Consumptious Conspicuosity

May 23, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Once in a while I get tired of the environmental/ecological harangue.  People should do such-and-such; people should not do so-n-so; we need to etc etc etc.

The question that needs to be addressed–and the one which, consciously or not, drives the resistence of this or any other administration’s apparent lack of response to conservation arguments, drives in fact the endless search for energy and resource, drives the often confusing and conflicting debate in congress is–

What Are People Willing To Give Up To Save The Planet?

In my youth, the Ecology movement was young and one saw many odd and contradictory sights.  One that stuck with me to this day was the mock burial of a gas guzzler.  Well, it was actually buried–a Buick, if I recall–but the “mock” part was that this represented our conspicuous consumption, Detroit, Big Oil, etc.  Many young folk were in attendance.  Ceremony was conducted.  It was a solemn event.

And everyone got in their cars after and went home.  Most of those cars were 8-cylinder Somethings.  Few VWs (which would have been the Car Of Opposition To Detroit then).  Stereos blasting, air conditioners blowing…

Sure, a lot of those kids no doubt recognized the irony, but that’s the mode of transportation they were stuck with.

Still, it raises the question.  Do we consume because we like  the act of Consumption?  Or is it really a matter of having a better life?  Or a life we simply prefer?

Let’s reduce our dependence on oil.  First, we start riding bicycles.  Certainly that would be healthy for us, we have an obesity problem.  But there would be a significant fraction of the population that would die if they had to pedal a bike instead of drive of car.  Overweight, poor health to begin with, susceptible to heat related illness, or just too old.  And what about those missing a limbs?  Well, something would have to be done about them to accommodate their problems.  So not everyone bikes.  Oh, and what about people with toddlers?  Soccer moms would be hard put to pedal their progeny to games.  Maybe something could be set aside for them.

Mass transit?  Not undoable, but if you dumped the population currently commuting by car onto a mass transit system, you would in some cases have to quintuple the size of the trains or the fleet of buses.  And of course people would have to learn to get along with people they’ve never cared to be that close to before.

Stop using plastics. 

Ah, but the sterility factor of plastics in hospitals, to name one example, is peerless.  Not to mention that suddenly we’d be back to using “natural” products to make all these things currently made of plastic.  Wood, certainly, but that’s a significant drain on forests, far more than farming or papermaking or even the housing industry currently uses.  Iron, aluminum, copper all require mining.  And the energy to machine all those things might edge out the energy used to injection mold them.  And they would wear out faster, but that’s not really much of an issue in a throw-away society.  And wood might be easier in some instances to recycle–or would it?  If you pulp it, you can make paper or plywood.  Hmm.  Iron, aluminum, and so forth, certainly, but again the energy required…

Okay, let’s talk about the raw energy we use to live.  Let me see your hands.  How many people would be willing to give up central air, central heating, hot water (clean water), stereos, television, telephony, siding on houses, inexpensive clothing (got to consider the amount of arable land that would have to be devoted to cotton or hemp growth is we get rid of the synthetics), clean cooking equipment (gas or electric stoves replaced by wood burners or coal burners?  Hmm, seems there are problems with that, too), and, frankly, the ability to go where we want when we want and–the biggy–associate with the circle of friends of our choosing no matter where they live? 

None of this is undoable, but I think it ought to be considered that when we talk about all the things we “ought” to do to help the environment, we don’t often have a grasp of what kind of personal sacrifice might be involved.

The solution we’re looking for–and why it’s taking so damn long to come up with–is that we need to find a replacement for fossil fuels that will not significantly diminish the life we now have.  I’m sorry, but people just aren’t going to give up having the life they currently like willingly.

Now, rather than come across as purely a naysayer, let me point out that there are lots of ways to reduce consumption without impairing the way we live.  Just to name one, we need to revisit this absurd fetish we have with Packaging.  Why should everything we buy have to come in its own specially made blister pack or paper box?  It’s ridiculous.  Some things, sure, but most things?  How much landfill is made up of just BOXES and BAGS?

