Consumerism – the third brick in the wall

By Contributor Daryl Gefken

This is the third in a three-part series.

Daryl Geffken

C.S. Lewis once quipped, “If you want to embarrass a Christian, ask them about their prayer life.”  That got me thinking, “If you want to embarrass an American, make them move.”  Perhaps I can explain by way of making fun of myself.

My family moved last summer.  And I finally came in touch with my own materialism.  It was when one car — an entire car — was filled with Tupperware containers holding all of my Star Wars Lego sets.  Am I given to hyperbole?  Often.  But not here.  Worse yet, these were Lego sets that I had built, photographed, and then put into separate Ziploc bags (or series of bags for the larger sets), and hidden away with their sequenced instruction booklets.  Toys not to be played with.

In my experience, I have come to believe an attitude of entitlement and consumerism is pervasive in American society where a merit-based system of thinking has justified accumulation.  This seems to pit liberty against social responsibility.  It says, “I can do what I please with that which is mine,” rather than recognizing that we were given opportunity by what Bono has labeled a “blessing of latitude.”

(The following may get a little academic, but read on.)

The scope of consumerism is substantial.  It’s the 21st century worldview that places the individual as one of its highest values and emphasizes the moral right of individual choice. By emphasizing the self above all else, a consumerist-ethic fosters the notion — we are what we buy. In fact, in the U.S., we spend three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe, according to Annie Leonard.  This describes a perpetual downward spiral that leads to over-consumption, or greed.  Author David Loy wrote, “Greed is based on a delusion: the delusion that happiness is to be found this way.  Trying to find fulfillment through profit, or by making consumption the meaning of one’s life amounts to idolatry.”  It follows that this moral right must be protected.  And we do protect it.  The United States, by foreign policy, business practice and military might continues to expand its values and enforce its sovereign right in the world.

Benjamin Barber took consumerism even further by arguing that a consumer-based economy has produced adult infants, “The child wants what it wants when it wants it, without consideration of the needs of others, and man-child does not outgrow this pattern.”  In such an economy, imaginary needs are created for those who have wealth, while the overwhelmingly true needs of those in poorer countries are marginalized because they are irrelevant as consumers.  It is so pervasive that it dominates almost all areas of society.  Infantilism has distorted need.  In my work with students I have heard many speak of the need for the latest jeans or new cell phone to change their look every two weeks.  I rarely have heard these students question where their next meal is coming from.  Barber maintained, “Not everything needs to earn a profit, not everyone needs to be a shopper—not all the time.”

Here’s an example that illustrates how compartmentalized Americans have become. In the late 90’s, Hillary Rodham Clinton protested against, “a consumer-driven culture that promotes values that undermine democracy” and berated, “materialism that undermines our spiritual centers.” Author Gregg Easterbrook writes, “Shortly thereafter, she bought a $1.7 million home and signed an $8 million book contract…. Clinton demonstrates what so many of us are inclined to do…We’re bent on saving everyone else from the horrors of consumption while taking care to make ourselves rich and comfy.”

Mark Gerzon made the assertion that, “Becoming a global citizen is not primarily a question of knowledge, or of feelings.  It is a question of values.  Becoming a global citizen requires that we ask ourselves: Are the values that we live by ‘good for the world?’”  He suggested five foundational values that could help create opportunities to conquer disparity in the world: integrity, learning, dialogue, bridging and synergy.

Here are two quotes to consider. “It is not what we take up, but what we give up, that makes us rich,” by Henry Ward Beecher. And, “The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good,” by Ann Landers.

As I have shared these thoughts in the past, some people have not only felt uncomfortable  (not a bad thing, I think), but also become quite angry or accusatory towards me.  I can understand this position in some ways.  If you are feeling a little edgy at this moment, ready to call me a liberal commie or something like that, listen: This is not social justice, I understand this to be the command of Christ.  If you want to call me names, feel free. But along with that, please show me where my understanding of Jesus’ expectation is wrong.

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3 responses to “Consumerism – the third brick in the wall

  1. “It was when one car — an entire car — was filled with Tupperware containers holding all of my Star Wars Lego sets. Am I given to hyperbole? Often. But not here. Worse yet, these were Lego sets that I had built, photographed, and then put into separate Ziploc bags (or series of bags for the larger sets), and hidden away with their sequenced instruction booklets. Toys not to be played with.”

    Daryl, I do have to call you a name: Nerd!

    Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go play Scrabble on Facebook this fine Saturday night 😉

    Just kidding – I appreciate your insight and your courage to take a stand and share this with us.

  2. I totally understand about the Legos- I’m a big fan! I also get the point about consumerism. There are many indications, including the obesity epidemic, that the Western world has a problem. But just to offer a dissenting view, economists have shown that the best way to lift people out of poverty is through economic growth. Economic growth is fueled through consumerism.

  3. Thank you for your response and I am sorry for the delay in posting something.
    My article is meant to draw attention not to the issue of capitalism vs. another type of economy, globalization, the merits of free-market laissez faire ideologies, etc (all important issues that bear investigation). The goal was to target the personal mindset that consumes material as a means of self-fulfillment in a manner that is detrimental to self, community and world. This is more accessible a topic for a majority of readers and a wonderful place to begin assessing what is important and which values are to be championed.
    Trusting an economist that has studied how to regulate and provide global growth based on the commodification of life (placing a monetary value on all forms of life) is akin to trusting big oil if it were to publish a report that shows driving a car is the best way to get to the store… it is relying on a promoter within the system to assess the very thing that gives them their livelihood, let alone allowing them to define the concept of what is “best.” Step outside a bit to explore other options and we find that the basis of “what is good or best” changes. Naomi Klein, Paul Hawken, Benjamin Barber and Ronald Sider and Cynthia Moe Lobeda all offer solid options across various fields for altering economic practice as it is currently expressed.
    Again, thank you for your thoughts. I always appreciate the contributions of others that force me to pause and rethink my opinions.

    Love God, love others

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