at the desired, never to be satisfied, yet consuming all. What else is there to do?

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Pagans recognize that an animistic perspective is a profound contradiction to this horror show. While it takes many forms throughout the world, animism is fundamentally the intuition of interiority and subjectivity in all entities about us, whether humans, animals, plants singular or in collectives, ecologies, even machinery, buildings, natural features, nations and so forth.

For some at the beginning, this is the mere knowledge that the Other has interiority. But with development comes the taste and touch of other minds and presences. Over time these presences become relationships, friendships, even kinship. Many Pagans have this experience; mature Pagans live in it. Here the subway lights steady, warm to flesh from their pale florescence, and we perceive the inner lives, joys, suffering, and purpose in those who sit beside us. We feel with them and share in those subjective realities. We feel their fears of the zombie apocalypse, the revelation that everyone else is out to eat them. But, we catch an eye, share a smile that spreads and warms the entire car. We see the person, not the consumer.

Our society in its current, raging pathology does not support seeing our neighbors as ourselves. We are isolated in our competition for the few and the rare, even when the shop shelves are full. Even in the pews, they all sit in rows staring up at the man with the book, not seeing each other alongside themselves. The zombies are a pale, aggressive reflection of our consumer, consuming culture. Yet when the light shifts, the color to their faces return, their feelings within become visible. When they are animate, ensouled and living beings, we see them as none other than ourselves.

In the animistic view, we meet the domestic cat and dog, the wild bird and squirrel, the creek, the mountain, and the sea all as living entities, to talk with, cry with, to support and be supported by, just as we do with the rest of our two-legged neighbors.

Can we see in the zombies flesh-eating dissatisfaction, in their out-reaching arms the desire to connect with other? Is there anybody out there? Would they sit beside us ungrasping if they were fed and satisfied? If the food filled, if the goods were reparable, if the media did not dangle forlorn carrots of unobtainable delights to sell laundry detergent, would the zombies stop?

In the sixth century BCE the Buddha taught that in all experience is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and that the way to end this is to not grasp after the transitory. Our overculture makes insatiable zombies of us all, trapped in profound suffering, creators of suffering. Yet the nectar of subjectivity recognized in all, the profound insight of animism, cures the zombie plague. Then we meet our neighbors, human and not, and know we are not alone.

Sam Webster


Sam Webster, M. Div., PhD(c) is an initiate of Golden Dawn, Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions, publisher at Concrescent Press and author of "Tantric Thelema." He founded the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn in 2001, and is the Executive Director of the Pantheon Foundation.
  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Fascinating take on the current zombie craze. Thank you.

  • Really makes one ask if we are the zombies…

  • You write:
    Advertising is intended to cause desire and dissatisfaction, so we buy things we don’t need and don’t even want.

    I heard a monk on an NPR program last Sunday night talking about gratitude, and how it can make someone with little good, and a lot going wrong, happier than someone who has much more, does not practice gratitude, and is never satisfied, because there’s the Ad industry trying to tell us what we should need and want, and that person, like the 5 of Cups, cannot see what they already have.

    Gratitude, and mindful meditation, is a good way to silence those ad-monitions. Mindful actions/behavior will make you more aware of what you’re doing, and possibly increase the joy of life.

    I’m reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked, in which he explores only four elements wrt cooking–leaves out spirit, and I do not mean spiritS, as he covers brewing. Many of his books are asking us to return to an appreciation of what we eat, including the choices we make of what, from where, which ingredients do I want to find/avoid–but he tells a good yarn, and while most of his books seem to have the same recurrent themes, the stories differ: no one book Has It All.

    Good article, Sam, & thanks much.

  • Yvonne

    I was just talking about this with my family this morning! Well, without the zombie-analogy. But it’s a bit sad that so many people take our current economy for granted. To be honest, I don’t really know what to do about it, but we could start with consuming less, buying products that are more ethical, and being prepared to pay a bit more (I do realize that especially the last thing is hard for many people).

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Here’s the deadly snare: If we believe we should consume less, buy ethically and in consequence pay a bit more, then Kant instructs us we should wish everyone would do the same. And that would crash the economy. We live in an economic environment in which everyone doing the right thing would be catastrophic. Forget Faust and Dante; we’re living in a circle of Hell right now.

      • Andrew

        Not as catastrophic as staying the course.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          True that!

          • Yvonne

            Baruch, I do agree with you, which is why I say I don’t have any easy answers (who does?) – but then again I wish there was something with which we could go past our economic model that our whole (western) society seems to be based on.

      • Isidis St Claire

        I don’t agree: if we buy with QUALITY in mind, then people will fix items rather than blindly replace them. That might mean the return of such professions as TV repairmen; tailors, shoe repairers and the like.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Someone must decide to make a TV set that can be easily repaired rather than discarded when something goes wrong. That’s a business model decision, needing a buy-in from management and capital; the latter is presently captive to quarterly reports in areas like consumer goods. What will market researchers for a Chinese electronics company report if told to measure the US market for a slightly (but, on their margins, nonetheless dangerously) more expensive, reparable TV — which must compete with not only competitors’ TVs but with the usual line of TVs the company could have sold us instead of letting us repair this one?I wish I could believe in your approach — when I was younger I repaired my own shoes — but I can’t. 🙁

    • Isidis St Claire

      Here’s the conundrum, Yvonne. Like you, I am willing to pay more for quality. While this works fine within the confines of food (buying organic, local, vegetarian, home grown meat, whatever) we are still the victims of the “zombie culture” when it comes to buying other goods. For example: clothing, accessories, electronics and cars are not made to last anymore. Case in point: our household has had to replace its TV three times in the last 8 years. Compare this to my childhood, when our TV lasted 15 years and there was a reliable serviceman available to do the odd repair every so often. (Now the repairmen are gone (more jobs lost) and we are told to scrap our belongings once something goes wrong. This, again, leads to frenzied buying and consuming rather than cherishing and fixing). Even buying top-of-the-line won’t afford the consumer more time with a product as it once did. Clothes are designed to fall apart within an allotted set of time – whether they are Target bargains or high-end designer apparel. And let’s take cars for a moment: I often see cars from the 50’s and 60’s driving around but darned few from the 80’s or 90’s because they just didn’t last. I try to buy less, go to the shoe repair rather than buy new every five minutes, but things aren’t made with the same pride as they once were. We are forced to have to buy things more often and that really annoys me!

      • Yvonne

        Yes – the economy seems to be really broken; more and more is thrown at us, while from all directions media and even the government are shouting at us to buy buy buy…

        Right at this moment there are two mega stores of H&M and Zara (I’m in the Netherlands) being built, probably to compete with Primark which opened a store here a few months earlier. I went into Primark exactly once and was overwhelmed with all the nice-looking clothes and accessories that I know are basically junk. You wear it a few months, then throw it away because it’s either broken or out of fashion. I never went there again – though I must admit H&M and Zara are still guilty pleasures. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of money, which makes it hard to invest in more expensive clothing (which I’m using as an example here) that lasts longer.
        I guess it’s a slow process…what I’m doing is trying to save money, and looking around in my area and on internet to enterprises that I trust are more ethical and care about the environment and long term solutions. It’s a step-by-step process, but actually quite fun to do!
        And full disclosure: I work in the art field, and know how hard it is to actually sell something. Even to the point that I advice some artists to sell merchandise, since that sells easier than actual art works :/ I wish it were easier.

  • Finnchuill

    Excellent observations!

  • Sabina Magliocco

    Excellent piece with good insights on the meaning behind zombies. Thanks for posting!