But the major issue is–people need to understand both what we might have to give up and what they’re asking other people to give up in this issue.  Take my freedom of movement away, visa vis my car, and I’m stuck associating with people I’ve never cared to associate with before.  We talk about the decline of the neighborhood, that people don’t know their neighbors anymore.  Well, frankly, if it had been that great, we would still be doing it.  My friends do not live within four blocks of me.  And there are reasons I don’t care to be buddies with the guy down the block.  My mobility allows me to live peacefully with the people around me because we never have to get into each other’s hair to the extent of finding out we don’t like each other.

As facetious as that sounds, it is something we might have to give up.  And it’s not a small thing.

None of it is. 

So it’s going to take a while to find the answers.  In the meantime, I’m not going to ask anyone to give up anything.  Because they could turn around and ask me to give up something.

That’s no way to correct any problem, by starting off creating resentment.

Just ranting and rambling here…

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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (7)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Jason asks, "Do we consume because we like the act of Consumption? Or is it really a matter of having a better life?" I'd answer that by saying too much consumption occurs because we like the act of consumption; i.e., consumption that is primarily intended to impress other people — a.k.a., conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption is an attempt to say with possessions: "I'm rich," "I'm powerful," "I'm successful," "I'm famous," "I'm fun," "I'd make a great sex partner," etc. Sadly for our planet, the drive to make such displays is undoubtedly deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. Like the colorful feathers on a peacock, conspicuous consumption signals to other members of the tribe — especially those of the opposite sex — that one has an excess of resources…an excess that the owner hopes will attract admirers. In prehistoric times, the excess was probably first in the form of basic survival items: food, shelter and clothing. But ancient human burial sites have yielded such a wide variety of jewelry, statuary, and other "useless" decorative objects that it illustrates how quickly conspicuous consumption became embedded in human culture. Indeed, such evidence of conspicuous consumption is arguably the single most universal trait among all ancient burial sites scattered around the globe. They may differ in how the body was positioned or how the body was packaged, but nearly all will contain at least one object that was once a shiny trinket. Today's SUV was apparently yesterday's gold earring.

    Indeed, one look at the debt figures for Americans will illustrate just how ubiquitous is the (death) grip of conspicuous consumption. The average American household carries almost $10,000 in (VERY high-interest) credit card debt, and the country as a whole carries almost another $30,000 *per person* in national debt, and both numbers creep higher every year. So did the numbers of bankruptcies, until Republicans in Washington changed the bankruptcy laws to reduce the number. One wonders if there is a limit to the amount of debt Americans are willing to incur to finance their desire for conspicuous consumption.

    And, speaking of Washington, also sad for our planet is the fact that many political leaders — especially those in the American Republican party — exploit this basic human drive for the purpose of their own political gain. "Vote for me and I will cut your taxes," appeals to voters because it means, "Vote for me and I will help you increase your conspicuous consumption." Likewise, "Vote for me and I will reduce the size of government" translates as, "Vote for me and I will help you consume more of our planet's non-renewable resources." Such politicians are like bartenders at a party of drunken sailors.

    Nevertheless, one thing is certain: conspicuous consumption (especially of oil) will eventually cost so much that it will *force* citizens of developed countries to change their ways. For example, products made today from plastics (e.g., sterile medical products, synthetic clothing, etc.) will, at some point, become so costly to produce that they will eventually be made, once again, from renewable materials. And it is not too difficult to foresee a time when today's landfills — with their relatively high concentrations of refined metals and plastics — become tomorrow's mining operations.

    I wonder what tomorrow's generations will think of us when they look back at things like today's NASCAR races: events whose specific and sole function is to waste oil. Will they view our "entertainment" with the same derision that we view the gladitorial fights of ancient Rome: events whose specific and sole function was to waste life?

    Indeed, who knows what changes tomorrow will bring. Maybe the high cost of oil-based synthetic clothing will cause polyester leisure suits to become a sign of wealth and status…and bait for the opposite sex. Seems to me that's reason enough to conserve oil now.

