A recent study published in Ecological Economics found that consuming a lot can raise your social status. Yes, it’s true, buying more stuff and using more resources is an effective way to get approval from your peers (unless your friends are environmentalists).
I haven’t seen much discussion on these findings, which is unfortunate, because I’d argue they’re at the heart of why, despite the valiant efforts of the environmental movement, humanity hasn’t made much progress towards achieving the fabled “sustainability.”
Solar panels, bicycles, and Community Supported Agriculture are all stepping-stones on the way to a greener world, but they remain mostly symbolic as long as our species continues on its path of ever-increasing use of finite resources.
With consumption levels and population growth skyrocketing, wishful thinking alone won’t make us reverse course. Ecotopia isn’t going to manifest itself until we take an honest look at our current trajectory and figure out what’s pushing us in that direction. In my opinion, Jeremy S. Brooks’ and Charlie Wilson’s seemingly insignificant study with the boring name, “The influence of contextual cues on the perceived status of consumption-reducing behavior,” might be the glimpse in the mirror we need to finally become fully self-aware.
No matter how much someone might want to save the Earth, there’s a deeper, more powerful instinct to fit in amongst one’s own species. As little more than bands of glorified apes, human society is largely driven by status, namely one’s perceived ranking in comparison to everyone else’s. We all want to be accepted and thought of as a valuable member of society, and a person’s value is often based on his or her position in relation to that of another.
Whether we admit it or not (even to ourselves), most people want to achieve “high status,” which is just another name for being seen as “better” than most people. At the very least we want to avoid “low status,” which suggests we have less to offer society, and could result in us being ostracized or shunned.
Of course, much, if not all, status these days is pretty much arbitrary and ever-changing, having almost nothing to do with the actual value of a human being. But this impulse to rise in the social ranks is a primitive one, and like it or not, it governs many of our actions and behaviors. Because hundreds of thousands of years ago having low status didn’t just mean not having any pals to yuk it up with at the bar or going dateless on a Friday night, it meant possible exile from the tribe, which often meant becoming tiger food.
These days, social status isn’t so much a matter of life-and-death, but it’s still a pretty big deal. For instance, status has a lot to do with attracting a mate. Those perceived to be higher status for various reasons ranging from wealth to influence to physical appearance, have a much wider selection of potential mates to choose from in comparison to those of lower status. Some very high status individuals, such as movie stars and professional athletes, may have the pick of the litter, while lower status individuals might have next to no options.
Status also plays a major role in one’s career success, whether you’re applying for a position as CEO position at a Fortune 500 company, or as a fast food fry cook.
So when data shows that the key to environmental sustainability – simplifying our lifestyles to what the planet can sustain – means our social standing will drop, we can’t pretend this isn’t a huge obstacle to overcome. It’s challenge enough to resist the siren song of consumerism (“Buy it and you’ll be happy”), but the fact that people will think less of you for doing so makes it even harder.
Not only are those who do the right thing for future generations not rewarded, they’re actually punished. And while there are some people willing to shoulder that burden, most probably aren’t. It’s great if some folks decide to consume less despite the social stigma, but if it remains only a token number of us, it’s pretty meaningless in the long run.
For genuine sustainability to ever catch on in a major way, we’re going to have to buck this trend. Until shrinking one’s impact on the natural world that keeps us alive is seen as an admirable thing that enhances our social standing, there aren’t a lot of indicators that things are going to change.
What we need to figure out is how to make sustainability sexy…
Got any ideas? If so, please post them in the comments and The Shitty Activist will choose the top ten and include them in a forthcoming article, “Ten Ways to Make Sustainability Sexy.” If you make the cut, it just might raise your own social status. 😉