Thursday, September 24, 2015
Why Is Consumerism a Problem?
At this particular moment in our culture, there seems no difficulty in finding voices, both secular and religious, eager to condemn consumerism. When I did a quick image search on "consumerism" (which Google helpfully defined for me via Wikipedia as "a social and economic order and ideology [that] encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts") to illustrate this post I found pieces of original artwork ranging from a metallic dinosaur covered in corporate logos devouring people and pieces of great artwork to an image of Christ crucified on shopping bags.
However, while many are eager to condemn consumerism, there seems to be less agreement on precisely why it is bad.
One line of thought seems to be simply that consumerism often focuses its acquisitive energies on crass merchandise: too many Mickey Mouse ear hats and not enough reproductions of Renaissance artwork and hand made furniture. It's easy to mock bad taste, at least when sitting with other people who share our own preferences, but this isn't really a critique of the acquisition of goods and services, but a complaint that people aren't choosing the goods and services that we would like them to.
Another accusation is that the focus on buying things means that people spend too much time making money which will allow them to buy the merchandise they covet, and not enough time spent in leisure. However, this too seems a little odd, in that much consumerism, from theme park visits to pay-per-view TV, is focused around leisure time. Even virtuously active leisure activities come with large helpings of consumerism, as I've discovered this year while training for a half marathon. You'd think that running, a sport which involves putting one foot in front of another on a public road, would be a no-frills hobby, but it is indeed heavily accessorized: running shoes, running socks, running clothes, hydration systems (this is the fancy word for a water bottle that clips on a belt), gels, chews, GPS devices... The list goes on. Nor are these strictly vain items. I can attest that having a good running shirt makes all the difference between miserable chafing and feeling comfortable throughout a 10+ mile run, and whatever odd ingredients may go into them (the two I care about are carbs and caffeine, the rest is delivery system) eating a little packet of energy gel during the middle of a long run certainly makes it easier to keep up energy during a run which my iPhone running app (another consumer product) tells me consumes about as many calories as I normally eat in a whole day. And even if we ignore the ways in which leisure time and activities are often tied to consumer products and services, the complaint that we should focus less on goods and services and more on time is really just a claim that we should be allocating our enjoyment differently than we are.
Other times, the assertion is that consumerism eats up valuable resources which could be used to make us better off. But when we boil this down to its basic argument, this amounts to saying that our consumption of stuff keeps us from having more stuff, which is not really all that persuasive. A variation on this is that consumerism focuses too much on variety, and that this variety results in inefficiency, thus making us all poorer. Bernie Sanders recently took this line in arguing, "You don't necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country." However, I don't think that many serious students of the economy believe that reducing the number of brands of deodorant would produce large amounts of excess wealth to redistribute.
You may be wondering by now if I'm coming around to arguing that there's nothing wrong with consumerism, that it's a productive and enjoyable desire. I'm not. No, I think that people are right to react against the excessive focus on acquiring things, whether those things are mass consumer goods or the artisan handcrafted thing-of-the-moment. However, as is often the case, modernity can have a certain instinct for what is wrong without having any clue as to why. Why is "the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts" a problem?
Not because it's bad for us to have things that we want. Not even necessarily because the things we want are bad or crass or chosen instead of some other thing which maybe we should have desired instead.
The problem is moral. Often, feeling a lack of completeness and fulfillment in ourselves, we seek that which we think will fill that lack. If your problem is that your running shoes are falling apart, perhaps buying a new pair will fill that running shoe shaped whole in your life. But often the things we buy are not direct solutions for our problems, but rather a substitution. I'm sure we've all experienced examples of this in strictly material terms, where buying serves as a shortcut to get around our real problem. You wish that you were in better shape, so you shell out money at the New Years sales for that expensive piece of exercise equipment, sure that now you will be able to achieve that buff body in just ten minutes a day and enjoy doing it. Often what you realize come April or May is that you're still not spending even that ten minutes. Spending money was easier than actually doing the daily work to get in shape.
But the turtles go down further than that. Why do you want to get in shape? Because if you have that buff beach body by next summer, you will feel better about yourself and win the love of that person who will complete and perfect your life. Nothing against getting into better shape, but really: will getting more fit really make you more lovable in the eyes of either yourself or others? Getting in shape is worthy in its own right, a way of taking care of the body which you have been given, but although this gives fitness goals a certain veneer of virtue, these too are often in their way a substitute for some deeper problem.
It is said that every sin is, at root, the sin of idolatry. When we follow consumerism down to its root, we find the same basic sin. We substitute one material pleasure for another, but then below that we believe that some material pleasure will give us happiness, give us peace, give us the sense of purpose fulfilled. In the short term it sometimes can. But our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in You. The problem with consumerism is not that we desire the wrong stuff, nor that we desire stuff instead of time, nor that by satisfying our desire for the things we want we somehow sap our overall economy of efficiency and riches. The problem with consumerism is that we constantly tell ourselves that if we could have just the one more thing -- the right piece of clothing, the hot new electronic device, the right organizational system, the perfect vacation -- we would have purpose, peace and happiness. And so we devote ourselves to pursing these intermediate ends, these things which may be good in themselves but are not the ultimate good, while neglecting the one thing which will in fact bring use these things: God. We ignore that thing larger than ourselves, the thing that gives us purpose and promises eternal happiness. We turn in on ourselves in the constant search for that one next thing which will make everything perfect, and we fail to see that happiness is not inside ourselves but outside. We must follow not our latest hunger for novelty but rather understand that true happiness is to be found in union with the ultimate Good: to know, love and serve Him and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.