01/11/2012 03:07 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2012

Conspicuous Conservation

I bought my battery-charged Prius hybrid vehicle back in 2001 when there were only 12,000 on American roads. My motives frankly were the car's excellent mileage and its reduced level of pollution. Pragmatism mixed with the idealistic sentiment that as an environmental writer, I should practice what I preached.

Was I further influenced by the idea that I was acquiring a status symbol? The thought never occurred to me. Indeed, many of my friends after satisfying their initial curiosity kidded me for succumbing to a sales gimmick.

Times have changed, at least in some quarters. According to a recent analysis by University of California researchers Steve and Alison Sexton, many contemporary purchasers of Prius cars are buying the vehicle in order to publicly embellish their environmental image. The Sextons dub this syndrome "conspicuous conservation," which is directly diametrical to "conspicuous consumption" -- our current materialistic cultural orientation that contributes mightily to the unsustainable exploitation of the earth's natural resources.

Is "conspicuous conservation" the answer to environmentalists' prayers? Consider that it is beginning to spread in certain parts of the country as consumers go out of their way to buy green products, even if the items are more expensive yet not as fancy as competing alternatives. Certainly, it's a good first step. Who cares if the motive is self promotion rather than any deep-rooted environmental sensibility? The end result is what counts.

Nonetheless, true success won't be realized until conservation is no longer viewed as a status symbol subject to the fickle vagaries of image seekers. It needs to become a routine part of daily life.

The Sextons point out that as long as prestige is the inspiration for conservation, it will tend to be a niche practice, not a universal one. Moreover, in one's zeal to show off conservation credentials, a person can end up giving short shrift to a more common sense alternative. For example, some status-conscious consumers have placed solar panels on the highly visible street side of their houses even though the best location for capturing the sun's rays was in the back of their homes.

Retailers will fiercely resist conservation taking precedence over consumption until they are prepared to run a business by marketing quality rather than quantity. That transition won't happen overnight. How could it -- when esteem through some variation of austerity is still a fringe concept in much of American society.