A few days ago Alex attempted to be a voice of reason in the “debate” about the symbolism and status-seeking involved in the purchase of many environmental goods. The case of the Prius was used as an illustration. Here is one point he made:
Despite this, I must speak in defense of Prius buyers. Sure, the Prius and especially the Chevy Volt might be purchased in part as a positional good motivated by status-seeking. But hybrid critics tend to be silent on all the exorbitantly priced luxury clones of normal brands purchased for similar status reasons.
Maybe we only criticize the people from a different ideological tribe (i.e. environmentalists) instead of the very wealthy in our tribe who indulge in much more conspicuous consumption.
A simple point or two on that, and then onto the point of my post. I think in an attempt to be reasonable and self-critical (which I hope he learned from me!) Alex has gone a little too far. Way back in my less erudite days (is that even possible!) I wrote this as I started this blog. The point being that this is an empirical question and my sense is that there is NO differentiation in the tendency toward conspicuous consumption based on tribal affiliation. Anecdote surely supports this. Al Gore’s $9 million ocean-front mansion comes to mind, as do the many lavishly rich towns, homes, cars and country clubs throughout the People’s Republic of the Berkshires. A second point on Alex’s observation is that it was not my intention to discuss positional goods and status seeking — rather I was making the point that I always do … that some of what you hear about the “environment” has nothing at all to do with the environment. Consider the case of Prius buyers as another case study.
OK, but onto more interesting things (and related to Alex’s observations). Did you hear a typical defense of “locally grown food” that resembles, “local foods just taste better!”? I have. And I sympathize with it – the stuff that comes out of my in-laws’ garden tends to be delicious. This is a major objection people have to “factory farms” that produce massive amounts of food with the help of generous baths of petrochemicals and genetic modification. But think about that for a moment. The objection to the production of massive amounts of cheap food (which as we’ve discussed before is extremely good for the environment due to the savings of land use it allows for) are not coming down to their environmental impacts (some still do make those claims but they are less prevalent today, particularly given the research on chemicals and cancer and the health impacts of GMO food) … but rather the objections are coming down to aesthetics. Never mind that some fresh, juicy, ripe local tomatoes may be more expensive than factory farmed alternatives – that is not the point for now. I would venture to guess that the folks who get really worked up about locally grown food tend to reside in different tribes than me – but I also assert that these folks like their local tomatoes for more than mere status reasons.
Ignoring the economics behind food taste (if people really wanted tasty food, are we seriously to believe that greedy profit seeking corporations would not try to sell that to us?), it seems to me yet again that what is nominally dressed up in a pretty green dress turns out to be something quite different. Tasty food has nothing at all to do with the environment. Nothing. And the appeals to tasty, ripe, red, pretty, local tomatoes seems to me to smack of the very same elitism that disturbs Alex when he criticizes old, white conservatives for buying their Cadillac CTS’s with gold-plated trim. What is different about the two? Certainly in the case of the tomato afficionados, not only does their vocal support for local food intimate to me that they actually don’t care about getting cheap food to the masses (or at least don’t recognize the importance of that) but that their support of local food is typically coupled with the hope that “we” move to more “sustainable” methods of local food and eliminate the idea of the factory farm. In other words, their preferred solution rules out cheap food for people. I don’t seem to think that the luxuriating of Mr. Moneypants is on par with this. If you want to buy a gold-plated Escalade, you may be “wasting” your own resources, and it may divert some resources away from the production of Dodge Darts , but their selfish concern with their own status does not come attached with the demand that “we” stop making cheap cars for the masses and instead start making more “tasty” cars.
I have little sympathy for using status-like arguments in defense of particular classes of people. Maybe little is not the right word. None sounds about right. Now, I’m going to go finish my lunch of … local tomatoes (got ’em up at Orbaker’s Fruit Farm this Sunday), they go nice with some oil and balsamic and mozzarella.