A cultural revolution for the planet

09 January 2024

Introduction

In the lead-up to COP28, Oxfam published a research study titled ‘Climate Equality: A Planet for the 99%’. The report provides stark evidence that the consumer habits of a small proportion of society – those with higher incomes – have vastly disproportionate carbon footprints. As the authors put it: “The richest 1 percent of the world’s population produced as much carbon pollution in 2019 as the 5 billion people making up the poorest two-thirds of humanity.”

Their proposed solution is to redistribute the wealth and power from the elite to the majority through taxation (a modern version of Robin Hood’s tale). Whilst this seems like an obvious solution to addressing the inequalities we see, it does not address the root cause of the problem.

The Oxfam report highlighted the consumptive behaviours of the super-rich as having negative environmental impacts.  If we look at this behaviour though rather than outcomes of the behaviour, we see an interesting human societal trait that doesn’t just belong to the super-rich. 

 

Shifting Status

Status is the relative social position or rank that we assign to ourselves and others. It is based on various factors, such as wealth, education, occupation, appearance, fame, etc. Status influences our self-esteem, our motivation, and our behaviour.

Society is structured to respond to status. People tend to follow, imitate, and admire those who have higher status than us. Some people also tend to compete, envy, and resent those who have similar or lower status than us. Humans have learnt to increase status by acquiring more resources, recognition, and influence.

Conspicuous consumption, where individuals consume materials not for their intrinsic value or use but to signal their social status, is seen in many societies.  This behaviour is not limited to societies elite, and for many societies consumerism is targeted at the middle-income earners looking for status.  First coined by the economist and socialist Thorstein Veblen, this want for social status leads to a cycle of consumption as individuals strive to maintain or enhance their social standing, using the acquisition and display of material goods and services as symbols of wealth, power, and prestige.  This is a human trait, not limited to the top 10% of the world’s wealth.

To change the behaviour of consumption, society needs to change how status is defined.

If we tap into how culture defines status, we can change status. We can create a new set of criteria that reflect our environmental and social values. We can reward those who act in ways that reduce their carbon footprint, promote social justice, and contribute to the common good. We can hold to account those who act in ways that increase their carbon footprint, exploit others, and harm the planet.

Will people change their environmental behaviour if they no longer get the strappings that the existing definition of status provides?

The answer is yes. That is how human genetics work. We are hard wired to adapt to our environment and to seek social approval. If we change the environment and the social norms, we will change the behaviour.

So, how do we achieve this?

 

A Cultural Revolution

Culture is the collective expression of our values, beliefs, and norms. It shapes our identity, our behaviour, and our worldview. Culture and status are interlinked, as culture determines what we aspire to, what we admire, and what we reward.

With every industrial revolution, there has been a cultural revolution. The first industrial revolution gave rise to the Romantic movement, which challenged the rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment. The second industrial revolution sparked the Modernist movement, which experimented with new forms of art, literature, and philosophy. The third industrial revolution inspired the Postmodernist movement, which questioned the grand narratives and universal truths of the previous era. 

We are in the midst of probably the greatest of all industrial and cultural revolutions, one characterised by new human-machine interaction modes, artificial intelligence, and rapid advances in connectivity.  Will this revolution be where we collectively break the status and consumption cycle? Will we see post-consumerism being the hallmark of this cultural revolution? 

It will require societal (our) norms and definitions of status to change which drives conspicuous consumptiveness, and conversely it requires the elite who have access to not derive their sense of self and identity through patterns of consumption. 

It will require society to redefine what it means to be successful, influential, and respected in the world. A world that breaks the relationship between success and achievement with a material reward that symbolises that success.

Breaking this cycle would require a shift in societal values and norms, as well as change in individual behaviours.  This would be truly revolutionary.

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