Activism against consumerism is all the rage these days. But what is meant by consumerism?
I’ve been reading Economic Parables by David Cowan. He makes these observations:
We can classify our purchases into three categories: necessities, additional comforts, and unnecessary items. We need to buy food to live, but how much – and of what kind – do we need to live on? We might argue we need a car, but how comfortable does it need to be? We could get by driving a Ford or a Saturn rather than a Mercedes or a Porsche. Most of us buy many things that we don’t really need, things like new CD players, jewelry, and the latest fashion in clothes.
We all draw the line on our spending according to our means. …We can only stand in awe at the seemingly endless things that money can buy, if we have the wealth to buy them. In contrast, we can only wince at the daily struggles of those too poor to pay for the basic necessities of life.
In the divine economy, Jesus turns this all on its head. …” (89-90)
Cowan writes this in his reflection on the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21. The rich man in story has amassed possessions far beyond what he good use and enjoy. He has so much that he has to tear down his storage facilities and build bigger ones to hold it all. Though not explicitly stated, surely an implication of the story is that he is doing this in the presence of many who are hungry and in want.
Kenneth Bailey adds this observation about the parable:
The rich fool has become thoroughly isolated from genuine community and finds his solace in his possessions. Isn’t this the very essence of consumerism? Upon making his decision to build more storage capacity, he dies. Jesus asks us to reflect on the value of the man’s possession then.
At its core, consumerism is about trying to meet legitimate desires for identity and security through illegitimate means of excessive acquisition and consumption. Our identity and security can only truly be found in God. Legitimate acquisition and consumption flows out of our relationship with God and our relationship with those with whom we have been called into community.
All of us consume. We all participate in consumption. There is nothing unseemly about being a consumer. Being a consumer does not mean being trapped in an ideology of consumerism. Consumption is essential to human flourishing and human flourishing is about far more than having the bare minimum of food, clothing, and shelter. Human flourishing is about having time for relationships. It is about being surrounded by things of beauty both inside our homes and in the world that surrounds us. It is about opportunities for learning, exploring, and creating. It is about having a degree of security. It is about being entrusted with resources through which we enhance our lives and the lives of others. These all require consumption beyond what we need in the pure materialist sense.
Anti-consumerism activists frequently treat “wealthy” and “consumerist” as synonyms. There are clearly wealthy people who have succumbed to consumerism but there are many people who aren’t wealthy, including from among the poor, who have fallen prey to consumerism as well. Watch an episode of Clean House sometime and see how consumerism has taken hold of some average folks’ lives.
Furthermore, there are many wealthy people who are not consumerists. Studies of millionaires show that the majority live well below their means in median priced homes, drive used cars, don’t buy expensive clothes, and are quite frugal with their expenditures. That is how they became wealthy. Less than 20% became wealthy through an inheritance.
My point is that consumerism is not so easy to spot as it might first appear. In fact, I suspect the most common definition consumerism is "someone who spends at least a little more than I do." Yet few of us doubt its presence among us.
Clearly advertisers want to induce people to buy their products. Products are strategically placed in stores to induce sales. The home shopping channels provide an endless parade of stuff for the compulsive shopper. Advertisers strategically place their aids in order to motivate children to bug their parents into getting them more toys. But is this peculiar to capitalism? No.
The roots of consumerism are far deeper than the arrival of free market economies in the past century or two. Surely when John Bunyan published Pilgrim’s Progress 330 years ago, Vanity Fair was the epitome of consumerism. The roots go back at least 2,000 years to Jesus and his rich fool. They go back centuries before that to the teacher in Ecclesiastes with his warning of vain pursuits. Free market economies did not originate consumerism nor are they dependent on it. Yet their integrative and productive powers do have the ability to place us ever in the midst of a destructive Vanity Fair. A dangerous development if the people in the marketplace are not equipped to with virtue and wisdom.
I submit that it is the church, not the market economy, which is most responsible for the rise of consumerism. Market economies essentially reflect the values o f the players who participate in the economy. The church lost its influence due, not in small part, to sacred versus secular dichotomies that led factions of the church to unthinkingly embrace models of behavior from an increasingly secularized business world or to scapegoat the economy as the culprit for fostering destructive behaviors counter to the virtues that church should have been instilling all along. Frankly, some anti-consumerism activism is merely factions of the church diverting blame to the economy for the church’s failure to have effectively integrated economic life with our Christian discipleship. The reality is that when the church fails to present a compelling vision of how life has abundant meaning in relationship to God and community, the culture is going to find a substitute.
We all consume but too many of us find our identity in the things we consume. We behave as the rich fool. But there were rich fools in Jesus time in a completely different economy. Therefore, should our attention be primarily on market economies that merely reflect a human impulse that predates market economies or should it be on the communities God established to bring transformation to humanity and have failed to do so?