08/12/2010 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sustainable Consumption: The Peacock's Dilemma

The male peacock's extravagant plumage is a conundrum for evolutionary biologists. What good could come from investing so much energy in producing decoration that has to be dragged around most of the time? How can it help in the "survival of the fittest" scenario? The answer is that survival in nature is not just about one entity competing against another. Many species are social, a fact that is especially important if they want to have sex.

Peacocks have lots of plumage because chicks (pun intended) dig it. A study by University of Newcastle biologist Marion Petri found peacock's tails have 150 brightly colored "eyes" on average. So, as scientists do, Petrie wondered what would happen if he clipped some off. He found he ruined the poor bird's sex life; clipping off just a handful of eyes significantly reduced the guy's chances of mating. When he got below 130 eyes, peahens wouldn't give the loser the time of day.

So what's this got to do with sustainable consumption? Like peacocks, we're social animals and we are replete with our own plumage. It takes various forms including wealth, power, status and material possessions. We're just as likely to accumulate stuff to show off to the Joneses as male peacocks are to add flashy plumes for their potential mates. There are some important differences, however. For one, a peacock's flashy "eyes" never goes out of style. For us, what we consider showy changes with fad fashion or season, forcing us to acquire ever more "new" stuff. The other significant difference is what happens when our stuff goes out of style. A peacocks' feathers will eventually biodegrade and become the raw materials for the next generation's plumage. Our out-of-fashion stuff piles up, filling landfills or clogging river ways and roadsides.

So what can we do about the sustainability impacts of our genetic predisposition to show off in our material world? One possibility is to accept our programming and adopt nature's strategy of making all products inherently recyclable, something I explain in my recent book Earth, Inc. A second option is education. The first step is helping conspicuous consumers understand the sustainability impacts of their choices in hopes that they will modify their behavior. We can also aid consumers in seeing that the cost, clutter and complexity of acquiring, maintaining and caring for all that "stuff' could actually be decreasing the quality of their life. Stuff can be a real anchor on those who value their freedom.

Change is needed to ensure sustainable consumption is not an oxymoronic dilemma. The best hope lies in a combination of new sustainable product design and production strategies, and a reassessment of whether our genetic predispositions are really serving us.