As you read In Praise Of Consumerism - It Appeals To The Thoreau In You you may have wondered if I hated poor Henry David Thoreau. Not at all. He inspired me at the young and impressionable age of sixteen and has powered my engines ever since. There's a good chance that he did the same for you. But brace yourself for irony. Thoreau is the perfect example of the positive aspects of consumerism.
What is consumerism? It’s the flaunting of surplus. It’s the conspicuous display of surplus time, of surplus energy, and of surplus luxuries.
And what was Thoreau doing at Walden Pond? He was flaunting a small flood of hidden luxuries. He was flaunting the surplus time that the wealth of his father’s pencil factory had given him. He was flaunting his ability to escape the web of commercial trade and the meshwork of human technologies. He was celebrating his ability to ditch the conventions other rich kids followed - the obligatory trip to Europe and a permanent plunge into the newly-quickening madness of city life.
He was bucking the fact that even in the 1840s there was a consumerist cycling of styles. As he put it, “every generation laughs at the old fashion but religiously follows the new.” And “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”. But the irony is this. It was technology, commercial trade, new clothes, and consumerism that sustained him.
More important are these two facts. First, consumerism is the way that nature expresses herself in men and women. Yes, you heard me right. Consumerism is natural. More important, consumerism evolved long, long before there were industrial machines. Consumerism evolved billions of years before there were human beings. Consumerism isn’t the creation of mankind. It’s a strategy deployed by mother nature.
That sounds crazy, right? Not at all. Bacteria and bees flicker back and forth from one fashion to another. They’re already in the headlock of the oscillation that Thoreau describes when he says: “every generation laughs at the old fashion but religiously follows the new.”
Anyone here who has seen me speak or who has read my second book, Global Brain, has heard more about bacteria than he or she ever wanted to know. But here are some basic facts of microbial life. Bacteria are our ancestors. They showed up on this planet when it was still turning from a mega-mash of asteroids to the nice round globe we know today. That’s 3.85 billion to 3.5 billion years ago.
Bacteria survive by swings in fashion - they survive by consumerism. One generation grows a stalk like the stem of a mushroom cap and roots itself to its food. That generation specializes in homesteading - in sucking all the nuutrition it can out of the territory it’s born in. The next generation rebels against the fashion of its parents, forgets about a stalk, seems to snicker at the very notion of riveting itself to the ground, and grows a biological propeller--a long, whip-like tail. Then it sets off for adventure. In groups of 10,000, it spreads from the colony’s heart, racing into the unknown to literally find its fortune, to find new territory with new food.
When these rebellious pioneers trip across a bonanza of delectables, their kids rebel against their parents’ ways. They shun travel and once again grow stalks, stubbornly rooting themselves to the new food source.
It’s all a part of a survival strategy or, more specifically, of a search-and-swallow strategy. The generation with a stalk specializes in staying at home. The generation with the propeller specializes in exploration. Explorers find new sources of food. Homesteaders mine the new food source for all it’s worth—and they do it very efficiently. By the time the old food source
runs out, the explorers have found a new one.
Does this mean the waste of a lot of material goods? You bet. Not every group of 10,000 explorers finds a treasure trove. Some die in the desert with nothing new to eat. Some die even more catastrophically, as victims of bacterial war or as victims of bacteria-eaters like the larvae of corals, rotifers, sea anemones, and jellyfish. But even the failures teach lessons to the colony. The dying bacteria send out molecular signals that say, “Beware. This is not a safe place to go. This is not a safe path to follow.”
Here’s another instance of nature’s crass consumerism. Bees, like bacteria, have their Henry David Thoreaus, their bohemians, their beatniks, their hippies, their self-indulgent time-and-energy wasters. Roughly 95% of the bees in a hive are rigid conformists. They’re what Thoreau would call, “the mass of men” who lead “lives of quiet desperation.” Except they’re not men, they’re women. And desperation, when it hits them, is part of a search-and-swallow strategy too. When day breaks and it’s time for work, most of the foragers go along with the herd and fly out to the fashionable flower patch of the moment to pick up nectar, pollen, and water.
