Posted by: gcarkner | September 19, 2013

Recovering Stewardship…4

Consumerism has its Personal Cost

Consumer Angst

As stated in the previous post in this series, consumerism is heavily motivated by a strong individualism. The corporate or common good is often far from the mind of the consumer. Individualism as a form of identity creates in people a sense of isolation. With this isolation, comes fear and insecurity. Many people today pursue acquisitiveness in order to control their private world and establish some sort of security for themselves and their family. This is a virulent combination. Strangely, this can lead to an even greater insecurity and tremendous stress related to the challenge of maintaining the consumptive lifestyle and keeping boredom at bay.

Legitimate needs (food, water, shelter) can be met, but illegitimate wants (laced with pride, envy, greed) are literally  insatiable. They create obsessive behaviour similar to that found in alcoholism or drug addiction.  The West invented shop-aholism. In this sense, the consumer ethos emerges as the opiate of the masses. Enough is never enough; there is always the craving for more. The boom in the therapy industry in North America has a lot to do with the resulting neuroses and boredom caused by crude consumerism. It turns out not to provide meaning and fulfilment, but the opposite, soul angst. We note the very sad example of the wealthy and eccentric aircraft billionaire Howard Hughes.

The consumptive lifestyle is in fact a form of death-denial, a self­ deception, a refusal to deal with the deeper issues. Subconsciously, we hope that financial security will wipe away all our tears, that success and prosperity will provide protection from aging and death. We fantasize that our investments will bring automatic relational happiness and freedom from guilt. The modern idol of a nice home provides an excellent example. With the right carpets and curtains, sound system, microwave and backyard pool, we think we can protect ourselves from evils and hazards of the outside world. Research on happiness and well-being at University of British Columbia does not support this claim.

According to social surveys, Americans were much happier in earlier decades, even though they had far less of today’s consumer products. The country of Bhutan decided to set a Gross National Happiness (versus GDP) index as a major national goal. Consumerism does not give us control over our destinies, nor does it offer us more internal security. We are attempting to derive far too much meaning from material goods and exotic vacations, often for the shallow goal of bragging rights (Rene Girard calls it mimetic rivalry). We lose sight of the deeper meaning and benefit of sacrificing for the well-being of others, or making a contribution to the social good.

There is a paradoxical sense in which we can become enslaved by the very things that we attempt to use to control the world. We sacrifice health, family and other people to get what we think we want, and find ourselves caught in the trap of sixteen hour day workaholism. Economist Heilbroner crystallizes the point: “The present cultural malaise reflects the inability of a civilization directed to material involvement–higher incomes, better diets, miracles of medicine, triumphs of applied physics and chemistry–to satisfy the human spirit.”

Secondly, dehumanization can set in. People become victims of consumption when it is raised to the level of ideology, as it most certainly is in the West. The treatment of things as commodities has slipped over into the treatment of persons as commodities. Sadly sometimes even education is commodified. The marketing and consuming worldview sees people as objects to be targeted and manipulated as a niche audience. They are not seen as persons to be appreciated and nurtured. The world of personhood is replaced by the world of objects. Industrially, employees can be reduced to a mere means of production. In the marketplace, people are often reduced to a dehumanized mass consumer profile.

Our commodities have a subtle way of moulding us into their image. We become slaves to and victims of our own creations and branding, in this romance with the quantitative, mechanical, and manageable. We suffer from an identity crisis, a crisis of self, in the powerful environment of commodity consciousness. People are reduced to mere cogs in the vast economic-industrial machine. It can destroy us spiritually and emotionally, even if over a period of time where we don’t notice what is happening to us.  J. P. Kavanaugh (Following Christ in a Consumer Society) captures the dilemma of exploitation when he writes:

Greater accumulation is the omnipresent, a priori “given” …. Once self-worth is defined in terms of appropriation, the cultural myth will relentlessly be one of materialism, property, consumption, buying-power, competition and greater economic exploitation…. It is this gospel with its valued givens which prevents us from seeing, much less responding to, the neighbour, even the beseeching person next to us …. We no longer see persons. We see things.

Many aspects of modern sexual relations have also been horribly and unjustifiably commodified. Under commodity consciousness, other selves can be sacrificed to my personal goals. We notice a de-emphasis on commitment and an intensification of hedonism in sexual relationships today. This belies a consumer ethic, and wickedly selfish motive, even if it often involves mutual manipulation. It is a means to destroy relationships. Let’s face it; it is abusive.

In this environment, humans lose their capacity for trust, for intimacy and loving commitment or covenant. One of the high points in our development as human beings (our ability to give and receive love in an atmosphere of respect for the other) is sacrificed to the consumption demigod. The evidence of this fall is in a rampant increase in sexual exploitation and violence.

Pornography and prostitution are only the most public examples. Many journals and magazines points to a shocking rise in prostitution around the globe, and even sex tourism. One gets a sickening feeling at the degrading depths and complete lack of ethics that have been reached by skin traders. Increasing numbers of boys and girls (young children) are chained to prostitution in developing nations fuelled by Western sex tourists. This is a multi-billion dollar enterprise of slavery. Souls do not count in this case, only bodies.  But there is nothing in the consumer ethic that says this is wrong. This is one exposure of the lie in consumerism.

Is this a cost we are willing to pay, a sacrifice of human dignity we are willing to offer? These consequences ought to send us on a search for a better stewardship.

~Gord Carkner An Alternative Thinker: Wendell Berry UN Global Strategy

REED  – Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity. REED stands “in solidarity and struggle with women who have been sexually exploited and trafficked into the sex industry” (

International Justice Mission Canada

A Working Stewardship Covenant

Recognizing that the earth and the fullness thereof is a gift from our gracious God, and that we are called to cherish, nurture, and provide loving stewardship for the earth’s resources. And recognizing that life itself is a gift, and a call to responsibility, joy and celbration, I make the following declarations:

 I declare myself to be a world citizen.

 I commit myself to lead an ecologically sound life.

I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world’s poor.

I commit myself to join with others in reshaping institutions in order to bring about a more just global society in which each person has full access to the needed resources for the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.

I commit myself to occupational accountability, and in so doing I will seek to avoid the creation of products which will cause harm to others.

I affirm the gift of my body, and commit myself to its proper nourishment and physical well-being.

I commit myself to examine continually my relations with others, and to attempt to relate honestly, morally and lovingly to those around me.

I commit myself to personal renewal through prayer, meditation and study.

I commit myself to responsible participation in a community of faith

~From Visions for a Hungry World by Thomas Pettepiece

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