How Sex – and Google Glass – Will Save Us: Meet the Naked Environmentalist

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Photo courtesy of Robert Stuermer, WRF2013

World Resources Forum 2013 – Davos. In a 3-day agenda captured by politicians, scientific researchers and academics, Solitaire Townsend’s talk “The Naked Environmentalist: How Sex Will Save Us” stood out like blood on white sheets.

Not only did the catchy, controversial title take everyone aback and create unprecedented anticipation, but the Forum’s coffee break chats were soon producing  unintended puns, en masse: “Ok, time for that Sex thing, wanna go with me?”, “How long is that Sex thing going to last?”, “Can I have Miss Townsend for an hour right after the session?”,“Oh, is this Sex thing on already, you go, I have a terrible headache right now”, “Miss Townsend is busy right now, I’m sorry – Oh, just a quick one please, I have to attend a meeting soon anyway”.

In what will in all likelihood make a very influential TEDx talk sooner rather than later, Miss Townsend, co-founder of award-winning sustainability communications agency Futerra, sends a powerful, clear-cut message: She suggests social media is taking over from wealth accumulation and consumption as the prime, if not sole, medium of competing in the sexual arena and climbing the sexual hierarchy. She preaches that social media is here to bare us down to what we are, rather than what we own, when signaling out to our desired partners. It is no more about how many shoes are in your closet or the “vroom” of your vehicle – it is about how many “likes” you can get and the “vavavavoom” of your tweets. Only this dematerialization of sexual identity by social media, concludes Solitaire, can smoothly steer humanity towards truly sustainable lifestyles.

Then again, such savvy rhetoric lends itself to scrutiny, and the witty title and evangelistic message invite skepticism. Student Reporter quickly recovered from the sensual, jaw-dropping speech and sat down with Miss Townsend for a critical, in-depth discussion of these insights.

Q: What was the essence of your speech?

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Photo courtesy of Robert Stuermer, WRF2013

S.T.: In this conference, like in any other on sustainability, I find we overly focus on policy, economics and technology, rather than talk about people, and their behavior. We strive to design brand new systems and infrastructure around people that are yet unwilling and unready to change their behavior, of which of course sex is – and has always been – a governing factor. And today, sex and attraction are inadvertently linked to conspicuous consumption. All we do to signal our “breeding worthiness” is consume, to a terribly wasteful degree, like a peacock, which compromises itself and wastes lots of calories only to spread its feathers and show-off. The idea is that, “If I can afford to be so wasteful just to get your attention, imagine what I can actually provide.” Humans are nowadays programmed to function like that, to the point where beating the sexual status rankings has become an end in itself, completely disconnected from procreation or pleasure. Two men will walk into a bar and immediately start to screen each other, competing on who can demonstrate greater wealth…

Q: …completely ignoring the women in the room, possibly…

S.T.: Exactly! We are so infatuated with climbing the sexual hierarchy, attaining a higher status than everybody else, and not just to attract partners, but for the sake of it. Same for women, they compete with their clothes, accessories, houses, forms of entertainment – things that do not necessarily make them more attractive to the opposite sex, even. But with available material resources in decline, I’m afraid we cannot carry on playing this game for long. A solution must be found, and fast.

Q: So, where does social media come in?

S.T.: The almighty social media may well be this solution, by forcing the process of sexual signaling to move away from the material world unto the virtual. Social media are invaluable to people. Recent surveys by the insurance sector have shown that their internet connection, and thus online interaction, is the last thing people are prepared to give up, over their car, their furniture, often their home or access to education. And a “like” or a “share” has almost the same value to a youngster today as a new, slick pair of sneakers. Being humorous, inventive or sentimental online can boost your sex appeal and social status, and can make you just as desirable as clothes and looks can, nowadays. However, this shift will only be visible in those who are in their teens or lower today, it is too late for those of us who have entered adulthood with the concept of consumption dominating our sexual expression.

interview with ST

Photo courtesy of Philippa Young

Q: But isn’t sustaining a competitive social media image just as wasteful? People spend hours online, curating their Facebook pages, fussing over profile pictures etc. A man in the audience pointed out that more than 1 out of 3 Facebook users are diagnosed as narcissists, whereas the statistic over the entire human population is only 1 out of 20. And, arguably, there is no room for narcissists in the struggle for sustainability…

S.T. I do not claim that social media can “fix” people, improve the quality of human interaction, get us more free time or reduce our stress. But what it can do, is dematerialize sexual competition, and that is crucial in today’s circumstances.

Q: Looking at my 8-year-old cousin’s Facebook wall, it does not appear much dematerialized…

S.T. Look, this change has not happened yet. A good part of our social media image today is still influenced by “stuff” we own or consume. There are a couple of controlling conditions that will determine how quickly the transition occurs. One is the availability of “stuff” in the first place; soon, access to goods other than to cover basic needs might become extremely hard. It will then become difficult, if not pointless, to compete on who can get more. A second determinant will be how quickly technology will allow us to project our social status and online image in the physical world. Unless I can look at you in a bar and see the number of “likes” or “follows” you get hovering over your head, I can’t figure out if I fancy you or not. Technologies like Google’s Google Glass can and will change that.

Q: One’s online social status can easily be manipulated – people can simply lie, be selective in the information they reveal or very skillful in building up an attractive image. Will this new form of mating arena be any fairer?

S.T.: Welcome to sexual competition! No, I do not think equity is a consideration here. Much like today, when good-looking, attractive people can be losers or jerks who just happened to carry good genes, sexual hierarchy will never fully reflect what people are really worth. The improvement is that we will burn out the planet’s resources no more, in this battle for sexual supremacy. But keep in mind, as wasteful as consumerism may be, it is still fairer than earlier economic forms, like feudalism. For, example, once women could have careers and make money, this professional success punched their ticket to equality with men. My only concern is that once conspicuous consumption is sidelined as a status signal, we might return to social structures where being a woman, being gay, disabled etc. is once again a handicap.

All in all, unlike most environmentalists, I do not aspire to change people, to fix their weaknesses and fallacies, to make them happier or more fulfilled. I care about avoiding resource collapse, I want to see us succeed in this shift to sustainable lifestyles, so that the next generation may have an opportunity to live peacefully on this planet and decide for themselves what their role and destiny as human beings will be.

An utterly captivated audience during Solitaire’s WRF talk.

2 thoughts on “How Sex – and Google Glass – Will Save Us: Meet the Naked Environmentalist

  1. It seems as though her theory is optimistic enough to pour some water in the half-empty glass of a non-sustainable future, but collapses under non-impoverishing assumptions about the world.
    Nice, to-the-point questions, though.

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