Thursday March 18, 2021

How can the climate disaster and humanity’s overall sustainability crisis be explained by 80s sitcom characters, birdbrained hats from the late 1800s, and a dubious new use for scratch-and-sniff technology? Go for a ride to discover the hidden driver of status-seeking behavior. You can always expect a topsy-turvy, twisty-turny journey when Jason, Rob, and Asher dissect the downsides of human nature. Along the way, they tour status-signaling show-offs, the historic meeting between the Yankton Sioux and the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the reptilian brain we’re all stuck with. In the Do-the-Opposite segment, they unpack how to tamp down the penchant for status competition and talk with Sandra Goldmark, author of Fixation: How to Have Good Stuff without Breaking the Planet. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Rob Dietz

I’m Rob Dietz.

Jason Bradford
I’m Jason Bradford.

Asher Miller
And I’m Asher Miller. Welcome to Crazy Town where the future looks like the past, only shittier.

Rob Dietz
Today’s topic is status seeking behavior. Plus in the George Costanza Memorial Do-the- Opposite Segment we’ll have an interview with Sandra Goldmark, author of the book Fixation: How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet. Hey, you guys remember the TV show, Cheers?

Jason Bradford
Do I? [Singing] Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

Rob Dietz
Okay. Great. I knew that was gonna happen. Everybody remembers Cheers. That was my favorite show.

Asher Miller
Everyone of a certain age.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, that’s true. It was my favorite show in the 80s. I’m sure it’s available on Netflix, so maybe it’s got some crossover to younger people.

Jason Bradford
Maybe — yeah.

Rob Dietz
Well, I wanted to tell you guys about my very favorite episode, or at least a chunk of it. Because this is our shared history, the TV that we watched, right? So there was a special episode where the bartenders, Woody and Sam, wanted to get a raise. And so let me just play you the clip to start it.

Jason Bradford
Please.

Sam
So, did you get the raise?

Woody
Sammy, Sammy, Sammy, Sammy, Sammy there’s more to life than money.

Sam
No, you didn’t get the raise.

Woody
I got something much better. You’re looking at Cheers’ new senior bartender.

Rob Dietz
So here, you got Woody, the younger guy going in to try to get a raise, and he comes out as the senior bartender. And Sam says to Woody, you just got totally suckered. You let the boss give you a title instead of a raise, and Woody’s kinda like, “Well, I’d like to see you do better.” So then Sam goes in to get a raise.

Woody
So Sam, how much did you get?

Sam
Well, it’s kind of complicated, Woody. It’s all tied up with bonuses and stock options [laughter]. But I can tell you that you’re looking at the new executive supervising bartender.

Rob Dietz
So Woody’s totally upset. He’s like, “You just couldn’t stand that I had a title and you didn’t.” And Sam comes back with this “Aww Woody, titles don’t mean anything. It’s not anything important.” And Woody goes, “Oh, well, you want to switch?” And Sam — he’s like, “Yeah, right — senior bartender — I’ve been looking for that all my life.” So they’re having this titles competition. And then Carla, if you remember that character — she’s a waitress

Jason Bradford
Smartass.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, complete insult queen. She comes in with this clip…

Carla
All right, all right, all right! Knock it off. All right? Will the senior idiot bartender and the executive supervising moron shut their yaps for about 10 seconds? You’re bartenders. That’s it. You’re a bartender, and you’re a bartender, period!

Sam
Carla’s right. I’m sorry.

Woody
Yeah, me too.

Carla
I however, am the managing director of waitresses.

Rob Dietz
Carla — she’s amazing. She comes in with the actual bartender bartender you guys are equals shut the when she say “well, you two shut your yaps.” I feel like saying that to you guys sometimes.

Asher Miller
Remember, I’m the executive director.

Jason Bradford
I’m president of the board.

Rob Dietz
You’re the senior executive moron and you’re… Here comes this insult queen — she’s actually the voice of reason. And I thought there was a really genuine sweet moment there where Sam offers Woody a peanut, you know, you’ve got a handful of nuts and what he’s like, yeah, you’re right. Sorry. It’s like they, they’re back on equal footing. So the competition between Woody and Sam brings up this idea of seeking status and power over one another through our status displays. And to me, that’s one of the big hidden drivers, one of the human behaviors that’s landed us in crazy town.

Asher Miller
Yeah, and I think I think you’re right. And it’s something that we’ve probably had, we’ve carried with us forever. It reminds me for some reason — it makes me think of during the Victorian era, there was a period where women wanted to display their status by wearing these insanely fucked up hats. First of all, I don’t know if you guys get this but like, hats were a big deal. I f you didn’t wear it hat. You were like walking around naked men and women. It’s like this totally bizarre thing

Jason Bradford
and they’re huge.

