“What on earth does narcissism have to do with sustainability?” we hear you ask. But by the time Anne Manne has stepped you from the nutter with a gun and profound sense of entitlement through to the selfie-stick era of “look what I had for lunch” and the CEO who makes every decision based on “what’s in this for me?”, the link becomes very obvious.
The Life of I is about how complete self-absorption, lack of empathy and disdain for moral norms and values manifests itself in both the personal and the cultural realms, and how these behaviours can be changed.
It’s very much a measured journey from the inside a single mind to the behaviour of groups and finally to the very nature of our political and economic system and its relationship with the planet. Manne also does it in an incredibly persuasive and eloquent manner, while drawing on a wealth of research and expertise to make the case.
A profoundly thought-provoking and incredibly detailed book, it successfully takes the sustainability discussion out of the political and technical realms and places it squarely in the realms of human behaviour, morality and ethics.
Manne examines the various theories around how and why narcissism develops, from Freud and his position that all babies are born that way, and some of them never grow out of it, through to biologically based theories, with electroencephalograms that show part of the brain that relates to empathy is literally atrophied in some criminals diagnosed as malignant narcissists.
All the theories agree there is an element of narcissism in just about everyone – it’s to what degree it rules behaviour and causes negative impacts that creates the lines between “healthy”, “unhealthy” and downright dangerous.
The manner in which advertising plays to and strengthens these tendencies is examined, and also how the stroking of the individual ego can become a cover for all kinds of corporate abuses of people and the environment, such as the sneakers made with sweatshop labour that are branded with the name of a famous sports star to make them appear worth their wildly inflated price to consumers oblivious to their human cost.
Australian policy-speak and the way media often buy into the narratives about who is entitled and who is not come under the microscope. Manne points out that our current government more and more talks about protecting the quality of life of “working Australians” as if those who for some reason can’t work don’t deserve a thing, while the media runs stories about how hard the wealthy have it in terms of taxation, featuring Gina Rinehart complaining that 60 per cent of the population are on welfare.
The final chapter, Narcissism and the Commons, is where it all comes together as Manne examines why it is so difficult for the community and policy to come together on climate change. Some of the psychological concepts that reinforce narcissism like the self-serving bias, moral self-enhancement and hubris, she says, may all play their part both within the community and in terms of the most vociferous of the anti-progress scientists and politicians.
“Will we, like Narcissus, go on gazing at the lily pond, enchanted and intoxicated by all that we see there, all those things of the consumer good life, which reflect us back so much larger and more dazzling than we really are, all the way to disaster?”