Conspicuous consumption != “Bad for the environment”

I’m cranky today, but what’s with lumping in all bourgeois consumption patterns with consumption that’s “bad for the environment”? That an SVU driver drinks bottled water doesn’t automatically mean it kills baby Polar Bears.

For me “bad for the environment” should mean “has significant negative net externalities” ((This is what I mean when I say “net”.)). Yeah, maybe shipping Fijian tap water half way across the world uses oil, but the negative externality is in the oil-based transportation, not in the drinking of the water.

If we found a carbon-neutral way to transport the bottled water, bottled water wouldn’t be bad for the environment.

UPDATE: More on the theme: Prices will save the day.

9 thoughts on “Conspicuous consumption != “Bad for the environment””

  1. Externalities are bad for people, not the environment.

    The environment has no preferences so nothing is bad for it, as such. It’s people who have preferences over how the environment can look: strip-mined or peaceful, tropical clearing.

    It’s just that people are a bit schizoid on this one… Plus, they can’t coordinate and they can’t figure out who’s justified in doing what.

  2. “If we found a carbon-neutral way to transport the bottled water, bottled water wouldn’t be bad for the environment.”

    …Like some kind of series of tubes, maybe? You could buy the bottle once, and fill it over and over by “tapping” the terminating point of a tube. You might be on to something. I think I will patent that idea.

    Most bottlers *do* use local tap water anyway; they just filter it a little, repackage it, and ship it on trucks parallel to water mains. Most consumers can’t even tell the difference in blind taste tests.

    That said, I like bottled water. It’s like a little badge for members of the asshat club.


    “Externalities are bad for people, not the environment.”

    I think that this, by far, is the best way to frame the environmental debate.

  3. …Like some kind of series of tubes…

    Yeah that, or like solar powered vehicles.

    Also, bottled water is convenient… Just yesterday my brother and I were driving back from visiting the folks. He bought a bottle of water, drank its contents and then proceeded to use the empty bottle as a spittoon. Talk about negative externalities; I nearly gaged. And isn’t “reuse” almost as good as “recycle” anyway?

  4. “Also, bottled water is convenient…”

    I’m not really against someone picking up a single bottle of water at a store when they’re on the road or something. I think it’s economically nonsensical when someone buys cases of bottled water to drink at a home or business when perfectly good tap water is available.

    We have a water cooler at work. It stores chilled tap water and will heat on demand. We get water to drink, the company saves money on water delivery, and there aren’t overflowing bins of discarded single serving bottles. Workers get the exact same benefit, management saves money, the cleaning staff doesn’t have to deal with an extra mess, and there are fewer externalities. Win-win-win, though I guess that makes us a bunch of dirty hippies.

    “And isn’t “reuse” almost as good as “recycle” anyway?”

    I’d argue that it’s much better in most cases. Do people frequently reuse water bottles, or do 99.99% of them just get chucked in the trash?

  5. Well it may be nonsensical, but its not economically nonsensical. If a dude wants bottled water and he can pay for it, that the dude consumes bottled water makes perfect economic sense.

    The point is that just because you don’t like conspicuous consumption doesn’t make it wrong. Relabeling it “bad for the environment” or “economically nonsensical” doesn’t make it so.

    If you think about it, who gets decide which types of consumption are “ok” and which are “bad”? I’m sure our ancestors would have thought eating at restaurants or ordering out would have been very fancy and conspicuous. Now, its just the norm.

    Actually, I’m similarly mystified by many economists’ objections to carbon offsets and “fair” trade coffee. If people want to buy these things, then who are we to stop ’em. Yeah, maybe in terms of material outcomes, not much is different between “fair” and “unfair” coffee (i.e. one can actually argue “fair” trade coffee is bad for coffee growers), but maybe it gives people a warm glow to think they’re doing good.

  6. I might be thinking of it in the microeconomic sense. Is there a more accurate term to use for personal purchase planning?

    Two identical* pastrami sandwiches are on sale at the deli. One costs a penny. The other costs $80. Which is the more rational purchase choice?

    I don’t think we’re right to block anyone from buying Fiji Water. Tax the negative externalities (fuel, packaging disposal, etc) and let the market sort the rest out.

    *Identical identical. Really.**

    **As much as pastrami sandwiches can be. The dude behind the counter might even switch the plates for the next guy in line.

  7. By identical*(**) I assume you mean, in every material sense, they’re the same damn sandwich. The analogy would be to the water in bottled water being identical*(**) to water that comes out of a tap. Yeah, they’re materially the same stuff.

    Except, fancy water comes in a fancy bottle. Fancy things make people feel fancy. That’s worth something… sorta like if the second sandwich was like totally pimped out…. you know, dubs, a silly paint job and a TV that comes out of the dashboard so the driver (ummm, of the sandwich, I guess) can catch the latest episode of TRL.

    Actually, even generic brand water comes in a bottle. The bottle is something besides the water that people may like, making a couple of your asterisks fall off… tap and bottled water are different because one comes with a bottle.

    So its not the identical*(**) water that makes people prefer bottled water, its the other differences that do so.

  8. In this case, the bottle is worth everything. The joke goes that Coca Cola got rich selling sugar water to people, then got a lot richer when they realized that they could leave out the sugar.

    A clever person looking for the social benefits will reuse a bottle over and over. They just have to get over the idea that their tap water may have* been extruded from someone’s urethra in the recent geological past. This doesn’t cure the “fancy” hunger, though. Surely there are better cheaper ways to feel good about yourself that don’t require putting millions of gallons on a boat and sailing it around the world.

    Really, I’m not out there picketing over this one. It’s more of a “you guys are idiots” thing than a “federal agents need to bust down your door and stop you” thing.

    *has definitely

  9. I’m with you on the “you guys are idiots” thing… same with carbon offsets and “fair” trade coffee.

    I admit I buy a bottle of water now and again.

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