I’m partial to voices crying out in the wilderness, those people who raise their eyebrows at the emperor’s new clothes. Among such sandwich-board-prophets, I have come to admire Thorstein Veblen.
Veblen was economist-philosopher who’s thought became quite fashionable in the early 1900s, although the admiration did not carry over to Veblen himself. In person, Veblen had a reputation as being a little untidy, very odd, soft-spoken, and a womanizer. In thought, he was wide-eyed and bold, demolishing the tidy, reasonable stories people like to tell about humanity.
One of Veblen’s great contributions was to bring insights from the developing fields of psychology and anthropology to economics. He noted that humans are rarely as perfect self-benefit-seeking actors as capitalism wants them to be. Veblen believed that a large force in economics is the human urge to emulate. He also credited idle curiosity with most substantial scientific developments.
Veblen’s thought sheds light on many issues, and I would encourage your investigation of his Theory of the Leisure Class, Absentee Ownership, and The Instinct of Workmanship, but most pertinent to the Trash Blog is what he says about why people create waste.
For Veblen, waste has become an integral aspect of society. A term he minted, that you will still hear today, is ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Veblen used this term to refer to human consumption intended to serve social status, not basic needs or general pleasure. Veblen thought a large portion of economic activity occurred as conspicuous consumption. He also posited that consumption of this kind was perceived as better the more wasteful it was.
The result is that humans develop elaborate and wasteful institutions (in Veblen’s terminology, not necessarily actual buildings or organizations, but something closer to social mores) that demand our membership.
The interesting point here, I think, is that waste isn’t always caused by inefficiency, but rather that humanity in its silliness, manages to create very strong patterns that encourage waste. Veblen is essential for people who think about waste reduction because so often the waste reduction conversation only discusses the inefficient waste, not conspicuous consumption waste.
Note about the artwork: Most of the art in this post is done by the wonderful Tamara de Lempicka.