Mindfulness of Greed

Photo by BP Miller

Greed is excessive desire – the compulsion to acquire more for oneself than is needed. Unfortunately, it has become a human manufactured plague in our culture – one that costs lives. Research shows that the more people value money and power, the less they value community, relationships, and the wellbeing of others. Luckily greed is not set in stone and can be decreased through greater self-awareness, reminding ourselves of the needs of others, and training in mindfulness and compassion.

In early times, infectious disease was the primary cause of death, but advances in science and healthcare reduced and eliminated many of these diseases in the US. Since reliable records have been kept by the CDC, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer have become the top causes of death in the US (and the rest of the world), though there can be big disparities in mortality rates and causes depending upon age, race, sex, education and socioeconomic status. A closer inspection of the trends since 1950 suggests greed has had an increasing impact on the manner of our deaths.

Death by Big Tobacco

Death from trachea, bronchus, and lung cancers steadily increased until the 1990s as smoking became more popular and smokers aged. The Surgeon General concluded that “The tobacco epidemic was initiated and has been sustained by the aggressive strategies of the tobacco industry, which has deliberately misled the public on the risks of smoking cigarettes”. Because of the deep pockets of the Tobacco Industry, lobbyists were able to delay the implementation of protective policies and even exposed people to an additional toxic health hazard (flame retardants in furniture) as a deflection. Tobacco control policies that were eventually enacted are credited for halving smoking rates since the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s report, “Smoking and Health”. In recent times, the number of smokers as well as the rates of death from smoking related cancers have been on the decline.

Death by Big Pharma

Accidental poisonings due to overdoses of prescription and illegal drugs began increasing dramatically in the late 90s, largely due to the proliferation of opioid analgesics. Between 1999 and 2005 the overall rate increased by 62.5%. The courts have determined that the pharmaceutical industry’s promotion of aggressive opioid prescribing through “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns” as well as a failure of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in regulating them due to financial conflicts of interest. Incidentally, conflicts of interest between the FDA and US Department of Agriculture also undergird outdated dietary recommendations that benefited food producers to the health detriment of consumers.

Death by Big Oil

[added 1/2023] The American Meteorological Society’s State of the Climate report confirms that concentrations of the most dominant greenhouse gases—methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide (CO2) continue to reach new record highs. 2021 was one of the six-warmest years on record as measured by global mean surface temperature and lake surface temperatures were also at record highs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that 20–40% of the global human population live in regions that experienced warming of more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial since as early as 2006 and this devastating escalation can only be stopped by significantly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

ExxonMobil is one the world’s largest companies by revenue, the largest of the Big Oil companies in both production and market value, and has been ranked the 5th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. A recent investigation revealed that ExxonMobil’s scientists have always had just as much information about global warming as academic and government scientists over the years, but actively worked to deny this information and mislead the public. According to Greenpeace, the company spent more than $30 million on think tanks and researchers that promoted climate denial in order to protect its bottom line.

“One thing that occurs to me is the behavior of the tobacco companies denying the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits, but this is an order of magnitude greater moral offence, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilisation…” – Alyssa Bernstein, Director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University

Death by Political Ambition

It may come as no surprise that in 2020, the third highest cause of death in the US was COVID-19. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, compared to countries of similar size and wealth, the US had the highest premature excess mortality rate. Why might this be so? Many experts attribute the high rate of death on the political aspirations of the administration in power from the very start of the pandemic – specifically, downplaying the threat and spreading mis- and disinformation to avoid an economic shutdown that might threaten re-election.

Death by Lack of Generosity

After being fairly similar for many years, mortality rates now differ by state depending upon programs and policies implemented to improve public health that tend to accumulate over the life cycle (ie. medicaid coverage at birth, parental income support in childhood, tobacco and alcohol taxes during adolescence, and higher-quality medical care in adulthood). One study found that mortality rates fell between 1.1 percent and 6.9 percent for each 10 percent increase in local public health spending over a 13 year period. In another study Medicaid expansion was associated with reductions in all-cause mortality. Yet another study concluded that “US life expectancy is estimated to be 2.8 years longer among women and 2.1 years longer among men if all US states enjoyed the health advantages of states with more liberal policies, which would put US life expectancy on par with other high-income countries”.

My current home state of Missouri had the lowest per person public health funding in 2020 and in 2021, we were ranked 42nd of 50 by the United Health Foundation in their America’s Health Rankings® annual report. Experts suggest we can learn lessons from countries that have decreasing mortality rates and increasing life expectancies, who offer their citizens prenatal care, parental leave, affordable health care, preschool, affordable access to quality primary and post-secondary education, and paid time off.

Greed Harms the Greedy Too

Everyone ultimately pays a price for the consequences of greed. Because we are interconnected, the suffering of some results in the suffering of all, though certain segments of the population experience it sooner and more intensely. We have seen this with the ripple effects of the pandemic on staffing shortages, supply chain breakdowns and the resulting increase in prices and lack of goods and services. We can also see this in the decline in life expectancy that has been happening in the U.S. since 2014. We see this in the increasing frequency and intensity of environmental catastrophes such as contamination, wildfires, floods, draughts, and extreme temperatures decreasing crop yields, limiting water supplies, destroying property and overwhelming the energy grid. A lack of protective factors is speculated to be at the heart of disproportionally rising rates of mortality in the US as compared to economically similar countries. There has been an increase in deaths of despair (suicide, drugs and alcohol) among middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less, which some may be related to a measurable deterioration in economic and social wellbeing.

Fortunately, training in mindfulness and compassion can develop the foundational capacities that enable us to see through our insatiable wanting to a more sustainable mindset of sufficiency. A dedicated practice can mitigate greed and increase generosity through helping us:

  • strengthen our awareness, willingness, and courage to sustainably face our challenges rather than reacting defensively (avoid, distract, project, dissociate, etc).
  • notice body signals that indicate satiety and allow us to discern wants from needs
  • make space for savoring the good that is already here rather than seeking for more
  • improve subjective wellbeing and contentment
  • understand our fundamental interconnection
  • cultivate compassion for others
  • develop greater self-awareness and emotional intelligence, so we might relate to craving and attachment in more skillful ways
  • become more conscious of our intentions so we might align our actions with our values
  • adopt a more universal sense of morality that is inclusive of everyone

This apple by itself would be enough—
its crisp white center bearing just the right balance
of tart and sweet,
garnished with the faint scent of flowers.
But there is more!
There is the music of water cascading over rocks.
There is bee balm and mountain laurel.
There is a cool breeze playing with the trees,
sending shape-shifting clouds speeding across the sky.
Next to me, facing the river,
is my beloved, eating the other half of the apple.
Far away, barely audible, the low rumble of thunder warns
of an approaching storm.
Savor, savor this moment.
It is enough.
It is more than enough.

– Emily Whittle, It Is Enough

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