Competing for Status and for Survival

Is the urge to consume somehow "natural," hardwired through evolution? Certainly, the desire for comfort, a decent home, good

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles relationships with friends and family, doing well in the community, and perhaps broadening horizons through experience appear to be very widespread. The emerging field of evolutionary psychology suggests that human desires do indeed have their roots in ancestral origins.36

Genetic succession depends on two critical factors: surviving long enough to reach reproductive age and finding a mate. So human nature is conditioned by the need to get the material, social, and sexual resources required for these tasks. In particular, argues evolutionary psychology, people are predisposed to "position" themselves constantly in relation to the opposite sex and against their sexual competitors. As a (male) reviewer of one book on evolutionary psychology noted with some glee: "Animals and plants invented sex to fend off parasitic infection. Now look where it has got us. Men want BMWs, power and money in order to pair-bond with women who are blonde, youthful and narrow-waisted."37

To make matters worse, this fundamental element of sexual competition never abates. People adapt to any given level of satisfaction and continually expand their aspirations. This response may be conditioned by the fact that everyone else is engaged in the same unending struggle. There is an evolutionary advantage in never being satisfied. But the result is that people find themselves condemned to run faster and faster, like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's novel Through the Looking Glass, just to maintain their position in the race.38

The idea that consumerism may have something to do with sex has a clear resonance with common wisdom. Advertisers and media executives are extraordinarily creative in using sex and sexual imagery to sell their products. In a recent study of people's behavior in three completely different cultures, researchers found that consumer moti vations are almost inextricably entwined in the language and imagery of sexual desire. The fact that material things play a role in creating and maintaining desire is central here. As a respondent in the study remarked: "No one's gonna spot you across the other side of a crowded room and say: 'Wow! Nice personality!'"39

Survival itself is mediated by social status. This is most graphically illustrated by the plight of India's 170 million Dalits. Literally translated, Dalits means "the broken people," and life at the bottom of India's caste system is tough. Infant mortality and undernourishment are high; literacy, access to health care, and life expectancy are all significantly lower than the national average. Workers in the stone trade—almost exclusively Dalits— can have a life expectancy as low as 30 years, compared with a national average of 62.40 This effect is by no means confined to poorer countries. Recent evidence has shown how closely health and well-being are related to social status in industrial countries. A fascinating example of this was revealed by the U.K. government's research on life satisfaction across different "life domains." (See Figure 4-3.) Poorer people reported lower life satisfaction in almost all domains. One notable exception was higher satisfaction with their community. People employed in higher-status jobs pay a price, it seems, in terms of social relationships. Being poor may have some limited advantages in this one area. On the whole, however, inequality favors the rich. Though it might undermine social relationships, reduce overall well-being, and even corrupt values in pathological ways, the evidence suggests that being better off really does pay in terms of individual well-being.41

The problem for society is threefold. First, at the aggregate level, this intense status competition leads to less happy societies. Unequal

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles societies systematically report higher levels of "distress" than more equal ones. Second, this mechanism for achieving happiness appears to have no endpoint. There is no getting off the "hedonic treadmill" of rising income and increasing consumption. Third, the environmental and resource implications of this unproductive "race to the top" are quite simply unsustainable. Taken together with the vast inequalities— the "oceans of poverty"—that still persist across the world, these three problems represent an enormous challenge to consumerism. But they also begin to point toward the importance of social structure in determining whether or not soci ety is sustainable.42

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