Monthly Archives: June 2007

iPhone Haiku and The Poetics of Scientific Representation

consumer crowds throng
news reports average Joes’
lines for new Apples

That’s my Apple iPhone haiku. I found another one here written by a consumer who said:

resist temptation
need corp email while mobile
i fear i am not strong

It’s interesting that consumers are writing poetry about their “temptation” by new technology. Everyone in the blogosphere and their sister is writing about the incredible lineups and excitement over the launch of the Apple iPhone. The identity projects, the life themes, the ramifications for our understanding of consumer culture are all fascinating. Why, it’s like another Phantom Menace/Star Woids thing. Another Halo 2. Another PS3….hey, wait, aren’t those the same people in line each time? But I’m not going to go there. Not today anyways.

Today, I’m going to use these blatantly poetic representations of consumer techno-desires to introduce a topic near and dear to my heart: representation in the sphere of marketing science. As marketers, we are constantly being asked to be innovative and creative. Yet marketing science uses a fairly limited set of tools to represent its findings.

As I’ve written about earlier, debates continue in the marketing world about what forms of reality should be presented as “science.” A part of this debate that is only beginning to heat up in marketing (although it has been going strong in anthropology and sociology) is the so-called “crisis” of representation. How should we represent the complexity of our “truths” to one another? Can emotional truths be conveyed scientifically, or must they necessarily be channeled into the realm of “Art”? Even the sub-field of CCT (Consumer Culture Theory) is split on this difficult question.

I want to begin with a citation from an article in JCR that I consider to be very important in this regard. The article was written by John Sherry and John Schouten (two of my favorite writers in the field) and published in 2002. I removed the citations for greater readability, but left all their other language intact.

To communicate the essence of some of our most meaningful consumer experiences, the precise, linear language of science and academia may be, in and of itself, unsuitable. Poetry redresses the “expressive inadequacy of prose” in our yearning to “represent an otherwise eluding clarity of experience”. What is called for may be what Maslow describes as “rhapsodic communication…a kind of emotional contagion in isomorphic parallel.” To clarify his meaning, he reverts to more poetic language, referring metaphorically to: “…a tuning fork (that) will set off a sympathetic piano wire across the room” . Perhaps emotional “truths” are best communicated emotionally. Perhaps we know certain things are true or valid because, like good poetry, they resonate within us and somehow expand and enrich our consciousness. The visceral impact of good poetry is undeniable.

Perhaps because of its paradoxical ability to communicate parsimoniously certain aspects of human experience, and to condense the polyvocal nature of that experience in such a manner that it threatens to explode with additional meanings upon every (re-) reading, poetry is elbowing its way out of its traditional place in narrowly read literary publications and into the realm of science. Even in such “hard-science” disciplines as medicine and mathematics education practitioners have discovered (or re-discovered) the power of poetry to deliver with economy what normal speech, scholarship, or pedagogy can do only with greater difficulty, if at all. Noting that such mainstream medical journals as Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Annals of Internal Medicine all publish original poetry, Forster describes instances where poetry by both physicians and patients “puts us in touch with the layer of feeling and meaning and sheer life that lies beneath the surface of our daily interactions.” Platt describes the case of a 70-year-old patient who, when asked by her doctor to describe her symptoms of hyperventilation, returned the following week with a poem that, according to the physician, described her experience “better than any doctor-patient interview ever could.” Similarly pragmatic, Curcio et al. invoke poetry in the teaching of mathematics. They observe that, “many poems — through rhythm, rhyme, story, and interesting word choices—evoke situations that engage children and can serve as a basis for mathematical problem solving.” This is because, as Graves (puts it, “numbers are always more than numbers,” implying that beneath a study of mathematics lie real people with real problems. Not too different, perhaps, from consumer behavior.

Imagine that we apprehend “reality”—which Nabakov believed to be one of the few words in the English language that should always be placed in quotation marks—as a layering of seeings, or tastings or touchings or hearings or smellings…or synaesthetic reverberations. If, like Oakeschott, we accept that the task of science is to accommodate disparate voices, and attend to the polyphony of science, then poetry is a viable vessel for the conveyance of research experiences. Science and poetry are kindred enterprises. For Frost, poetry is the pleasure of ulteriority. For Bourdieu, science is the revelation of that which is hidden. A common pursuit, undertaken in different keys. Perhaps former Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s belief that poetry makes “the interior life of one individual available to others” can serve as a rationale for the rapprochement of art and science in consumer research.