Then there are the self-indulgent few, the non-conformists, the angry young women who refuse to go with the flow. Instead they take off on long flights of their own, going nowhere in particular, simply following their whims. A waste of time and energy. Utter selfishness. What Walden-Pondish shunning of conformity and fashion.
But the time-wasting ways of the solitary rebels pay off in the end. They pay off, of all things, for the conformists. Eventually the old flower patch runs out of pollen and nectar. That’s when quiet desperation sets in.
Just like you and me, bees need attention to keep their spirits high. Foragers get that attention on the lip of the hive, a lip that serves as a loading dock. On that dock are unloader-bees,
the bees who grab the cargo from the foragers and shuttle it into the hive. Those unloaders know the hive’s interior needs. The unloaders know when the colony is filled with pollen but needs more nectar, or has its fill of water and now needs something else. On hot days the bees working inside of the hive slap water on the wax walls of the wax hexagonal cells inside to air-condition the place. If the temperature inside the hive shoots too high, the pupae, the young still in their eggs, will die. On a hot day when a forager arrives with her side-and-leg pouches filled with water, the unloaders rush over and crowd around her, eagerly unpacking her cargo. She’s treated like a superstar.
But once the hive is cooled, a bee who shows up with water is wasting her time. The unloaders ignore her as if she didn’t exist. Think what being ignored when you arrive with what you think is a gift would do to you and me. At the very least it would depress you. It does the same damned thing to a bee.
Things get even worse if the fashionable flower patch of the moment is running out of pollen and nectar. When a worker bee sets off to follow the crowd and comes back with her cargo-pouches
nearly empty, the unloaders pass her by as if she were dirt. Attention means everything in a world of fashion. The whole reason we go with the trend is to get others to look at us admiringly. That’s true of you and me. And it’s equally true of bees.
Bees who are shunned at the loading dock stagger around as if they are stunned - or more as if they have lost their sense of purpose, their sense of meaning. That’s when the self-indulgence of the hippie explorer bees shows its worth. Crowds of discouraged forager bees wander around inside the hive looking for some way to lift their spirits, some way to entertain themselves. And they find it. Four or five of the explorer bees have accidentally bumbled into new flower patches or new water puddles.
And they are not shy about advertising their discoveries. Like street buskers or soapbox preachers, they dance their news. Four or five of them compete on the inside wall of the hive like break dancers vying for your attention at Times Square. You’ve heard about these dances - the famous figure eights that spell out direction, distance, and wind speed on the way to the flower
patch and back. It’s a very complex language for a bee with only a tiny number of brain cells.
But the discouraged foragers gather round to watch the dancers flash and flaunt. Some explorers dance more enthusiastically than others. The most outrageous enthusiasts attract the biggest crowds. If the dance is sufficiently persuasive - which means if the bee dancing the message dances longer than her competitors, if she just won’t give up - a few of the conformists will catch a bit of the dancer’s enthusiasm and go out and check her report. If they’re impressed with what they find, they come back and join the dance. If they’re not impressed, they don’t.
Eventually one bee manages to gather the biggest audience and the largest number of background dancers. That’s when the hive makes up its mind. The conformists go off in a pack to mine the flower patch the winner of the dance contest advertised. When the foragers come back home with pouches full of stuff the hive needs, the unloaders rush to them, make a fuss over them, and unload them as quickly as they can. The foraging conformists get what they need most, attention. They sharpen up as if they have a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, and a sense of meaning again.
Meanwhile the explorer bees - the bee world’s Henry David Thoreaaus - go off on their self-indulgent flights and buzz off the beaten path, selfishly pursuing their trend-bucking rambles again.
The hive survives thanks to wastes of time and energy. It survives thanks to the explorer’s useless consumption of fuel. It survives thanks to self-indulgence. It survives thanks to a hippie luxury.
