The Nature of Conspicuous Consumption

The website Conspicuous Consumption leads off with a definition:  “Conspicuous consumption is a term introduced by the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class” published in 1899. The term refers to consumers who buy expensive items to display wealth and income rather than to cover the real needs of the consumer. A flashy consumer uses such behavior to maintain or gain higher social status. Most classes have a flashy consumer affect and influence over other classes, seeking to emulate the behavior.  The result, according to Veblen, is a society characterized by wasted time and money.”

We may wholeheartedly, and perhaps ashamedly, agree with Veblen’s point; however, it may be wise for us to explore this term more deeply before we deem conspicuous consumption to be fundamentally bad.  As is our habit at BCI, let’s apply ecological thinking and look at this term from Nature’s standpoint.

Ecosystems thrive when all participating organisms act relentlessly in their own self-interest. This is because by doing do, organisms transform nutrients, create niches, and perform myriad functions that are crucial to the survival of others. This is how food webs work.   Consumption is a key component of ecosystem functionality and survival.

If you are a gardener, you are well aware of this and encourage not only consumption, but conspicuous consumption. You encourage worms and soil microbes to consume compost and other detritus, to transform these materials into rich organic matter, humus, and plant-available nutrients, and to maintain soil tilth.  You apply fertilizers and water, perhaps pray for copious warmth and sunshine, and encourage your beloved plants to conspicuously consume so as to produce the biggest, most flavorful, most nutritious fruits. When the time comes, and if you are lucky, you celebrate by conspicuously consuming your harvest, perhaps encouraging your friends and family to do the same.  If we all conspicuously consumed like this, wouldn’t the result be a society characterized by health, wholeness, wellness, appreciation, and joy?

What’s the point?  If our goal is to create a better world, we need to be more thoughtful about the terms we use and the many things that we have deemed fundamentally bad.  We need to explore more deeply what we really mean by our stand-by catch phrases, the assumptions that may be hidden behind our good intentions, and whether or not there are alternative perspectives. This is hard to do, but we can learn to get better at asking questions and looking to Nature for answers.