Poetic language as a part of science. Descriptions having the weight of abstractions. Resonance as a type of validity. What would this rapprochement look like? As a field, we’ve been experimenting tentatively with poetry. With incorporating visual research. With videography. With combinations of these methods. And some have been experimenting with alternative hybridized forms of writing. Over the next series of postings, I’m going to share some of my experimental writing in this area, and then return to discuss it and the role or resonant representations (a term Russ Belk and I used for our video-text hybrid special issues of the academic journal Consumption, Markets, and Culture) in the field of marketing and consumer research.

Burning Man Bravely Goes

Is Burning Man about to Flame Out? Has Burning Man really sold out? Far from it.

In past research I wrote about the comments I kept on hearing that hearkened back to a mythic “uncontaminated” time in the past past. In that nostalgic time, things were so much more authentic. The “true” “vision” was shared. It seems like so many things in our culture express this tension between a perfect mythic utopia and its commercial encroachment. Consumer discourse on many topics almost unerringly steers towards the idea that this or that has become “too commercial,” and is simply not the way it used to be, for example, holidays like Christmas and Easter, music or theater, pro or collegiate sports, religion itself, vacation destinations, children’s birthday parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and on and on.

I said that this vast range of topics demonstrate the much broader cultural discomfort with the commercialization of the things that matter to us, a feeling of being trapped and at the mercy of distant corporate actors who own the things that matter to us. Although communities did what they could to preserve the meaning, the sense that this really matters, consumers keep finding that sense of what is special drained away as they find more and more corporate and commercial incursions that feel disingenuous, manipulative and exploitative.

I actually wrote this originally about Star Trek’s culture (“Utopian Enterprise” Journal of Consumer Research 2001). But it holds up equally well for Burning Man.

We need to forget dichotomies and p(lural)urisms. In past work, I’ve drawn on Michel Foucault’s notion of a “heterotopia” to explain Burning Man. Foucault used the concept of heterotopia to refer to unsettling or non-ordinary social space, asserting that every culture contains places “which are something like a counter-site, a kind of effectively enacted utopia” in which the world outside of that site is “simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” As developed by my friend scholar Graham St. John, heterotopias possess an aura of mystery or danger, and always contain multiple meanings for participants. Burning Man is less a perfectly unified utopia, with consistent management of communities and markets, as it is a messy, real world, experimental heterotopia.

The debate among Burning Man participants (“burners” as they’re oft-time called) is beginning to heat up over this. You can see some of it within these recent postings on tribe.net. There are many good points, as you’d expect with an educating and thoughtful group like Burning Man participants. I really like this posting by “Ms. Dynomite” a lot. On the tribe.net discussion board, she says:

“I feel like I’m the only person not shocked and appalled by this. For one thing, this isn’t really new news. Some of that info has been available to the public for some time now, such as the involvement of large companies in this year’s green theme. Also, much of what I’m seeing here feels like a reactionary Money Bad, Fire Pretty argument (or the Business Evil, Fire Pretty argument). The reality is that the event cannot be a large as it is and function successfully without operating as a business of some kind. “Business” and “commerce” are not inherently evil, destructive concepts. There are ways to operate in a smart manner without sacrificing humanity.

Burning Man has never been anti-capitalism. It is, instead, an attempt to ameliorate some of the social deficiencies of markets. And here, with its limiting of corporate power to manipulate, but maximizing of corporation’s powers to enact and bring positive change, Burning Man is attempting that experimental social amelioration once again. It is trying to inject some much-needed emotional, creative, and social heat into the corporate soul and into consumers’ relations with it. It is questioning this relationship, as it must, alongside the questions of how to consume and live within the limits imposed by our small and increasingly overloaded planet.

As my JCR article argues, Burning Man isn’t really about a fruitless quest to find a place outside of the market after all. Because there really isn’t a social place outside of social transactions. We trade, we create, we exchange, we live: they are all intertwined in our human beingness. There is no place outside the market in absolute terms. There are only relationships being managed. That’s exactly what Burning Man is doing this year. Managing those sticky relationship. In a more daring way than it has ever been done before.

