2. The Narrative Of Consumerism And It’s (Idolatrous) Formational Power To Shape Our Economic Life Together.
Bob Goudzwaard suggests that our current economic system is built on an idolatrous notion of progress. Economic progress and growth, we are told, is a good thing. In a consumer driven free-market economy the way to solve problems is to increase production but this requires us to increase consumption. The way to solve our problems is to shop. This is a story that we hear preached all the time. So, when the economic stability of our country is at risk our leaders tell us that “it is the duty of every American to consume.”4 This is why shortly after 9/11 US President George W. Bush told Americans that if we wanted to beat the terrorists we could not allow them to interrupt our way of life. What then should we do? Go shopping of course! It would seem then that consumerism is what keeps our society going and our economy growing. Yet, in the medical world, growth for growth’s sake is called cancer.5 Rarely do we stop and ask whether continued economic growth is good. Did you know that one of the primary ways we identify ourselves in the (over)developed world is as consumers? Not as artists, farmers, mothers or friends but as shoppers. In fact, the way we measure and experience value in our society is directly linked to how much we contribute to the economy via consumerism.6 The newer our stuff is the more we have obviously contributed to our consumer-driven economy and, therefore, the more valuable we are as people. Think about that. Who is more valuable in our society, the young trendy marketing executive who spends lots of money to maintain a particular image or the single mother who lives in government housing and needs food stamps in order to feed her family? And so we shop. Why? Because we want to be valuable, important members of society. Yet our habits of consumption are unsustainable. Only about 1% of the resources that flow through the chain of production and into our homes via consumption are still in use six months after purchase. In other words, about 99% of the stuff that is run through our economic system (i.e. through the processes of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal) ends up in the trash within six months.7 How can we possibly keep this up?
Our consumptive practices were not always like this however. In the town where I grew up there used to be farmers fields where there are now big box stores and gas stations. In fact, the average North American now consumes about twice as much as they did fifty years ago.8 When I think back to my Grandparents generation I see folks who were much more resourceful and better stewards than we are today. Heck, my wife’s Nonna still grows all her own vegetables and even makes her own pasta noodles! The reality is that the consumerism that is so rampant today was designed. After the second world war the United States government, along with major corporations, were thinking of ways to ramp up the economy. Retail analyst Victor LeBeau articulated a solution that helped shaped our current system: “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life. That we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”9 The size and growth of our current economic structures necessitate consumption as a way of life. Through the help of marketing the purchasing of goods is turned into a “ritual” that spiritually satisfies us. The religiosity of consumerism is no accident. Consumerism is a confession of faith.
According to the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for US President Dwight Eisenhower the chief purpose of the American economy is to produce more consumer goods.10 Forget about healthcare, education, justice, employment and sustainability. The issue then became how to convince us that we need to go out and buy these goods. In order to convince the public that we are essentially nothing more than consumers and that we need to consume in order to keep our economy growing the government and corporations took a (essentially) two-pronged approach in the form of planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the idea that some products are “designed for the dump.”11 This is most obvious with products like diapers and plastic bags but it is also true for everything from phones and mops to DVDs (hello Blu-ray!). Simply put, some products are designed with an expiration date at which point we need to go out and buy something new. However, stuff fails to wear out and break fast enough to keep our consumer-goods economy afloat so there is also perceived obsolescence. Perceived obsolescence is what you get when corporations pay marketing executives millions upon millions of dollars to convince you and I to throw away products that are perfectly useful and to replace these with shiny new products. How is this done? Simple, they just change the way things look. Fashion is a prime example of this. Every few months a new item is “in”. One year it’s leather jackets and the next it’s all about denim jackets. If you have older items it shows that you have not contributed to the economy of consumerism lately which means you’re not as valuable of a person which is, of course, embarrassing. Perhaps this is why Oscar Wilde famously remarked, “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” To illustrate this further, since Apple first released the iPod in October 2001 there have been an additional fifty-one updated models released with different bells and whistles attached.12 I remember when I got my first iPod nano and within six months of having received it as a gift there was an even newer one available which made my (new!) iPod look old and out-dated.
Advertising plays a huge role in all of this as it serves to manufacture a sense of restlessness which in turn births false desires within us for things we have no need of. The average North American is exposed to over 3,000 advertisements a day on everything from bus-stops to the handles of pumps at the gas station. The extent of this is phenomenal as people now see more advertisements in one year than people fifty years ago saw in a lifetime.13 Interestingly, advertisements today tell us less and less about the actual product they are advertising. I recently saw an advertisement for Bacardi Rum that took place at some sort of roof-top pool in an urban setting. The ad was full of beautiful, young people that filled the empty pool with foam cubes and spent the night partying and jumping into said foam pool. Now what in the world this all had to do with rum I do not know. But that’s the thing. This ad was not designed to inform us about Bacardi Rum, rather, it was designed to associate Bacardi Rum with a particular image: namely, that of sexy young people with seemingly little worries having a fantastic night. That is not what my life looks like but apparently this is what it could look like if I drank Bacardi. Since advertisements exist almost solely to make us unhappy with what we have it is hardly a wonder that malls are the new temples for our consumerist culture. The studies are in, we have more stuff than ever before but are less happy and have less time for the things that make us truly happy because we are too busy working to try and sustain an insatiable, restless consumerism.