Then there’s the waste of material goods it takes to make the bee system work. Remember, this isn’t just a system of bees, it’s a system of flowers, too. It’s a system of exchange and commerce. Bees pollinate flowers, and flowers pay the bees with pollen and nectar. But, like the dancing explorer bees who promoted, marketed, and advertised their finds, flowers depend on advertising too. That advertising comes in the form of flamboyant material excess. It comes in the form of flower petals and intricately shaped passageways at a flower’s heart. Flowers are
billboards erected to attract the attention of bees.
Once the pollination has been taken care of, the plants involved show just how much of a waste of raw materials their petals really were. Flowering plants are litterers. They let go of their gaudy flowers, and drop them on the soil below. Thank goodness this plant-trash is biodegradable.
The list of natural waste and luxury goes on. Grasses, tropical plants, and trees compete for sunlight by using different shapes of throwaway solar panels - leaves. Lobsters and lizards show how much energy, streength, and hormonal vigor they can flaunt - how much surplus fuel and mmuscle they can afford to waste - by going into showdowns, battles to see who can stand the tallest. The loser is attacked by his own stress hormones and either becomes a slavish follower or crawls into a hole and literally dies.
Bower birds build three-foot-high arches of straw decorated with strips of anything blue and anything that shines. Then the females walk by eyeing the finished results to see how they measure up against the arches built and ornamented by competitors in this architectural contest. The guys who’ve wasted their time and energy in the most creative way end up with the girls. The males whose throwaway shows of design, surprise, art, and exertion don’t make it end up with the least desirable females or with none at all.
Why do I say the bower birds’ massive and gorgeously decorated bowers are like Wal-Mart throwaways? Because they’re not good for anything but show. Once a male gets his female, they mate in the bower then abandon it utterly. Why? Because it has no practicality. It’s not a nest and it’s not a fit place to live. In fact, the male goes off and builds a real nest, a nice, plain practical nest. That’s where the female lays her eggs. That’s where her chicks grow up. The bower is material waste, a disposable novelty. It’s left for the forest to swallow. It’s left to simply decay.
Stags, like human beings, show off how much highly-sculpted surplus matter, throwaway matter, they can wear. They compete by displaying a waste of stuff, the upside down chandeliers of
horn sprouting from their heads. Those advertising gimmicks -antlers - make life extremely difficult in the wild, but they’re a necessary form of marketing and self-promotion. Once a year the stags show off their antlers in a sort of male beauty pageant. That contest and the tournaments that follow have cruel and vicious consequences. The tiny minority of males that win end up with harems. Though there’s a downside to this CEO success. Some males go without food to defend their brides from outsiders. Many die from their exertions shortly after the mating season. They die from a consumerist waste of energy.
Then there’s the majority of stags who lose. They end up lonely and presumably horny as all hell. Horniness for us human males feels like an Inquisitor’s fire-at-the-stake come alive inside of you. We don’t know how it feels to stags. But these male losers, these luckless deer, wander in the woods alone trying to make it through another mateless year. Many don’t succeed.
Among animals from crustaceans to human beings, males are a luxury item. Males, like explorer bees and explorer bacteria, are mere probes with which nature allows her females to test a new
variety of genes and a new menu of feeding strategies each year. Males are made to be expendable. They are made to die far far before their time. Early death is an easy way to throw out the trash that didn’t make the cut. What a waste of life! As it says in my book The Lucifer Principle, a scientific adventure that goes into the expendability of males in a lot more depth, “mother nature isn’t nice; in fact, she’s a bloody bitch.”
In other words, nature uses consumerism. Consumerism shows up in her waste of material possessions like your body, your horns, or your time and energy. Why does nature do it? Because consumerism among plants and animals is an exploratory device. It’s a probe into possible futures. But what does consumerism - and materialism - do for human beings? Pretty much the same sort of thing, but on a far, far bigger scale.
We'll get into that in our next exciting episode when consumerism brings us Xanadu, fast ships and even a place called America.