Why don’t we do it?
You’ve heard this question: We know how to fix climate change, so why don’t we do it?
I’ve written a lot here about the role of advertising, how it would love to control not only consumer purchases, but consumer lives, while treating the Earth’s marvels like war-plundered women. And yet, it doesn’t seem like it has absolute power. I know I’m not the only person who talks back to ads, and laughs, and I rarely find myself in a store that sells new stuff. But I can still feel the pull sometimes, a color or texture or a chic take on something, or even—perhaps especially—a bit of humor. Merchandise can still tug at my sleeve every once in a while. Even when there has been no advertising within miles. Advertising can’t be our only commercial influence.
These days I’ve been thinking about the influence of friends and others I respect or share values with. E. O. Wilson, one of my favorite scientists (who died just months ago), researched ant colonies for decades, and was inspired by them to study human societies as well. He came to believe “ . . . [E]veryone, no exception, must have a tribe.” Early humans knew exactly what clan or kinfolk they belonged to. But today it can get complicated. Wilson continues, “the social world of each modern human is not a single tribe but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass.”
Sometimes people visit me who are not of my “tribe.” A friend brings a friend over, maybe an out-of-town guest whom I’ve said is welcome to come to my party—to leave the person behind would be heartless. This is exactly what happened at a small gathering I put together once, about a decade ago.
The unexpected guest was a professional woman who, because of her large salary, had managed to buy a mansion in Seattle. She didn’t say it was a mansion, but she mentioned a home theater, a tennis court, and a tower, so I made inferences.
We were a group of twenty or so sitting on the front patio, but she had heard about the desert back yard and wanted to see it. To get there, I had to take her through my outdoor kitchen. Most people love my outdoor kitchen. But I hadn’t done the spider webs for probably two months (it’s futile; they come back within twenty-four hours), which the lamp testified to with its big halo of spider-caught leaves. The nice piece of butcher block I had salvaged had recently acquired an oval beet stain (did I need to sand it off, or what?), and some paintbrushes sat in a jar of water next to the loaded wastebasket, waiting to be cleaned.
I’m not sure what the woman noticed; she was quiet as we passed through, and her glances were quick. She walked straight through to the back yard.
There was so much beautiful foliage. Even desert nature, I thought, knew how to surround and embrace whatever is unsightly. Like my various projects, here and there. What we saw was green, everywhere—though I realized Seattle had more lushness. Then I also realized my last load of laundry was still hanging from the acacia tree, near the neighbor’s fence. Other projects were visible as well: I was replacing the old trunk that used to hold giveaways but had finally fallen completely apart in the weather. The sitting area’s bench and chairs were covered in African sumac leaves, not to mention little clusters of berries. Everything was damp and unsittable. Garden tools were propped up against trees. Here and there, buckets, basins, and refrigerator crispers held compost and decomposing leaves, ready to become mulch.
The friend of the friend looked worried now, even distressed, and remained silent. I imagined she was sickened by the disorder and deviation she was seeing in front of her. What positive remark could she possibly make about this place? There was no point in putting her through any more misery, so I ushered us quickly back to the others, in the slightly more presentable front patio.
What I got out of the incident was a lasting sense of gratefulness. I felt thankful I wasn’t rich—and had never wanted to be. That I felt no pit of need inside, no compulsion toward big, toward stand-out stuff, toward the extreme cleanliness only achieved by paid staff.
There is more to consumer choice than being influenced by ads, it turns out. A favorite sociologist and writer, Juliet Schor, explained it in a recent interview.
I still have a not-so-recent interview with her, a 1993 (!) newspaper clipping from my “Interesting Articles” file folder. Her research was then, as now, concerned with employment, consumerism, and how they affect each other. The article I clipped was about how the long hours and hard work Americans had committed to were on the increase. The extra pay from the new “work till you drop” society enabled a “shop till you drop” consumerism, Schor said.
In the more recent interview, Schor speaks again about that relationship: about income-driven consumption. Advertising does play a role in shopping habits, but another key factor is reference groups—a sociology term that describes what E.O. Wilson might’ve also called “tribes,” or the crowd we run with, or the gang we identify with. We shop with them in mind. They give us our identity. We “refer” to our understanding of these groups when we think about buying stuff.
Schor finds it important that our reference groups today belong to an unequal financial world—a social hierarchy. The huge range in income that has been growing since Reagan’s presidency and has even expanded since the pandemic.
She says that buying stuff can be about “trying to keep up with [one’s] social position . . . Increases in inequality trigger what I’ve called competitive consumption, the idea that we spend because we’re comparing ourselves with our peers and what they’re spending.” She goes so far as to say our society is set up with “social esteem or value connected to what we can consume.” That money becomes “a measure of worth. And that’s really important to people.”
That’s the truth. I believe her. But isn’t it sad? That we value ourselves according to stuff we can buy and show off? We’re so much more than that, as humans.
