A Different Normal

Last year in Berlin, Tom and I stumbled across a convention on paleo food. The paleo movement seeks to bring food consumption in closer alignment with what our ancestors ate. Although neither of us eat paleo, we were curious to learn more about it (cf. Tom's article on this site, "On Eating Meat".

At the front gate the security guard cut us off. He curtly told me I couldn't take in my crumpled plastic water bottle. When I asked why, he explained it's just a rule they have there: Vorschrift.

We ditched the bottle and walked in.

The main courtyard was a bustling scene. Face warmed by the flames into a perpetual smile, a man grilled fish over an open fire. He worked with a busy passion. Sweat plastered his shirt along his bulky back.

Quite a few people were enjoying the fruits of his labour. Each had a piece of fish sitting head to tail along a piece of butcher's paper, together with a slice of lemon and nostril-stinging radish.

We walked through an archway into a small market place. It was an odd collection of products. Himalayan rock salts. Coconut oil. Paleo ice cream. In the middle there was even a group of women running through a demonstration of the latest craze to hit the city: 'Crossfit yoga.' It was all a bit over the top. None of it compared to the timeless simplicity of grilled fish.

A well-groomed man with a dazzling white smile approached us. He held a small plastic cup of water between his bronzed fingers, and offered it to us.

Our friend Rebecca accepted the cup and took a sip. Here was a universal law of social interaction at work: placing an object in someone's hands makes it harder for them to say no to a request. Years earlier Tom and I had used this strategy ourselves as door to door salesmen, which is why we gave this guy a wide berth.

Rebecca became ensnared in his pitch. We watched and waited from a distance until the conversation drew to an end and she caught up with us.

"What was he selling?"

Turns out he'd been trying to flog a subscription to home delivered water.

The absurdity of the proposition was clear: surely in the paleo vision for the world, the rivers and clouds would provide the only subscription service we could ever need.

My mind went back to the confiscation of my water earlier. Although it wasn't prearranged, the two events became entangled in my thoughts. Make people thirsty then sell them water. That kind of manoeuvre seems to underpin most of modern sales and marketing.

Vorschrift, the word used by the security guard, also floated back into my mind. Typical of German words, it breaks down into smaller building blocks: vor and Schrift. If you put them together in English you get pre-script.

And that's exactly how the security guard had meant it. It wasn't his fault I couldn't bring the water in, it was just a rule someone else had made up and pre-scribed.

Just like entering the paleo convention signed me up to a particular "prescription" (Vorschrift), belonging to any kind of society also means accepting a set of standards for behaviour. Many of them are explicit and written as actual laws: don't steal, don't murder, stop at the traffic lights. These are the straightforward ones, and in democratic societies we are allowed to debate over them and argue for change when they no longer serve us.

But there are many prescriptions that are not explicit. They are the rules that derive from what we consider to be normal. 'Normal' has a force almost equal to that of actual laws, but without being subjected to the same degree of scrutiny and discussion. It is easy for our idea of normal to fail us without us realising.


Hyper-consumption is normal. No one legislated it, but it is a powerful cultural force.

Marketing – the engine of consumer culture – suggests ways for us to buy our way out of dissatisfaction. It makes us feel thirsty, then sells us water.

Australians spent $45 billion in the lead-up to Christmas in 2015. That's $2500 per person over the age of fourteen. Meanwhile Santa and his elves were working in relatively balmy conditions at the North Pole, where temperatures were at least 20 degrees Celsius above normal.

One event did not cause the other. They are both elements in a system that is out of whack.

Our patterns of consumption must change. It seems obvious, given the declining state of the environment around the globe. But it is an unpopular point because that change would require a reexamination of what is normal and familiar. It may also be a fundamentally uncomfortable point (cf. Tom's article on this site, "The Costs of Comfort").

How can we change consumption? Is it still possible to hit the pause button and contemplate what we consider the good life to be? Can we still make rational decisions about our future?

We rightly value freedom of choice – the idea that within the boundaries set by actual laws, each individual person should be the ultimate authority in his or her decisions. Market economics harness the power of this principle by allowing consumers to express their own preferences and values through purchases. For this reason, economies of this kind are vastly more efficient and successful than state-controlled economies: the triumph of the West over the communism of the Soviet Union is historical proof of this basic fact.

But while freedom of choice is a sound principle, we have to ask whether our choices are always truly our own; is it truly my choice to buy commercial water if I am in an environment where access to my own water has been denied?

True Human Needs

I first visited Berlin halfway through 2009. It immediately struck me as different. The place was falling apart but that didn't seem to matter. People there were getting a lot out of small pleasures. And they seemed to enjoy a genuine freedom about pursuing their own ways through life. Normal felt different there.

Berlin is thick with history. During the Cold War, it was the stage for competition between the West and the Soviet Union. Both sides piled money into their half of the city. The West wanted their area to demonstrate the diversity and freedom of choice that comes with market economies. The East wanted to project the strength and solidarity that comes from a state where economy and politics exist in lockstep. To this day you'll take more trams in the Eastern half, more buses in the West: the differences are written into the city.

When the Wall fell, it was negotiated that the city of Berlin would maintain this soviet memorial located in the suburb of Treptow. It is dedicated to the fallen Russian soldiers who fought with the Allies to defeat Nazism.

When the Wall fell, it was negotiated that the city of Berlin would maintain this soviet memorial located in the suburb of Treptow. It is dedicated to the fallen Russian soldiers who fought with the Allies to defeat Nazism.

