Tuesday, November 29, 2011

'Tis the Season to Consume

'Tis the season to spend money we don't have on things we don't need. The twelve days of debt are upon us and the annual festival of fights has begun. Apparently pepper spray will be this year's most popular gift. Peace on earth, good will toward men, only $19.95 if you call right now (plus shipping and handling). It's an excellent time, especially as you circle endlessly around a store parking lot, to meditate deeply on our culture of consumption.

Some thoughtful folks have already started. Writing for God's Politics, the blog of Sojourner's magazine, Jeremy John recently denounced Black Friday as the "Anti-Thanksgiving." In protest he refused to participate in this unofficial holiday which he describes as "a celebration of greed, unbridled consumerism and disregard for others."

Christianity Today features an interview with Laura Hartmann who explores the possibilities for "consumption ethics" in her book The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World. "Consumption ethics." There's a phrase you're unlikely to hear in the barrage of holiday-themed advertising bursting out of every television, radio, hand-held device, and print media over the next few weeks. In the interview, Hartmann makes the following observation:

"In some ways, this is the tragedy of consumerism: the consumerist culture recognizes that we're all needy but tries to fill it with the wrong stuff. It's a bottomless pit unless it's filled with the right stuff. We can just keep consuming and consuming and never be satisfied because we're not getting what we truly want."

Perhaps the resurgence of zombies in popular culture is a kind of subconscious reflection of this culture of consumption Hartmann and John are describing. Mouths gaping, arms outstretched, staggering ever forward, zombies represent consumption at its most basic. That George Romero's classic (and a really good remake) Dawn of the Dead takes place at a shopping mall is a none-too-subtle commentary on this culture.

As the title of Hartmann's book suggests, however, the consequences of consumption without consciousness or conscience involve more than maxing out a credit card. We can potentially max out the planet. It is in this context that public discourse regarding consumption is increasingly focused on "sustainability."

In 2010, the Baha'i International Community (BIC), a non-governmental organization representing the Baha'i Faith at the United Nations, contributed a statement to the 18th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. Titled Rethinking Prosperity: Providing Alternatives to the Culture of Consumerism, the statement emphasizes the need for cultural transformation based upon a rethinking of human nature. The Baha'i International Community comments that:

"The human experience is essentially spiritual in nature: it is rooted in the inner reality – or what some call the 'soul' – that we all share in common. The culture of consumerism, however, has tended to reduce human beings to competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and to objects of manipulation by the market."

In this new era of Occupying Everything, perhaps its time for us to occupy our wallets as well. Perhaps it is time to demonstrate that we are not zombies. We are living, breathing, thinking human beings committed to consumption characterized by conscience, common sense and yes, love for our neighbor and creation. That would be a gift that truly keeps on giving.