Conspicuous conservation

by Rob Horning

11 July 2009


You can’t fix climate change by yourself. This is a simple truth. It’s too big for individual action; it’s the sort of problem that gives the lie to the idea of individualism über alles—sometimes social action must be regarded as a real phenomenon if we are to have any hope at all. But if we can’t fix the environment by ourselves, why then do we carry on with token gestures that prove our commitment to environmental causes? Is it because they are all we have, and we would rather do something than nothing, even if that something has no real effect? In our society it’s even worse—the token gestures that resonate are consumerist ones; we have to buy something that signals our attitude, as if signaling the attitude alone is tantamount to praxis, to doing something.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by the results of this study (via Richard Florida) in which Prius owners surveyed about what motivated them to buy the car put “It makes a statement about me” at the top of the list. That is how public action works in a consumer society: conspicuous consumption. The Prius happens to be one of those rare objects that can be both a conspicuous signal of wealth and conservation—most conservation efforts are stubbornly invisible, sine they are aimed at not buying more things and ultimately wasting more. But the Prius smooths over the fundamental contradiction between consumerism and conservation.

But could buying a Prius to make a statement about the sort of person you are still be an earth-friendly gesture? The researchers associate the conspicuous consumption of green products with the prestige of noblesse oblige altruism.

Supporting the notion that altruism signals one’s willingness and ability to incur costs for others’ benefit, status motives increased desire for green products when shopping in public (but not private), and when green products cost more (but not less) than nongreen products.

That is to say, being green only makes sense for some when others can’t afford to be. That shoots down the theory that the idea behind an individual’s green gestures is to set an example for others, to make green behavior seem cool or even ordinary and second nature. In that scenario, an individual’s actions can help create a social climate in which everyone joins in, beneficial actions aggregate, and flow naturally into a collective response to a threat. Green gestures would not be for showing a neighbor how much better than them you are, but to encourage that neighbor to follow suit. The study, however, makes it seem as though the opposite remains true; that we would ultimately rather feel superior to our peers than save the planet.

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