• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


I blame cats and dogs

Well, maybe not the pets themselves. Maybe more their owners. Especially when it comes to dogs, because dogs can't help the fact that for millenia they've been bred for subservience. Cats, on the other hand, might have to take the rap themselves.

July 26, 2012

Well, maybe not the pets themselves. Maybe more their owners. Especially when it comes to dogs, because dogs can't help the fact that for millenia they've been bred for subservience. Cats, on the other hand, might have to take the rap themselves.

See, the folks who study animal behavior have determined that the characteristics humans want in an adult pet are pretty much the same as the behavioral characteristics that distinguish immature individuals in the wild.  We're not looking to bring a functioning adult canine or feline into the household, what we want is (at least functionally) a puppy or a kitten.  We want dependence, and loyalty, and appreciation, and subservience.  And we want that behavior pattern to last throughout the pet's lifetime.

Let me lay out the breadcrumbs that led me to the conclusion that the above has anything to do with sustainability:

  • I've long felt that, compared to other cultures around the world, American culture exhibits not so much youthfulness as immaturity.  Our insistence that "we're number one" in just about any arena, our (and I'm referring specifically to Anglophones here) cultivated inability to learn any other language, our unwillingness to compare any aspect or artifact of our society objectively with its opposite number in any other developed country, our insistence on happy endings and always winning and always wearing the white hat, our unwillingness to engage with our own national history, that sort of thing.  Maturity comes with perspective, perspective comes from a wide range of experiences, and we (culturally) seem to insist on having the same narrow range of experience over and over.
  • When I traveled a lot for business, I noticed that in sports and apparel stores around the country the most heavily promoted merchandise was tied to the major local sports team(s), but the second-most heavily promoted merchandise was pretty much anything with the Nike "swoosh" on it.
  • I've long bemoaned the replacement of "the American citizen" with "the American consumer".  Citizenship requires activity and a willingness to deal with complexity, while consumership is passive and satisfied with the simple.
  • Everybody's well aware that politics in this country (and I don't just mean at the national level) is polarized to the extent of being entirely dysfunctional. 

So it wasn't too much of a surprise when I woke up yesterday to a story on NPR about how each presidential campaign is blatantly quoting its opponent out of context, how each of them has been called on it, how each of them has admitted it (at least to the extent that you can ever get any politician to 'fess up to anything), how each campaign nonetheless continues the practice thereby effectively lying in its political communications, how the recipients of those communications generally recognize that they're being lied to, and how those recipients (look to your left, look to your right) really don't care because they're less concerned with hearing truth than they are with reconfirming their already existing preconceptions.  (FWIW, Democrats were said to be slightly worse on this count than Republicans.)

It may not have been a surprise, but it did trigger the formation of a connection in my mind.  Advertising to reconfirm, to strengthen, existing preconceptions.  Advertising which folks will tune in to because it makes them feel more comfortable with a decision they've already made.  Kind of like folks who just bought a Ford (or a Chevy, or a Subaru) will start paying even more attention to the ads for that make of car because those ads make them feel smarter about (and more comfortable with) the major purchase decision they just made.  Advertising to reinforce brand loyalty.  Advertising which, in a very real sense, intends to reinforce a sense of identity in the form of brand affiliation.  (You've seen the bumper stickers and window decals -- "I'd rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy", or Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) ostentatiously urinating on the logo of a despised alternative brand, that sort of thing.)

That connection, truth be told, was probably facilitated by the fact that the evening before I'd been reading Benjamin Barber's book Consumed.  Barber's theme is the infantilization of the American populace, primarily as a means of stimulating consumer demand for unneeded merchandise.  In the nutshell version, he talks about how American culture has been influenced over the last generation or so to prefer easy over hard, simple over complex, and fast over slow.  Each of those tendencies creates an eternal market opportunity for anything that can be sold as easier, simpler or faster than existing alternatives.  All the substantial aspects of "better" get washed away -- more nutritious, more balanced, longer-lasting, more sustainable.  Increased (indeed, endlessly increasing) consumption is good for corporate profits and tends to increase GDP (ever notice how  business news for most folks has been reduced to two or three highly synthesized numbers?).  But ever-increasing consumption is a fool's strategy in a world of finite resources, and the social conditioning that's been applied to encourage ever-increasing consumption has led us, by a fairly straight and short path, to a politics which can hardly make simple decisions, much less subtle, layered ones.  Probably not what John Dewey or Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

Now, it the above has even a slight ring of truth to it, I could easily blame the educational sector (particularly, of course, the higher education sector) in this country.  After all, if what we've been producing is a generation of what the ancient Greeks might call "idiots" -- unthinking consumers who (whether or not they're employable or superficially cultured) reflexively prefer easy, simple and fast regardless of anything else -- then we need pretty seriously to rethink what we're about.

So, all in all, it's probably safer to blame the cats and dogs.  Early exposure to pets (I'm sure) fosters in children a preference for subservience and dependency that's simply too engrained by age 18 for any college or university to overcome.  Really.  The fact that you and I -- outside our respective academic discipline or administrative specialty, of course -- tend at least somewhat to exhibit many of the same subservience-fostering tendencies and brand-affiliated consumer identities is entirely irrelevant. 


It's the pets.


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