I don’t know what the reception of Burning Man’s new set of rules is going to be by its community members. The impact seems to be among the more radicalized members of the community thus far.
I don’t know how corporations are going to take to having to display their products as literal commodities, and handing them over to the “artists” of Burning Man. That’s an uneasy compromise solution.

I don’t know how Burning Man’s playful “art” theme is going to try to handle a problem as complex as environmental degradation and devastation. Or what people are going to make of it at the event and afterwards.

But I do know this: it’s going to be a very interesting week.

Burning Man’s Sold Out!

Well of course it is. Every year the event sells out of tickets. But this year there’s lot of controversy over whether the event is selling out the values that have made it so attractive as a countercultural haven and hotspot.

Every year Burning Man has a guiding “theme” that organizes the event and directs some of its art. I find the themes to be a little inconsistent, but often they give rise to some very intriguing and beautiful moments. One of my favorites was the marine theme that gave rise to giant lit up whales and pirate ships roaming the playa. They’re like a physical cogitation of an idea or an issue. They turn the place dreamlike, and the dream has a common thread. This year’s theme, The Green Man, is about the environment. And in order to truly have a social impact—the Burning Man Organization’s goal has always been explicitly experimental and utopian—they have invited in a number of companies to demonstrate their advanced, clean technology.

The Burning Man community might have mixed feelings about letting corporations and venture capitalists promote their wares inside the sacrosanct city walls after keeping them out as “the enemy” for all these years. According to the recent Business2.0 article I cited yesterday, the organization pulled the initial invitation for corporate participants off the website after only a few days, replacing it with a revised version that explicitly stated that

“no marketing whatsoever would be allowed at the event. Clean-tech companies can exhibit their technologiers, but their products can’t display a logo. No marketing materials will be allowed. Company reps can’t even demonstrate their wares in the pavilion: they have to turn them over to Burning Man, which will demonstrate the technologies in whatever artistic form it chooses” (Taylor 2007, p. 69).

As Alice might say, interestinger and interestinger. It’s apparent that Burning Man is walking a fine line, and experimenting yet again. The current statement says that this year marks a “quantum revolution” (strong words) in how Burning Man applies in the real world what happens on its remote and carefully demarcated playa.

In my initial exploration of the topic, I noted how Burning Man sought to keep some of the negative effects of the market at bay. These negative effects have been present at least since Ferdinand Tönnies theorized that communities could come in two idea forms: the caring and sharing variety, and a more transaction-oriented, distanced form of relationship.

As I talk about elsewhere, what resistant groups like Burning Man, fans, Open Source programmers, Mountain Men, and many other groups resist is not the market itself, but what Tönnies calls the Gesellschaft, the distanced, corrosive, exploitative social relations that people associate with the market. What seems to be important is not the actuality of total resistance to markets—which may be pragmatically impossible to achieve in an absolute way—but the appearance of it, its partial achievement.

That’s why this new development is so interesting. Burning Man is, pardon the pun, playing with fire. It is seeking to control the corporate relationship. And its cultural impact and import is so strong that is dictating the terms. And getting away with it, it seems.

The reason for the thawing of relations is also noteworthy. In its never-ending quest to be experimental and to try out pragmatic social solutions, Burning Man’s organizers realize that the utopian daydream is also in many ways an environmental nightmare. It is through its renewed emphasis on Green that it finds itself reaching out to Corporate Gold–and their proposed solutions. It seems very probable that the organizers of Burning Man have been bitten by the same environmental bug that is spreading its way around the world. I love these recent blog posts by Future Boy (the guy who also wrote the Burning Man article) about an eight year deadline for radical change in our environment, and another one about Venture Capitalist John Doerr’s environmental awakening and new mission.

What shocked me just as much as allowing physical corporations in, however, was the semantic use of corporate speak, genuine MBA-style marketing lingo being spouted by the head honchos of Burning Man. I’ve been researching and writing about Burning Man with the permission of great people like Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell, Jim Graham, Lee Gilmore, and Jess Bobier for almost a decade (my first burn was 1999). I have never heard them talk about Burning Man as a brand.

Ever.