Rob Dietz
I like that it’s not just a fucked up hat. It’s an insanely fucked up hat.

Asher Miller
No, just go Google pictures — Victorian hats. Okay, like they would not just have feathers on their hats. They would have whole motherfucking birds. Okay? Dead birds on their hats. Like I don’t even know how they kept their heads up.

Rob Dietz
It’s like wearing a Thanksgiving turkey carcass on your head or something.

Asher Miller
Yeah, but if the turkey had all its feathers.

Rob Dietz
No, I actually did a stint working for the Fish and Wildlife Service and I remember reading a history about it was they call them market hunters and they would hunt birds for the feathers just to supply the the hat industry.

Asher Miller
Yeah, and it was it was out of control. I mean, it was totally out of control and had a real you know, consequence on nature. I found this really interesting bit of data from this this piece in Pacific Standard Magazine. This is just talking about, like the dealers. Hat dealers. You know, and all the feathers that they would that they would you know cycle through to sell their hats. So a single – in 1890 – a single order of feathers by a London dealer included — this is number of feathers here — 6000 feathers of birds of paradise, 40,000 Hummingbird feathers, 360,000 East Indian bird feathers from various species, right? In 1902, so 10 years later, an auction in London sold 1,608-30 ounce packages of Heron plumes.

Jason Bradford
That is absolutely ridiculous.

Asher Miller
But listen to this — each ounce of plume required the use of four herons. So one package is a plume of 120 herons.

Rob Dietz
So somebody had a job as a Heron plucker back then

Asher Miller
Yeah. And there’s one ornithologist who estimated like 67 different types of birds. Oftentimes, including all of their sub species were at risk of extinction. And this is just because these hats.

Jason Bradford
Right and this is at a period of time in earth history where we hadn’t deforested half of the tropical rain forests and drained all the swamps quite yet. I mean, nature was still pretty vibrant at this time. Right?

Asher Miller
Right. Which is why we had to go destroy it and to put it on our heads.

Rob Dietz
So this was a competition to see who could have the most iridescent feathers and the most — like cause I’m thinking of these hummingbirds with their beautiful, you know, iridescent chest feathers, and they’re, just populating hat brims, and . . .

Jason Bradford
Well, shiny things . . . just makes me . . Oh, this reminds me of a story. Okay. My friend, we’ll make it anonymous, we’ll call her Dolores. Okay. She’s recently divorced. And so she decides she’s going to start trying to date to see what that’s like again. It’s been a long time.

Asher Miller
Yeah.

Jason Bradford
Okay, so she gets on these dating apps. And she’s got these, you know, people texting her, and they’re deciding if they’re going to meet each other in person. And so she ends up saying, “Yeah, okay,” and she goes on some first dates. And one of them — perfect for this — because it was a jeweler and he takes her out to a nice restaurant and starts showing her pictures on his phone of his like, cottage in the mountains with his big fireplace, and he’s got this sports car. And, then he takes her to his jewelry shop and he’s putting like a diamond in her hand and saying things like “this is worth $50,000.” Stuff like this So, I mean was it was amazing. It’s like it never ends. Like we’re beyond the age of reproduction, right? You think we’re decades into life. Do we really have to act like we’re high school kids trying to one up each other? It seems like it. And so, what’s interesting is she kind of like was oh my gosh, it was so blatant and over the top you know, I’m gonna impress you with my material wealth and my shiny things. Right right.

Rob Dietz
Did he have any bird feathers?

Jason Bradford
He had a lot of jewelry apparently. And, so anyway, what was funny was that her family, when she’s telling the stories of like “Well, this is this guy, and I date him.” They’re all like “Yeah, you go ahead and date all the poor ones and then marry the jeweler.”

Rob Dietz
So, status still counts for peer pressure. Or, what do you call family pressuring your your daughter into seeing the jeweler?

Jason Bradford
Right right. Yeah, that money, right. So there’s something to that, where this is a way we now get mates and try to impress and . . .

Rob Dietz
Well, this whole tie between money and things that you wear. . . It’s crazy how that’s a seen as a positive portrayal of status. So, I saw something along these lines – I was reading an article in The New York Times and they were talking about a new t shirt that’s just come out, or recently been put on the market. Do you guys ever remember Scratch and Sniff? Like, did you ever read a kid’s book with or Scratch and Sniff?

Asher Miller
Yeah, yeah. So yeah, this is why my brain doesn’t function so much anymore.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, well, so you know, that’s a technology where you’re on the page, and there’s a banana, and you scratch the banana, smell it, and it smells like banana. So yeah, some chemical factory in New Jersey figured out how to make banana smells…

Asher Miller
Right, and kill off brain cells.