It reminds me of something people my age notice, younger people maybe not so much: City noise. I’m not talking about the white drone of traffic. I mean extraordinary engine noise and woofers. The driver or motorcyclist that can cause deafness in one fell swoop down the street, or the “music lover” who cranks up his woofers (yes, his) until they dominate not only the neighborhood, but every other note in the piece. I don’t know how much of this behavior is about punishing bystanders—some of it is, certainly. (Noise offenders admit it.) The thrill of loudness, the need for it, does seem to be built into human nature (firecrackers, loud concerts). But my thoughts in response, when one of these noisemakers spits in my ears, are: Young guy. Insecure. Immature. Wants to enlarge himself in a pointless, ineffectual way. Does he know his performance makes some of us think of the word “loser”?
If he didn’t make me angry, I would feel sorry for him.
I have a similar response to show-off tours of expensive homes, rides in limos, or any other observational journey into someone’s assemblage of supposedly fabulous stuff. I’m impressed when I see evidence of creativity, knowledge, compassion, cleverness, humor, or important work. I’m not impressed by income, or what it can buy. It reminds me of loud noise.
Climate change raises the speed limit on storms.
–Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Meteorology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
Hurricane Ian: Our latest reminder of climate change. It used to be that no one would link any one disaster with climate change, but more and more often now, the connection is made. With this disaster I learned that climate change causes hurricanes to carry more rainfall and bring higher coastal storm surges—as well as upping their speed.
So, back to that question: Why don’t we do it?
Fixing climate change could happen on different levels, the “we” referring to players in different capacities.
Governments should do it, but they don’t. They might make promises at climate conferences, but that doesn’t mean they keep them.
Corporations could do it, using their vast profits, but they won’t.
The rich 1 percent should do it, considering they own half the world’s wealth. But for the most part, they don’t.
In fact, these large entities are probably profiting from, if not causing, our climate problems. Growing street movements like the UK’s Extinction Rebellion can affect the behavior of these powers, but effects are often hard won and small (though their reach is also hard to gauge).
Consumers, as a group, hold a tremendous amount of power, but they don’t wield it, either—even though consumer choices bear a real resemblance to votes (Post 13) and most of us think voting is a super-duty. Consumers are not, to any large extent, politically organized. They often don’t understand their strength, or how consuming fuels the abovementioned economic forces of governments, corporations, and the ultra-rich.
I’m pretty sure Reverend Billy and his Church of StopShopping are about as organized (or popular) as anticonsumerism has gotten.
Shay Solomon devotes five full pages to “The Joneses” in her book, Little House on a Small Planet. We can “choose a new Jones,” she says, by
- Comparing ourselves to ourselves instead of others.
- Reading history and anthropology, comparing ourselves to our ancestors.
- Understanding our good fortune as North Americans, materially, on the broad scale of human existence.
- Accepting the reality of inequality—the mythical status of our right to match our wealth to the Joneses.
- Being aware that “one’s social and economic status has at least as much to do with one’s parents as one’s own efforts.”
- Reminding yourself that some people “with no savings at all live in palaces built of credit cards.”
- Finding new friends . . . The Joneses we choose as our friends frame our perspective.
Thanks, Shay, for your perspective.
I went on a blind date once that I still remember, three decades later. The guy wanted to show me his two-story house, back when Tucson was almost all one story. It was what most people would call beautiful: Not a single spider or speck of dust anywhere. Expensive furniture, each piece thoughtfully placed in its context; wood floors, solid doors, every tchotchke relating perfectly to every other; not a single pile of junk mail anywhere, all books shelved, none open or bookmarked on a table. Then he drew me upstairs, to the office that had not one loose sheet of paper on any surface, and the bedrooms he could not have needed, as a single person, except for the oversized master suite, which he probably imagined me sleeping in with him. Ugh. With each room he proudly showed me, I gave more and more thought to how I might exit—to leave this oppressive precision and the man who brought it about.
Sorry, I don’t remember exactly how I got out of that depressing situation. I hope the man found a woman who could better appreciate what he had to offer. Someone in his reference group.
With rampant consumerism fueled by our reference groups and the Joneses, I thought it was time to have a look at them—and ourselves. To make sure we’re happy about the crowd we run with. To take control of material stress and envy. Stress is dangerous. Envy is painful.
But I’ll let Juliet Schor have the last word, because it’s optimistic.
“To me what’s interesting about anti-consumerist movements of the current period is that there’s a certain kind of mainstreaming going on . . . They’re growing . . . To meet climate targets, we need to consume differently, and less.
There are also issues of inequality of consumption. The Green New Deal really put [inequality and consumption] at the center— it doesn’t lead with a critique of consumerism by any means, but it’s about meeting people’s needs and equity. It has a lot of implications about how we live.”
Yes. And about happiness.
* Using the term “tribe” as E.O. Wilson does, as an informal collective noun, is culturally appropriative and can be offensive due to the violence and colonialism associated with its meaning.