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Are we in danger of conspicuous sustainability?

Neal Dikeman compares the new green business and green tech movement with Conspicuous Consumption.

In 1899 economist/sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term Conspicuous Consumption to describe what he believed to be the evils of wealth accumulation in the nouveau riche upper class of the Gilded Age (Veblen was not exactly a "right wing" economist). You can best think of Conspicuous Consumption today as the notion that consumerism and "keeping up with the Joneses" drives economics.

One of my friends, Helen Priest from Meridian Energy, coined a new version of the term this week--conspicuous sustainability. She is here from New Zealand's largest (and all green) power company visiting Silicon Valley, and she's watching the torrent of activity around everything green and clean. It struck her that we are reinventing Conspicuous Consumption--keeping up with the Joneses in all things green. You have to wonder if solar panels or a LEEDs rating on a McMansion somehow doesn't miss the point.

So let's think: Al Gore's son gets arrested for doing 100 mph with marijuana in the car--in a Prius! (As I told one my friends, I didn't know they could go that fast.) Nouveau riche tech execs out here in Silicon Valley put ultraclean, and even more, ultraexpensive, solar power on their roofs. Buckingham Palace offsets the carbon footprint of the Queen's recent trip to the United States. Dell has Plant a Tree for Me Program, which I used when I bought a new Dell last month. There is an exponentially increasing number of examples of consumerism driving green.

But to be fair--conspicuous sustainability is pushing everything from the rapid growth in solar to the greening of corporate strategies like General Electric's Ecomagination, BP's Beyond Petroleum and General Motor's Live Green, Go Yellow. It's pushing hybrid electric sales, fuel cells to power our PDAs and carbon offsets--all good things for the environment.

I put the term to my friend, green business guru Joel Makower, and he quickly agreed that conspicuous sustainability is exactly the term for our age (We didn't discuss whether it was good or bad). Joel's response was, "I think the quintessential symbol for the conspicuous sustainability age would be the carbon-neutral Hummer." Or maybe Gore's carbon-neutral 10,000 (square foot) San Francisco home. He also said "And then there's Moskito, Richard Branson's privately owned Caribbean island, which he wants to be carbon neutral..."

In Veblen's mind, Conspicuous Consumption was a very bad thing, but for green tech and the environmental movement, is conspicuous sustainability a good one?