The Modestly Dressed Environmentalist

By Richard Dale (@rdale)

We live in a world of abundance. I would like to propose that in order to maintain this abundance and make it available to all of humanity, we might look at how Jewish traditions have foreseen the most modern of phenomena: Social Media. You might share, tweet and “like” this article, or you might comment on its erudition (or lack thereof)… and either way you are participating in a world of renewable abundance. Curious? Read on!

Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah’s sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but [the creation of] the entire world is worthwhile for [that person] alone. (Pirke Avot 6:1)

I recently saw a wonderful TEDx talk, from the London School of Economics (LSE), entitled “The Naked Environmentalist”, given by Solitaire Townsend. The un-cited quotes to follow all come from Townsend’s talk.

Townsend tells a story of how humanity has evolved from a natural world where mate selection is often driven by conspicuous, wasteful consumption of resources, like the oft-told story of the peacock’s feathers. The more beautiful and munificent a peacock’s feather display, the clearer it is to the peahens that this male is strong and fast (how else could he avoid predators dragging those feathers around?). Even more, he has good genes (look at those feathers!). This wasteful display of conspicuous consumption cannot be faked and can only mean one thing – good mating material.

“In capitalist societies we organize our status and our sex status through stuff, through what we earn and what we own.”

Townsend reminds us that sexual desirability is inextricably linked with social status as well as, and sometimes instead of, physical fitness. As human societies have developed, signals of status, power, and fitness have been conferred in different ways. In some societies the religious leadership can confer status and decide who can marry whom. The caste system confers status, or a feudal system, and certainly economic systems.

“We have built status deeply into our societies and into how we judge each other.”

In our Western capitalist democracies, it is economic success that confers social status. Wasteful spending means that if we can afford all those material possessions, we must also be wealthy enough to be able to feed, house and clothe ourselves well. We are signaling that we are good mating material.

“Huge amounts of our consumption behaviors are based on trying to affect our level in the status hierarchy.”

Townsend reminds us that this link between social status and sexual desirability is inextricably bound to our pre-conscious biology. So she argues that when ‘traditional’ environmentalists tell us to stop consuming, to stop wanting stuff, they are actually telling us we should stop wanting sex.

“Nobody buys an Alfa Romeo in order to be smarter. Nobody gets a boob job in order to be a better parent.”

And no one does either of those things without being fully aware of the impact on their status.

The problem with this system is that there is not enough stuff in the world for all seven, eight, or nine billion of us to be able to participate in the race for economic status. So if we can’t stop consuming, we have to change how we build, measure and confer status.

These are things the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World to Come: Honoring father and mother, acts of kindness, and bringing peace between a man and his fellow. But the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

Townsend then builds a clear picture of how social media status can replace status as measured by economic accumulation and consumption. She argues that our children, who are fixated on their smart phones and tablets, are in the vanguard of this revolution.

I prefer the Torah of Your mouth over thousands in gold and silver (Psalms 119:72).

Social media recognition (all those “likes”, “shares”, “re-tweets”) are now the currency of status. Desirable individuals share funny, smart, sassy and unusual material. They curate a world that attracts their friends and makes them popular, whatever their economic status. If we can nurture this trend, rather than be horrified, then perhaps we are reshaping status without having to reshape the meanings and use of status. We know that humanity will not stop wanting sex, will not stop wanting to signal status in the social hierarchy, but we also know that different approaches to what drives status can and do work.

“Authentic human experience is more likely to gain you social status online than just posting pictures of your shoes”

I have not been too subtle, sprinkling quotes from Jewish text throughout this piece. It is no secret that now, in recent history, and over thousands of years, Judaism has treasured learning and education. Education has conferred status at least as great as wealth in many Jewish communities. Other behaviours also confer status, and in fact much of organized religion is about promoting values over riches, and promoting the status of the pious over the status conferred by wealth.

A GOOD name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold. (Proverbs 22:1)

If we hope that all of humanity can share in abundance, and not just hoard it for our narrow Western world, then we need to find new ways to measure status, social hierarchy, and sexual desirability. Our tradition shows us the many ways it has to signal status that have nothing to do with economics. The digital worlds of social media are finding new ways to do the same. Between the ancient wisdom and the new, we can find abundance by seeking a status not governed by wealth.

Richard DaleRichard Dale is COO at Optum Labs, an open research and innovation center dedicated to improving patient care and outcomes in the health care industry. Richard is also a well-regarded mentor to founders of early stage startups, including non-profits, in the Boston area.

Previously Richard was a Principal at Sigma Partner, an early stage Venture Capital firm. Richard came to the VC world after a long period as an entrepreneur and startup executive. He co-founded and had various leadership roles at Phase Forward, a provider of software services for pharmaceutical clinical trials which went public and later was sold to Oracle. Prior to that, Richard was VP Operations for Vermeer Technologies, creators of FrontPage, which was acquired by Microsoft in 1996. Richard’s career began as a software engineer and database expert, including working for a software company in Jerusalem in the late 1980′s.

Richard is an avid recreational cyclist and rides a recumbent bike. He blogs occasionally at In other community involvement, Richard is on the board, and is past board chair, of Hazon, and is a previous Trustee of JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.  Richard and his family are active and long-standing members of the Newton Centre Minyan, in Newton MA where they live.

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.


3 thoughts on “The Modestly Dressed Environmentalist

  1. Brilliant. In “Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man,” Daniel Boyarin unpacked the issue of male status in Judaism, and this blog post reminds me that I want to reread it. Thank you!

  2. Provocative, in the best sense of the word.
    invites reflection and self -evaluation
    Great for pre-Rosh Hashanah, as the time to re-evaluate who and what we value.

  3. I recently read “Overwhelmed: Work Love and Play When No One Has the Time”. One of the interesting things she explores is the role of “leisure time” in society and how we’ve evolved from leisure being a status symbol to busy-ness being a sign of status. And there can be forms of conspicuous consumption associated with leisure (thing cruises, European tours, etc.). But she is talking about everyday leisure: having the time to learn, to enjoy a hobby, to read a book, to make a delicious meal and have friends over. I vote for “sitting in my hammock with a new book and glass of lemonade” as a new high standard for status!

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