The Anthropology of Success

Until we change the direction of our plug-and-play, no-effort-required lifestyle, we’ll continue to be an endangered as well as dangerous civilization.

Let’s face it, we Americans are in the habit of expecting easy solutions. Just give us lists of products we can buy and small decisions we can make that enable us to feel less guilty and less responsible. Just give us warm and fuzzy economic indicators like “home sales are up,” or “consumer confidence is up.” We keep hoping, naively, that it will be simple and automatic to “save the planet;” that if we’re just more dutiful recyclers and car tire inflators, our frenzied yet familiar routines can continue – no real change necessary. If we screw in a few more compact fluorescent or LED bulbs, maybe we can avoid the need to rethink our civilization’s combative relationship with nature?  Not exactly. Until we change the direction of our plug-and-play, no-effort-required lifestyle, we’ll continue to be an endangered as well as dangerous civilization. We’ll continue to generate game-ending carbon dioxide as we convert ecosystems to must-have, easily broken gadgets and nutrition-free, processed food.

The American Dream?

The perceptual shift we are making is that who we are precedes what we do and why we do it. Our most important mission is to get beyond a “simple” mentality and take part in creating a more mature culture. We need universal endorsement of a more sensible, sustainable value system that doesn’t reward corporate or governmental exploitation but does re-value living systems. We need enlightened policies that take us in a more meaningful direction. Here’s the good news: the most effective way to save our civilization is also quite simple if most people do it: we just need to start talking about different things. We’re far more than consumers; we’re voters, teachers, employees, church-goers, discussion group members, menu planners, city planners, product designers, investors, union members, members of food coops, farmers market attendees, recyclers, politicians, and writers. Most importantly, we are people who talk, email, twitter, text, and otherwise communicate with other people, constantly building opinion and culture the way humans have always done. Each one of these many roles can be guided by the new-paradigm ethic that is now coming into focus – just in time!

We have an obsolete worldview.

Every civilization has a collective identity, and ours is now obsolete, agreed upon when conditions were radically different. Embedded in our old identity are self-destructive assumptions such as, All growth is good; The environment is inside the economy; and People are only worth what they are paid. We need to reach new social agreements, quickly. For example, houses large enough to get lost in and sky-high salaries for playing sports or managing companies are no longer useful symbols of success. This is not to say that a person’s life accomplishments don’t have value, just that we need to agree on new ways to express and reward those accomplishments. We want the respect of our peers but let’s earn it by being authentic, service-oriented, and fair. From here on, status symbols should express who we are and what we do with our time and energy, rather than just what we earn and own. If we simply change the meaning of this one word – “success” – we can steer the civilization in a completely different direction. Bloated stock portfolios and yachts the size of battleships won’t win our respect in the new era, but reliability and honesty will. In the book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner challenges the familiar dog-eat-dog interpretation of natural selection, arguing that humans are successful as a species because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. His own interpretation of evolution? “Survival of the kindest.”

The Anthropology of  Success

According to one New York Times article, after the financial meltdown of 2008 even some wealthy homeowners cut back to two meals a day rather than trade in their Lexus or Jaguar. This secretive, belt-tightening measure helps them save face because it’s the least visible to their neighbors and friends. On other, middle-class driveways, more than a few SUV owners who can’t afford to fill their tanks have been convicted of torching the vehicles to collect the insurance. Meanwhile, in low-income households, as much as forty percent of the household budget goes to purchase, operate and maintain vehicles.

Sunday afternoon in the suburbs

What do we want our vehicles and other possessions to express? We are a story telling, lesson-learning species whose stunning success is largely the result of highly evolved social skills. Our ever-expanding brains enable the interpretation of complex facial expressions, speech and language, a strong sense of fairness and social organization, and the complex social relationships that make cooperation, group decisions, and advantageous mate selection possible.

The overall mission, hard-wired in our genes, is to survive long enough to have offspring, protect the territory they will live in, and perpetuate the social structure of the people who will take care of them. This strategy is starkly pragmatic: we need to take care of each other and act cooperatively or we won’t make it. Therefore, we’ve always valued trust, resourcefulness, authenticity, and the integrity of our leaders. Security, safety, and social connections are as valuable now as they were 60,000 years ago, when our genetic ancestors left Africa and began to explore and settle the rest of the planet.

One of the primary mechanisms for maintaining social cohesion is status – the relative place of an individual within the group and that individual’s ability to obtain and retain respect. Individual status helps organize the group and make it more functional, however status as a social mechanism developed in small, relatively stable, face-to-face groups, in which people knew each other over the course of a lifetime. Now our social world is shuffled, fragmented, in constant flux. The evolution of our brains and instincts hasn’t kept pace with sweeping changes in our way of life over the last five hundred generations.  Author Jim Rubens characterizes our current lifestyle: “unceasingly fluid relationships, constant challenges to our status within new groups, the geographic dispersion of extended family, the message that only we are responsible for our life’s outcome, the barrage of status comparisons we see in mass media, and the incessant modeling of unattainable, stratospherically high goals.” All these conditions pit the individual against the group, resulting in an epidemic of depression because of what Rubens terms “social defeat.”

Yet, to make collective, world-changing decisions, we need social coherence, organized by networks of trust and respect. In other times, status has been awarded to hunters, fighters, storytellers, healers, elders, and priests – not just the person with the most tools, furs, or cars. Sociologists have proven that status is critical to our health, because lower social status correlates with higher stress levels, mortality rates, low birth weight, obesity, heart disease, lung disease, incidence of smoking, asthma, cancer, diabetes, number of sick days taken on the job, accident rates, suicide, exposure to physical violence, and compromised mental health. No wonder we are status seekers! We need recognition and respect to be healthy. However, this recognition doesn’t have to center on material symbols. A cultural shift to other ways of earning and rewarding respect is a central theme in creating a sustainable future.

