During the Depression years, people conserved. More recently, when facing tragedy and crisis, Americans have been called upon to consume. You may recall the Bush Administration’s talk of supporting the war effort in Afghanistan by going shopping and the terrorists hating our freedoms. Did such talk disguise our bondage to consumerism? If so, America’s greatness as a nation has been greatly diminished. To some, its Messianic vision for America’s role in the world was/has been reduced to “Save the world; spend money,” as a friend once remarked. A similar point on consumption was raised in a post-9/11 New Yorker cartoon caption that read, “I figure if I don’t have that third martini, then the terrorists win.” What has terrorized Americans more—the terrorists or the all-consuming fear of not having enough?
It is important to pause at this juncture to complicate the matter. While the consumerist ideology is certainly problematic from a variety of angles, including the compulsive drive to buy and sell far beyond what is needed to survive, we must come to terms with the fact that we live in a society increasingly dependent on consumerism. Consumption itself is not the problem. Consumption is a part of life. It is inordinate consumption that is the problem. However, it is very difficult for most of us to get a handle on what inordinate consumption looks like. What do you think it looks like—from the intake of food to the purchases at Christmas? Morgan Spurlock’s films Super Size Me and What Would Jesus Buy? give us some unique perspectives on America’s inordinate consumption patterns. Take a look.
It is not only difficult for most of us to get a handle on what inordinate consumption looks like. It is also exceptionally difficult to come up with an alternative system to the consumerist culture bound up as it is with the capitalist, free market system. Such an alternative would need to safeguard the well-being of people in terms of economic sustainability on a personal and societal level. For many, no credible answer appears forthcoming in terms of economic structures and the society at large. It is difficult to come up with compelling alternatives to the consumerist and capitalist, free market system running rampant in the broader culture given how dependent our culture is on it. Consumerism (which involves getting what I want, when I want it, and at the least cost to myself, a point made in my book Consuming Jesus) is certainly destroying American society; and yet, given the current structuring of the economy and culture, if Americans were simply to stop consuming, the society would likely collapse. Thus, there appears to be some merit to the call to go out and shop and spend. One must guard against sheer polemics, especially if no superior alternative is put forth. The old saying, “Put up or shut up” applies here.
Moreover, it is equally problematic, if not more so, for doomsayers of consumerism to rage against this demonic force if they themselves are beneficiaries of the consumerist system: getting rich off of a niche audience of disillusioned and market savvy consumers, who buy their books by the dozens. To the extent that this is so, such doom and gloom prophets actually bite the hand that feeds them. Furthermore, if such doom saying is taken seriously and acted upon in such a way that people refuse to shop and spend money, it will likely impact most severely those individuals these prophets claim to want to aid most—the poor, who are even more dependent upon that same hand that feeds them. At the very least, regardless of one’s position, it is incumbent upon those weighing in on consumerism to demonstrate an awareness of the complexity of the problem.
One thing that can and should be said is that the driving, motivating force behind the market should not be to acquire greater wealth but to redistribute the wealth and resources acquired so as to benefit all people, especially the poor (Pope John Paul II makes a similar claim in his critique of the free market in Centesimus Annus, 1989). We also need to consider more ways to establish micro-enterprises among the poor. Such enterprises do not use people to build the economy, but rather build the economy around people, especially those most vulnerable, assisting them in moving toward sustainability in their communities. Muhammad Yunus’s work, while criticized and under scrutiny in his home country, is a sterling example of the kind of program that needs to be implemented in various quarters among the poor around the world. The work of John M. Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association also provide models of people and organizations coming alongside and working among the poor so that they can also take ownership of their economic futures rather than be dependent on charity and terrorized by poverty.