It’s Earth Day, the arbitrary day in April which we have chosen represent the splendor of the biosphere. More accurately the day is a PR soapbox, which environmentalists use to harangue everyone about the truly disastrous job humankind is doing in our self-appointed role as stewards of life on the planet. I agree with the environmentalists—I guess I am an environmentalist! Humankind is using up too much of the biosphere for ignominiously stupid things. We have Problems (with a capital “P”) yet we spend most of our time worrying about Justin Bieberlake and whether the consumer goods we purchase properly reflect our status. For Earth Day, instead of writing about fracking, drought, or overfishing, I am going to write about chickens and status. Status is what social animals crave more than anything. It is the crux of our life. Yet the mad quest for status causes us to make awful decisions for ourselves and for the world.
Let’s start with chickens. Chickens are social creatures. They have a very intense “pecking order” of who gets to do what–which is literally based on pecking. When I was growing up we had a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens. The rooster was on top of the pecking order and he would eat first and peck any subordinate chicken he liked. The top hens had bright red feathers and shiny eyes. They pecked subordinate hens, who in turn were cruel to their social inferiors…and so forth. At the bottom of the heap were some sad-looking hens who got pecked by everyone else. They were the dull red color of old bricks and their feathers were falling out. The very bottom hen was a festering mess of sores. She was almost always eaten by a hawk or a raccoon (if we humans didn’t put her in the pot first).
It is an exceedingly accurate model of humankind. In each society, the glistening cocks at the apex of society have unlimited access to resources and freely mistreat anyone beneath them. People at the bottom of society are in real physical danger from their low estate and could easily die from disease, exposure, or crime. However the way we attain this hierarchy is determined by social dynamics much more complicated than those on display in the poultry yard. After middle school we can’t actually hit each other without involving constables and lawsuits, so we base our status grabbing on a more complicated set of networks and social markers.
To continue with the theme of chicken, my roommate always aggressively points out that she purchases organic free-range food–unlike certain benighted philistines who just buy the cheapest factory-farm chicken (I guess this is due to my insatiable desire to harm the planet, torture living creatures, and poison myself and everyone else with “toxins”?). I have seen a “free-range” chicken farm—and it looked like a factory farm with a dinky wired-in aviary appended. Maybe it would be better to be a chicken living there, but probably not by much—certainly not to me anyway.
My roommate is an exceedingly lovely and gentle person who earnestly doesn’t want chickens to be tortured (but still wants to eat chicken, because, let’s face it, that’s what humans like to eat). Why am I picking on her? For status of course! To push my political agendas and ideologies!
Our pursuit of most things is really a pursuit of status: resources, mates, health, political power, unfettered access to knowledge…all good things come from high-status.
In my book, the people who have the highest status are people who have lavish flower gardens and lots of medieval Chinese porcelain (perhaps this mindset explains why I am a jobless lout writing an eccentric blog). Most Americans would probably dwell on other status criteria—the most injurious automobile, the lowest trousers, or praying loudest in church. Status-markers comes in so many flavors that it is sometimes difficult to recognize how central it is to who we are.
I am worried that Earth Day has become a part of our ceaseless attempts to one-up each other. It is like my roommate’s “free-range” chicken legs: a foolish status object rather than a way we can legitimately determine how to best preserve the vast fragile web of interlocking ecosystems.
Mother Nature chose to apportion chickens’ share of resources based on how they peck each other. Evidently she chose to apportion human agendas by how we choose and display our cars, our meals, our houses, and our gardens. Our ideas are related to our social position and how we portray ourselves. Hence our endless jejune jockeying over whose stuff is better, or tastier, or more moral, or greener, or more expensive. Political consensus is attained by a synthesis of endless small-scale aesthetic and moral choices which add up to large-scale policy choices.
This bothers me because I find many high-status “green” ideas to be bad ideas. If we rely on “organic” produce which requires vastly more land, water, and energy to produce, we will use up all the world’s land without being able to feed everyone. Likewise many “sustainable” energy sources like ethanol, solar panels, and dams use more energy than they create…or cause waste or environmental degradation. People who oppose nuclear power plants (in favor of fracking I guess?), and embrace resource-devouring, erosion-causing organic farming frustrate me. But their motives are often noble and praiseworthy.
“Earth Day” seems like a button or a bumper sticker (and a sanctimonious and unfun one at that). Our true problems…and opportunities…are much greater and more difficult to grasp and popularize. But a button, a bumper sticker, a sanctimonious “holiday” are a start. So is a confused and self-contradictory essay about the politics of environmentalism. Happy Earth Day! We’ll keep working on this. There are solutions to our very-real environmental problems, but they are going to require scientific research, hard work, and sacrifice of some cherished sacred cows (or chickens) by everyone.