It’s Time To Be Magnificent!

Currently many users of rare legal and illegal wildlife products gain status, influence, power and/or prestige with their peer group by consuming these precious ‘products’. While in the short-term demand reduction campaigns will be needed to change people’s motivations to consume endangered species, to ensure a long-term ecologically sustainable future we must provide alternative ways to engage with nature.

This also applies to society more broadly. The consequences of the (luxury) consumption mindset can be highlighted in a handful of images. Our ‘home’ has been ignored and left to tumble down around us. We are reaching a tipping point where the results for the natural world are catastrophic and, selfishly, no one can really predict the implications for the world’s citizens. As Gus Speth stated:

“The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy…
and to deal with those we need a cultural transformation……and we
scientists don’t know how to do that”.

Diverting people away from luxury consumption and toward a generosity of spirit and a desire to leave a lasting legacy would be a fantastic change. Can re-inventing the concept of magnificence provide that cultural transformation and a pragmatic alternative to challenge the entrenched desire to buy (luxury) ‘stuff’?

Historically, people who made a contribution to society that would have been categorised as magnificent, focused on buildings (museums, cathedrals, art galleries etc.) in urban areas. One reason for this was that their legacy would be seen by many people and they would be remembered long into the future.

Today, the most pressing need today is to reconnect society with nature and establish a better balance between human needs and the needs of the planetary eco-systems. As for a person’s generosity of spirit being noticed, the internet means good deeds can be communicated worldwide.

It must be clarified that magnificence should not be considered as philanthropy. No matter how generous it may be, these issues cannot be solved with just 3% of philanthropic contributions going towards the Environment/Animals.

The first step in this transformation is to go to where people are at (they need status and significance) and provide them a new way to achieve this which isn’t too far removed from their current dominant worldview; with this we can re-direct desire. From re-directing desire we can we can re-connect with who we once were, as we re-invent magnificence for a modern day context.

Re-Directing Desire: The Final Step In Demand Reduction Campaigns

Currently many users of illegal wildlife products, in many regions of the world, gain status, influence, power and/or prestige with their peer group by consuming these rare and precious ‘products’ or gifting them. While in the short-term demand reduction/behaviour change campaigns will be needed to change people’s motivations to consume illegal and endangered wildlife ‘products’, to ensure a long-term sustainable future we must provide alternative ways to engage with nature. This involves re-directing desire as the final step in demand reduction campaigns.

We cannot re-direct these users to ‘legal luxury consumption’. Simply reverting to mainstream luxury products does not fulfil their desire for differentiation and would be seen as a backward step by the elite users of illegal wildlife products. Many of the target group already engage in all forms of ‘legal luxury consumption’, which is one of the reasons they have moved to ‘illegal luxury consumption’ to differentiate themselves from the broader elite group.  For this group, if we don’t provide a motivation to not consume products from nature, they will simply substitute one product for another (e.g. rhino horn, ivory, helmeted hornbill [red ivory]) in response to demand reduction campaigns. We must accept that these new ways to engage with nature may be driven by a wide range of personal values and needs.

Some people’s values result in them empathizing with animals and the natural environment, while others, no matter how much they are educated, will always see them as lower down the hierarchy and, as a result, as being there to serve human needs. Re-balancing human activity and the natural world, with a focus on achieving ecological sustainability, is first and foremost a people-centred challenge. While society is seen as no more than ‘the economy’ and people are reduced to ‘resources’, ‘consumers’ or ‘labour’, we can’t be surprised that nature has also been commoditised. We now speak of ‘natural resources’, ‘game’ and ‘land’, a vernacular that doesn’t instill magnificence and, as a result, we see the ongoing plunder of the natural world.

Nature Needs More (and Breaking The Brand) Founder, Dr Lynn Johnson, is currently researching a way of re-inventing magnificence. This new magnificence could be a motivation to contribute to the natural world rather than consume its ‘products’. We accept that the motivations to contribute may be a way to provide elites an alternative to fulfil their self-image needs and a way to ‘win’ in the social comparison stakes. Therefore the language of magnificence will have to include elite differentiation, status and prestige, but also bring back the commons and common good, which was lost by a self-serving luxury lifestyle.

