Thursday, March 19, 2015

status and sustainability

John used to be a lawyer. A real high-flyer. He was a partner in Wilkins and Partners for 10 years, and acted as QC in many well-known cases. He was 48 when he realised that his jet-setting, profligate lifestyle was seriously compromising his children's future, and that all his money and stuff wasn't actually bringing him a fulfilling life. Over a period of 10 years, he quit his job, down-sized his house and belongings, got rid of his suits, sold his car, started gardening and generally remodeled his life in what he hoped was a sustainable way. He's never been happier. He is now 58 and works 2 days per week as a volunteer legal adviser for immigrants, and spends the rest of his time in the garden, volunteering at the local school, with his kids and grandkids. He usually wears old and simple clothes, has a utilitarian garden with clothes on the clothes line, chickens and lots of vegetables and trees.

Martha graduated with John, and was every bit his equal in the legal profession. In fact, they teamed up a lot in their legal work. She was a fantastic debater, to his methodical research. In their early career they were rivals, but they eventually realised that the legal world was big enough for them both. She was 47 when John was 48, and was also a partner at Wilkins and Partners. She could never understand why John would want to abandon his successful career to be poor go grubbing around in the dirt. She liked him, and was a quite tolerant person, but their wildly divergent lifestyles meant that they steadily lost contact as he reshaped his life. Martha continued to work hard at law, and by 58 had a string of famous legal victories, including pharmaceutical, GMOs, IT and the oil industry. She was the go-to person at Wilkins and Partners for any case involving technical content. She was rich. She and her husband drove matching BMWs and lived in a palatial house at Beverly Hills.

Generally, people who meet John like him. He is easy going and calm. People identify with his old clothes and cheap lifestyle. When people meet Martha, they generally get sidelined. She can be aloof and arrogant. In her power clothes and fancy car, people don't feel they have much in common with her. But, they respect her.

My question is: which of these people garner greater respect in our society? Who is listened to? Who influences politics? Who influences voters?

I believe the answer is: the person most successful and can demonstrate it using standard measures of success -- status

All over the world, people are slowly realising that our society cannot continue in its current trajectory -- that an attempt to do so will result in disaster. These are people from all walks of life: dentists, barbers, builders, shop assistants, lawyers, scientists, street sweepers, mechanics. Some of these people are prepared to reshape their lives so that they cause less damage to the ecological systems that support us (without which, our civilisation would not exist). In so doing, those people lose many of the status symbols (eg. cars, clothing, toys, houses, travel) they previously had, and hence have a corresponding loss of status. Loss of status means that their voice is heard less in general society.

Hence, there is a status imbalance between those who "pull-back" from the status quo that is undermining our civilisation, and those who perpetuate it.

This means that people who argue for continuing the status quo have a relatively louder voice than those arguing for change. I believe this is an actual and serious impediment for societal change, and relates to such things as our innate primate hierarchical social structure, tribalism and other such deep aspects of humanity.

This is an exploratory article, and I don't have answers here. I hope to provoke a discussion on this subject.


  1. Yo, Angus; Status is a thorny subject. But, one I think about from time to time. And have read a lot about. When I see pictures of the horrible devastation wrought by our tornados out in the midwest (US). I wonder why more of these people don't live underground. I think some of it has to do with status and "keeping up with the Joneses." If you have an underground house, how will anyone know if it's a $150,000 house, or a $150 million dollar house?

    As for myself, I've always taken a lot of flack for "marching to a different drummer." That I'm pretty uninterested in, say, flashy cars. I pretty much lost a "friend" one time because I didn't express enough enthusiasm for whatever flashy car he had bought. And wasn't in the least bit interested in "taking it for a spin."

    I was in the antiques and collectibles biz, for awhile. I like old stuff. Sometimes, I lust after things that are well out of my monetary reach. Say, a nice Tiffany lamp. On the other hand, the one time I had a piece of glass that was worth over $1,000 (inherited) I was so leery of the thing that it spent most of it's life with me wrapped up in bubble wrap, in a drawer. I breathed a sigh of relief when I sold it.

