Posted by: gcarkner | September 5, 2013

Can We Recover Stewardship?

Can We Be Good Stewards Once Again?

Contemporary attitudes toward material possessions constitute a critical problem for Western societies or developed nations. The consumer ethic is so dominant that people often don’t even think about it; they have no antidote or alternate perspective; it is the air we breathe, the water we swim. People are captivated by a powerful passion to possess: toys, gadgets, vacations, experiences (elusive freedom). The all-out quest for affluence has exceeded what any previous generation could have imagined. Greed has replaced need as the major motivational energy behind much of our activities. Notre Dame  history professor Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation) asks the pressing question: “Is the will-to-consume the only glue (common ideology or passion) we have left for society in the pluralistic West?” Have we lost our soul?

In America, the top 1% of wage earners own an astounding 50% of the wealth of the entire country according to Wall Street insider  John R. Talbott. Salaries for some of our sports icons, traders and bankers has hit the stratosphere and continue to escalate. Robert Jensen of University of Texas believes that late modern  Capitalism is actually working against democracy, because of its extreme concentration of wealth. It develops a powerful elite who control the wealth and thereby control the government. Are politicians excessively controlled by Wall Street, London Business and Bay Street? is a question worth asking.

Sociologist Max Weber captures the mood: “For one with the acquisitive appetite, money is not so much a means of securing goods and services as an end in itself… Man[kind] is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of life.” Thus what was once a means to an end, has become an end in itself. In certain cases, it has reached almost psychotic proportions. The first decade of the twenty-first century is riddled with scandalous and unethical business practices fuelled by lies and excessive greed (Enron, WorldCom, 2008 Banking/Market Crisis, Subprime Mortgage Fiasco, Bernie Madoff). Many people and their hopes and retirement dreams were sacrificed in the name of consumption and reckless behaviour, acquisitiveness and upward mobility. The weaker members of society suffered terribly. Greed led to so much corruption, so many unnecessary compromises in the marketplace. This kind of selfishness is a very narrow aspect of people, but has become all too dominant as a life goal–it makes us inhuman in the end.

The centerpiece of this new morality is my needs. “Need” emerges as a modern popular pseudo-religion, a hermeneutical scam, a justification of all sorts of nefarious behaviour, and excessive lifestyles. Under its rubric, it is paramount that my needs be met now, a deeply rooted sentiment. Real needs are valid up to a  point, but people in the industrial nations have unfortunately transformed wants into needs. The language game (mythology) of need is the cultural driver at the heart of our consumer society. Want morphs into need which becomes a personal right, an assumed scientific fact. We late moderns are lost in the cosmos as Walker Percy says; we don’t seem to know when enough is enough.

Our mega shopping malls tell a meta-story to instill awe in people at the variety and glory, even supremacy, of consumer goods. A consumer actually defines her or his identity by the quality and quantity of goods owned–the branding and scale. Those like teens or International students from poorer countries are especially vulnerable. Are we not terribly curious about where our friends work, what they drive and what kind of house they live in? We are in awe of independently wealthy billionaires like Buffet and Gates as if they were modern Olympian gods. The dream is that mystical experience at the end of the rainbow, inappropriately called “The Good Life.” We covet the success, the security, the travel and leisure that the dream promises. Often, we live on excess credit in order to fake reaching it faster. This kind of activity took several to the brink in recent years; debt still has many individuals, institutions, governments and societies perched on a precipice  in Japan (debt is 230% of GDP), America (16.5 Trillion on the New York City debt clock) and Europe (debt of 160% GDP). This is clearly unsustainable and dangerous.

In the past decade or so among college and university students, a fundamental shift has occurred in their top goal. At one time, students would say that they attend university to discover a good philosophy of life , to become aware of the big questions facing humanity, discover more about world culture, or to develop problem-solving skills to help people. Now in the early 21st century, the largest majority are motivated by the privilege and economic advantage that a university or college education will allow them. Consumerism not Socrates is corrupting our youth in their prime of life. Never before in North American history has there been a greater commitment to materialism as a way of life, or to extravagance as a supreme good. This is a massive seduction regime of rising expectations.

Can we pull out of this trend? Can we rethink our fundamental priorities and values? The alternative of continuing on this path seems quite destructive to the environment, to the poor, to ourselves, to the world economy, to our integrity and the very meaning of our lives. There are perhaps no simple Utopian answers, but future blog posts will explore sketches of a way forward, a means of getting back in touch with reality. We believe that indeed we can recover the language and the economy of stewardship, sustainability and responsibility.

~Gord Carkner

Canadian Singer Songwriter Poet Bruce Cockburn provokes the spirit of the age in his song ‘More Not More’

There must be more …

More songs more warmth

More love more life

Not more fear not more fame

Nor more money nor more games

More current more spark

More touch deep in the heart

Not more thoughtless cruelty

Not more being this lonely

More growth more truth

More chains more loose

Not more pain not more walls

Not more living human voodoo dolls.

Wall Street Bull


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