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.


  1. Dear Phillipe,
    Once again thank you for writing your blog and writing about this particular subject. I've found your writing is very easy to share with my friends in the greater community. All of us, no matter what religion or spiritual practice, can relative to the truths you share by the gifted way you write.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you,

  2. it's true what paula explains..

    i like the concept of us being consumed with service to every member of the human race, translating our thoughts into 'pure and holy deeds,..a virtuous life and a goodly behavior' (Baha'u'llah) in order to bring about justice and peace in this world

  3. Anonymous9:17 AM

    That was kind of harsh, honestly. Guilt isn't a good teaching method, along with calling people "zombies". Aren't you trying to reach a wider audience?

  4. Thanks Paula and We Are One, glad to see the post was useful.

    Anonymous, this post had a tongue and cheek spirit to it including the zombie image which is a metaphor and not "calling" anyone a zombie. I'm sorry if you experienced it as harsh, that was not my intent. However, if a person experiences guilt reading this piece they might ask themselves why and examine their own attitudes and behaviors regarding consumption. As I mentioned the stakes are higher than whatever momentary discomfort they might feel reading what I wrote. Also, I'm not concerned about reaching a larger audience but telling the truth as I see it. I have never written in an effort to be popular. I agree with you that guilt is not the most effective teaching method and appreciate you offering that feedback. It is food for thought indeed.