17 interviews with very wealthy men, aged between 35 and 80 years of age, who gave significant amounts (up to 25% of their income annually) to projects as well as making time investments. 15 of these were business owners. All expressed that they had outgrown their business and that they no longer wanted repetition in their business life. All were still achievement focussed and they were looking to engage in complex problem solving. Some were still in competition but had migrated to a new ‘playing field’, while others wanted to test if they had still ‘got it’. A few expressed that they wanted access to a new, higher status, network and being involved in solving global, complex issues gave them access to a very high status group.

Magnificence vs. Luxury

As part of the initial literature search on the nature of luxury, the concept of Magnificence vs. Luxury caught my attention. In its origins, luxury was not a term to describe consumption by elites, but one used to denigrate the aspirational consumer practices of the newly emerging wealthy classes. In contrast, magnificence is related to the positive uses of wealth, i.e. doing something valuable for the public good.

Defining Magnificence (the historical words that described Magnificence).

Historically, magnificence was the term used for the undertaking of great projects and actions designated to the public/greater good. It was understood as a moral framework that obliged those who were wealthy to do something that was of value to society and hence could highlight the wisdom and prestige of the person undertaking the project. The exact nature of what was valued the most at the time depended on circumstance, but it often involved public buildings (libraries, cathedrals, temples, universities and later museums or art galleries). The spirit of such magnificence was generosity, virtue, honour and a desire to leave a lasting legacy. Examples are found in all historical civilisations, but, in the main, the concept went out of fashion with the Industrial Revolution.

Defining Luxury (the historical words that described Luxury)

In contrast to magnificence, luxury was and remains self-serving. Seen from the beginning as the aspirational consumption of the non-elites, it was seen as a vice, not a virtue. Luxury was associated with immorality, envy and lust and hence deemed improper. A pale imitation of elite lifestyles it was seen universally as extravagant, decadent and practised by the mediocre and those with vain ambition. This overwhelmingly negative view of luxury slowly disappeared from the 16th to 18th century as a class of newly wealthy emerged (merchants, business owners) and the language of magnificence was subverted to now describe luxury. By the 19th century magnificence was largely forgotten and confined to individual acts of greatness and luxury had, for the most part, lost its negative connotations.

Today, few people will have even heard of magnificence and luxury consumption is something most people aspire to. Additionally, a lot of money and energy goes in to telling & selling us that we need lifestyles filled with luxury goods, experiences and services if we want to be seen as successful in the social comparison stakes.

Examples of Magnificence

Post industrial revolution, the number of examples of could be termed as magnificence has dwindled. Much of what is contributed feels small scale compared to the available wealth of the world’s top 1%. Similarly, too many philanthropic endeavours appear to be ‘pet projects’, serving personal desire rather than a generosity of public spirit for the public good. It is also difficult to fully respect the work of people who are making a contribution when you know that the company they own or manage is shifting money to minimise tax and/or exploiting their workforce. In addition, given the ad-hoc nature of many charitable endeavours they predominantly tackle symptoms rather than resolving the problem. But there are examples of what can be defined as Magnificence:

Prince Albert, the Prince Consort

Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria. Albert led reforms in education, welfare, housing and slavery. The Great Exhibit, which he championed, and battled MP’s to stage, was not only a success in itself but the surplus funds it raised (£180,000) were used to purchase land in South Kensington on which to establish educational and cultural institutions—including the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Imperial College London, the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Women Who Saved The Birds

Cousins Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall  launched a series of tea parties, inviting the fashionable  ladies of Boston and urging them to stop wearing feathered hats; the desire for feathers in hats, which was driving the plume boom. The level of destruction of bird colonies meant there was a real possibility of driving some birds to extinction for this murderous millenary. Some 900 women joined this boycott and the campaign expanded around the world. Nature Needs More’s annual fundraiser, the Style Icon Afternoon Tea was inspired by Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall.

Kris & Doug Tompkins

The Doug and Kris Tompkins Foundation has consistently demonstrated a strategic approach to turning around the loss of biodiversity. They have worked to create and expand national parks in Chile and Argentina, re-introduce wildlife, including the jaguar and develop a balance between the needs of humanity and the natural world. Since Doug’s untimely death Kris has continued the work. The Nature Needs More team like that fact that one of Kris and Doug’s foundations goals is to Inspire Activism and on their website they quote writer Ed Abbey  who said, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”