    I still pick up the odd piece that I really like, that I can get at a bargain. But, it's been fairly recently that I came to the realization that no one I know likes my "stuff" as much as I like my stuff. Or, gets as excited by it. Given my kind of hermit life, not many people get the opportunity to see the stuff. Or, I have little opportunity to show it off :-). So, I've come to realize that the stuff I have is for me and me alone as is the pleasure I get out of it. I must admit that when I buy stuff now, it's with an eye to what the people I'm leaving stuff to can get out of it.

    Another thing I think about (in hindsight) is the types of professions I was interested in, in the past. Say, archaeology or the stratospheric reaches of the book or antique trade. I think a lot of it depends on your family background, the schools you went to (expensive) and the connections you make. It doesn't hurt to be a third generation antique dealer or book dealer :-). Anyway. Maybe there's something in here to kick off a conversation about status. Lew

    PS: I really like your kitchen. For years I squirreled away old kitchen stuff for the blue kitchen I was going to have, someday. Nifty old utensils, etc. Anything that said "kitchen" and "blue." Well, when I moved into this rental, it had a blue kitchen! So, now I have all my funky old stuff out where I can see and use it.

  2. Angus, I followed you here from The Archdruid Report because I was interested in your ideas about status. I am a Gen Xer (43), and I think our generation might be at the pointy end of obsessing over toys. I don't see that happening with my children's generation. My 21yo son and his cronies are all about staying connected with each other on the latest technology, but apart from that, they don't seem to care about things as much as experiences. And all of them think second hand retro is much more cool than new, and do most of their shopping on Gumtree.

    I wait with interest to see how their adult lives pan out - obviously the baby boomers grew out of their hippy beginnings into a possession-status-obsessed generation, but I have hope that this next generation can see clearly that they will have to start clearing up this mess we have left for them..

    In my own life, I am the partner who has chosen to downshift, while my ex-husband has continued on his meteoric rise in executive-land. His is not a life-path that any of my children want to follow.

    And my philosophy is this: taking ourselves completely out of the system that we see to be harmful, downshifting like John does in your story, we become a rare shining beacon - a person living with integrity. It doesn't matter how many people notice, care, or follow us, it means that we can live with ourselves, and provide an honest example for our children.

    In your story Martha is the person people respect - but if they start to find their lives empty and meaningless, and want to find a different path, they are not going to go to Martha for advice on how to do that. But look, luckily their old friend John seems content and happy in his simple life. They might pop in and have a cup of tea with him..

  3. Hi Lewis,
    Totally agree. Worrying about the Joneses makes for stupid decisions! I feel similarly to you, though for now I'm hoping to keep hold of a house in the suburbs. Well done for keeping it together while urban camping though -- that is a skill set I don't have. I've done a few cycle/camping tours where I've pitched tent on the side of rivers in small towns, and have had a few nervous evenings wondering if some bored youth might come and have some fun..

    Cheers, Angus

  4. Hi Jo,

    I hear you, and think your comment captures something I'd missed. Soceity is not monolithic, and different people react differently to the same status symbols.

    I've also seen JMG's comment to the effect that "people who respect the guy in the suit and the fancy car are those who (a) want to be like him and (b) think they have, or might have had, a chance to be like him. Those who are convinced they don't have, and never had, a chance at the suit and the fancy car tend to react to it, not with respect, but with hostility" which I think has merit and ties into his idea that society is being eaten from the bottom up.

    To refine things a bit -- maybe the "problem" is that by "dropping out" one removes oneself from the tribe of decision-makers, and it's their respect that's lost.

    To be clear, it's not the respect (or lack of it) that I care about, but the ability to influence thinking and (more importantly) public policy. It would be better if former-elite-now-drop-outs could continue to influence the elite into mending their ways, instead of waiting for the downtrodden to rise up as JMG suggests.