  2. Erika Price says:

    I like this. I want to say I like this because of the freshness of the idea, and the razor-sharp practicality that I identify with very strongly as generally a Libertarian. But in reality, I like this because it gives me a moral excuse to not seek a radical change, and to not feel guilty for consuming and destroying without bounds. We really have little choice. That doesn't make me not lazy, either. I agree with your viewpoint, and I think more policy makers need to hear it, but I think if it goes unproperly packaged people will take it as just another excuse to shirk responsibility for the mess they've contributed in making.

  3. Edgar Montrose says:

    There are so many analogies that apply here.

    The first that comes to my mind is a puzzle game that I had when I was a boy. It consisted of fifteen numbered tiles arranged in a 4 by 4 square. The tiles had to be moved around, slid past each other, and put into numerical order. I found a lesson in the fact that, sometimes, the tiles had to be put farther out-of-order before they could be put in-order.

    The changes that you mention are a lot like putting the tiles in order. It cannot all be done at once. It must consist of a lot of little steps, some of which do not seem to make sense on the small scale, but which are apparent when looking at the big picture … eventually.

    Another analogy is that of the overweight person trying to lose weight. The weight wasn't gained overnight, so it's not going to be lost overnight. It is a long, slow, uncomfortable process that requires permanent changes in lifestyle. And it is so easy to satisfy a short term craving for Oreos today, because it will be so many tomorrows before the ultimate goal is achieved that it seems like eternity. An ill-defined objective like "healthier lifestyle" is easily trumped by a well-defined craving for refined sugar.

    But just look at what we have achieved so far. Just in my own lifetime, I have seen enormous changes. I remember Summer in the late 1960s, in the suburbs of St. Louis. The air was so full of pollution that I could not see my neighbor's house across the street. Now we have cars that are MUCH cleaner, yet every bit as amazingly powerful and fun to drive, not to mention safer and just plain better in every way. And as a result of this, and similar changes to other sources of pollution, the air is much, much cleaner.

    And speaking of cars, what we now call "full-sized" would have been called an "intermediate" or a "compact" in the 1960s. This represents a complete change of mindset. It took a full generation to accomplish it. Some other "changes of mindset" that occur to me include: intolerance of drunk driving, acceptance of home recycling, rejection of nuclear power, insistence upon safety in products and workspaces, removal of lead from paints and fuels — the list could go on. The important points are that all of these changes were gradual, and that they required alteration of peoples' perceptions of what "good" meant before they could take place.

    And now, of course, we have an administration that seems to be dead-set on undoing all of the good things of the last forty years, taking us right back to the 1960s. But that's fodder for another rant of a different kind.

  4. Jason Rayl says:

    Couple of points. One for grumpypilgrim, who said–

    "one look at the debt figures for Americans will illustrate just how ubiquitous is the (death) grip of conspicuous consumption. The average American household carries almost $10,000 in (VERY high-interest) credit card debt,"

    Part of this is fueled by a disparating in related costs. Between 1950 and 1980, the average salary rose three times (give or take a point or two) while the average cost of housing rose EIGHT times. Since 1980, average income has risen very slightly, but housing has effectively doubled, so between 1950 and now you're looking at the cost of housing having risen almost fifteen times. There is no way standards of living can increase or even remain stable without some kind of extraordinary bending of the economic rules. Debt is not all a matter of having the hottest new toy. A lot of it has to do with food, health care (another oppressively rising matter), and that all important college education for the kids, without which they will slide below the level of their parents. In other words, frivolity and bragging rights ain't the base reasons for a good chunk of the average debt load.

    Second thing, this for Erika: my point was not, as you seem to understand, to let anyone off the hook. My point was that BIG FIXES that pay no attention to the so-called realities of individual lives will simply not work. Rather, personal responsibility is likely going to be the ONLY thing that will do it. Which will mean things like choosing not to live in suburbia, opting for a job closer to home that might pay less, doing a little basic research on product longevity and upgradeability before buying, and maybe deciding to only have one child or none. Simpler things that local communities might do–mandate the presence of sidewalks in all developments; give tax breaks to people who have smaller families; sponsor TIFF funding for rehabbing housing already standing instead of always sponsoring new building.