Rob Dietz
Well, so there’s a fashion company that figured out how to do this on a T shirt. So, there’s like the cherries on the front of the t shirt, and you can scratch it and then sniff and smell cherry. So, I want you to take a guess at how much this T shirt costs?

Asher Miller
Oh Jesus…

Jason Bradford
I have no idea.

Asher Miller
75 bucks.

Rob Dietz
75? That’s a good guess. Jason, what do you got?

Jason Bradford
I’ll go with 76 — I’ll go one over.

Asher Miller
Oh the Price Is Right strategy?

Rob Dietz
Good. Good game show strategy.

Jason Bradford
Yeah, yeah.

Rob Dietz
So Jason wins. The actual price? $590.

Asher Miller
Wait, hold on a second.

Jason Bradford
I want one.

Asher Miller
What do you do when you have to wash the shirt?

Rob Dietz
Oh, so it’s a really good article, you should go read it. But, if you machine wash it, there goes your scratch and sniff. No more sniff. You can still scratch all you want, but you won’t smell anything.

Asher Miller
So there’s this – there has to be this like, this sort of math equation to figure out where’s this moment where your body odor like surpasses the capacity of the smell?

Jason Bradford
Does it come in tank tops? Because otherwise I . . . I would. . . I mean . . .

Rob Dietz
You’re not supposed to scratch and sniff the armpit. Okay? But yeah, I guess, you know, that’s part of the status with this shirt is how expensive it is. And the fact that you have to hand wash it. You know, maybe you only wear at once. I don’t know. But . . .

Asher Miller
Jesus Christ

Rob Dietz
Totally, totally unbelievable. So, I always think how irrational like, you know, the three of us, obviously aren’t going to buy this shirt. But, what? What motivates somebody to do that?

Asher Miller
I mean, we’re laughing about this. We’re calling in irrational, right? You know, when your friend, the guy that’s like, basically trying to win your friend over by showing her all his wealth. You know, sounds like, to me, crass and lame. But this is being driven by something deep in us, and it might not be irrational at all. And one thing I want to point out is, at least from the cursory study that I’ve done on this, in terms of behavior, it’s about relative status. That’s what really matters a lot, right? It’s our relative status. In fact, they’ve done studies where they’ve, you know, asked people, for example, would you rather live in a 4000 square foot home — which is enormous, right — in a neighborhood where all the other homes are 5000 square feet? Or, would you rather live in a home that’s like 2500 square feet, or 2000 square feet, if your neighbors are living in a smaller house? Right? And people, a majority of them, would prefer the smaller house as long as it was bigger than their neighbors, right?

Jason Bradford
That’s right.

Asher Miller
This relative status thing is I think, what’s really key for people and that must come from some deep sort of evolutionary kind of, you know, predisposition. Something that gave some kind of competitive advantage or something in order for I mean, it all comes probably back to procreation, right? Yeah,

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s my reptilian brain that tells me that I got to try to be funnier than you two, and hat’s how I can get relative status in this podcast. Keep keep

Jason Bradford
Keep, keep trying. . .

Asher Miller
More laughs from listeners?

Jason Bradford
Yeah, no, it’s endearing what you do. No, I think it’s true, but, you know, part of this is that if we were like solitary like snakes or whatever, there wouldn’t be this. We could just we go out on our own and all it matters is on our own accord. Can we can we survive? And can we? Can we hunt enough? Can we hide well enough? Can we find a mate when we need to? But I think what’s going on with humans is because we’re such social animals is that we’re really lame. Anytime you see that human alone in nature, they’re going to just kind of die pretty quickly. There’s a few that can survive, but in order to be safe and secure, we need other people to like us and help us. And so, if you can be a king or a queen instead of a pawn, that’s a better survival situation, right?

Rob Dietz
So you’re saying we’re all trying to be king or queen?

Jason Bradford
Yeah, or you know, Bishop, or whatever, or knight.

Rob Dietz
Or at least show off that we’re competent. I feel like I was just thinking about the feathers. Going back to that a little bit. We actually are acting like birds. You know, you go watch David Attenborough, BBC thing, and he shows the birds of paradise. Yeah, look at this species jumping up and down. And then, like, suddenly an orange feather pops out of its butt. So you know, like it, it shows some display. And that’s like — oh, we we just copy that. Or we’re doing the same thing. Maybe we have the same brain part that’s telling us to do that.

Asher Miller
The peacock is a classic example.

Jason Bradford
I want to take this guy’s jewels, and I want to throw that forest and see what these birds do with them. That’s what I want to do.

Asher Miller
I think, what matters maybe for kind of our purposes, you know, when we think about it, as a hidden driver, is, there’s a real consequence to this behavior. You know, from the standpoint of what we’re doing to the natural world. And you know, how we’re impacting one another, you know. When we think about just an equitable and sustainable society.