In fact, a couple of years ago when I presented to the IEG Conference a little presentation called “What Marketers Need to Know About The Growing Anti-Consumption Movement: Illuminations from Burning Man” I was extremely careful to shy away from this topic. Burning Man is trademarked, yes, but it’s not a brand. We even got into a discussion about this topic, where I carefully avoided saying that Burning Man is a brand. Because it’s not. Um, it wasn’t.
But then I see Maid Marian in this Business2.0 article quoted as saying

“Branding’s important.”

What does this mean? Branding of Burning Man, the anti-brand brand? Is this going to be like the No Logo t-shirts, or the Black Spot Sneakers? Is it already like these hypocritical alt.brands? Can Burning Man now co-brand it’s anti-brands with big brands like Google to lend the, extra countercultural legitimacy and street cred?

It sure sounds like that’s what’s if you look at the sidebar in the article: Lessons from the Counterculture, which starts with a quip by Larry Harvey. The irony doesn’t quite make it into the page print:

“We like to joke that we may end up making money as business consultants.”

In print, this doesn’t sound very radical, countercultural, or utopian. Then the article proposes the Three Big Lessons from Burning Man. Are you ready for these?

  1. Give your “customers” as sense of ownership (what customers?).
  2. Let your “products” speak from themselves (what [products?).
  3. Launch and learn as you go (um, what grassroots or small business would this not apply to?).

Along the way to becoming a Business mag article, a lot of what makes Burning Man special seems to have been lost in translation.

And as my old friend Lee Gilmore brought to my attention with her terrific comment yesterday, maybe the branding emphasis is coming from the legal battle launched by John Law over ownership of the Burning Man trademark (Lee, did you really see me on TV? that’s some strange synchro…). Currently, it is owned by Harvey & Company’s LLC, but Law and others would like to see it released into the public domain. The story is covered thoroughly here. Call it what you want, but that’s very much a battle over a brand in my opinion. And that’s likely to sensitize everyone to the fact that the Burning Man symbol, name, and event have come to carry considerable cultural cachet, and have attached to them significant social and thus economic value.

Burning Man opening its doors to corporations. Burning Man offering product demonstrations. Burning Man emphasizing and protecting its “brand”.

Has Burning Man sold out? What do you think?

Burning Man Sells Out?

This is going to be a fascinating year at Burning Man.

For those of you not familiar with the event and The Project, let me provide a little background. Burning Man is a weeklong festal gathering that takes place every year in the desolate Black Rock Desert of central Nevada. The event, which began in 1985 when two friends decided to burn a wooden effigy of a man on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, has grown steadily in popularity. In 2000, the event attracted almost 40,000 people to a gigantic celebration in the middle of the desert. They call their gathering place Black Rock City, an “ephemeropolis” (to use Stephen Black’s wonderfully evocative term) that exists only for one week out of the year.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending Burning Man as a participant observer for four years., and have written about it in an article and several book chapters (many of them co-authored with John Sherry). I believe that Burning Man is among the premiere social experiments of our times. That’s why the media cover so closely this gathering that is not even as large as most trade shows or fair. It’s not just the “freak-fest” appeal, although that’s a part of it. It is because this is a group of people on the edge of culture, living out where we are in bold relief and charting out what we want to and could become.

So what is happening this year is particularly fascinating.

As I have written about in several places, most notably my Journal of Consumer Research article entitled “Can Consumers Escape the Market?” Burning Man has sought to contain some of the negative effects of the marketplace: it’s tendency to isolate us from one another and to quash our individual expression and creativity, namely.

In that article, I went to town on some of the apparent differences between life in the world of work and business, and the liminal ludic realm experienced Burning Man’s participants:

“The most bizarre thing I saw at Burning Man was a man dressed in a three-piece business suit and carrying a briefcase, rushing along through the desert one evening. He brushed by a group of us quickly, saying “Excuse me, gentlemen,” as if he were late for a meeting. Our group burst out laughing (Fieldnotes, August 30, 2000). Like the full office cubicle, replete with inspirational posters and gobs of reminding Post-ItTM notes that someone had set up in the middle of the desert, the source of the humor was the realization that this is a place set far apart from the logics that drive everyday business behavior in the world of large corporations. Our mock businessman’s attire, emoting, utterances, and rushing were pure performance art in this desolate and distant location.

