Confronting the World's All-Consuming Passions

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by: Joel Makower

Recovering the lost economic teachings of the world's religious faiths may be the key to addressing the ethical challenges facing the growth of a global consumer class, and to boosting awareness of the ill-effects of consumerism on individuals, writes Worldwatch Institute Director of Research Gary Gardner in "Hungry for More: Re-Engaging Religious Teachings on Consumption," a fascinating article forthcoming in the September/October issue of the organization’s magazine Worldwatch.

Recovering the lost economic teachings — not just of the Jewish and Christian traditions, but of many of the world’s faiths — could be enormously valuable to a global economy faced with unprecedented ethical challenges. Mass consumerism in wealthy countries has already broken the ecological bank, with a crippled climate, extinct species, scalped forests, and drained or polluted rivers standing as red ink. Now billions of citizens of China and India demand a piece of the global consumption pie. How can the legitimate aspirations of emerging nations be met without further damaging the planet — while safeguarding opportunities for the world’s poorest, especially in Africa, to stake their consumption claims?  

"Mass consumerism in wealthy countries has already broken the ecological bank," says Gardner. "How can the legitimate aspirations of emerging nations be met without further damaging the planet-while safeguarding opportunities for the world's poorest, especially in Africa, to stake their consumption claims?" Previously dormant moral questions surrounding consumption may now have new power-power that might awaken the interest of faith communities in a contemporary context.

Consider, for example, the power of “Buddhist economics” to turn western notions of consumption on their heads. From its starting position — the purpose of an economy — the Buddhist approach is distinctive. As explained in E. F. Schumacher’s classic, Small Is Beautiful, whereas market economies are designed to produce the highest possible levels of production and consumption, Buddhist economics supports a different aim: to achieve enlightenment. This spiritual goal, in turn, requires freedom from desire, the source of all suffering, according to the Buddha. This is a tall order in societies of mass consumption, where advertisers conflate needs and desires and where acquisitiveness is a cultural norm. Thus the very attitude toward material goods is one of detachment, a sharp contrast to the frenzied grasping for stuff that often characterizes non-Buddhist societies.  

Gardner also notes that a globally effective movement to promote more just models of consumption could soon attract the involvement of religious communities, as more people awaken to the realization that consumption beyond a moderate level can actually be harmful to individuals, as the surge of obesity, depression, and indebtedness suggests. "Indeed, the 12-step groups operating in church and synagogue basements for decades, often as an outreach service, may now need to tackle the consumption addiction of entire congregations," writes Gardner.

Competition from consumerism may be the most significant incentive for religions to become involved, but it is likely also the most challenging. Could it be that faith communities have had so little impact on consumption trends, despite thousands of years of durable teachings on the topic, because they are as bound to the consumer culture as the rest of society? Or because they fear that challenging their congregants on consumption would quickly empty their pews? Questioning consumption seriously, after all, is to challenge a host of societal interests and to anger a broad swath of the public.  

It's a moral and ethical question that congregations and their leaders will be facing in coming years, as growing economies put pressure on resources, potentially squeezing supplies and raising prices. As consumers in the U.S. and other developed countries find their quality of life eroding — or worse — they may turn to their faiths and spiritual leaders to seek answers. Answers, as Worldwatch points out, can be found in nearly all religious texts — if only one knows where to look.

Selected Religious Perspectives on Consumption 

  • Hinduism: In case of obtaining anything in excess, one should not hoard it. One should abstain from acquisitiveness. Acarangasutra 2. 114-19 
  • Confucianism: Excess and deficiency are equally at fault. Confucius, XI. 15 
  • Judaism: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Isaiah 55:2 
  • Christianity: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? 1 John 3:17 
  • Islam: Eat and drink, but waste not by excess: He loves not the excessive. Quran 7. 31
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