Urge, splurge, purge: we are sucked into a cycle of compulsion followed by consumption, followed by the periodic detoxing of ourselves or our homes, like Romans making themselves sick after eating, so that we can cram more in. – George Monbiot
A couple of years ago, Guardian columnist, George Monbiot sounded an ominous warning about the global demand for perpetual economic growth. He believes that measuring wealth entirely in terms of GDP, and insisting that the global economy should continue to grow continuously for the rest of time, is destroying our planet.
In a Guardian article from 2017, entitled Urge, Splurge, Purge, Monbiot decried the indulgence and greed that’s perpetuated by blind trust in the market economy:
“Continued economic growth depends on continued disposal: unless we rapidly junk the goods we buy, it fails. The growth economy and the throwaway society cannot be separated. Environmental destruction is not a by-product of this system. It is a necessary element.”
Recently, he reiterated the same ideas on Frankie Boyle’s comedy show New World Order.
His description of contemporary consumption being like “Romans making themselves sick after eating, so that we can cram more in,” puts me in mind of the scenes of debauchery and indulgence in Satyricon.
Written by Petronius during the reign of Nero in the first-century, Satyricon follows the adventures of Encolpius, an ex-gladiator who, instead of trying to get home to a faithful wife after 10 years of war, is more concerned with banqueting and carousing and swindling his way around the empire. It’s all pretty x-rated, actually. But the reputation of Romans as vomiting up their food so they can eat more comes from the scenes at a dinner at the estate of Trimalchio, who entertains his guests with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance.
Trimalchio is so obnoxious that the term ‘trimalchion’ came to stand for all that disgusts us about the unfettered indulgence of wealth (F. Scott Fitzgerald originally titled The Great Gatsby “Trimalchio in West Egg”).
And Monbiot considers us no less trimalchion than Jay Gatsby:
“You can now buy a selfie toaster, that burns an image of your own face onto your bread – the Turin Shroud of toast. You can buy beer for dogs and wine for cats; a toilet roll holder that sends a message to your phone when the paper is running out; a $30 branded brick; a hairbrush that informs you whether or not you are brushing your hair correctly. Panasonic intends to produce a mobile fridge that, in response to a voice command, will deliver beers to your chair.”
We are trapped in an unstoppable compulsion to gorge ourselves on whatever our heart desires. And now! Food, clothing, gadgets, cars, pornography, drugs, travel. Now, now, now!
And when we’re done, feeling fat and sluggish in our excess, we purge it all out. We Marie Kondo anything that no longer sparks joy. We drink detoxing juices and smash our bodies in gyms.
Urge, splurge, purge, repeat.
In his novel, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote, “History and philosophy have eternal duties, which are, at the same time, simple duties: to combat Caiaphas the High-priest, Draco the Lawgiver, Trimalchio the Legislator, Tiberius the Emperor. This is clear, direct, and limpid, and offers no obscurity.”
He’s personifying the great dangers to human society — Caiaphas represents religious self-interest and treachery; Draco personifies unforgiving rules or laws (we get ‘draconian’ from his name); Trimalchio is indulgence and excess; and Tiberius is political corruption at its worst.
According to Victor Hugo, the task of a healthy society is to combat an unaccountable priesthood, an unjust legal system, over-consumption, and corruption in high places.
We live in a time when three of those four things are considered self-evident. Routing the self-interest of the church, reforming the legal system, and curbing the corruption of the political elite, are all regarded as necessary to a free and fair society.
But greed, indulgence, over-consumption — these remain unchallenged. Trimalchio reigns supreme in our hearts and our bellies.
And the church, which for so long called its members to abstinence, temperance, and moderation, seems as infected by a trimalchion spirit as anyone.
We heard recently of one high profile minister who was caught seducing a woman on his private yacht. Another was shown on video asking his church to pay for his new $54 million private jet. And another was found to be earning over $900,000 a year.
Most famously, one televangelist has two private jets, a $20 million Citation X and a Gulfstream V jet, housed at his own airport next to his mansion in Texas.
I’ve lost count of the number of ministers found guilty of an ongoing pattern of relational and financial abuse, a lack of transparency and outright deception, self-promotion and a love of money. And yet, while turning a blind eye to the sins of greed and over-consumption, the church continues to pontificate about homosexuality and abortion.
In Satyricon, we read that Trimalchio had built himself an ostentatious tomb, and at his decadent banquet he regales his drunken guests with descriptions of its lavish design. Even in death, it seems, his repose will be in luxury. His revellers mock him (although he seems ignorant of their motivation) by acting out his funeral, all for his deluded amusement.
But these guests are no friends to Trimalchio, only sycophantic, self-interested leeches. When Trimalchio’s real death comes, we assume none of them will attend. All they will mourn is their access to their host’s food and wine.
Inevitably, after urge, splurge, and purge, comes the dirge, the funereal lament for the dead.
Monbiot predicts the dirge will be played first for the planet we have destroyed by our greed. Our obsession with economic growth and over-consumption has already signalled an impending environmental emergency. As he writes, “Heat stress, aridity, sea level rise and crop failure will soon render large parts of the world hostile to human life.”
And then a second dirge will be played. Only this time it will be for us. The environmental crisis will flare into a financial crisis. And then the party will really be over.
Life on earth, as we know it, will not be destroyed by homosexuality or same-sex marriage, or abortion rates or transgenderism. But we are facing an imminent disaster caused by the human sins of greed and over-consumption unless we do as Victor Hugo said, and embrace our simple and eternal duties, to combat Caiaphas the High-priest, Draco the Lawgiver, Trimalchio the Legislator, and Tiberius the Emperor.
Like he said, “This is clear, direct, and limpid, and offers no obscurity.”