2.1 Economic Idolatry?
Ultimately this all comes back to what many critics, including Goudzwaard, suggest: our current global economy is predicated on infinite growth (which relies on consumerism) yet it is precisely this idolatrous faith in unimpeded progress that is unsustainable and damages our relationship with each other and with the rest of creation. ‘Idolatrous’ is a peculiar way to describe an economy yet this is precisely how Goudzwaard describes the economics of the (over)developed world. Idolatry, in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, is ripe with imagery. Idols are carved out of stone or wood. They are images. Israel’s prophets often cried out for Israel to abandon her idolatry and return to YHWH on the basis that it was the Lord who has done great things for them. Who lead them out of slavery in Egypt? The Lord did. Who made them into a people? The Lord did. Who will redeem and restore them? The Lord will. In contrast, the prophets exposed the powerlessness of the idols. They cannot do anything for Israel. Sure, they have ears but they cannot hear, they have mouths but they cannot speak. Baal may have massive reproductive organs but according to the prophets he can’t get it up. Idol’s are not only impotent but sterile.
So, what then is idolatrous about our consumer driven economic system? Given the nature of this paper I do not have the space here to delve too deeply into this so a few comments will have to suffice for the time being. Goudzwaard highlights a number of paradoxes that exist within wealthy nations that our economy seems incapable of addressing. In fact, not only is our economy incapable of addressing these issues but as Goudzwaard argues in much of his work these paradoxes are actually the result of an ever-expanding economy. Therefore, any attempt to address these issues within our current economy of progress is in vain. The paradoxes relate to the issues of poverty, environmental degradation and unemployment. How is it that within the wealthiest countries in the world these sorts of things exist? Our economies are wealthier than ever and yet there are people living in my neighbourhood without a home or a job.The rate at which we are consuming the earths resources is unsustainable and unjust. The richest 20% of the world consumes as much as 80% of the worlds resources. How can we possibly continue to live lives like this? Our economy views the earths resources as something to be used for profit, as commodities to be bought and sold on the market. If a business community saw themselves as stewards of creation how would this change things? We are producing more than ever before and yet it seems that there are fewer jobs as a result of technological innovation and outsourcing. In fact, in an economy such as ours work is turned into a disutility, an expense, a speed bump on the road of progress and profit. This stands in stark contrast to the nature of work that we see in the scriptures. Work was created good as part of a good creation. In this sense work is far from a disutility. If economic life is a way of confession then we must acknowledge that our gods have failed us. Our economy, rooted as it is in the Industrial Revolution is nothing less than an expression of faith: “the faith that things would get better and better through the advance of modern technology within the framework of a growing free market production.”14 Things have not gotten “better and better” rather we could argue that they have gotten worse. Our economic way of life puts a strain on our relationship with each other and with creation in general and, in fact, harms these relationships.
Our Northern (Western) economy is built on a lie. The lie is this, that technological, scientific and economic progress will lead to our happiness. Unhindered progress becomes equivalent to unhindered happiness. And so in the name of progress we destroy one another and we destroy the earth. According to our idolatrous notion of progress any sort of restraint is a bad thing. Restraints are a hindrance to progress and therefore a hindrance to our happiness. Humans then become consumers. What does it mean to be human? It means to consume as much as you can because this will lead to your happiness. Yet, the scriptures tell us that we were created by God in his image. To be human is to be an image bearer. The question then becomes, whose image do we bear? If we give into the idolatrous notion of unimpeded or unlimited progress and growth, allowing ourselves to be shaped by consumerism, then we will inevitably bear an image other than God’s image and that is idolatry. How then are we to live? If our cultural narrative is that unimpeded progress will lead to our happiness then what is the scriptural narrative? It is that our happiness is bound up in Shalom. The point is not to consume and progress without boundaries. The point, rather, is to live in Shalom with creation and with each other. In order for this to happen we must talk about restraint.
2.2 Restraint and other economic options.
Restraint is not a popular notion in our Northern societies. We’re so used to doing more and wanting more and getting more that we rarely stop to ask ourselves if this is good. Let us consider for a moment that the earth has limited resources. If this is the case, then we cannot continue to live in a way that allows us to consume more than our fair share of the earths resources while other nations remain underdeveloped (in fact, our overdevelopment keeps other nations underdeveloped). We must also realize that the earth is not here to be plundered but rather to fall under the care of our stewardship. Consider also the current global economic situation. Economies all over the world are crumbling. Something is wrong here and it is not a surface issue. It is not a matter of changing a few things here and there so that all may be well. Rather, the issue is deep, spiritual and at the core of what we believe about ourselves and the world.
What are we to do then? Goudzwaard suggests that we need to start by understanding our economic life together in a different light, rooted in a different telling of the world. Simply put, economic life consists of more than producing and consuming; it also consists of sustaining and keeping. Rather than an economy that knows no bounds and is continually growing we ought to seek an economy that flourishes. An abundant, life-giving economy. An economy of enough. Recently I attended a talk given by Bob Goudzwaard and at one point he used the metaphor of a tree. Tree’s are beautiful and organic yet even the wisest oak tree knows that the point of the tree is not to grow up to heaven! There is something within the tree (creational) that tells it it’s purpose is not unlimited growth. Rather, the purpose of a tree is to flourish and bear fruit. At a certain point during the growth of a tree its energy and life is redirected towards bearing fruit. The same can be said for our economies. The purpose is not unlimited growth to the heavens, but rather, the purpose is for the flourishing of human life. A tree economy “seeks to provide sufficient opportunities for meaningful work, for meeting basic material needs both in Canada and around the world, for environmental sustainability for ourselves and for future generations, and for preservation of non-commercialized art and culture.”15 It is obvious, however, that our current culture knows little of this for we are only concerned with unlimited growth and progress. We know little of limitations or stewardship. We know not what it means to be content. Why? Because according to the narrative of our society humans are fundamentally consumers with insatiable desires living in a world of scarce resources. We are detached from the products that we buy, the methods of production and the actual people who make our goods.
2. The Narrative Of Consumerism And It’s (Idolatrous) Formational Power To Shape Our Economic Life Together.