Ritual display and sustainability

Ritual display in the animal kingdom is a way to signal potency. There are thousands of examples of animals with this trait from insects to peacocks to gorillas. It is a way for animals to compete without fighting. Fighting will often lead to serious injury, and sometimes death, so it is imprudent and wasteful in that sense.

One way that human-animals display is through clothes. Throughout human history fine clothes have signalled status, wealth, and power. Mark Twain once wrote “Clothes makes the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” People in rags are looked down upon as losers. It obviously doesn’t stop at clothes either. Houses, cars, motorbikes, boats, planes, jewellery and every sort of ‘gear’ are all signals of a person’s fitness to ‘make good’.

Ritual display takes other forms. For instance, for both men and women, ritual display includes toned and trim bodies, big chests and pearly white teeth. Businesses, and their advertising rottweilers, are shameless body-shamers who promote perfection in spite of its impossibility.

Thorstein Veblen, the American economist, coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’. He defined this as consumption that costs more than it is worth. Conspicuous consumption is ritual display. Its purpose is to impress others and earn prestige. Being a type of competitiveness conspicuous consumption inevitably escalates. Relative equals will compete to consume more than their peers and the poorer classes will aspire to have the same stuff. What results from this behaviour, Veblen pointed out, is a huge waste of time and money – not to mention resources.

The point is that in the animal kingdom ritual display is to avoid the loss of life and injury, which are a waste. Assuming that humans are (mostly) evolved enough to not fight for mates, prestige or power then ritual display in the form of conspicuous consumption is a complete waste.