Art at Burning Man is socially constructed as a purely self-expressive practice that is radical, communally interactive, and not-for-sale. It is placed in dialectical opposition to the efficiency of modern industrial production in which designs are functional, divorced from public view, and conducted for profit. Burning Man’s emphasis on self-expression and self-transformation rather than practical matters provides it with a useful differentiation from the prevailing ethos of productivity and efficiency used by market forces. Ironically, this differentiation is co-opted by companies that send employees to Burning Man for “team-building” and to ‘expand creative thinking’ (Hua 2000). The fact that corporations use Burning Man to enhance the very characteristics that they are criticized for lacking points to an interesting irony. It also points to the inescapably porous boundaries between Burning Man and the market system. Inevitably, Burning Man’s participants return to a corporate world, albeit perhaps with a fresher perspective or some heightened artistic or communal sensibility.”

To set up this free-spirited creative playzone, Burning Man has suspended ordinary social logics by setting up some interesting rules that seek to control the effects of markets and large corporations in particular.

Chief among those rules are the “No Commerce” rule that forbids monetary exchange and encourages a Gift Economy. Important is an individual and group emphasis on “Radical Self-Expression” that encourages individualized participation. Also crucial is an injunction against wearing or displaying brand names. Finally, the event has always banned (and something ejected) corporations that seek to promote or advertise themselves or their wares at the event.

That last injunction is being suspended, sort of.

In a fascinating story in Business 2.0 this month, “Future Boy” and Burning Man participant Chris Taylor talks about how Burning Man has “grown up.” It is “coming of age.” It is a ten million dollar revenue “business.” But most controversially and most importantly the Burning Man Organization has invited a bunch of companies into the event to show off their wares.

What? This goes against twenty years of anti-corporate rhetoric. It blasts open some of the carefully cultivated divisions between Burning Man’s communal-utopian interview and the harsh manipulative commodified world outside. B2.0 has really scooped Wired on this one. What in the world is Burning Man up to?

Marketing and Mystery

Maybe this will shake things up a touch. On Friday, “This is London” covered an official air-miss report that was filed several weeks ago and which had appeared in Pilot magazine. Aurigny Airlines captain Ray Bowyer, 50, flying over the Channel Islands close to Alderney first spotted an object that he described as “a cigar-shaped brilliant white light.” His sighting was confirmed by passengers, by radar imaging on the ground, and by another pilot flying for another airline.

After realizing the distance to the object, he estimated the size of the object to be a mile wide. Later in his approach, he saw another object. He said it was visible for about nine minutes, which seems to rule out all sorts of optical effects. His interview with ITV News is posted on YouTube and seems quite revealing. The guy seems shaken up and sincere.

What does this have to do with Marketing and Consumer Culture? Well, nothing and everything.

My posts on Philip K. Dick and ontology assert that the way we think about Marketing and Consumer Culture is deeply shaped by our underlying view of what we believe reality to be, what we believe is possible and worthy of study. It’s a guiding assumption of this brandthroposophy blog that we should all stay open minded. There could definitely be an interesting story about the marketing of this story, about UFO stories, about the marketing tie-ins between mystery and controversy and marketing. In fact, my very first conference paper and very first publication were about X-Files fans (“X-Philes”) and in that paper I wrote that X-Files fans

consume mysterious and mystical notions through The X-Files show and through their Internet activities and membership in the fan community. As noted by Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989), mystery is an important element of the sacred. Mystery is “above the ordinary” and derives from “profound experiences and meanings” (p. 7). Consumers are increasingly turning to secular sources –such as television shows, and the subcultures of consumption that spring up based on them– to fulfill their deep-seated need for connection with the sacred. It is also possible that in our faithless, hyper-rational and scientific society, many people crave the excitement and energy that the only the unexplained can inspire.

So, I’ve believe for a long time that there is a massive market for the unexplained. MIT Scholar Geoffrey Long has written about the “negative capability” of fictional characters who are sketched out fairly well in terms of identity and motivation but leave much of the details of their backgrounds and lives for fiction readers to fill in from their own imaginations. Fans love characters with negative capability because they fill in their missing details. There is a lot of conceptual room for them to do identity work with them and inject them with deeper meanings and significance. Boba Fett in the Star Wars universe is a great example.

