Thorstein Veblen coined the phrases “conspicuous consumption” and "conspicuous leisure" to describe how personal status is reflected in levels of consumption and leisure. He also described how high social status is reinforced by wasting the time of those unfortunate enough to be lower down the pecking order. In his day it was having servants to pour the drinks or open the carriage door. Today, wasting time has become vastly more complex and pervasive, so much so that we couldn’t do without it.
And so we naturally turn to dishwashers. When I switch on the dishwasher I save time, but not much. I could easily wash the dishes myself. Because I could wash the dishes myself and because the effort involved is small, it could be said that my use of the dishwasher wastes the time of numerous other people from the dishwasher manufacturer to the retailer to the electricity supplier and so on. Admittedly the waste is indirect, but the dishwasher is merely an example. Many people have to carry out many tasks merely because I prefer not to wash dishes.
Many of the things we buy are like that. We can afford it, other people have one and that’s a key measure of their utility and desirability. There is nothing wrong with buying whatever it is either, because that’s how a vital area of our economy works and we don’t want to drive around in Trabants, queue at government-run stores with empty shelves, or spend hours waiting for hospital consultants... oh hang on. Here in the UK the social boot is on the other foot in that last example.
Yet the waste mounts up and the worst aspect of it isn’t found in environmental mantras but in the waste of time, the waste of human life making, designing and selling goods and services we don’t need. Or political policies we don't need for that matter.
The problem is, this kind of thinking tends to be submerged in environmental rhetoric and mantras which sometimes make worthwhile points but tend to miss the big one – the time we waste. Clearly if we waste our time we waste our lives and we can’t go out and buy another one.