Law in Contemporary Society
Ready for grading

Conspicuous Consumption and the Environmental Movement

Premise: if we accept, for argument’s sake, that Veblen’s thesis in The Theory of the Leisure Class is correct, how can the environmental movement hope to survive in a world of conspicuous consumption?

The Rise and Trivialization of Environmentalism

Although the environmental movement has existed in one form or another for the past 150 years, it historically has been a primarily fringe movement. While at times certain issues would capture popular attention, those issues inevitably faded from public consciousness.

In the last few years, however, environmentalism has gained national attention. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was a huge commercial and critical success. Sales of Toyota’s “green” Prius have stayed high, despite a slow auto market overall. The popularity of organic goods, such as organic coffee, steadily continues to grow. Even Wal*Mart now offers “earth friendly shopping."

The Taste of Eco-Friendliness

While the increased popularity of eco-friendly products may at first seem to herald a new way of living, in actuality “green consumerism” can be likened more readily to a change in taste than a change in lifestyle. Buying environmentally-friendly products requires no significant lifestyle change, but is an effective way to use taste to signal one's class.

In his chapter on “Pecuniary Canons of Taste,” Veblen notes that the most "tasteful" objects are those that have added expense, but no added usefulness (50). That description fits many eco-friendly products perfectly. Organic towels, for example, cost more than five times as much as non-organic towels, but they don’t soak up water any better.

Failings of Eco-Friendly Products

While green consumerism has made “environmentally friendly” a trendy catchphrase, it is up for debate whether it is actually that, well, environmentally friendly. Part of the problem is that the earth isn’t just harmed by certain kinds of consumption; it is harmed by heavy consumption of any product. While environmentally-friendly products may well be better for the environment than other items, they’re still much worse than buying no product at all. For example, it’s all well and good to get an energy-saving television, but even the most energy-efficient appliances use some energy (even when turned off). Moreover, in a culture of conspicuous consumption, old “green” products must continuously be thrown out so that new ones can be consumed. The earth is helped very little by a landfill that’s filled with couches made from organic cotton. After all, not even newspapers biodegrade in landfills, so organic cotton almost certainly would not.

Conspicuous Shaming

One strategy environmentalists have recently tried to use to achieve change is conspicuous shaming: that is, working on a global scale to achieve environmentalism by pointing out how much the United States lags behind when it comes to sustainability. In a way, this strategy also plays on conspicuous consumption: “all of the other wealthy nations have time and resources to spare for this issue; why don’t you?”

Certainly there is an appeal to this argument. If conspicuous consumption motivates people, why not nations? What are nations, after all, but a collection of people? And research (into, for instance, sustainable energy sources) expends a lot of time and money.

The nation certainly has engaged in conspicuous consumption in other political arenas, such as war. But certain aspects of war make it a more successful vehicle for conspicuous consumption than environmentalism. For one thing, the competition of resources can result in a public “winner”. In fact, it is when wars aren't (or can't be) won that public enthusiasm for that avenue of conspicuous consumption fades. Part of the reason the Iraq war has become increasingly unpopular is due to the belief that it cannot be won. Similarly, the war on global warming can also not ever truly be won: the battle must be constantly fought, sacrifices must be continuously made.

Reliance on Individuals

The greatest problem with conspicuous shaming is that it must, eventually, rely on individual efforts. While the United States can develop new technologies, that does not guarantee that people will use them. Especially if the cost of non-renewable materials remains high, many people may well prefer those technologies that show off their own ability to waste.

So What Do We Do?

There is no good answer for how to save the environmental movement in the face of conspicuous consumption. That is not to say that is impossible. Paradigms shift. Just because conspicuous consumption is how the world is currently organized doesn’t mean that it can never change (after all, even Veblen doesn’t believe conspicuous consumption was born with Man (10)). But a paradigm shift won’t be easy, and it is far from assured. The best that environmentalists can now hope for is that understanding the problem will someday lead them to a solution.



Webs Webs

r16 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:54:35 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM