Monday 14 June 2010

A very useful passage from 'Spent' by Geoffrey Miller

I've been reading 'Spent' by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. He goes deeply into the many forces driving modern day capitalist consumerism. Most environmentalists now recognise consumerism as central to nearly every environmental problem. Miller explores the 'personality trait display' reasons for why we behave the way we do in a consumerist world. It is a book well worth reading and there are many passages that it is useful to read, but this one from Chapter 16, pp. 292-297 stood out to me:

What Anticonsumerist Protesters Are Doing Wrong

A clear understanding of civil society and informal behavioural norms can help identify not only points of maximum leverage for changing society, but also tactics that are bound to fail. Ever since the green movement of the 1970s, the traditional strategy for trying to change consumer behavior has been through verbal preaching and admonishment. Humans love to talk, especially when we are telling other people what to do. So, we have for decades given one another vague encouragements to respect Mother Nature, consume less, recycle more, buy green, think globally, act locally, be less selfish and greedy, and live simply. In some cases, these tactics have worked surprisingly well, by creating new social norms and expectations. The preaching signals to everyone that there is a new status game in town, and that conspicuously green behavior is the best new way to display one's conscientiousness and agreeableness. In other cases, such preaching proves futile, because the sinners who most need saving (multinational corporations, military-industrial complexes) don't have personality traits, don't care about signaling them, and don't get any benefits from playing the new green game.

For example, anticonsumerism protesters often target large corporations and international trade organisations. They try to use the usual social-hominid tactics of informal social sanctioning - preaching, public humiliation, ostracism, name-calling, and throwing rotten fruit. But the objects of their wrath are faceless institutions that have no conscience or responsiveness to such sanctions, or institutional leaders and functionaries whose real social lives have no overlap with those of the protestors, and thus who are immune to suffering any real fitness costs from the protestors' disaffection. The Nestle and WTO leaders can leave their besieged workplaces in strong, fast cars, drive to their anonymized exurban mansions, and enjoy the evening with thier empathic spouses, adoring children, deferential dinner guests, and single-malt whiskies. The protestors are nottheir neighbors, friends, kin, colleagues, or potential lovers, so their disapproval means nothing. They are the out-group, and informal social sanctions only work within one's in-group.

The protesters would do better to aim their sticks and carrots at social in-group members who care what they think - and to recognise that their social in-group is much wider than they might realise. For typical college-student protesters, these in-groups include their like-minded, same-aged, protester-subculture friends, of course. But they also include anyone who has overlapping fitness interests by virtue of genetic relatedness, social attachment, economic codependency, spatial proximity, or repeated interaction. That is, their in-groups include all their parents, step-parents, siblings, and relatives; their house-mates and neighbours; their workmates, bosses, and customers; their schoolmates and professors; their online game-playing companions, chat room pals, and e-mail correspondents.

As adults most of us have a social network of around 150 people whom we know well enough that, if we met them in an airport, we would be happy to chat with them over drinks, In many domains, we feel comfortable praising or punishing these in-group acquaintances for good or bad behavior. We would commend them for altruism toward family, friends, children, or animals. We would condemn them - with a wince, a scowl, a gentle remonstrance, a pointed question, or an abrupt exit - if they revealed acts of cruelty or infidelity. We might even do so for ideological sins - for derogating minorities, enjoying pornography, or cursing within earshot of nuns. Yet in most developed nations, there is a strange and strong taboo against condemning in-group members for acts of conspicuous consumption. If our airport drinking buddies reveal that they have bought a new Lexus or Stanford law degree, we feel obligated to praise their success, status, and taste. If they see an ad for some new cell phone of grotesquely conspicuous precision on the airport's propaganda screeens (usually tuned to CNN, in the United States), and if they comment that they covet the product, we feel reflexively inclined to assent. I wish instead that we had the guts to say something like:
Yeah, I wanted that phone once, too. But then I thought, I already have a pretty good phone, so why do I crave this thing? It's just going to cost hours of frustration to set up, and make me stare at little electronic screens even more than I already do, so I have even fewer face-to-face conversations like the one we are having now. I think we unconsciously want these things because we want to show people that we have some attractive personal traits - things like intelligence and conscientiousness - that lead to success as a worker and taste as a consumer. But, you know, I think these products don't even work that well to show off these traits. For instance, I can already tell that you have these traits just from talking with you for a few minutes. You make interesting, funny comments about meaningful things, so I know you're intelligent. You got through security an hour before your flight, so I know you're conscientious. Your virtues speak for themselves. We don't need to wrap all those costly goods and services around ourselves to get respect. What do you think?