    Stuff like that would be a better start than ordering the automobile industry to raise CAFE standards time and again. This is an engineering problem and there will come a point when you just can't squeeze anything more out of internal combustion engine (which, by the way, when measured on a per unit of energy basis, is still the most efficient motor–you get more BTUs out of a gallon of gasoline and therefore more work out of your machine than from any other type motor. Electric cars and hybrids are a shuck–one: you still have to burn something to recharge those batteries, you just don't necessarily burn it in your car. two: wait till we have to figure out what to do with sixty million shot batteries than weigh around 200 lbs each. You think we have landfill problems now?

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Jason's follow-up, indeed housing costs have skyrocketed over the past 40 years relative to both income and other expenses. However, many households today have two incomes, which was not the case in 1960. Accordingly, I would not be so quick to attribute the glut of credit card debt to the rise in housing costs. I really do think people today are living farther beyond their means than at any time before. For instance, I saw on the news just this week that average personal savings rates last year in America actually went negative for the first time since…well, I didn't hear that part, but I would guess since the Great Depression (though I wonder if some of this is partly due to Baby Boomers reaching retirement).

    Further evidence of Americans living way beyond their means for no good reason is demonstrated by the large number of excessively huge and high-powered vehicles on American roads. SUVs and 150 mph cars just don't square with well-paved roads and 65-75 mph speed limits. On this basis alone, I would disagree (at least in part) with the statement that "frivolity and bragging rights ain’t the base reasons for a good chunk of the average debt load."

    Nearly all households today also average one car (or more) per driver, which was not the case in 1960.

    Indeed, let's go back to houses. The average house built today has double (or more) the square footage of the average house built in the 1960s. And many also have 'luxury' features that houses didn't have back then: central air, two-car garages, designer appliances, hot tubs, etc.

    Bottom line: Despite the increase in mortgage costs over the past 40 years, I believe much of the average American's debt load *can* be attributed to frivolity and bragging rights. What was once "a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot" has become "two SUVs in every garage, salmon linguine with arugula salad in every pot, and a large-screen plasma TV (with 140-channel cable) in every family room." Toss in the staggering transfer of wealth that has occurred over the past 25 years — taxing the poor and middle classes to give to the rich — and I think the average American debt load becomes even less related to mortgage costs.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Many of us seem to be drowning in our own stuff. Most of us jam so many things in our homes that it impedes our use of our own homes. You've probably seen all those garages so full of stuff that cars no longer fit, for example. Our things slog us up like cholesterol. But we still feel like we always need more more more.

    This huge problem has given rise to many web sites and support groups dedicated to helping us to get rid of our stuff. One such prominent site is flylady.net. Here's a line from the site: "Many of you are searching for the magic pill that is going to change your life and your home. I know you are tired of living in clutter and CHAOS."

    Our acquisitiveness is a widespread vulnerability many of us have (yes, I'm raising my hand). Many of use would be much better off having less, but giving up our stuff apparently goes against the grain. I'm sure we'll be exploring this specific issue further in future posts. I think of it as related to our conspicuous consumption of energy, though I'm not quite convinced of this.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    "[Saving energy doesn't] mean freezing in the dark, doing less, doing worse, or doing without. Energy efficiency is not conservation by curtailment. It means doing more with less, enjoying more comfort, providing the same or better services, but doing it a little smarter." http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid17.php

    The above is from the Rocky Mountain Institute, which gives terrific and practical suggestions for saving a lot of money on energy at home.

    RMI has found that "the average American family spends nearly $1,500 per year on utility bills. This expense can be reduced by 10–90 percent (depending on how inefficient you are and how aggressive you want to be about getting efficient). Saving energy can be a good way to lessen the strain on family finances and free up money for better uses."

    There are hundreds of things you can do to make your home more efficient, ranging from simple, free adjustments to major, long-term investments. Which ones you should do in your home will depend on a number of factors—where you live, the size and style of your house, how efficient it already is, which direction it faces, and so on."

    I've done many of these things. They are practical and effective. See http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid195.php

    On the huge amount of energy we waste: http://www.tompaine.com/articles/2006/02/10/who_n

    Even kids can help save lots of energy: http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid480.php

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