The third part of the book Affluenza explores the idea that consumerism is a disease in terms of its treatment. While I have some reservations and criticisms, which I will address at the end, the authors put their finger on some very important issues and ways to change our consumer culture.
Aspirin and Chicken Soup: Come Together Consumerism tends to isolate us from each other. Emphasizing things that decrease our isolation and promote community will improve our quality of life and shift our priorities away from the currently destructive forces at work.
Arnold Toynbee “studied the rise and fall of twenty-two civilizations and ‘summarized everything he knew about the growth of human civilizations in one law: The measure of a civilization’s growth is its ability to shift energy and attention from the material side to the spiritual and aesthetic and cultural and artistic side.’ “ (187)
I bristle somewhat at the idea that what we need is simply more time to cultivate “the spiritual and aesthetic and cultural and artistic side”. All of these things have been commodified in the current system (think Christian bookstores, the self-help industry, art museum gift shops, etc.). It also begs the question how we will be able to shift towards more leisure time for these activities. Will all the people on the globe be able to have this leisure time equally? This would require some massive rearrangement of the current order of things. Perhaps recognizing values beyond the monetary system is a good step, but the idea that we need to emphasize these other values could also lead to an anti-materialist (Gnostic) stance that could be equally problematic (and in many ways is actually at the heart of the consumer religion (see William Cavanaugh’s chapter “Attachment and Detachment” in his book Being Consumed).
Fresh Air Others have pointed to a phenomenon dubbed “Nature Deficit Disorder”. This gets us closer to what I believe is at the heart of the problem and any potential solutions.
Lana Porter works a garden in a vacant lot in Golden, Colorado. “People tell me I should take care of my crops more efficiently…so I could spend less time out here. But that way of growing disconnects the grower from the garden. The whole point is to spend more time with the plants, taking care of things, and less time trying to reshape myself to fit the changing whims of the world.” (195)
Porter recognize the essential disconnect in our modern world that makes the consumer religion possible. The core belief of the consumer religion is that human beings are somehow separate from nature. Due to our superior brain functions and enlightenment, we have liberated ourselves from the constraints of the jungle (or according to “religious” belief we were somehow created above and apart from nature, endowed with the divine right of domination).
Nature is not “out there”; it’s everywhere. Finding out how well the timber was grown that went into your backyard fence is nature. (195)
This is exactly right. Cities are not somehow separate or apart from nature. They may be built on top of nature, but nature is as close as your feet and something you are always dependent on no matter how much concrete you can see out your window. Again, while the authors are getting at something very important they seem to skip right past the real question…Who needs a backyard fence? What are fences for? No matter where or how the timber was grown rates of deforestation will be unsustainable as long as we need bigger houses, fences and in general a growth economy with population growth and the exportation of the consumer religion around the world.
Healthy Again I’m skeptical how the authors’ regimen of treatment gets us to this chapter where we are once again “healthy”. Nevertheless, here is there vision for what it looks like.
“Do we want to be healthy?…Do we want to live in places that are safe? Do we want our children to grow up in a world where they are hopeful? Do we want to be able to worship [or not] without fear of persecution? Do we want to live in a world where nature is rebounding and not receding? No one disagrees; our vision is the same. What we need to do is identify, together, the design criteria for how we get there.” (246-247quote from Paul Hawken)
I think it’s a very important to recognize that in fundamental ways we all have similar wants and needs. There is a lot of commonality basic to human beings that can help us move forward. However, I also believe that there are some fundamental differences (perhaps primarily between those that have (power and wealth) and those that don’t) that can’t be overcome with a feel-good chorus of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” Yes, people want health, safety, hope, freedom, etc. but our definitions and understandings of what these things entail is far from common. The authors sum up the thrust of their book this way,
But the core issue of this book goes beyond consuming less to wanting less and needing less. (247)
Because I feel like the book did not adequately address the real causes of the disease (or spread of this religion), it is certainly not able to fully address the ways that we can address the problems. What does it mean for us to want and need less? It seems easy enough for a suburban family to answer this question by focusing on recycling and changing their light bulbs. By all means, continue recycling and using CFL’s, but let’s stop kidding ourselves that this will save the planet. We need some hard truths about the damage our lifestyles cause (which the book has evidence aplenty) and we need solutions that match those hard truths.
I would like to follow this post up with one that considers the metaphor of consumerism as a religion a little more in depth, in particular, how we might understand the causes and treatments in religious terms.