Jason Bradford
Oh, yeah

Asher Miller
This behavior, and it’s, you know, this may be deeply ingrained in us and has been in us as a species since the beginning. But there is something different about the era that we’re living in.

Jason Bradford
Oh, it’s sort of supernormal stimuli. It’s been hijacked. So it’s taking something that . . . Yeah, you know, in the jungle, the birds are going to go gather some things and make these beautiful — we should definitely post some link to some video of this — which is just incredible. The birds of paradise and these birds, that . . .

Jason Bradford
Bowerbirds . . .

Jason Bradford
Bowerbirds, right. And, I mean, that’s one scale. You’re right. But as soon as it gets to the scale of modern manufacturing, and modern advertising, and these advertisers, you know, they’re the greatest manipulative psychologists that have ever been.

Asher Miller
Absolutely.

Jason Bradford
You know, because they’ve took all the psychology that was sort of understanding the brain in the early 20th century, and they weaponized it for making sure that the overproduction of factories would have someplace to go. Right? And so . . .

Asher Miller
And there’s a profit motive in doing that. Right? They had a very clear motive in selling stuff to people.

Jason Bradford
Yeah.

Asher Miller
And tying that to status.

Jason Bradford
Right. So, now you feel like the pawn instead of the bishop or the rook or the queen if you don’t have that scratches-n-sniff t shirt, you know?

Rob Dietz
Oh yeah. You always think of luxury goods. I thought one of the greatest ad campaigns was the one telling men that they had to buy a diamond that was worth two months of salary in order to get engaged, right? It doesn’t matter what your income is, you know, we’re just going to maximize the two months. But it’s all about that status of getting that rock and showing that, that you can you can give that away.

Asher Miller
Yeah. And it’s really, it’s dangerous. It’s killing us. Right? I mean, it really is. It is feeding, you know, this hidden driver is feeding the beast in a sense. And I don’t know that we can expect ourselves to change that deeply embedded evolutionary kind of rate in us, you know,

Jason Bradford
Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing, I think you have to – it’s a matter of becoming. accepting that that’s what people will do and who they are. But setting up some sort of boundaries so that we don’t go crazy and kill ourselves off in the process.

Rob Dietz
Well, I agree. And I want to take you guys back to a story because I do think there’s a bit of our nature in here. You know, our brain and how it works. But there’s also a big cultural piece to this. And we’re living in a culture, like you say, with advertising and market based capitalism that amps it all up. But let me just take you guys back a couple centuries. Okay? I’ve been reading this book called undaunted courage. It’s a historical account of Lewis and Clark and their expedition from St. Louis to Oregon, where we now happily sit. The 19th century was just brand new, okay. Slavery was still part of the economy. Thomas Jefferson was the president. I mean, Civil War was still a couple of generations into the future. So, we’re back a ways. So, Lewis and Clark, they’re leading this famous expedition. They had 30 men with them. They’re paddling and pulling, and pulling boats against the current upstream. I can’t even imagine how difficult this must have been. And they’re going into territory that is populated with people who some of them are not really wanting them to be coming through. And the first group of people that they encountered who were kind of in that that position were the Yankton Sioux. And they they sort of knew this, there had been some other fur trappers who had gone up so they had a little info and knew that, hey, this could be tricky. Okay. So they sent a couple scouts ahead and got the Yankton Sioux Chiefs to come in and have a council with Lewis and Clark. And, it was a kind of a famous scene at this place called Calumet Bluff. And I think that scene says a lot about status. So Lewis and Clark put on their full army regalia uniforms and they ran a flag way up on a staff so that they could show they were, you know, some kind of symbol of power. They were firing their cannon and their guns and, you know, just trying to show power as these five chiefs came in to have this council with them. So Lewis has this prepared speech, it’s utterly paternalistic. He talks about the great father, Thomas Jefferson, who’s now going to become sort of the head of everything. And you know, you guys are to submit to this. He gives gifts to these five chiefs. But here’s a really weird twist. He picks one of them is the Big Chief. And he gives that guy like an actual uniform and stuff. The other guys, he just gives little medals. So he’s sort of like, putting this, you know, hierarchical status thing on their culture without knowing a damn thing about their culture. And to me, that’s what the interesting point is. It’s that a lot of tribes hunter gatherer cultures had ways of tamping down this status seeking and status show off kind of behavior. Because it’s so dangerous. Like what you’re talking about with sharing. It’s, for them, it was dangerous to their culture of sharing, and like you were saying, Jason, you don’t survive on your own. So if somebody’s ego gets so big and so unchecked, you’ve got serious problems. So they had a culture of tamping that down, and it kind of boiled down to four parts going from not so serious, to really serious. First it would start, if Jason, you and I were out, and you were hunting, and you came back and said, “I’m the best hunter that ever was.” And you know, you start getting a big head, everybody would would just kind of attack you with humor. Right?

