Breaking the Need to Consume
By mark powley
March 28, 2011
When I was a teenager, I experienced what I can only describe as raging shoelust.
Like all the other boys in my class, I obsessed over running shoes. After school I would go to Discount Daisy’s shoe shop just to look at the new trainers with their sleek design features: bright reflective strips, super-cushioned soles, the Nike swish, the Adidas stripes. Deep down, I knew these shoes were special. I had to have them.
How can I express in print the thrill of the purchase? Words are too poor. At last, the shoes were mine. All that the trainers were, I now possessed. And if I was lucky, I could wear them home!
Do you remember this kind of thing?
Something was going on with those shoes. This was about more than footwear. This was about envy, seduction, the thrill of the chase, the power of the purchase, the warm afterglow of conquest and that profound, inexpressible bond between man and sneaker.
It isn’t just me. We’re all involved in this worldwide love affair with stuff. Consumerism has been growing for a while. Since the 19th century, industrialization has allowed us to make more and better products. At the same time, individualism has been on the rise. The members of each generation have increasingly seen their lives as a personal quest for self-fulfillment. In the last 50 years, consumerism has gone global. It has become the driving force of our economy, powered by advertising and easy credit. Now, for most of us, it’s the air we breathe—as vital to our culture as TV memories are to our childhood.
So then, consumerism is a bad thing, right?
So it’s a good thing?
If you’re like me, consumerism is part monster, part friend. If we’re going to name it well, we need to see both sides. So let’s brace ourselves and look at the ugly, slimy side first.
For starters, consumerism is unsustainable. If everyone in the world adopted a Western lifestyle, we would need at least two planets to resource it, and possibly five. Which means I’m living a lifestyle that can’t be made available to all.
Consumerism has a monster-sized environmental footprint. The shopping economy depends on us mining and making and shipping and packaging and throwing away more and more stuff. When eco-disasters strike, the rich nations of the world will always find a way through. It’s the poor nations, despite their small carbon footprint, that increasingly bear the consequences of the consumer revolution they never got to enjoy.
Consumerism thrives on ignorance. I have no idea who made the vast majority of my stuff. I don’t know if they were paid fairly. I don’t know if their working conditions were humane. All this is often hidden from view. But I am no longer unaware of the kind of things that go on.
This is the ugly side of the monster, the dark shadow of the consumer dream.
But at the same time, consumerism isn’t without its benefits. Consumerism has contributed to our prosperity. The power of consumer demand has encouraged more efficient manufacturing, better technology, developments in health care and more besides.
Consumerism has created jobs. Despite the huge differences in pay and conditions around the world, our consumer lifestyles have created a vast market for growing economies.
Consumerism is allied to great political freedoms, too. Who would want to surrender the right to spend freely earned wages on what we choose?
I am a torn soul. The monster is also my friend. In fact, like every other consumer in the system, I am part of the monster.
On the one hand, guilt can’t change the world. But on the other, I’m fed up with being paralyzed by the idea that the only thing I can do to combat global poverty is buy another pizza.
I’m looking for a way forward. I want to know how to live within the system but without it dominating my life. I want my consuming to become creative, shaping the economy instead of being shaped by it.I’m looking for breakout.
But how do we know if this is more than a fantasy?
How do we know if liberation is possible?
That’s when I turn to the Scriptures.
There’s a whisper of liberation in the leaves of the Scriptures. There’s a conspiracy of freedom. The Bible carries the story of slaves on their way to a new land. It is alive with the songs of those who once were trapped but now find themselves in a spacious place. It’s the Scriptures that tell us a fairer world is worth hoping for. They tell us that liberation is possible.
But possible doesn’t mean easy.
Liberation requires a journey. It means facing the sparse wilderness, and learning some truths about ourselves along the way. But in the end, we will find a new kind of abundance, greater than we have ever known.
The path is always worth taking.
Liberation is possible. If we are willing.
It doesn’t matter where we’re starting from or what pace we’re traveling. What matters is the journey.
This is where grace comes in.
Grace says it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. All that matters is which way you’re facing, and just taking one step at a time.
So I am a consumer. This is where I begin.
How about you?
Can you see this?
Are you willing to try something different?
If so, let’s do it. We can embark on a journey to be more than consumers. On the way we can learn what it means to first be friends and family members, neighbors and citizens, human beings and children of God. If we get that right, “consumers” is the last thing we’ll be.
Then when we consume, it will be different. When we consume, we will be more free, more just, more joyful. And sometimes we won’t have to consume at all.
This is the breakout I’m looking for.
This is where the journey begins.
Taken from Consumer Detox by Mark Powley. Copyright © 2010. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. Mark Powley is a founder of Breathe, a Christian network for simpler living (www.breathenetwork.org). He has studied theology at the Universities of Nottingham and Oxford. He is Associate Rector of St George’s Leeds, UK, where he lives with his wife and four young children.