Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Sound of Success

Last weekend I tried to relax in the hammock in my front yard and enjoy the quiet of my mountain cove, but I had a difficult time screening out the noise of my neighbor’s lawnmower. This is no typical lawn. My neighbor’s house is perched high up on the mountain with 200 yards of lawn sloping to the road below. In addition, the owner seems to think that it is shameful if the grass gets any higher than an inch, so this mass of grass is shorn almost weekly in the summer. He spends hours on his rider-mower, infesting my otherwise peaceful suburban neighborhood with the droning din of a motor.

As I lay in the hammock, straining to relax, I realized that the sound of mowing has become even more irritating to me because it is a prime example of our unsustainable lifestyle. We cut down trees, plant vast monocultures of grass, prop up the artificiality with chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and then spend enormous sums of time and energy mowing…for what? For status. Lawns are an emblem of wealth. They show abundance. They show that we can afford to waste land, time, and resources. The history of lawns begins in European great estates, and Americans adopted the look as we got rich in the 1950’s.

It’s easy to condemn American culture for its equation of wealth and wasteful consumption, but it doesn’t take much investigation to realize that this is nothing unique to our country. Human societies across the globe and through time have worked this same equation—an obvious example is the Egyptian pyramids, constructed by untold thousands of laborers at unimaginable cost at no benefit to the society as a whole, created only to glorify the pharaohs. Other examples that come to mind are the long fingernails cultivated by the ancient Chinese aristocracy, which proved that they did no manual labor; and Hawaiian chiefs’ feather cloaks, which required tens of thousands of feathers and many years of other people’s labor. The equation of success with excessive consumption and leisure appears to be universal among humans.

This level of excess can’t be found among wild animals. The effort to survive is always too pressing. No wild animal has achieved a level of success over the survival imperative comparable to that of humans. Elephants, great apes, lions, sharks, dolphins, and whales may be at the top of their food chain, they may have time for leisure and play, they may not need to worry about predators, but they still work every day to eat.

It’s understandable that after the invention of agriculture, when survival became more assured through surplus food production, we would luxuriate in that abundance. This is nothing unique to humans: domestic animals become lazy and fat when given the opportunity.

As centuries passed and wealth accumulated the indicator of success became the manifestation of excess, the overconsumption of everything. Success means you own more land than you need, so waste it with lawns. It means you own more food than you need, so become fat and throw the extra away. It means you own more house than you can maintain, so hire a staff to keep it clean. It means you own more clothes than you can ever wear, so give them away so you can buy more. It means you have more vehicles to carry you in private luxury than you can use at any one time: cars, motorcycles, boats, planes. It means you have electronic gadgets to help pass the time you no longer need to fill with the effort to survive.

This equation, success equals profligacy, is leading humanity inexorably to our demise. The pursuit of excess by seven billion humans (and counting) is making the planet uninhabitable by our species.

For our survival we need to change the equation of success. But this appears to be a deeply rooted association, even an instinctual drive; are instincts impossible to change?

Humans have learned to deny the most primal animal instinct of all: self-replication. Many of us, including myself, have chosen not to have children because of our concerns about the environmental costs of human overpopulation. Many more have chosen to limit their families to one or two children.

If we can overcome such an incredibly powerful instinct as procreation, I am confident that we are capable of changing our attitude toward success. Andrew Carnegie, a fabulously wealthy industrialist of the late 1800s, gave most of his fortune away before he died. In an essay published in 1889, “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that great fortunes should be used for the good of society as a whole, not bequeathed to the rich man’s children and wasted in dissolute living (see Paris Hilton). He concludes with this aphorism: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie gave away over 350 million dollars and established 2,500 public libraries.

Many of our modern billionaires have followed this advice, setting up foundations to use their wealth for the good of the planet. Now this “gospel” needs to spread through the population at large so that we turn our culture from one that worships the lifestyles of the rich and famous to one that defines success as the opportunity to learn and grow, to more freely express our selves, to serve others, and to help create a better world.

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