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Why Facebook is more important to the environment than solar panels.

The growth of social networks indicates a fundamental shift in patterns of human behavior. The unsustainable practice of ever-increasing consumption of physical goods, and expressing oneself through what one purchases and displays, is being replaced by increasing consumption of virtual goods through virtual channels. This is good news for the sustainability of our economy.Thorstein Veblen, in his groundbreaking work The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, posited that humans use displays of wealth to broadcast status to society. Veblen argued that, since the beginning of history, once basic needs were met, elites have "conspicuously consumed" to reinforce class. This has not been without consequence. As illustrated in Jared Diamond's controversial book Collapse, this seemingly inevitable behavior of the ruling classes led to cultural demise.Throughout the last century conspicuous consumption meant buying cars, boats, larger houses, jewelry, art, and meals in restaurants. Keeping up with the Joneses required a lot of energy-and produced a lot of carbon and waste. More and bigger became our mantras. The average size of the American home leapt from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,080 in 1990, increasing roughly 20 percent per decade. The number of cars per U.S. family saw a similar 14 percent growth rate per decade over the same period.Just over 100 years since Veblen introduced the idea of conspicuous consumption, however, the practice appears to be losing steam. The rates of growth in average home size and family car ownership in the United States have both roughly halved since 1990. The square footage of an average U.S. home peaked in the second quarter of 2008, and is now back down to pre-2004 levels. The average number of cars per household is following a similar trajectory.Are people becoming less conspicuous? Hardly. Is this a response to the recession? Partially. A conscious effort to curb the environmental crisis? Unlikely. It may be, in fact, that houses, cars, clothes, and other traditional means of distinguishing oneself are no longer the best tools for the job.

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