Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail

Dec 21, 2011

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.

 

We could debate whether this is ingrained via nature or nurture – but it’s likely compelled by both.  Regardless, it drives our ravenous appetite for novelty and as a result, our economy.  This reality and society’s deified profit imperative result in a zero-sum-game of consumption, inequitable wealth distribution, and environmental degradation.  We merrily cycle on through life engaging in materialistic social climbing – laughing it off as “Keeping up with the Jones.”  All the while we push the true costs off onto the plate of future generations.

 

I have to look critically at my own contempt for this however, for I am not immune to this compulsion.  We are primed and continuously programmed by society via modeling and marketing to achieve better living through consumption.  As I write this, I tap away on my laptop in front of my aesthetically beautiful wood burning fireplace.  I warm my feet by a fire and periodically gaze upward at a stone chimney that climbs upward to the 16 foot peak of my vaulted living room ceiling.  I cannot help but taste a bitter bite of hypocrisy.  I enjoy the comforts of my home that sits five miles from the nearest store and 35 miles from my place of employment.  These vices constitute just some of my conspicuous consumptive behaviors.  I quell my dissonance by paying $0.20 a kilowatt hour for electricity (including delivery charges) generated exclusively through renewable sources.  I also borrow some comfort from the 24 photo-voltaic panels I have installed on my roof as well as by my drive to diminish my electricity bill to a credit in my favor.  But, I can’t help but realize that the judgement and contempt I feel for those who strut about in their Hummers, is really on some level, contempt for my own consumption.

 

This has to be the starting point.  Real economic and political changes must start at this level of personal awareness.  Our personal dissonance when amplified by the awareness of how important our consumption is to those who accumulate wealth, will ultimately serve as the tipping point.  Otherwise, we are unlikely to change our ways.  Every dollar you spend makes you poorer and someone else richer.  Choose carefully who you give your wealth to.  And fight the urge to build your social value through consumption.  Our legacy will be written by those whose world we are destroying.

 

The Peacock does not choose his display – but he does understand that it is the key to his future.  Eventually he himself will pay a substantial price for his outrageous display.  Regardless, the offspring of his species will reap the benefits of his genetic fitness.  On the other hand, the human practitioner of conspicuous consumption pays only the current market price for his excesses.  Rarely will he ever pay the true ultimate costs.  His children will!   This is the incredible irony here.  Who is the intelligent one?

 

Peacock Image: Proud as a Peacock by Mark Melnik available at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/proud-as-a-peacock-mark-melnick.html

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4 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Paigem
    December 23rd, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    I completely empathize with your argument. I, too, find myself struggling with my ingrained consumerist tendencies and my inner conscious. I have conflicting emotions when I see something I want or think I need, especially when it is at a place such as Wal-Mart (when that is the only place I can get a ride to).

    Battling with our “signaling instinct” as you said, is especially tough during the holiday season when we are asked what we want, or think we need. I, personally, have some things I think I want, but as soon as I got them would feel immense guilt, on the fact that I really don’t need anything. I have clothes that fit, food when I want it, and plenty of ways to obtain entertainment. But I am told I want things from the people apart of one of the most influential modes in our society…the media.

    I recently read an interesting argument in James Gustave Speth’s book “Bridge at the Edge of the World”, that the media is not selling simply things…but attached emotions. Whether these are of success, or family, they are influential to our decision of which brand of butter will make this holiday the best ever, and which watch will tell all of my friends and colleagues that I am important. I feel our society has been doing a little bit to promote less consumption, and going green, but how is it possible to sell this idea in a capitalist and consumerist society? How can we start?

  2. Gerald Guild
    December 30th, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Thank you so much for your insightful comment and thought provoking question.

    I felt a bit like Scrooge posting this article during the Holiday Season – but unfortunately this time of year epitomizes and proves to be a high point of consumption in our consumerist culture. Your question, pertaining to how we can start, requires a very complicated response and I wont even pretend to know all the answers. As I noted, it has to start with personal awareness of the problem at hand. Speth, in “Bridge at the Edge of the World” eloquently and clearly elucidates the problems and attempts to provide guidance. The corrective course requires stepping away from the very core of our American ideals. Capitalism with it’s growth imperative and environmental destructiveness is at the center of the problem. And America’s conservative, global free market, anti-environment, and individualistic focus is so deeply entrenched and clinging ever deeper, that it seems and feels hopeless. Ideology is the enemy here. Capital and power are so intertwined – and so vested in the status-quo that things are unlikely to change unless there is a substantive change in our pseudo-democracy. Campaign finance changes are essential and the “person” status of corporations must be eliminated. Publicly funded campaigns are a start – so that the people’s interests take center stage away from corporate interests. The consumerist zeitgeist that drives consumption and the intense focus on convenience must evolve toward a more intensive focus on environmental sustainability. Each of these changes requires stepping away from the way things are. Unfortunately as Milton Friedman noted – true changes only occur during crises. We are not yet at a state where the people feel the crises to a degree that they are willing to fight the way things are. The Occupy movements are a start, but way too many people just do not get it. And a majority of people have been convinced that the Right’s principles are their principles despite their diametrically opposed economic interests.

    It starts with: thinking globally and acting locally – leading by example – quelling consumption – buying based on need – choosing carefully where you spend your money – supporting companies that pay a living-wage and engage in sustainable practices – buying green when you can – driving less – walking and biking more – turning off the lights/TV/computer when you are not using them – and participating politically. These all require stepping away from old and deeply programmed habits. One step at a time, ONE STEP AT A TIME! Finally and perhaps, most importantly – Educate yourself, and know that things are not always as they appear to be. Look deeper and think critically – based on evidence.

    Best wishes paigem – you seem to be on the right path. Up and ever onward!

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