It’s clear that in the U.S., possessions and consumption have become a shortcut in the communication of status, and it’s also clear that in our headlong pursuit of goods and services, we’re making an unprecedented mess. Why not just change the way our civilization achieves and confers status? To meet an urgent need – to reduce the volume of consumption and accompanying destruction – why not confer social rewards in place of material rewards?

Instead of honoring bank CEOs who fluff their own pillows with fairy-tale bonuses and take catastrophic risks with our money, why not respect and reward people of service, people who have gained our trust, people intent on making the world safer and more sane?  Why not agree – via cultural mechanisms like art and innovative policy-making – to think about personal worth in a different way? Really, what must change are the symbols of success. It’s not large, expensive, hard-to-maintain houses we truly want but large lives that contain enough discretionary time and generosity to share with those we love and respect.  In an era less obsessed with status through consumption, it’s not exotic vacations we’ll cherish but rather a contentedness that makes life an adventure no matter where we are. In the near future, there will be less energy-intensive travel and more focus on creating great communities where we want to be, rather than flee. Instead of accumulating just monetary wealth, we will accumulate calmness and wellness as our lifestyle becomes less confusing, more equitable, and more affordable.

Baboons and Spittoons: Evidence That We Are Changing

Survival of the kindest

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky documents social alchemy in his work with baboons – a species typically identified with aggressive, male-dominated behavior. The Stanford University scientist has studied Kenyan baboons for years, observing that alpha males have their pick of females while bullying subordinate males into a state of constant stress. But in one troop the culture began to shift when a tourist lodge opened nearby and began to dump half-eaten scraps and leftovers near the baboons. The alpha males insisted on first pick of these freebies but their aggression did them in. They accidentally ate contaminated meat and died of tuberculosis. The remaining males refused to perpetuate aggression as a way of life. They were lovers, not fighters, and began reciprocating when females groomed them. Even more unusual, the males groomed other males rather than bullying them. Typically, adolescent baboons leave their birthplace to join other troops, but have to fight to gain status. However, in this born-again troop, new arrivals were treated much more congenially. The baboon sisterhood began grooming them within six days, in contrast to the usual three-month, stressful waiting period. The baboons had changed their deep-seated culture, “editing out” a highly aggressive hierarchy. Being subordinate in this group was no longer more stressful than being dominant. Sapolsky concludes that the determinant of stress (in both baboon and human cultures) is not what rank an individual achieves, but whether the larger society treats all individuals with respect – even those with low status.

Many human cultures have also shifted behavior patterns, sometimes out of necessity. Cuba, for example, was forced to desperately shift its agricultural practices (essentially going organic) when Soviet Union oil and fertilizer supplies were cut off. This “Special Period” of transition, with its accent of cooperation, provides the world with a model of self-reliance that may prove useful in coming years. Costa Rica, Bhutan, the United Kingdom, and several Scandinavian countries have reinvented key aspects of their cultures within the past generation, and even the profligate U.S. culture has shown a capability for change. During World War II, for example, Americans accepted the rationing of essentials like tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar. Automobile factories stopped making and selling cars for private use and instead manufactured tanks and armored cars. Highway construction stopped, and women marched into factories by the millions to build aircraft and operate cranes. Everything was recycled, from bottles to bones, and two-thirds of the nation’s vegetables were produced in twenty million Victory Gardens. Camaraderie blossomed, both on the war front and the home front during this unique and heroic period, illustrating a key theme of this book: as material wealth declines, more intrinsic forms of wealth often increase.

Tobacco is another example of a dramatic shift in American norms. During the 18th and 19th century, the use of chewing tobacco was so common that the floors of public places – including government offices – were “slippery with tobacco juice.” Even into the early 20th century, sidewalks and floorboards of trains and buses were coated with spit, since hitting the sandbox or spittoon was considered unnecessary. Throughout the 20th century, despite billions spent by the tobacco industry, cigarettes fell from their move star allure to a place of disgrace. In addition to being banned from many restaurants and other indoor places, even the last refuges are now disappearing:  The University of Kentucky recently banned cigarettes from the entire campus – indoors as well as outdoors.

The U.S. has taken at least three direct hits on its cultural identity in the last decade.  And what have we learned?  9-11 taught Americans that not everyone in the world idolizes us. Although we initially responded to that attack by pulling together as neighbors and families, when the President told us to go shopping and then invaded the wrong country, we lost an opportunity to use that graphic moment as a fulcrum of change. The flooding of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina revealed flaws both in engineering and government response to the needs of people; and the Great Recession that began in 2007 revealed deep character flaws in the financial system, demonstrating again that our political purpose – to represent the public good – needs to be reclaimed. Yet in 2010, significant indicators of change became apparent; for the first time since World War II, the number of cars scrapped exceeded the number purchased. The overall size of the national fleet fell two percent in 2009, from a peak of a quarter-million cars. While there are still nearly five vehicles for every four licensed drivers in America, this drop is an indicator of several underlying trends, according to resource analyst Lester Brown: market saturation, ongoing urbanization, economic uncertainty, oil insecurity, rising gasoline process, frustration with traffic congestion, mounting concerns about climate change, and a declining interest in cars among young people. These are the kind of liabilities that together tilt a culture in a new direction. Rather than clinging to a worn-out worldview, we finally perceive that we can create a fresh one. Rather than deadlines and dying species, we can have lifelines and living wealth.

(This blog is two excerpts from The New Normal)