Posted by: gcarkner | September 23, 2013

Recovering Stewardship…5

Corruption and Environmental Costs of Wreckless Consumerism

When did we lose the enchantment of the world? When did we decide to sacrifice the future of our children and have them pay our debts? When did we decide to pollute to our hearts content with no thought for the flourishing of future generations? Who sold us this mythology of consumerism and growth without end, a carbon future with our end? How did we become so deluded, so corrupt? G. K. Chesterton, British social critic, was not far from the mark when he wrote: “A person who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt person, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. Christ said that to be rich is to be in a peculiar danger of moral wreck.” This should give us pause in our fast world. Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) is asking us to slow down and think more deeply, more circumspectly, where we see things more clearly and make our best judgments. Al Gore and his research team have articlated six areas of vital concern for the future of human civilization in his important  book The Future: six drivers of global change. Now we have the communal vision of  a ‘new human narrative’ by Jeremy Rifkin in Zero Margin Cost Society: the internet of things, the collaborative commons, and the eclipse of capitalism in 2014. Watch his lecture to get the summary theme:

It should be clear through this five part discussion that the possessive, consumptive attitude is corrosive of individual values of service and compassion toward humanity and the planet. There is no question that the utilitarian ethic of comfort and survival has destroyed our ability to love and respect our neighbour (both local and global). Love and a quest for the good (Charles Taylor, Iris Murdoch) is the foundation of any substantive ethic. Greed and acquisitiveness, on the other hand, are highly toxic forces in public ethics and relationships, promoting a radical breakdown in trust, and nasty politics. Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell strikes the jugular vein when he says that we are presently in a spiritual crisis, a crisis of belief, a crisis of perspective. Steven Bouma-Prediger calls it a lack of discernment about our home. We are alienated and at war with our own home–our fragile blue-green planet, earth.

Corruption: Wealth is a dangerous, heady wine if not handled with accountability. We have seen this in the lifestyle decisions of bankers, traders and Wall Street executives during the high rolling days before the 2008 economic crash that almost entirely crippled the whole global financial system. The power that goes with great wealth can be tremendously life-giving or incredibly death-dealing. The documentaries “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Inside Job” reveal some shocking, narcissistic behaviours in the leadership of this and other corporations and government. Highly trained, otherwise intelligent people seemed to lose touch with reality; they bought into an operative cultural pathology, fuelled by greed and the ruthless vices of conquest. This has exposed a values vacuum in the governance of corporate society. Also see the movie The Corporation for some eye-opening insights

There are also some serious concerns in the attitude of powerful multi-national corporations and our most wealthy citizens. For example, one percent of the American population owns and controls 50% of her wealth. In the last few decades, a small number of such corporations and a relatively few individuals have begun to dominate and control production and consumption throughout the world.

Huge wealth is actually concentrated in relatively few pockets; these are known as the plutocrats according to a recent book by Christia Freeland (Plutocrats: The Rise Of The New Global Super Rich And The Fall Of Everyone Else). They have become autonomous, sovereign powers that are accountable to no one, with profits that top combined GDP of smaller countries. They are also incredibly influential in Western governments. This calculates as a strong concern for the future of democracy as well as the future of the middle class. They are the most powerful individuals and human organizations yet devised, with a severe lack of accountability to government and the majority of society. These international oligarchies have  power over markets, the flow of money, prices, employment, technology with massive lobbying influence on government fiscal and monetary policies. See John R. Talbott (Contagion) or Al Gore (The Future: six drivers of global change) for some of the deeper inside information on this phenomenon. Nothing is a more sure formula for corruption at the highest levels of society.