Jason Bradford
Right, right.

Rob Dietz
Kinda like make fun of you a little bit. Yeah. And then that would shift to ridicule in the next phase. Well, then it would shift to social ostracism. Like maybe even turning our backs on you. And then finally, it would end with us chopping your head off, or whatever. So I need some way to push you off a cliff.

Jason Bradford
Right. This reminds me of that poked by a porcupine episode we did last season. You brought this up for this tribe in South Africa. Right. So it’s like, these evolved independently in different parts of the world, and essentially, is the same kind of program of –

Asher Miller
Right. That was when you know, you brought a kill back to the right to the group and everyone was like “Ah, this is not that great.”

Jason Bradford
Yeah, it doesn’t taste that good.

Asher Miller
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it’s interesting. I think it’s good to recognize that this behavior may be with us. This tendency for social status seeking and relative status may not be going away. You know, it evolves probably slowly. And so we can’t expect it to disappear overnight. But we either have a system that rewards that behavior, and feeds that beast, or we have a system that checks it.

Jason Bradford
Can we can we stop for a sec, I gotta check my Tic Tok account.

Asher Miller
Sure. See how many people like your last –

Jason Bradford
Yeah, yeah. I just, half hour ago I put something up. And I really, I gotta . . . I just gotta see it.

Asher Miller
It’d be interesting to think about how we might apply some of those lessons, maybe from indigenous cultures, to sort of the modern world, you know. It’s interesting, do we say, “Hey, what we should do is have relative status increases when you live a life of frugality.” Like that’s how you show your relative status is you spend the least or you give away the most? Or is it more just about us collectively, basically shunning behavior that’s sort of only about the individuals.

Rob Dietz
I don’t know that there’s a good way for us to say it should be this or that but your point is right on that our natural tendency may be to compete for status, but we need a cultural tendency that tamps that down or negates it. There’s a book I read called “Civilized to Death,” which I really recommend. And one of the things that the author reported a hunter-gatherer person saying was, the best place for extra food is in my friend’s stomach. And, to me, that’s one of those cultural ways. It’s like, okay, we know we’ve got to share and be in the same – maybe there’s a Lewis and Clark – and we have to be in the same boat in order to tamp that down.

Asher Miller
I also think it’s worth maybe reflecting on differences, perhaps, that already exists in our culture based on either cultural differences, or maybe even on economic class. You know, I was talking to somebody recently, who is very connected to the young farmer movement, and community. And she was saying how a lot of her friends that are all kind of working on pro social environmental causes – that live in these big cities and are now, sequestered in their homes because of COVID – they have this sort of scarcity mindset. They’re not sharing as much as the people that she knows that live a pretty tough life as young, struggling farmers, who are sharing everything. You know, what I mean? And maybe those of us who are really more concerned about social status are not doing it because we actually are at risk. You talked, Jason, about how social status was really important for survival. Maybe it’s actually not that anymore. You know, the ones that were really focused on survival are not seeking to hoard, they’re seeking to share.

Jason Bradford
Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s a really good point. I got a lot of potatoes in my cellar and I’m going to get you a bag and we’re done with this by the way.

Rob Dietz
You guys got a deep fryer? No, I don’t. Well, maybe I can get you one we can share and we can all have fries together.

Asher Miller
Stay tuned for our George Costanza Memorial “Do the Opposite” segment where we discuss things we can do to get the hell out of Crazytown.

Jason Bradford
You don’t have to just listen to the three of us blather on anymore.

Asher Miller
We’ve actually invited someone intelligent on the program to provide inspiration.

Rob Dietz
We’d like to invite our listeners to attend the Crazy Town Hall. That’s our exclusive webinar for financial backers of the show.

Jason Bradford
Oh, when’s that gonna happen?

Rob Dietz
Well, of course, it could only happen on April Fool’s Day.

Asher Miller
Wait for real we’re doing on April 1st?

Rob Dietz
Oh, yeah, April 1, we want to celebrate the three headed fools in crazy town act. This is a webinar that is meant for people who make a monthly donation to the program. Any amount – whatever fits your budget, make that donation and we will invite you to attend the webinar where you can insult Jason you can make fun of me you can . . .

Asher Miller
Give me a lot of compliments.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, compliment Asher.

Asher Miller
Last year when we did this, we were able to raise enough money to hire Melody Travers to be our producer. Maybe this year, if you guys give us enough money, you can replace us all together.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, outsource the whole program. That would be great. Actually, having Melody on has freed us up to be able to bring on some people who are smarter than us to give some real ideas with the interviews we’ve been doing, and really just improve the show.

Asher Miller
So if you want to support the show, go to postcarbon.org/crazytown. And hit donate.

