Inside our consumerist society

By  Maria Di Paulo, Catholic Register Special
  • May 29, 2008

{mosimage}Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, by William T. Cavanaugh (William B. Eerdmans, 96 pages, softcover, $13.50).

Our homes and garages are filled with all sorts of stuff, some of which we need, and a lot of which we do not. The words “shopaholic” and “retail therapy” are part of our everyday vocabulary. We tend to use them in a self-deprecating sense. At the same time, we admit to ourselves that we are not going shopping out of necessity, but simply for the sake of it. We feel a void in our lives and hope shopping will make us feel better but what we end up buying often has very little meaning for us afterwards. We never fill the spiritual void, so we go out to shop again.

A quite shocking statistic on over consumption and waste comes from a very recent survey — The Food We Waste, published on May 8, 2008 by a UK organization called WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Program). The study concludes that the average British family throws away, untouched, one-third of all the food it buys. I was not able to find any comparable Canadian data but it is reasonable to assume Canadian food buying and consumption habits are not significantly different from British habits.

{sa 0802845614}Correcting our wasteful ways would have an enormous impact on our economy and lifestyle. What would happen to the people who are employed in the agricultural and food producing sectors of our economy if we cut our food consumption by 33 per cent? What would happen to our economy as a whole if we drastically reduced our spending on all the stuff we buy? We have to acknowledge that our pattern of over-consumption is critical to keeping our economy growing.

In Being Consumed, William Cavanaugh asks how it is possible to live an authentic Christian life within this culture of ever expanding over-consumption. How can we reconcile basic economics with Christian theology? He provides a thoughtful, theological analysis of the issues of free market economics, consumerism, globalization and the scarcity of resources and concludes that it is in, and through, the Eucharist that we find the answer we need.

Cavanaugh, an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., argues that, in free market economics the definition of freedom of choice as the absence of coercion is not, in itself, sufficient to ensure true freedom. The basic assumption that the only motivation for the consumer is to pay the lowest price for goods does not necessarily also allow the consumer the freedom to do what he or she believes is just and fair. Yet, if we adjust our focus away from low prices and instead to doing what is just and fair, we are able to engage in actions and make choices that are truly free.

Consumerism is not simply an overemphasis on material things at the expense of spiritual values, because the material world is God’s sacred creation. Cavanaugh draws the following distinction between consumerism and Christianity: “In the Christian tradition, detachment from material goods means using them as a means to a greater end, and the greater end is greater attachment to God and to our fellow human beings. In consumerism, detachment means standing back from all people, times and places, and appropriating our choices for private use.” 

It is not so much that we have come to worship material things at the expense of spiritual things, because worship would imply respect and, in our disposable society we seem to have little respect for what we consume.

Our detachment from the goods we buy means we are also detached from the companies and people who make them. Global economics means companies can move production to countries where it is easy to keep wages down to a level that would be unacceptable elsewhere. Cavanaugh points out that, in spite of the prevalence of these practices, we can and should make informed and better choices to buy products from companies that emphasize just and fair treatment of their employees over low-cost production.

If the consumerist emphasis is on individuality, the Christian emphasis is on community. The Eucharist is the key, and it should affect how we consume things in our daily lives. By consuming the Eucharist we become part of the greater community that is the body of Christ. We are no longer the individual at the centre. If we truly understand this, we can adjust our patterns of consumption so that we maintain right relationships not only with what we buy but also with everyone involved in the production of those goods — in other words, with all of God’s creation.

Being Consumed is a thoughtful look at a difficult set of issues. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand better how we might apply Christian teaching within our modern economic framework. My only concern is that this book will reach a smaller audience than it deserves. 

(Di Paulo is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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