I suggest that we think about major mysteries such as religious miracles, Virgin Mary sightings, miraculous healings, and modern UFO sightings as a type of supernegative capability, an aporia or conceptual gap writ large. We all seem drawn to their openendedness, to figure them out. There is much that matters and much to explore about our own exploration of these matters.

I enjoy the controversy swirling around this recent UFO news story particularly evident in the hundreds of comments on the digg story. There are true believers and equally hardcore skeptics. The very first comment was someone lamenting the fact that they had a flight to catch that day, right after reading this story. A statement of fear. That was followed by 6 comments chiding the person and mocking their belief, comparing it to an iiratonal faith in “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Something interesting seems to have happened over Aurigny, confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses. But we will almost certainly never completely understand it. There are mysteries left in our world that we won’t solve. And these mysteries are what keep me fascinated by future prediction, big thinkers, utopian dreamers, edgy science fiction and also edgy nonfiction such as that written by Daniel Pinchbeck and Erik Davis, thinkers who don’t shy away from mysteries simply because they are popularly viewed as pseudo-scientific or on the margins of respectability but who also treat them with a healthy degree of skepticism and subject them to rigorous evidentiary claims.

If we are going to adapt to the many global-scale challenges that will face us in the coming years, to innovate brilliantly and effectively, we are going to need to embrace ambiguity on an emotional and intellectual scale we can scarcely conceive of right now.

In marketing, in business, in innovation, and in consumer culture, there are still mysteries left. These systems of thought are highly rational, highly structured, dominated by mathematical and engineering approaches. But the topics they impact–life and society–contain entire universes of fuzzy ambiguities, boldly bizarre belief systems, endless portals of complexity. If we are truly seekers after the novel and the new, I don’t think we should turn away from the darkness and the strange. I am a student of unflinchingly peering into the void.

UFOs in 2007? Weird? Significant? Interesting?

O Innovation, Where Art Thou?

Just a quick follow on post to my prior post on innovation.

My good friend, Department Chair, and colleague Eileen Fischer emailed me a great comment that I’m going to incorporate here.

She has a bone to pick with the way that the Conference Board measured innovation for its report. They measured innovation as proxied by two things. One was patents and the other was scientific journal articles, both measured per capita. There are many problems with both measures. Patenting in America and a few other places is out of control because people are making a lot of money on legal challenges (as witness the recent debacle that nearly shut down Research in Motion, and ended up making their legal aggressor plenty rich). The second measure, journal publications, seems to have a whole host of problems. Are we talking good quality journals? Only hard science journals? What do publications have to do with innovation, really? What to we mean by innovation then?

As I think about Eileen’s great points, it seems we are desperately in need of better measures of innovation.

And those improved measures need to start with better definitions of innovation. My friend Gerald Haman of Chicago’s SolutionPeople brainstorming company defines innovation as a practically applied idea or invention. That’s a solid start. We’re not just talking about ideas, but applied ideas, commercialized ideas.

I’m also thinking that we need to be much more open-minded about the kinds of innovation that matter now and that are going to matter in the future. And the kind of cultural systems—local, familial, regional, national, and global—that are going to support them.

Measuring patents, Nobel Prizes, and hard science journal publications smells to me like a smokestack economy. Is that all that we’re really after here? New products only? New flavors of potato chips and new squeezy things for our toothpaste containers? Or are we also looking for major changes in lifestyle, in thinking, in doing, experiencing. The kind of innovation that we should be looking for are innovations on a cultural level, as well as including a material goods and services component.

I think the kinds of creative thinking we see in the entertainment industry, in the software industry, in themed retail, and online in the so-called Web2.0 economy are highly significant. Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class sorts of innovation. Seen in that light, I’ve been studying innovators and innovation my entire research career and I think we’re seeing major changes across society in the way we “do” innovation.

What might be some good measures of cultural innovation to add to the list? Per capita percentages of bloggers, wiki-participants, and content adders? Percentage of tinkerers? Of fans? Amount of Do-It-Yourself stores in a neighborhood? Prevalence of basic HTML literacy in the population? Percentage of people who start their own small businesses? Percentage of people who had one or more entrepreneurial parents? Tax rates on small business and small business owners? Amount of general risk-taking propensity in the culture?

If we don’t come up with better measures and definitions, we’re not going to get what we really need.

