A Call for Pro-Environmental
Conspicuous Consumption in
the Online World
University of California, Irvine | firstname.lastname@example.org
Biological researchers have suggested that the
phenomenon of conspicuous consumption [ 1, 2]
can be an evolutionarily viable survival technique. Conspicuous consumption can enhance an
organism’s fitness because it demonstrates that
the organism has sufficient resources to live, and
then some. This abundance of resources suggests
to other members of the organism’s community
that he or she may be a valuable social or sexual
partner, with sufficient resources to squander
some on goals beyond mere survival [ 1].
Two forms of conspicuous consumption are
particularly notable. “Sexual handicapping”
involves an individual exhibiting resource-inten-sive behavior or morphology in order to communicate his or her (but usually his) good genes [ 1].
For example, the brightly colored tails of many
birds are a significant handicap to those organisms; the tails require a lot of energy to produce
(since bright pigments are energy intensive),
and make it harder for the organisms to survive
(since predators can see them). A bright tail conveys unequivocally that the bird sporting it is a
“winner,” with sufficiently abundant resources to
have reached maturity despite the encumbrance
of the tail, and is therefore a prime mate.
A second form of conspicuous consumption is
“competitive altruism [ 2]”. In this behavioral pattern, organisms behave in prosocial ways, issuing
alarm calls or saving the offspring of other members of their community, in order to demonstrate
their abundance of resources. Similar to sexual
handicapping, competitive altruism is a drain on
the resources of the individual and marks that
individual as a high-quality social or reproductive
There are several characteristics that make an
attribute or behavior a good vehicle for exhibiting
conspicuous consumption. It must be obvious, so
that other members of the target community can
easily recognize it. It must be accurate; community members must be able to use it to evaluate
the relative merits of different individuals. And it
must be unfakeable; that is, it must be easier for
the organism to exhibit the attribute or behavior
than to exhibit an indistinguishable facsimile of
that behavior [ 1].
Like many other animal species, humans
exhibit a tendency for conspicuous consumption
[ 3]. To an evolutionary biologist, a BMW looks a
lot like a peacock’s tail. The bird’s tail is obvious; so too is the Beemer’s logo and characteristic body shapes—visible on the highway, in the
driveway, and on a date. The bird’s tail requires
the expenditure of significant resources. So too
does the BMW; no resource-poor losers here.
Finally, the bird cannot attach a fake tail to itself;
neither is it viable to manufacture a fake BMW,
with glossy paint and carefully tuned engine.
Thus, a BMW has a lot in common with a brightly
colored tail; in both cases, the owner is clearly an
excellent mate choice.
Similarly, people engage in competitive altruism in a range of ways. The high-end grocery
store Whole Foods has begun selling an organic
cotton and burlap bag with a large logo reading
“Feed the Children of the World” on it. To own
this bag, a shopper must pay $29.95, $10 of which
will be donated to the World Food Program’s
Rwanda School Feeding operation. This amount is
sufficient to provide 100 meals to school-age children in Rwanda. This demonstration of resource
abundance may not only make the bearer feel
good, but it may also cause others to consider
them worthy social or sexual partners. (While
one might find charity irrelevant to sexual ends,
[ 1] Zahavi, A. and A.
Zahavi. The Handicap
Principle: A Missing
Piece of Darwin’s
Puzzle. New York:
Oxford University Press,
[ 2] Roberts, G.
from reciprocity to the
Proceedings of the
Royal Society B:
265, no. 1394 (1998).
[ 3] Veblen, T. The
Theory of the Leisure
Class: An Economic
Study of Institutions,