Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail

I despise filling my gas tank. Yes, gasoline is expensive, but the pain I experience hits me harder than the cost hits my wallet. I struggle with the downstream political and environmental costs associated with my fossil fuel habit. Each gallon I pump will ultimately cost society much more than the $3.57 I pay at the pump. Knowing this has made it increasingly difficult for me to tolerate those suburbanites topping off their gas guzzling Hummers.

 

When I see a Hummer, or any super sized vehicle for that matter, I cannot help but think of the Peacock’s tail. The beautiful Peacock devotes incredible and precious resources to his ornate signaling display.  Survival with such a dangerous, yet attractive, collection of feathers indicates to the Peahen that he must have good genetic stock.   He who has the most attractive display wins the right to breed and submit his genes into the next generation.  Its a win-win-lose proposition however, because the tail acts as much as a target for predators as it does as a sexual selection mechanism.

Proud as a Peacock By Mark Melnick

In my mind, a Hummer is analogous to the Peacock’s tail. I am certain that most Hummer owners don’t consciously use their vehicle to overtly attract mates.   They would likely deny this, instead citing need, safety, or entitlement. Regardless, it is a perfect example of conspicuous consumption, and frivolous spending is sexy – isn’t it?

 

Conspicuous consumption as defined by Merriam-Webster is “lavish or wasteful spending thought to enhance social prestige.” Freedictionary.com defines it as “the acquisition and display of expensive items to attract attention to one’s wealth or to suggest that one is wealthy.” Obviously, driving a Hummer is not the only example of conspicuous consumption. There are a multitude of ways that people signal their success. We are neck deep in a society that has taken advantage of our inherent drive to signal our genetic prowess.  And we do it, for the most part through material acquisition.

 

Who doesn’t enjoy a new car that garners people’s attention and admiration?  Who doesn’t enjoy buying new shoes or a new outfit that draws compliments?  Who isn’t flattered by gazes dripping with admiration from an attractive person or a nemesis?  Most of us love new stuff and the attention, joy, and satisfaction it brings.

 

The key, I think, is to look at non-essential consumption for what it is.  At a deep level, we have to be willing to acknowledge that perhaps our drive to buy new stuff is driven by this signaling instinct.  This deep seated and fundamental drive is as basic as the Peacock’s pre-copulatory strut.  Think about it!  Much of what we do as we navigate our way through the day, links back to this signaling instinct. The clothes we wear, the way we style our hair, the jewelry we adorn ourselves with, the brands we buy, the size of our homes we enslave ourselves within, the gardens we grow, the magnitude of the lawn we mow, the cars we drive, the caliber of the neighborhood we live in, etc. etc., – they all signal the viability of one’s genetic material – or so we suppose.  Such consumption signals your success, your capabilities, competence, and wealth.  Your purchasing power serves as a proxy for your genetic rigor.  Sure, some consumption is purely for the enjoyment of the experience or the item; but, I submit that this signaling drive plays a deeper role than we are willing to accept.

 

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