Sunday, December 11, 2011

Money Cannot Be Eaten

Article first published as Money Cannot Be Eaten on Blogcritics.

As the last of the Occupy encampments are swept away across the nation, few can fail to recognize that whatever the future of this movement, its activists have successfully "occupied" public discourse. Some see President Obama's recent speech in Kansas as an indication of this success. The speech, which focused largely on the theme of economic inequality, nicely captured the essence of the "American Dream," which for so many has become a dream deferred.

"If you gave it your all, you’d take enough home to raise your family, send your kids to school, have your health care covered, and put a little away for retirement."

Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress describes how the problem of economic inequality existed long before the Great Recession and actually contributed to it. She argues that stagnating incomes resulted in increased borrowing facilitated by an unregulated financial industry flush with cash. This unsustainable dynamic would eventually blow up in the 2008 financial crisis.

While increased discussion of economic inequality and the importance of reducing poverty and strengthening the middle class are encouraging, analysis of the influence of materialistic values on this crisis remains largely on the margins. A short film called, The High Price of Materialism, produced by the Center for a New American Dream, offers a corrective. In highly accessible language and informed by social science, the film describes the negative psychological and social consequences when materialistic values become dominant in our lives. It's an excellent companion to, The Story of Stuff, which discusses the dynamics of consumerism and the system that supports it. These short, yet profound films suggest that Americans need to dream much bigger.

Moving the critique of materialism from the margin to the center of discourse about a new economy is a contribution that religious leadership and communities of faith can and should make. This will require more than denunciations of Wall Street, its political enablers, or the so-called one percent. We need to begin to recognize the ideology of materialism and its institutional manifestations as being just as oppressive as the other "isms" humanity has been struggling to free itself from. 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921 framed the challenge in these terms:

All the Prophets have come to promote divine bestowals, to found the spiritual civilization and teach the principles of morality. Therefore, we must strive with all our powers so that spiritual influences may gain the victory. For material forces have attacked mankind. The world of humanity is submerged in a sea of materialism.

Such a process should not be confused with asceticism or denial of the material realities of life in the 21st century. What is required is learning how to harmonize the spiritual and material dimensions of civilization so that both progress in a sustainable, just, and unified fashion conducive to real prosperity. Otherwise, our children's children may live to see fulfillment of that grim prophecy of an indigenous people whom, like so many others, clearly saw the inevitable consequences of soul-less consumption:

Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

Cree Prophecy

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, taken by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and considered in the public domain


  1. Anonymous8:06 AM

    It would be poor business to allow ever tree to be chopped down, fish caught, and river poisoned. However sad, a product will be maintained by one method or another.

  2. Anonymous2:49 AM

    This is really such a difficult subject, because the one part that Economics gets right is the fact that employment is, fundamentally, a phenomenon related to demand. Unless people buy goods and services, there is no employment.

    This is the nut that we've yet to crack. You can read a ton of material on sustainable economics, but you'll find scant little that addresses the problem of employment.

    Baha'u'llah tells us that work, performed in the spirit of service, is worship. If we don't solve the problem of employment, then we're denying people one of the more nobler avenues for worshiping God.

    Merely switching from a consumerist/materialist economic structure to a more sustainable structure represents an enormous upheaval that would, in the absence of any other action, leave us with wide spread unemployment.

    So, I feel it's important for us, as Baha'is, to not divorce the two subjects. The two, sustainability and employment, are different sides of the same coin, and must be addressed simultaneously. A stern commitment to reducing consumerism must be accompanied by an equal commitment to provide jobs, through whatever means feasible, to those who would be displaced by such an upheaval.

  3. Anonymous7:29 PM

    I was among bahai communities in Oh and Rancho Cugomango. Married to a bahai twise. All I can say this so called faith is a cult very dangerous community. Thanks to God I have safed from this destructive community. What the member of bahai community do outside, get non Bahai women pregnant and walk away from the responsibilities, drin alchol, curse non Bahai put down Muslim and so many horrible stories. My mission is to stop naive women such as me not to get involved with bahais. Please single non Bahia women do your research before getting involved with this cult. I will give an examplr in Rancho Cugomango and Onterio m,opst of bahai are in 2nd or third marraiges men usually married seconf or third times into 20 to 30 years younger women who don't speak english and don't work.. why? controlling women.............