Rob Dietz
That’s postcarbon.org/crazytown. Your turn to repeat Jason.

Jason Bradford
What are you guys talking about?

Asher Miller
And now the George Costanza Memorial “Do the Opposite” segment.

George Costanza
Every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right. Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing and regret it for the rest of the day. So now, I will do the opposite. And I will do something.

Rob Dietz
We know that especially in the United States, people have a pretty bad relationship with stuff and with status around their stuff. And if you are going to do the opposite, what would you do? I mean, I think instead of competing for relative status, the first thing you need to do is just recognize that that’s what’s happening, that society is pushing you that way. Maybe your friends are pushing you that way. Certainly the advertisers are pushing you that way. Just take a step back and realize it, and understand when you’re being manipulated.

Jason Bradford
Well, I think that’s good. I also think, you know, what do you use as your competitive frame? Do you use consumption? Do you use displays of material goods and wealth? Or are you thinking more about like skills and knowledge? So there may be ways of working with the drive for relative status that are more pro-social, or at least not, you know, as environmentally destructive?

Asher Miller
Yeah, I agree. I think it starts with being aware and recognizing the behavior. It’s not beating ourselves up for having the behavior, but the more we recognize it, then we could say, “Okay, is this is this an actual necessary expense that I’m incurring? Or thing that I’m buying? What’s my motivation for acting this way or getting this thing?” I think that’s really key. And then yeah, redirecting our energy and saying, “Okay, I know that I need these things like everyone does. So I’m gonna put it to other ways of getting my status fullfillment.”

Rob Dietz
I don’t know if it’s just me getting older. But if I feel like I’ve made a conscious decision not to care. I don’t care about fashion, or, you know, ways that I present myself, maybe other than what you’re talking about Jason. Like, how can I be helpful or useful? Or of some use to the people around me in the places that I live rather than – what can I show off?

Jason Bradford
Well, I got you a body wax kit, though. I mean, did you and I do not want that?

Rob Dietz
Well, we’ll talk about that in private.

Jason Bradford
Okay.

Asher Miller
And then last thing we might be thinking about what we’re communicating to others, including our kids. What are we teaching them in terms of status and their relative status?

Rob Dietz
So as usual, it boils down to being more thoughtful – using that front part of our brain, it’s more recently evolved than that reptilian part that’s down at the base telling us to shoot 10 billion birds and stick them on our head.

Jason Bradford
It’s true. That’s a good point.

Rob Dietz
Sandra Goldmark is a professor at Barnard College and the director of campus sustainability and climate action, She is the founder of Fixup, an organization focused on repair in the durability of the things we use and consume. And recently, she’s written a wonderful book called “Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.” Sandra, welcome to Crazy Town.

Sandra Goldmark
Thank you. Hi.

Rob Dietz
It’s good to be talking. Hey, before we get going, I just want to say from one writer to another congratulations on your book “Fixation.” It’s so well written, incredibly readable and insightful – really makes you consider a different way of relating to stuff. So really nice work.

Sandra Goldmark
Thank you so much. I’m very glad to hear that.

Rob Dietz
Okay, well, Jason and I, we’ve been talking about status and the status seeking and status displaying behavior that we humans exhibit. And it’s clear that the things we own are tied up in those behaviors. Can you just give your thoughts on how our stuff communicates status?

Sandra Goldmark
Yeah, well, communicating with objects is a very, very common thing in all human cultures. So, I like to say that stuff speaks and that we speak with it. So, a lot of my work – I’m originally a theatrical set designer and I do some costumes as well. So a lot of the stuff that I’m talking about in “Fixation” is household stuff like lamps and chairs, which maybe – you might not think that you’re speaking with your lamps and your chairs – but you actually are in many ways. And so, for a lot of people thinking about clothing is a little bit of an easier way into the sort of idea of communicating non verbally because we all communicate with our clothes, right? We would wear a different outfit to a job interview than we would to exercise or to go to a party. We definitely communicate status with our clothing, that is one of the main things actually that we do. We do gender cues, status, occupation, emotion, sometimes – like how you’re feeling. We might lie with our clothes. Like, I might actually be feeling kind of schlumpy and sad, but I might wear my snappy red jacket so that you think I’m feeling powerful and on the ball. Or I might have low status or think that I have low status, but I might dress for success as it were. So these are very comfortable and easy things for people to see and recognize. And one of the things in “Fixation” is the idea that that actually extends to our homes, to our objects, to everything around us. It’s a way to communicate, and a way to not just speak but actually define ourselves- who we are. This is super, super normal and not a part of humanity that’s going to go away.

