The ability to waste resources without the need to be concerned for one's well-being or future has always been a sign of wealth and power.
Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" in his famous 1899 treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class. The point, of course, for the wealthy is to be conspicuous so as to attract the attention, praise and deference of their fellow citizens. Veblen explained that wealthy people also often communicate their power to others by having a group of attendants around them who do little or nothing. He dubbed this "vicarious leisure." Since there are only 24 hours in a day, one person, however wealthy and powerful, can only enjoy so much leisure. Vicarious leisure made possible by the excess wealth of an individual is an unmistakable sign that a person is important.
The seemingly relentless drive of commercial enterprises to reduce waste and economize may appear to run counter to this. But that drive is only meant to produce more wealth for what Veblen calls the leisure class by which he means the power elite of society.
But waste is valued more broadly in society, at least indirectly. Fewer and fewer people remember when the highway speed limit was 55 miles per hour in the United States, even for superhighways. The reason for a limit so far below what most cars can achieve was to save fuel. Today, of course, that speed limit is only a memory for most highways. It turns out that our worship of speed is a also the worship of waste. Wherever we promote speed in transportation over efficiency, we are choosing waste.
There was a time when going to the movie theater on sweltering summer days was also a way to get cool since few public buildings and still fewer homes had air-conditioning. Nowadays, in places where hot summer days number more than a few, anyone who doesn't have air-conditioning in their residence is thought to be eccentric or poor. Maintaining minimal social status in such cases requires the ability to waste energy by using air-conditioning.
Of course, we have now built countless buildings with sealed windows so that many hotels, offices and high-rise residences don't have windows that open. Who needs them when you can "control the climate" of the entire building and your part of it without reference to the climate outside?
Our industrial food system is a quintessentially wasteful enterprise. In the United States this system expends between 10 and 14 calories of fossil fuels for every calorie of food produced. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of all food in the United States ends up as waste, much of it in landfills (probably because it spoiled before it could be used or because it wasn't of satisfactory quality to the buyer). A significant portion of produce is discarded before it ever reaches store shelves because it doesn't look perfect, even though it is still fresh and nutritious. We worship perfection in biology assuming that industrial farming can provide products that are as unblemished as the gleaming surfaces of consumer electronics.
Traveling by air has now been democratized so it doesn't have the same prestige it had when there was a fairly small group of wealthy business people and leisure travelers called jet-setters. This small group has graduated to private jets that they either own or charter. And, there is no greater symbol of status than a private jet—and practically none more wasteful. And, many people worship those who get around in such an inefficient ride.
Other rides—luxury cars and yachts—convey high status and, of course, suggest considerable waste as well.
There are more than a few virtual and actual tours of wealthy neighborhoods. And, there are myriad television and streaming programs focusing on the lives of the rich. Colossal homes with only a few people living in them are hugely wasteful. But that, of course, is the point. People who can waste that much space, heat, light, air-conditioning and other resources without concern must be truly wealthy and powerful.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Worship of the rich and powerful is a perennial feature of human society. What is different now is the scale of the waste that goes along with that wealth and power because of our unprecedented access to energy and physical resources.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at email@example.com.