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Conspicuous waste

Paul Andersen

George H. W. Bush proclaimed during the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 that the American lifestyle was not up for negotiation. The president of the most resource-greedy country in the world pugnaciously asserted America’s right to waste.After 9/11, George W. Bush encouraged Americans to “go shopping.” Every dollar spent was a vote of confidence in American capitalism, and by a perverse twist of logic, American freedom. We were urged to fight terrorism with our credit cards. Charge!Our exalted lifestyle is still not up for negotiation, and we see the results of both Bush doctrines in almost every walk of American life. Our homes, our cars, our appetites, all are defined by the gross consumption of goods and services.Waste is a terrible thing to mind if you’re a patriotic American. Every man, woman and child is expected to consume inordinate amounts of goods in support of our infinite growth economy. Waste perpetuates the system in which we are invested.This is a strange way of thinking until you consider the philosophy of a radical economist named Thorstein Veblen. In his book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class” (1934), Veblen claimed that our inherent acquisition and disposal of wealth results in a psychology of waste.Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” defining an innate human reverence for material excess. Not only do we want stuff, he said, we need to display it conspicuously for everyone to see.There are few better examples of conspicuous consumption than Aspen, where wealth equates with personal status through exhibitions of boundless luxury. Veblen’s theories provide a logical rationale for this material side of the Aspen Experience.The rise of the leisure class, he said, grew out of the predatory and violent nature of barbaric societies in which a hunter/warrior class gained prominence through domination and booty. Most noteworthy, said Veblen, was man’s dominance over nature.Man not only elevated himself above brute animals, he condoned the ruthless exploitation of resources, both natural and human. This struggle to command resources drew distinctions of ability, and a hierarchy was determined by acquisition of food, fuel, trinkets, slaves and eventually, currency.Class identity became paramount, and it was displayed by excess goods and protected by the destruction of competition. Aggression became the means toward ownership as a hallmark of class rank and the fulfillment of individual ambition.”The possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem,” wrote Veblen. “Therefore, it becomes also a requisite to that complacency which we call self respect.”Displays of excessive property proved one’s merits, and conspicuous leisure furthered one’s status. “Beginning with the Greeks,” explained Veblen, “the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilized men’s eyes.”The leisure class required a servant class, which enabled leisure to reach the extreme of indolence. Ultimately, indolence had to be conspicuous enough to arouse envy in those aspiring to the social pinnacle.The final step in human deification came, according to Veblen, in the conspicuous waste of both time and goods. The truly superior man defined excess through indiscretion, usually at the expense of the commonwealth. All other people and all other things were subordinate to that pursuit.The American lifestyle remains non-negotiable. Monster homes, Hummers, pampering, frivolities … all are symbols of the prodigal waste we honor as a culture. Even Veblen would be amazed to see how conspicuously we display it to the world today.Paul Andersen hopes that wasted words connote his status. His column appears on Mondays.


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