the limits of fashion (part 2)

This is the follow-up to “The Limits of Fashion (Part 1)”, where I argued that “minimalism” needs to be guided by a conception of a life worth aiming at.  Since a good human life includes participation in social and cultural goods, a proper minimalist life shouldn’t require self-exile.  Nonetheless, we ought to do what we can to bring the culture in line, such that participating in it doesn’t require extravagant consumption and waste.  This post is a first attempt to think about strategies for changing culture.

5. How do we change the culture? This is the vital question that Greer addresses in this post, and which is also at issue in a much-linked post on poets and quants at the Dark Mountain Project. Tough, tough question.  Since I’m not sure what to say straightaway, I want to cover some previously trodden ground, and make explicit some of the ideas we’re relying on, and then maybe (in section 6) offer some constructive thoughts.

5.1 In the first place, we need to be sure that there is some possible culture which isn’t fatally rapacious. Some people have voiced the idea that it’s just bald human nature to consume as much as possible, and if this were true, we’d be assured our demise. By way of counterexample, Greer points to ancient Egypt and pre-Perry Japan; Paul at the DMP points to the Kalahari Bushmen. Of course, these examples can’t be unproblematically applied to our own culture now; for example, as GHung points out:

To use this comparison [Egypt and Japan] to offer hope is a stretch, IMO. Both were examples of homogeneous societies, with far less mass, inertia and velocity. They also were the ‘beneficiaries’ of totalitarian rule for the most part. Literacy and truth were reserved for the ruling and priestly classes; far fewer stories competed for the minds of the mob, and the stories had time to play out; evolved organically so to speak.

And surely there are other disanalogies to be found. But these examples show that it’s at least not necessary for cultures to be unsustainable. That’s an important lemma in our reasoning, even if there is still reason to be pessimistic about our particular culture’s ability to right itself.

5.2 It seems to be settled, at least among readers of The Archdruid Report, that change via legislation and policy is hopeless. For example, Sixbears said “The change won’t come from the top,” and JMG approves. I share the pessimism. If this is right, it means that some avenues for action—namely the ones we are often encouraged to pursue, such as calling our elected representatives—aren’t worth pursuing.

5.3 Commercial advertising is often cited as a huge, if not overwhelming, influence on our culture. As Cathy McGuire says:

Aside from nationalizing all ad agencies, I can’t imagine what could be used to fight the insidious 24/7 brainwash that goes on in the US. I’m encouraged when I see websites of young people who are into recycling and reusing as fashion, and are learning the old handicrafts and are enthused about them – that’s super! But L.E.S.S. will not become a fad unless companies can make a profit on it.

I’m not totally sure this is true, but the opportunity to make a buck would surely catalyze a trend. The flip side of this is the risk that corporate interest would simply co-opt the underlying motivations, as has happened with “green consumerism”: save the planet by buying more manufactured goods! (The problem here is independent of greenwashing; even if no products were greenwashed, green consumerism would still be a dead end.)

So advertising presents a problem no matter what: either L.E.S.S. is not taken up by corporate interests, in which case advertising continues to encourage consumption, or L.E.S.S. is taken up by corporate interests, in which case advertising threatens to defang the whole idea. (And I don’t think it’s impossible, paradoxical as it sounds, for advertisers to co-opt L.E.S.S. to promote consumption. They might, e.g., use it to sell “simplifying” devices like organizers or iPhones, which are several gadgets in one. By analogy, witness the way that mass-market products—each one identical to the next—are sold as a way to enhance one’s individuality.)

5.4 Culture is a lot of things; here are two aspects that have come up in discussion on Greer’s post. (Here is where I start to step out of my element!) On the one hand, there are elements of authority and belief, as Don Mason points out:

… if something is going to seem cool to them, then the people saying that it’s cool must first be respected as being credible – and one of the things that credibility is based on is being right – not always being right (nobody is), but being substantially right about the most critical issues.

But on the other hand, there are elements of perception, as Freyja illustrates:

Going into town is now culture shock for me. I was overwhelmed by all the chemical smells of clothing, body products, lawn chemicals, and furniture. I stood at the checkout line and read magazines in the racks. They all had headlines that included violent language about senseless and shallow subjects. “DIVORCE WAR!” they screamed at me. “EXPLOSIVE NEW EVIDENCE OF (insert celebrity) CHEATING!”

Any given intervention into the culture might try to address one or both of these elements. We might, for example, ask “how can we get people to believe group X is credible?” or “how can we get people to perceive the grocery store as Freyja perceives it?”

6. So: cultural change is possible, but not via established channels of power, and only by competing with advertising (which is powerful), and can target people’s beliefs or perceptions, or both. What kinds of strategy do we have?

6.1 Greer has given us the L.E.S.S. slogan, and offered it (at least in part) in order that it might catch on somehow—as a fad, a fashion, a meme of some kind. This is an important step—a fad can’t catch on if it doesn’t have a name—but it’s also rather passive as strategies go. There is no suggested mechanism by which its cultural uptake might happen.

6.2 Paul at the Dark Mountain Project suggests:

Too many green quants, then, and not enough green poets? I think so. Or rather, I think that the poets have been cowed into silence by the dominance and urgency of the quants’ narrative. How to reassert the importance of stories, then, is perhaps a key question now. Green poets might perhaps start by observing that worlds are not ‘saved’ by the same stories that are killing them. They might want to observe that saving worlds is an impossible business in the first place, and that attempting to do so is likely to lead to some very dark places. Or they might try and explore what it is about how we see ourselves which reduces us to this, time and time again – arguing about machines rather than wondering what those machines give us and what they take away.