    Cheers, Angus

  5. Sorry Lewis,
    Got my wires crossed replying to your post (I did actually read it!)

    It is funny when friends show you stuff like that. I've had similar experiences ;-) Your comment about underground houses is spot-on. I like old stuff too, and it's amazing what great stuff is lying around free/cheap. For me, I love old bicycles :-)

    Cheers, Angus

  6. Angus, I am enjoying your blog. Your lifestyle looks quite similar to mine, although I am still working up to chickens! Also I am a former resident of beautiful Adelaide, although we escaped further south for more sensible summer weather!

    Have you seen David Holmgren's essay Crash on Demand? His thesis is that 10% of the population living a lifestyle of LESS (to quote JMG) will be enough to trigger a massive economic crash.. I actually have not waded through it all, and am not sure I am fully convinced BUT it is part of a growing idea I have that so few people are involved in being active citizens that those few passionate people who are can really make significant change.. one way or another..

  7. Yo, Angus; When I read the comments over on ADR, about the rich, fat mine owner, what came to mind was envy. Something that I fall into from time to time :-). But I guard against it as best I can.

    Actually, I did quit a bit of "urban camping." I'll try to describe this in brief. When I had the bookstore (which morphed out of a failed antique store) it was right on the main drag of our town. An old building that had been a theatre. About 1938 they closed the theatre and shoved in two shop fronts. One shop front had the right side and cellar. My side had everything in back and up above. Soooo... you'd step into my back room and the ceiling was about 80 feet high. Well, due to circumstances I moved into the back of the store. People imagined I had an "apartment" over the store. No such luck :-).

    There was a good sized old break room that I used for my bed / sitter. I plumbed in a shower and utility sink. Installed the workings for a washer. I had a very small refrigerator, a hot plate and a microwave. Temporary things have a way of becoming permanent. I "camped out" there for probably close to 15 years.

    Of course, the whole thing was highly illegal. I just kept a low profile and came and went through the back after business hours. Lew

  8. Hi Jo,

    Yes it can get pretty hot here -- bit envious of Tassie. Still not sure how we're going to manage water in summertime. Went to a wicking bed workshop today, and am hopeful...

    I had a look at your blog, and it looks good too -- glad to hear you got something useful from mine! Like your focus on preserves, etc which I'm less knowledgable about.

    I've seen DH's essay -- I'm not convinced that an economic crash would be a good thing at all. That way lies social and political instability... But I do think consuming less is a Good Thing ;-)

    Cheers, Angus

  9. Hi Lew,

    Yeah, I don't think the status thing is simple at all and I don't pretend to understand it...

    I love a bit of plumbing hackery -- nice one! I've noticed the way temporary things can become permanent and then become invisible. As a kid, we moved into an old double-brick house that had such bad cracking I could see light through a double brick wall. I could put my entire hand into the crack. Dad stuck some flattened cardboard boxes to the wall and painted over it, and in a weel I'd forgotten about it ;-)

    80' high ceiling -- that'd be chilly in winder, I'd imagine!

    Cheers, Angus

  10. Yo, Angus; Oh, the winter wasn't too bad, heat wise. Looking back :-). I had a space heater in the bathroom. A wall heater in the bed /sitter with a space heater back up for when it got REALLY cold. The store had it's own gas heating system. The building was an old brick pile (built around 1913). There was a lot of solar gain in the summer that radiated back well into the fall.

    But, I guess the point of all this rambling is that although I was happy enough, other people were ... uncomfortable with the way I lived. Obviously, I didn't do much entertaining :-). I think when you choose a different way to live, some people see it as some kind of an indictment against the way they choose to live their lives.

    I also opted out of the whole domestic choice. Wasn't interested in marriage and for some unknown reason to me, never even had an inkling toward having kids. When I was younger, I had to do some pretty lively stepping to avoid entanglements. Now, not so much, anymore. Whew! Dodged that bullet :-).

    But what's interesting is when I'm in groups of men (mostly partnered) I'm pretty much the "undomesticated male." No "honey do" list for me. :-). Oh, I take a bit of good natured ribbing, but underneath it all there seems to be a wee bit of envy. Lew


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.