Rob Dietz
Well, that is a really interesting point. So if this is part of who we are, and like you said, part of all cultures around the world, and yet it’s leading us into some serious problems where the way we’re consuming – and by we maybe I’m speaking more about Americans and maybe more about well to do Americans – but you know globally, we’re consuming so much and in such ways that we’re damaging ecosystems, altering the climate, we’re stuck in unhealthy competition, we’re sometimes abusing one another with unfair labor practices and things like that. So, you know, if this is part of us, how is it that that we’ve gotten here? That we’ve got this thing that we’re communicating with our stuff and yet here we are, in this really tough time, in this peril?

Sandra Goldmark
Yeah. Well, it’s true that I think about that. That if our stuff speaks, right, what are we saying? What we’re saying is is not good – is maybe not what we want to say. Like, do we want to say that we totally disregard the natural environment? Do we want to say with our stuff that we disregard the labor or devalue the labor of the people who made it? In some ways, what we think we’re saying, and what we might actually want to say are not the same. Did you see there’s an amazing article just out in Nature? A study saying that in 2020, we’ve tipped a certain scale where the total – they call it anthropogenic mass – I call it stucco mass, now outweighs all biomass on Earth.

Rob Dietz
I did see that. And it’s really hard to wrap your head around. I was like, “Wow, did they just build a really big dam? And that tipped us over the scales or something?” Yeah, that’s an incredible statistic. And it’s probably one of those that flies under the radar for most people, but for someone like you who’s paying attention to our stuff and paying attention to nature, that’s insane. It’s –

Sandra Goldmark
It really struck me because when I was writing the book – I was actually looking for that statistic. I didn’t even know that it was called anthropogenic mass, right? So I made up the term stucco mass as opposed to biomass.

Rob Dietz
I like your term better.

Sandra Goldmark
Because I could see this incredibly, again, this incredibly deep human need to make things, right? We all make things with tools, all human cultures feel the need to kind of represent the world around us. You can see it from every ancient human heart artifact – all the way to when you go to a zoo, right? You go to a zoo, and you watch the like little Siberian tiger behind the cage. And then you go out to the zoo store and there’s like 50, you know, plushy Siberian tigers. Like, we have this real need to kind of transform the world around us into our own making. And, of course, the stucco mass is not made of plushy Siberian tigers. A large percentage of it as building materials, concrete, gravel, etc. But we are in fact transforming the biomass of the earth into objects of our own creation. So I think it’s all the more urgent that we actually stop and really, as I said, figure out what we’re saying. What are we really saying with all of that material? All of those objects?

Rob Dietz
Yeah.

Sandra Goldmark
And I think I think like an answer to your – I sort of went off there – but an answer to your question of, “How did we get here,” I think the problem for me, it doesn’t lie in that urge to communicate status or or love. When I give the gift of communicating love or appreciation. Or even the urge to make plushy, plushy stuffed animals. The urge to use stuff and objects to me is not going away, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But the problem lies in our capacity right now. We have created a system where we have the capacity to produce stuff at such an enormous scale. And we have not built the corresponding capacity to a) limit ourselves in any way or b) loop that stuff and those materials back into the system, right? So we built this incredibly powerful linear system for making concrete and gravel and bridges and plushy stuffed animals, and we haven’t used our power to limit ourselves, or to make sure to feed those materials back in.

Rob Dietz
That’s really insightful. That kind of relating the way our economy works, or doesn’t work, back to –

Sandra Goldmark
The stuffed animal.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, we have this built-in way we do things. And, we used to be limited by just not having the energy or the technology or the combination of those two to kind of build whatever came to mind. And we’ve gotten better and better at that and then kind of just let it all go. Of course, the question then that follows is, well, how could we get some system in place? Or, what could we do differently to change how this is happening? And I just have to say, when you were talking about our urge to do this, it made me think, well, maybe we should all just play Minecraft instead of building stuff in the real world. But I don’t think that’s a real answer. So, I’m gonna let you give us something maybe a bit more practical on how we can do something different.