This is a bit more active than, but compatible with, the ‘fashion’ strategy. Paul suggests that compelling stories might move us in ways the quants can’t; a well-told story involving L.E.S.S. could be its epidemiological vector. (Indeed, I take Greer to be crafting such a story in his books and blog posts.) Paul also proposes that a story might move or widen the Overton window of “green” discourse. These effects would be welcome, but the strategy itself is daunting—crafting a compelling story is hard, and especially for those of us who aren’t poets, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

6.3 Can we go about changing people’s perception of the social environment directly, so that e.g. the supermarket looks as repulsive to everyone as it does to Freyja? One group that has tried to do this is the culture jammers. I have no idea how effective that set of techniques is.  Although “guerilla artists” like Banksy now enjoy a reasonably high profile, I’m skeptical that such approaches do much more than entertain the disaffected. And there is always the risk of co-optation—witness greenwashing, or Adbusters selling their own “anti-corporate” brand of shoes.

6.4 A second way to change perceptions might be to build information into the environment, or modify existing technologies, such that the right information becomes salient. What if, for example, packaging could be coded so that people could literally see the energy costs embedded in a particular product? This could engender a perception of the world as composed of energy flows. (An idea in the same genus might be the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable fish guide—it associates various costs of catching each fish with a red, green, or yellow label.) Barath and I are discussing some projects along these lines. While there are some weaknesses to this approach—e.g. limited area of effect, difficulties with scaling, and so on—we think it’s promising.

6.5 To take up Don Mason’s thread: what about credibility? Paul at the Dark Mountain Project is right that representatives of science and business tend to own credibility in our culture, and that green activism tends to appeal to those groups. But this isn’t unique to greens; when even the religious fundamentalists attempt to win cultural favor by presenting “scientific” evidence for Young Earth Creationism and other such howlers, you know that Science has got the lion’s share of credibility. This naturally suggests that we get Science on our side. In a way, it already is (more on this in a bit), but my guess is that it’s really a minority of scientists who genuinely embrace decivilization, much less plan for post-industrial decline. Perhaps getting more such authorities on board will help the rest of the culture follow.

6.6 Of course, there is the difficulty that even though scientific research points to peak oil, global warming, etc., the culture at large has not been moved. Such recalcitrance in the face of scientific evidence suggests that maybe Science doesn’t have enough credibility, and if so, we might try to change that. How, I don’t know, but each of the aforementioned strategies might apply. And there are other, slower strategies, such as improving public science education.

6.7 Julie Smith quotes William Henry Channing:

To live content with small means … to seek elegance rather than luxury …

First this reminded me of Epicurus, but second it reminded me of engineers, mathematicians, and logicians. These people prize elegant solutions, right? If you know any engineers, etc., it might be worth talking to them. Engineers in particular tend to have tools and funding at their disposal, and reminding them of the Appropriate Technology movement might lead to a renaissance (or at least renewed interest and research).

Things to pursue:

the theory-ladenness of observation

top-down effects on perception

Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture

Donella Meadows, “Places to Intervene in a System”

Epicurus and Epicureanism

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Responses to “the limits of fashion (part 2)”

  1. Honestly, I think a great part of the lack of social movement regarding these predicaments has to be laid at the feet of scientists themselves. When conducting research that supported a certain corporate point of view became more important than conducting research that was relatively unbiased, they shot themselves in the foot regarding public belief. This is in fact why creationists use ‘science’ to prove their point of view – because scientists are so easily bought. Well, that and the fact that true critical thinking skills haven’t been taught in public schools for a very long time. This second is also I believe due to corporate influence – people who can’t think things through critically can’t question the memes.

  2. Hi Susan -

    Thanks for the comment. There’s certainly something amiss in the relationship between scientists and the larger public, and the fact that science (or the imprimatur of it) can be bought is a big part of the problem. And this takes a variety of forms: the creationist archaeological “discoveries” of Noah’s Ark, pharmaceutical companies writing their own studies of drugs, political think tanks producing research that supports their views alone, “expert” witnesses in legal trials available for prosecution and defense alike.

    But I’m not sure how much of this can really be laid at the feet of scientists themselves. I get the impression that e.g. the creationist scientists, as well as their counterparts in Intelligent Design, really do believe in what they’re doing, and aren’t just in it for the money. And a good chunk of the global warming public-relations disaster isn’t due to scientists being in the pocket of Big Oil (or what have you), but rather a concerted effort by those corporate interests to make it look like there’s disagreement where there isn’t any. Neither of these seem like cases of bribery to me. (Still, that doesn’t excuse the scientists who sign their names to corporate-authored pharmaceutical studies, or other such corruption.)

    Re: public education. I agree 100%, and this is something I think about a lot in my capacity as an educator. Over the course of my career teaching college students (7 years or so), I’ve come to think that teaching critical thinking is my number-one job, no matter what the university catalog happens to say in the course description. It helps that I teach philosophy and writing comp—two subjects where critical thinking is the name of the game. But when I first started teaching, I seriously overestimated my students’ abilities to read a text critically. I don’t know enough about US secondary education to say what the causes of this problem are, and I hope to learn more, but one thing I’m curious about is whether critical thinking was ever taught at all. John Dewey and other educational progressives of the early 20th century were reacting specifically against a US educational system they saw as too focused on rote learning and not enough on inquiry or intellectual engagement. More anecdotally, in my own public high school experience (1994–99), any critical thinking skills I picked up were incidental to the curriculum, except perhaps with one or two exceptional teachers who approached science education historically. Anyway, this is weak evidence, but it might be that we’ve never really had critical thinking taught in US public schools.