Ethical shopping and conspicuous compassion

I've been reading Thorstein Veblen's book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (available for free online via Project Gutenberg), lately. George Monbiot, writing in today's Guardian, makes an excellent point - much in line with Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption. The basic argument, as I understand it, is that there is not a huge amount of understanding of the effect that h. sapiens sapiens is having on the environment but there is an appreciation that it is 'important' and even 'fashionable'. As the grossest excesses of capitalism of the Edwardian era are behind us (or were - they seem to be coming back) from the perspective of Mr & Mrs John Q. Guardian-Reader we have to show how worthwhile we are by showing how much we care. Conspicuous consumption becomes conspicuous compassion, as shown by Live 8, Live Earth, the eco/ego bag (top left) and possibly even the outpourings around the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

I think Monbiot has a point (although I think 'conspicuous compassion' is a bon mot), particularly as it has some explanatory value. If, as he suggests, city bonuses are leading to
plenty of farm labourers and tenants who are desperate to start a farm of their own but have been excluded by what they call "horsiculture": small parcels of agricultural land that are being bought up for pony paddocks and hobby farms. In places such as Surrey and the New Forest, farmland is now fetching up to £30,000 an acre as City bonuses are used to buy organic lifestyles. When the new owners dress up as milkmaids and then tell the excluded how to make butter, they run the risk of turning environmentalism into the whim of the elite.
we can only assume that the organic hobby-farms are there only to impress their kith, kin and ilk with their conspicuous compassion and that said hobby-farmers don't give a hoot for the effects on the local economy or the lack of realism their purchases imply. Moreover, for people in that position, it is not enough to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle; really, they should be going for a negative-carbon or below-sustainable carbon lifestyle to account for their excess emissions prior to 'going green'.

It also explains why (and I can't find the statistics) lots of people, predominantly at the bottom end of the spectrum, aren't particularly concerned about being green - it doesn't impress anyone they care about impressing. It's not a criticism so much as re-stating an age-old problem: how do you make people avoid consequences that are delayed and diffuse?

Answers on a postcard.


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