Sex, Rock 'n' Roll and Global Warming

Can globally synchronized music concerts change the world? Was Al Gore's Live Earth extravaganza worth its cost in carbon emissions? Since the July 7 event, a number of commentators have groused about the carbon footprint of the events, the lack of focus on measurable goals and the inherent wastefulness of mega-stars who fly their bloated entourages around in private jets.

These complaints are all valid enough, but the organizers also never claimed the concerts to be anything more than the launch of a public education campaign about global warming. In the long run, however, the organizers have extremely outsize ambitions. They hope the Live Earth concerts will have been the tipping point for a transforming change in consciousness. The proof of this concept, that a global entertainment event can start a revolution, will only be available as time shows us how Live Earth has impacted mass consumer culture.

Preliminary returns are not greatly encouraging if you go by such barometers as People magazine. People's story on Live Earth, wedged into the back half of the July 23 issue, ran barely 250 words with a scant half dozen pictures. The article's main point was that the music "helped the medicine go down." These are not words to start a revolution.

Dissecting the rest of this issue of People shows you what the problem is. From the cover story, "The World's Richest Teens," to the multi-page spread on the million dollar Eva Langoria-Tony Parker wedding, it was all about bling. Clearly, to save the planet, we'll have to find other role models than the winners of the most lavish wedding competition.

But according to culture experts, we'll never separate the people from their bling. Dr. Matt Prescott, in a column for the BBC News titled: "Sex Sells, But at What Cost?," argues global warming and other environmental ills are just a side effect of our need to impress the opposite sex with our conspicuous consumption. The fast car, the big house and the endless parade of fashion are hardwired into us.

Prescott explains: "In early human societies, people were able to compete in non-lethal ways by collecting beautiful objects such as feathers, unusual pebbles or animal skins ... Now that we have succeeded in harnessing the world's fossil fuel reserves, our brains' fixation on visible status symbols has become something of a hindrance ...."

That is putting it mildly!

Dr. Prescott is head of the British "Ban the Bulb" campaign that seeks to ban the incandescent light bulb and replace it with much more energy-efficient compact fluorescents. It is important, he says, to know ourselves, to know we have a deep-seated need for status and security that often makes it impossible for us to think rationally about resource use. He recommends we start small in changing people's behavior. He says easy first steps like changing light bulbs can "help us to feel secure about our social status, foster a sense of achievement and encourage changes in everyday activities."

Changing light bulbs becomes less like medicine and more like bling. The new light bulbs transform into jewels you can add to your low-carbon crown.

One of the reader comments on Prescott's story also caught my eye. Colleen Sudekum of San Francisco, California wrote:

Fast cars and conspicuous consumption are definitely part of sexual display. But we females choose our males based on what we consider best for long term relationships and families. Girls, we need to tell the guys with the hot cars that they aren't husband material, and we aren't impressed by this behavior. We did it once, when we chose men who weren't going to kill each other in sword fights, we can do it again. Choosing the guys who protect the future, even for that one night stand, is promoting your own welfare.

Though I'm not sure exactly what she is referring to regarding "sword fights," the idea of female solidarity to alter male status-seeking behavior is worth pursuing. In fact, I have just returned from the annual meeting of a consortium of feminist, peace and environmental groups that is focused on exactly this strategy.

The Up the River Endeavors consortium was founded six years ago to examine the root causes of poverty, violence and environmental catastrophe. The purpose of the consortium is not so much to issue reports or influence policy, but to help its member organizations think more deeply about their strategies. Each year the consortium invites a number of associates to add spice to their discussions. I was invited to attend as an associate this year, along with several other writers and an anthropologist.

The anthropologist was my friend Chris Knight, professor of anthropology at the University of East London, whom I have written about here. Knight is at the center of a group of anthropologists who have formed a very compelling theory about the origins of human culture that may have great relevance to the culture conflicts that will determine our future survival.

According to Knight and his colleagues, human culture was seeded by a particular bit of biology unique to humans: a menstrual cycle that is synched with the moon. With an average 29.5 day length, the human menstrual cycle corresponds exactly with the lunar cycle. In cultures all over the world, women are found to have synchronized their menstrual cycles with the moon and with each other. Menstrual synchrony gave early human females the power to regulate the larger social order by regulating sex.

Throughout the world, in traditional cultures, you find very strong taboos around menstruating women. A menstruating woman must separate herself from males so completely that she may not cook or even touch their food. (Remember "cooties" from your grade-school days?) I had always thought these customs reflected an extreme patriarchal prejudice against women, but it turns out they are actually the remnants of a system created by women sometime on the order of 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Here is how the system worked:

During the ten-day period around the dark moon, women menstruated. They retreated to their own kin groups, spurning the husbands, who wisely chose that moment to split and go hunting. (Perhaps that's what PMS is for - motivation for hubby to get out of the house and bring back the bacon!) The waxing moon rises early which is a great advantage to a hunting party, and by the time of the full moon, the guys would have managed to kill some big animal and haul it back to camp. Drumming, dancing, feasting and sex would ensue. When the meat ran out a week or so later, the women would begin their retreat and the cycle would start over.

The advantages to women are several. First, the woman with the big-brained, but physically helpless, infant in arms would get a real contribution of protein to her diet. Second, violent and disruptive conflict between males would be subverted into a cooperative hunt that benefited the whole group; and, finally, this system would reduce the power of any single dominant male to monopolize the females. How? Well, if the females cooperate to ensure they are sexually available all at once during a specified part of the month, any potentially dominant male will be physically limited in the number of females he can consort with. Sub-dominant males have more of a chance, and, consequently, their energies are harnessed to provide food for mothers and babies.

The system is only as strong as its weakest link, so female solidarity in maintaining it was essential. That's why the menstrual taboos were so strong and also why women invented cosmetics. Women who did not menstruate because they were nursing, or just out of synch with the group, would paint themselves with the red ochre body paint found in abundance in archaeological sites all over the world. Red ochre body paint was the first bling.

Chris Knight calls this cultural system the "human revolution," because he believes it was the behavioral pattern that transformed us into human beings. Drumming, dancing, sex and feasting at the full moon are at the foundation of all human culture. The human revolution was a rock 'n' roll revolution. Al Gore's instinct to launch the next human revolution, the revolution that will let us survive global warming, with a rock concert, would seem to be right on the money. But where do we go from here?

Chris Knight told me a story about the Hazda people of Tanzania, who still maintain a social system very much as described above. Some Hazda were in London to meet with international aid groups and they were horrified at the invisibility of the night sky and the moon and the stars. "How do you keep from getting sick?" they asked. To the Hazda, it is essential to health to have regular exposure to moonlight and to see the stars, who are their wise ancestors.

The answer to their question is we are sick and getting sicker. Life expectancy in the industrialized world is actually going down as the toxins build up and our stressed out bodies are more and more confined in cars mired in gridlock or stuck on the couch, eyes glued to the screen.

If the Live Earth concerts are to continue, they ought to evolve to serve the transformation not just away from consumer society but toward a culture where we dance and sing and find our bling in things that are healthy for us and the planet. Perhaps the concerts could follow a powerdown sequence where every year they become more local and less top down, promoting local musicians and participation, while celebrating the world's musical diversity through the Internet. Live Earth could be the focus of a shared vision that promotes global social cohesion. Solidarity like this will be ever more important as global warming continues to clobber the environment and we cope with the looming energy crisis.

In the end, we can't go back to the simple life of our ancestors; but we can know where we came from, and aim for a future where we can see all the stars: the stars of Hollywood and Bollywood, the stars of our towns and neighborhoods, and the real stars that still shine bright in the endless black of the night sky.


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