Friday, May 09, 2008

Consumerism — Nature's survival strategy

Howard Bloom has pinged consumerism as a trend or fashion that may appear to be an excessive waste of time, and folly as a survival strategy for all species — from bacteria (our ancestors, as the author explains) to bees to humans.

We see how the human 'generation-gap' is echoed by bacteria, where the young, anti-establishment generation eschews the ways of their boring parents in search of their own lifestyle. Non-conformity as a survival strategy:

In Praise Of Consumerism - Bees, Bacteria And The Value Of Wasted Time

Bacteria survive by swings in fashion - they survive by consumerism. One generation grows a stalk like the stem of a mushroom cap and roots itself to its food. That generation specializes in homesteading - in sucking all the nuutrition it can out of the territory it’s born in. The next generation rebels against the fashion of its parents, forgets about a stalk, seems to snicker at the very notion of riveting itself to the ground, and grows a biological propeller--a long, whip-like tail. Then it sets off for adventure. In groups of 10,000, it spreads from the colony’s heart, racing into the unknown to literally find its fortune, to find new territory with new food.

When these rebellious pioneers trip across a bonanza of delectables, their kids rebel against their parents’ ways. They shun travel and once again grow stalks, stubbornly rooting themselves to the new food source.

It’s all a part of a survival strategy or, more specifically, of a search-and-swallow strategy. The generation with a stalk specializes in staying at home. The generation with the propeller specializes in exploration. Explorers find new sources of food. Homesteaders mine the new food source for all it’s worth—and they do it very efficiently. By the time the old food source
runs out, the explorers have found a new one.

Does this mean the waste of a lot of material goods? You bet. Not every group of 10,000 explorers finds a treasure trove. Some die in the desert with nothing new to eat. Some die even more catastrophically, as victims of bacterial war or as victims of bacteria-eaters like the larvae of corals, rotifers, sea anemones, and jellyfish. But even the failures teach lessons to the colony. The dying bacteria send out molecular signals that say, “Beware. This is not a safe place to go. This is not a safe path to follow.”

And in looking at bees, it could pay to hug a hippy.

Things get even worse if the fashionable flower patch of the moment is running out of pollen and nectar. When a worker bee sets off to follow the crowd and comes back with her cargo-pouches
nearly empty, the unloaders pass her by as if she were dirt. Attention means everything in a world of fashion. The whole reason we go with the trend is to get others to look at us admiringly. That’s true of you and me. And it’s equally true of bees.

Bees who are shunned at the loading dock stagger around as if they are stunned - or more as if they have lost their sense of purpose, their sense of meaning. That’s when the self-indulgence of the hippie explorer bees shows its worth. Crowds of discouraged forager bees wander around inside the hive looking for some way to lift their spirits, some way to entertain themselves. And they find it. Four or five of the explorer bees have accidentally bumbled into new flower patches or new water puddles.

And they are not shy about advertising their discoveries. Like street buskers or soapbox preachers, they dance their news. Four or five of them compete on the inside wall of the hive like break dancers vying for your attention at Times Square. You’ve heard about these dances - the famous figure eights that spell out direction, distance, and wind speed on the way to the flower
patch and back. It’s a very complex language for a bee with only a tiny number of brain cells.

But the discouraged foragers gather round to watch the dancers flash and flaunt. Some explorers dance more enthusiastically than others. The most outrageous enthusiasts attract the biggest crowds. If the dance is sufficiently persuasive - which means if the bee dancing the message dances longer than her competitors, if she just won’t give up - a few of the conformists will catch a bit of the dancer’s enthusiasm and go out and check her report. If they’re impressed with what they find, they come back and join the dance. If they’re not impressed, they don’t.

Eventually one bee manages to gather the biggest audience and the largest number of background dancers. That’s when the hive makes up its mind. The conformists go off in a pack to mine the flower patch the winner of the dance contest advertised. When the foragers come back home with pouches full of stuff the hive needs, the unloaders rush to them, make a fuss over them, and unload them as quickly as they can. The foraging conformists get what they need most, attention. They sharpen up as if they have a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, and a sense of meaning again.

Meanwhile the explorer bees - the bee world’s Henry David Thoreaaus - go off on their self-indulgent flights and buzz off the beaten path, selfishly pursuing their trend-bucking rambles again.

The hive survives thanks to wastes of time and energy. It survives thanks to the explorer’s useless consumption of fuel. It survives thanks to self-indulgence. It survives thanks to a hippie luxury.

If I've started a trend (I have for me) here's another patch of Bloom: In Praise Of Consumerism — It Appeals To The Thoreau In You

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