Next week, I’m going to talk about one of the most innovative places on Earth: Burning Man. And I’m going to examine the controversial sell out that its organizers made this year, a sell out that a lot of good people fear will destroy much of what is good about it.

My Footprint is Too Big

Hmm. I guess I’m less green that I thought.

I just took the ecological footprints quiz at www.myfootprint.org to try and determine the impact my consumerist lifestyle is having on the planet.

The verdict? Not so good. The quick 14 question quiz told me that I would need 6.5 global hectares to support my lifestyle. And the bad news is that we only have 1.8 biologically productive hectares per person to work with. The bottom line was that we would need 3.6 planet Earths to support a lifestyle like mine. And despite my enjoyment of Star Trek and enthusiasm for its mission to seek out new worlds, I’m pretty sure we’re only working with one world for the foreseeable future.

It’s interesting to me that Mountain Equipment Co-op links to the page and its test. Promotes it, even. The test pushed people towards a re-examination of their consumption patterns, partitioned in food, mobility, shelter, and goods and services. Examining each of those areas a little bit closer is supposed to help us all learn to live within a world of limited resources.

Air Canada is working with another related group called zerofootprint.org to try to offset the massive carbon emissions of air travel. And the City of Toronto is working with both organizations to both make citizens of this fair city aware of the environmental impacts of their consumption, and offer them alternatives (including carbon offsets).

First developed in 1992 by William Rees, a Canadian professor at University of British Columbia, ecological footprints are a rough way of approximating our impact on the environment. They’re a way of bringing an accounting like approach to our consumption. Heck, I give Mountain Co-Op a lot of credit. I can’t see Ford, McDonald’s, or Microsoft linking to the test on this site any time soon. By sheer implication it tell us to ditch the car, drop meat and most animal products from our diets, and stop using so damn much electricity.

Apparently we each have about 2 global hectares per person to work with. The average American has a shoe size, er, footprint of 9.5. The Swiss have much smaller feet, er, footprints, of 4. Chinese citizens are at the level of 1.5 global hectares per capita.

I’m enjoying the online forum responses that an article on ecological footprints is getting. The article by a writer named Lawrence Solomon headlines the idea that Reese (why are these things always personalized?) is advocating that we all move back to subsistence living, that it engages in “a slavish worship of primitivism” (of course, there’s no “science” in that; and besides, anyone who’s been to Burning Man can tell you, worshiping primitivism is lot of fun) and that this is all leading to the proposition that anything we earn “above $7,000 a year should be seized to prevent consumption” (um, I missed that part, weren’t we talking about ecological footprints here?).

Is this the dreaded Red Threat of the past turned a colorshifting shade of Green? Now the Greens are here to take your money, seize your assets, and end the capitalist consumption Dream.

The responses to the posting on Freerepublic.com, that great online bastion of conservative values, are terrific. Message posters quickly caught on to the idea that they could compete to try and outdo one another with a higher score, ias if this were a videogame: “3.9 planets! Yes!!!” wrote the aptly named “GodBlessRonaldReagan.”

The apocalyptically named “Doomonyou” writes: “I guess I need to eat more cheeseburgers, get a bigger truck and a bigger house, and move father away from work!”

“BuffaloJack,” perhaps a fellow Star Trek fan wrote “Wow, I would need 7 planets. We should start thinking about how we should conquer other worlds for our our [sic] use now.” Several other posts talk about getting resources from other planets, an intriguing linkage of consumption and space exploration.
There’s even some Charlton Hestonesque brute honesty in the postings too. “Bipolar Bob” writes that “You can have my air conditioning and TV remote when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” That is the truth of it. It’s awfully difficult to give up our comfortable lifestyles and our stuff. You first.

Squawk all you want at the approach, but it’s on the right track. Consumer society is based on the idea of unlimited abundance, not conservation (why aren’t most conservatives into conservation…that would make etymological sense to me). Although we certainly have made gains in productivity as a society and species (at enormous cost according to most scientists), those gains can not continue. We need to start thinking about living within limits. Thinking, at least. Yes, even the rich. Yes, even the middle class. Even if we can afford to consume more.

There are very few voices reminding us of that. That’s changing. And that’s a welcome change. There’s no doubt about it. My footprint is too big.