Such mini-sermons might sometimes fail by seeming too direct, offensive, intimate, or weird. But they might often succeed in sparking some new thoughts and feelings, if articulated in a spirit of "Let's think through this consumerism problem together, as joint victims of bad habits" rather than "I'm a virtuous know-it-all anticonsumer, and you're a shallow, craven materialist." Especially in settings as alienating as airports, where personal identity feels paper-thin, and product branding feels thick and hot as lava, a few genuine words of personal contact and consumerist scepticism from an acquaintance can seem momentously vivid. These words might resonate in the listener's memory for weeks to come, and resound every time he sees an ad or steps into a mall; they might even be rearticulated when he meets and acquaintance of his own in some future airport bar. (Nothing ever changes for the better without someone's seeming overoptimistic about other people's thoughtfulness....)

In fact, these moments of one-on-one consciousness raising, compiled across individuals, in-groups, and history, are probably the main routes by which all social change occurs. They are how civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and animal rights got discussed and accepted. To the extent that public protests helped at all, they may have simply provided the news-feed fodder to provoke private discussions among family and friends. They were occasions for airing thoughts about topics that were previously off the radar. Once people's tacit assumptions and behavioral habits are held up to the arc lamp of thoughtful discussion, they tend to burn out like stalled film stock: flicker, scorch, bubble, whoosh. The German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas made this point already when he wrote about human emancipation through "communicative rationality" in an "ideal speech situation" within civil society - but the point bears repeating, for those who haven't curled up by the fire lately with his 1981 masterpiece Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns: Handlungsrationalitat und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung.

Face-to-face discussions of consumerism can often go more smoothly than confrontations about topics like racism, sexism, or homophobia. This is because when you point out that consumerism is a really inefficient way to advertise personal traits, you can praise someone's traits and tickle their vanity even as you're cluster bombing the central ideology around whihc they've organised their education, career, leisure, identity, status seeking, and mating strategy. As well-trained consumer narcissists, we are such insecure, praise-starved flattery sluts that a little social validation goes a long way. A friend or lover can imply that we have wasted our lives chasing consumerist dreamworlds and status mirages, as long as he or she reassures us that we still appear intelligent, attractive and virtuous. (Don't forget to mention that, or people will cry.)

Another, more subtle way of opening such conversations is through mentioning movies that address consumerism. Most people love to talk about movies, and do so in chummy, open-minded, leisure-chat mode. (By contrast, when discussing books, magazine articles, or TV documentaries, people tend to revert to college-seminar debate mode, and become more intellectually prickly and ideologically defensive.) One can say, "You know, last night I was watching Fight Club on DVD again - have you ever seen it? - and I was thinking about some of its themes..." Or, one could mention American Beauty, or The Matrix, or any of the movies listed in "Further Reading and Viewing." These films have a few key features: almost every cultured person has seen at least one of them; they evoke many themes beyond consumerism, so don't elicit an instant defensive reaction, they way that An Inconvenient Truth or The Corporation would; and they offer intriguing alternative ways to display one's mental, moral, and physical traits. By startinga chat about a highly rated mainstream Hollywood film, one can slop painlessly past an acquaintances political defenses to question consumerist assumptions and habits.

Excerpt from Chapter 16 of 'Spent' by Geoffrey Miller

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