What is an economy other than a mechanism to provide for human needs? Architecture, infrastructure, city planning, public transport – all these elements carry implicit answers to the question of what humans truly need.  While we now tend to entrust the question to each individual person, this was not always the case. The philosopher Karl Marx, for example, placed the following mantra at the centre of his conception of economics and society:

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

On the face of it, this is an admirable ambition for a society. It inspires two beautiful questions: "What do I truly need, and how can I help others?" But in the Soviet Union the idea was distorted into a destructive and repressive vision of human life, where people were told both what their abilities were, and what their needs should be. Rather than uplifting human beings, it forced them to exist within a narrow, brutally enforced set of prescriptions. If someone didn't fit into the version of normal dictated by the state, it meant personal disaster.

The political, economic and social experiment of the Soviet Union rightly failed. It was a bad system. Despite its lofty ambitions, the needs of the political apparatus were prioritised over the needs of the people.

American capitalism triumphed because it gave people licence to exercise freedom of choice. The result was a more open society and vastly superior economy.

But that does not mean that the question of human needs has been resolved. It's as relevant now as ever before.

"Plattenbau"-style housing reflects a stifling one-size-fits-all approach to human needs. This photo was taken in the Berlin suburb of  Kreuzberg.

"Plattenbau"-style housing reflects a stifling one-size-fits-all approach to human needs. This photo was taken in the Berlin suburb of Kreuzberg.

Conflicting Needs

The difficulty with needs is that they come into conflict with each other all the time, both at the personal level and at the level of society.

The most competitive modern rival to American capitalism emanates from Beijing. It is a hybrid solution to the question of human needs, taking elements from the Soviet and American models. The situation in China illustrates the problematic nature of satisfying needs.

When Mao came to power and the People’s Republic of China was born, the Chinese looked to the Soviet Union for a model of politics and economic development. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping distanced China from its revolutionary ideology. He realised he would need to harness the power of market economies to have a chance of satisfying the material needs of its citizens, and to keep his Communist Party in power. And so he sought to depoliticise the question of how to meet the needs of the masses:

It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat.

His pragmatic stance set the foundations for unprecedented economic growth. The Chinese economy, now the second largest in the world, is capable of satisfying the material needs of the Chinese people better than ever before. More than 500 million have been lifted out of poverty – a feat unrivalled in human history.

Many cultural norms and technologies from America have now taken root in modern China. For instance, in the 1980s the city of Beijing was famous for the torrents of cyclists flowing through its streets. Now, the car is king.

At the start of this century, there were a total of around 4 million cars in China. During the ten years since, that number increased twenty-fold, and by the end of the decade the country had overtaken the US as the world’s biggest car market. Last year more than 21 million new passengers took to the road in China – that’s almost 60,000 per day.1

Shanghai in 1991. Photo by  Wang Wenlan .

Shanghai in 1991. Photo by Wang Wenlan.

And still there is obvious room for more sales to be made. Across the globe, there are roughly 135 cars per 1000 people. China is well below that average at 44 cars per 1000 people, while in America the number is a massive 600. If the aim is to make American levels of affluence accessible to all of China’s 1.3 billion population, then a flood of millions of cars is still to come. That’s why it is estimated that within the next two decades the total number of cars in China alone will exceed the total number of cars on planet earth just 15 years ago.2

Car ownership is becoming normal in China. Who can begrudge the Chinese for aspiring to the American dream? At the personal level, cars provide for two human needs: the need for efficiently getting from A to B, and the need for social recognition. Predictably, pursuit of the new normal at this staggering scale has only been possible with considerable sacrifice. Citizens now live in impossibly congested cities and are suffering the effects of a severely damaged environment.

Trabant, the standard issue model of car in East Germany. Central planning meant the economy was inefficient. Average waiting time for a Trabant was 15 years. Photo source:  20 Jahre Mauerfall, das Auto im Sozialismus.

Trabant, the standard issue model of car in East Germany. Central planning meant the economy was inefficient. Average waiting time for a Trabant was 15 years. Photo source: 20 Jahre Mauerfall, das Auto im Sozialismus.

Government authorities have been forced to intervene. In December 2015, a red alert protocol was initiated twice in Beijing because of extremely dangerous levels of air pollution. In the new four-tiered warning system, a red alert triggers drastic measures: all schools are closed; construction and industrial workers must cease all work; and half of all cars are pulled off the roads.

The impact on ordinary human activities is massive and illustrates the degree of the sacrifice that has been made. People are having groceries and other necessities delivered directly to their homes to avoid going outside and risking exposure to the pollution. Companies are profiting by selling people air filters.

This a real-life, serious version of basic human needs being transformed into commodities and sold like at the paleo convention in Berlin. Needless to say, if the Chinese continue to pursue the American normal, the the result will be disastrous.

A Different Normal

It's time to rethink 'normal.'

Collectively we should aspire to fulfill our true human needs; as determined by us, and not dictated by political parties or commercials. There is no timeless set of human needs – while there may be some commonalities, needs vary depending on the individual and on circumstances. The question of true human needs must therefore be answered by individuals themselves.

The difficulty is that existing norms are reflected back to us wherever we look. Movements like paleo become parodies of themselves by being commercialised and reintegrated into the status quo: the ambition for a way of life reflective of our evolutionary history is converted into palettes of coconut water on supermarket shelves.

It seems almost impossible to achieve the mental distance that is required to discern our true needs. Yet that is where I believe a revision of 'normal' must begin; everyone sitting down each day to ponder "What do I truly need, and how can I help others?"

Vestiges of a Cold War-era American espionage base in the Grunewald forest, Berlin.

Vestiges of a Cold War-era American espionage base in the Grunewald forest, Berlin.



1. Find a report on 2015 sales here.

2. The Guardian newspaper has been tracking developments in the Chinese automobile industry. Access the articles chronologically here, here, and then here.


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