Environmental Cost: In recent decades, we have reached a much greater consciousness of the shocking global impact of our consumption and the way we have been stewards of the natural world. Creation is beginning to bite back with superstorms and threatening ocean levels due to climate change. We must not despair, but there are indeed some harsh realities to face. Environmentalist Steven Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth, Chapter 2. “What’s wrong with the earth?”) outlines the gravity of the environmental cost to our greed.  We read and hear about this in our news almost daily. Climate change, global warming, air, water and ground pollution, tremendous loss of species, deforestation and dessertification and depletion of raw materials. One of the great political tests of the future will be the depletion of good drinking water supply, a looming crisis (depleted mid-West US aquifers are merely one example). Short-term goals of continued economic growth have produced a massive long-term threat to the health of our planet. Frankly, the earth cannot cope with our lifestyle; it is in deep pain.

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.14.20 PM

Continued economic growth for all nations at the rate of Western industrialized nations is sheer lunacy, yet in India and China that seems to be where we are headed. We see the emergence of another billion people worldwide to the middle class. It is unsustainable; noted UBC Planning Professor William Rees says we will need several planets to absorb this kind of activity. A corollary of the illusion is that somehow huge national debts, to be paid back in a mythical future, will stimulate and grow economies. It simply doesn’t work, as noted Canadian Economist Jeff Rubin states (The End of Growth). Many countries in Europe are left teetering on the edge of bankruptcy (Greece only being the most dramatic current example), thereby forcing them to lay off a huge number of workers, producing much human suffering. Who would have imagined a decade ago that Detroit, motor city, would enter bankruptcy? Japan’s debt is 230% of GDP; Europe’s debt is 160% of GDP; America’s debt is 16.5 Trillion dollars, adding one trillion per year. Something is broken.

The industrial revolution has produced a rain storm of material goods and luxury items. The exploitation of developing world resources, by all the parties involved, is a particular crime against humanity and the planet. Growth without end in a world of limited resources and limited cheap energy is impractical and will hit a wall. Our mad quest for financial security and ever increasing GDP has left our biological future a very insecure one. But we now know that ecological health must be weighed against economic prosperity. Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki and economist Jeff Rubin recently together did a Canada-wide ‘eco tour’ to show that we have to take economics and environment into account in our decisions about our world going forward. There is no other option. The war games between economy and ecology have to end; accountability is our new bottom line.

Simplicity is the New Necessity: Both economists and ecologists affirm that we must do more with less. We have to conserve precious resources: reduce, recycle, renew. We have to live within our means. Time is running out and our planet, our society cannot sustain our current consumptive lifestyle. Mark Twain once quipped, “Civilisation is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.” It is not necessary to crave more. One of the easiest and most creative ways of getting enough is to desire less, be content with less, and cherish it more. We need a change of heart, a spiritual change. As a society, we must discern between true and false needs and cut back on our consumption and reduce our carbon footprint. There is a definite urgency for a counter-cultural stance against the false identification of status, image and prestige with certain products or high-flying lifestyles.  What is needed today are new values: Contentment, Generosity, and Compassion (versus greed, selfishness, and avarice).

But what is the foundation for simplicity, and the motivation to change our lifestyle? Russian Cold War dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn saw through the pretences of the West which harboured him as a writer about truth. At a commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, he cut to the chase.

On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.

There is a need for a more transcendent, richer, higher and more powerful dream than our own self-interest. The goals of personal peace and affluence have shown to be bankrupt and destructive. We need a worldview that speaks to the whole person, one that feeds and nourishes the human spirit, one that guides a society in the direction of good stewardship, and long term creation care.

Steven Bouma-Prediger (Hope College) and Calvin DeWitt (University of Wisconsin) propose that Christianity offers such a robust, hopeful paradigm to guide us through the twenty-first century. They want us to take responsibility for our home planet, to take care of creation. If our lives are centred in God as provider, they suggest that there will be more satisfaction, more wholeness with less expense and fewer toys. We will draw our meaning from a deeper theme. Consumerism acts an unsatisfactory and destructive God-substitute. Only God can properly handle the role of the centre of meaning in our lives. This is the heart of simplicity. In Matthew 5: 3-10, Jesus says: “Happy are those who are humble in spirit”. Time spent slowing down from the rat race, time spent in contemplation and solitude out in creation can help millions in our stressed-out generation. It can restore our sense of wonder and restore some of the enchantment in our minds. This could give us the focus we need to discover what is really important, what we truly need. Below are three essential values worth reflecting upon:

a) Contentment: There is real power in being able to do without, rather than craving for more. Jesus warned us not to be pre-occupied with  the sustenance of our lives (the stomach), but to seek God first (Matt 6:24). There is a tremendous freedom in being released from worry, envy and covetness. A positive relationship with God is ultimately what will satisfy us. The quality of life is so much more important than its quantity. Many who have more than enough, cannot come to peace with themselves and the universe. One example of contentment is Francis of Assisi from the 12th century who gave up his family riches to find true meaning in poverty and simplicity. He learned the richness and beauty of depending on God for his needs. He remains the saint of environmental consciousness to this day.

b) Generosity: The hoarding attitude of consumerism stifles the human spirit. But we all know that it lifts the spirit to observe a truly generous or sacrificial act. Generosity of attitude and generosity toward others contains its own argument; it is creative, cheerful, life-giving. If we experience the love and generosity of God, it will encourage us toward care, hospitality, and radical generosity to the needs of people in the world, to love the neighbour near and far, to caring for God’s creation. Generosity is the opposite of fearful grasping, and the incessant worry about money. It is giving without expecting anything in return within an economy of grace. Giving is vital to our emotional and spiritual life; human hearts grow through liberality. This is born out in the current research on human happiness.

c) Compassion for the Poor and Disadvantaged: North Americans and Europeans (people of the Global  North) need to break out of their self-centred fear and provincialism, their quest of dominance. It is time that we realized that our consumption levels in this global village are depriving others of basic survival needs. We live in one human community and we in the wealthy West are accountable to the needs of the poor. May God give us compassion and a heart for international justice. Indian statesman Mahatma Gandhi once said “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” If someone has no lunch, we could share ours. Mother Teresa of Calcutta has exemplified in profound ways advocacy for the disadvantaged, the desperately poor and the dying. These people offer a paradigm difference.

There is a powerful sense in which the blood of the poor will be on the heads of the rich. We are accountable ultimately, and we should cease our denial and self-congratulation. We need to find specific and appropriate ways to care and advocate for the poor and defenceless, the homeless of today. Are we courageous enough to evaluate our living standards by the needs of the poor? Stewardship of international resources is one of the most pressing problems for the UN and the global community. Solzhenitsyn again profoundly strikes at the heart of our Western soul:

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth … must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully to get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfilment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than when one started it.

We must demote our value on riches in order to discover the fullest spiritual richness of life (a fullness of humanity). Goods and glitz and hedonism are no substitute for true personhood and life-enhancing relationships. There is a deep psychic and societal reason why Jesus said to the wealthy young prince, “Sell all you possess and feed the poor.” He welcomed this young man to a deeper, richer more compassionate theme in life, the authentic Good Life, a dynamic and fruitful life of agape love. May our will-to-­possess be transformed into a will-to-generosity and a will-to-take-responsibility for our world. Is it possible to transform these consumptive vices back into virtues again, to exchange a negative hypergood for a positive one, for the sake of renewal and conservation?

Virtues of a Fellow Creature by Steven Bouma-Prediger

Al Gore’s new book The Future raising some important concerns along these lines. (Random House, 2013). We do well to pay attention to his six global trends analysis.

A Rocha Christian Stewardship of Creation

See the vitally important book This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate by Noami Klein (2014)

A Dramatic Demonstration of these concerns is articulated in the bestselling book and documentary called Food, Inc. (ed. Karl Weber):

Bruce Cockburn, More Not 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.

This powerful song cuts to the heart of our present cultural neurosis. We are all victims of consumerism at the end of the day.

~Gordon E. Carkner PhD in Philosophical Ethics

See Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts on the quest to live fully with more spiritual depth. Howling with the Wolves in Golden, B.C.

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