Sandra Goldmark
I do think the popularity of games like Minecraft is even more evidence of our powerful urge to build. Of how, you know, my friend’s five year old child, he’s so addicted to Minecraft and the building that he literally hides in the closet with the tablet so she can’t find him playing Minecraft. Like, it’s a powerful urge. But I think, obviously, there’s some really big questions on the table. And I don’t have the answer to all of them in terms of how, on a global scale we build limits back in, and how we create these circular systems. But, I guess I do have some thoughts to offer on it. So in the book, “Fixation,” which is really focused on particular systems, largely of consumption of household objects. Though, the principles frankly apply to all kinds of manufacturing and production. So in “Fixation,” I lay out what I hope is a simple framework. I’m borrowing from the food movement, from Michael Pollan. Who I thought did such an amazing job of seeing and grasping the complexity of food of everything that it is. Which is, like stuff pretty central to our survival. And to our species. Grasping that complexity, and then boiling it down into simple steps. So he said, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” So for stuff, I’ve adapted that to say “Have good stuff, not too much, mostly reclaimed. care for it, pass it on.” And the idea of these five steps is that – they’re sort of aimed at individuals in that phrasing – but they really apply to businesses and policy as well. The idea is to say, when we make stuff, it should be good, it should be ethical, sustainable and rare. We need to not make so much of it. We need to really turn up the volume on reclaimed and used goods. We need to build repair, maintenance and stewardship back into the economy, and into our lives. And we need to build those systems for passing it on, i.e., feeding it back into a someone else’s home or remanufacturing process.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I really like your framing of that and can see how a person or an institution could try to apply it. I did want to point out that even though I couldn’t articulate it anywhere near as well as you, I feel like I’ve been trying to do something along those lines in my own life. And I often feel really conflicted. Because obviously, advertising is a simple example, but society is trying to push me to consume and to buy, buy, buy and be part of this story. And, I fee, like it’s a really hard thing to push back against at times, and can even be isolating. So, I want to just get your opinion on how our listeners, or how anybody could deal with feeling that kind of conflict around the stuff that they buy and consume.

Sandra Goldmark
I think a lot of people feel that, and kind of rightfully so. Because as you said, the system we’re living in does not really support healthy behaviors. So we’re actually living in crazy town, to borrow your phrase. But, that makes us feel crazy or overwhelmed or frustrated if we try to do something else. And again, I find the food analogy so useful here. And it’s useful, I think, because I think a lot of people struggle with similar issues in terms of food – of overconsumption and unhealthy food being all around them, and every force in the economy pushing you to buy Twinkies when you know you should be eating salad. And the fact that let’s face it, Twinkies are yummy and easier to eat, and all these things,

Rob Dietz
Right.

Sandra Goldmark
Maybe not Twinkies, but whatever floats your boat. So I think the first step for me is to stop and acknowledge that yes, a lot of the systems we live in are crazy. And so it can be very difficult and frustrating and overwhelming to feel like you have to swim upstream. And even just forgiving yourself ahead of time, I think, is a good thing – acknowledging you’re not going to be perfect. And as with food, recognizing that the effort to take this healthier path and to as much as possible, rebalance your stuff diet, is totally worth it in the long run. For yourself, for your home for your sanity, and most definitely for the people who make your stuff and for the planet.

Rob Dietz
Thanks so much, Sandra. That’s really something that I can take away and try to incorporate in my life. Sandra Goldmark is the author of “Fixation: How to have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.” Thanks again for joining me here and sharing a possible way out of crazy town.

Sandra Goldmark
Thank you very much for having me. It was fun visiting in Crazy Town.

Jason Bradford
Thanks for listening to this episode of Crazy Town.

Asher Miller
Yeah, and if for some miracle you actually got something out of it, please take a minute and give us a positive rating, or leave a review on your preferred podcast app.

Rob Dietz
And thanks to all our listeners, supporters and volunteers and special thanks to our producer Melody Travers.

Rob Dietz
Hey, Jason, Asher, we’ve got a great sponsor for the show this week: Status Sphere Incorporated. I know Asher, you worked with them?

Asher Miller
Yeah, I mean, when they contacted us, they said they would show us how it worked. So I signed up for it. So, here’s how it works, right? They ask you to provide the 10 people that you want to be better than, right? So you know it could be someone that you hated in high school, or whatever it is. So and what they do is they collect all those people’s social media accounts. Anytime one of those people post something on Facebook or Instagram, or whatever, that they’ve done something great, their algorithm automatically posts something for you that just knocks theirs out the water.

Jason Bradford
Oh god, this is amazing. So I, as you know, because they’re sponsors of our show, they let us try their stuff. So, this is incredible. I’ve only been doing this for like a week or so, but a guy that I really don’t like, he got a new relationship status. Okay, so I said, you know, they’re gonna one up this somehow. I’m apparently now married to the Wrigley Doublemint Twins.

Asher Miller
Wow.

Jason Bradford
They’re gorgeous. That’s all I know.

Rob Dietz
So one of my colleagues that I need to be better than went on a vacation where they took a hot air balloon ride. And so I rode in a dirigible.

Jason Bradford
Wow!

Rob Dietz
Yeah, they’ve got the photo of it and everything.

Jason Bradford
Oh, yeah. Yeah, wait –

Asher Miller
So that’s that’s one of the things that is really amazing about their service. They’ve got, I don’t know, they’ve got these Photoshop wizards,or whatever. They take photos you -provide them some photos of you – and they’ll just put you in these different scenes.

Jason Bradford
Oh, it’s deep fake of the ultimate, you know, quality

Rob Dietz
And all of the the endorphins I get. The dopamine release. It’s incredible. Thank you Status Sphere Incorporated.