When our kids were little, we lived in an Eichler suburb in south Palo Alto. Every house on the block had a 6-to-7-foot fence around it. In the year that we lived there we rarely saw a neighbor. It was eery.
One day, while mowing our lawn, I had a revelation: Our market system has a vested interest in our individual isolation, because this way — rather than sharing, say, lawnmowers among all the neighbors — we each buy our own lawnmower. Consumption is maximized by the destruction of community. In some weird way our market system depends on our isolation from one another, from the weakness of community.
Notice that this is — maybe — starting to change a bit now with the “sharing economy” … Airbnb, Uber, the mesh, waste as food, access not ownership, etc. But does the “sharing economy” really increase community, or merely find a new way to profit from the lack of it?
Various personal and civic pathologies are associated with the breakdown of communities … crime, mental health, etc.
In the following article from Huffington Post, human isolation is now found to be at the root of addiction, and human connection — community — the key to healing it.
The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.