I remember reading an article in the Catholic Worker written by Dorothy Day sometime in the early 1950ies. In her inimitable style she paraphrased Luke 2:1 “…a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all who inhabited earth.” Her version was “… a decree went out from Macy’s, and Wal-Mart and Sears, that the whole world should do their Christmas shopping.” I substituted Wal-Mart and Sears because the other two department stores she mentioned are no longer in business.
Although she was just applying consumerism to Christmas, I believe she was a prophet of the creeping culture of consumerism that has in recent years taken over our society. This commentary will consider consumerism and its underlying philosophy as it’s grown beyond the season of Christmas. I believe consumerism is a symptom of our value system. In a future commentary I will suggest ways of moving from a society based on consumerism to what has been called a Society of Sustainability. If we can’t change the world—at least we can change ourselves!
THE RISE OF CONSUMERISM
Consumerism is not a new phenomenon. Nor does its epitome, the American Dream, have the corner of the market. Wherever I mention the American Dream, you can just insert your own country. The dream is a matter of degree. According to Professor Peter N. Stearns in his book Consumerism in Word History, it has been around for centuries in different societies. Stearns’ book provides a comprehensive, academic review of its development and impact on societies.
To go back even farther in history, the sacred book of China, Tao Te Ching, which literally means the way, “…was written in China around the 6th century BCE presumably by Lao Tsu, approximately the same time as Buddha lived in India.” [LINK] The English translation is The I Ching or the Book of Changes. It’s made up of 81 brief chapters or verses. Verse 46 seems to describe a forewarning from the 6th century about the moral values that underlie contemporary consumerism. I think Lao Tsu nailed it; here are several lines from that verse:
There is no greater loss than losing the Tao (the Way), no greater curse than covetousness, no greater tragedy than discontentment; the worst of faults is wanting more—always. Contentment alone is enough. Indeed, the bliss of eternity can be found in contentment.
For the purpose of this commentary I want to focus on consumerism as it today in most of the developed societies, particularly the United States, which is perhaps an extreme example of consumerism at its worst. We all know that most of us buy things we don’t need; that advertisers exploit consumers through promoting campaigns that encourage us to buy stuff we don’t need because they know that we think more stuff will make us happier, smarter or more loved as we pursue the American Dream that’s built on the mentality that more stuff or newer stuff is better. The American Dream has become the American Nightmare. But before discussing any scholarly explanations of consumerism’s impact on society, here’s how the word stuff became so popular when talking about compulsive consumerism.
I believe the philosopher/comedian, a later day Lao Tzu, George Carlin, was way ahead of his time whenhe choose the word stuff to characterize consumerism in the early 1980ies in a routine he called A Place for My Stuff. The word stuff has become the symbol for all those things that we buy, but could do without. With his unique gift to see humor in situations that most of us would fail to notice, he philosophized that “…all we need in life is just a place for our stuff…all your house is, is a place for your stuff…as a matter of fact, a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover over it…and if we didn’t have stuff we wouldn’t need a house.” He goes on at length to point out how ludicrous the emphasis that we give to acquiring stuff is. Here’s the video of him performing that routine. You might want to watch it at your leisure if you’re not offended by some of his vulgarities. [LINK]
Remember that Carlin’s routine was performed before there was a Black Friday or a Cyber Monday. Now we even extend these margin days up to Christmas Eve. It’s basicallya national campaign, in which big business lowers prices and quantities to increase demand, and as a result—profits for them—all in the name of holiday shopping, when spending becomes as addictive as any drug. As you may know, there are actually 12 Step Programs for Shopaholics. “Hi, my name is Don and I’m a Shopaholic, Hi Don!”[LINK] Here’s a website that indicates, [LINK]compulsive shopping, also known as a spending addiction, can be as debilitating as gambling or alcohol addiction. Psychologists believe that the person who is a compulsive shopper uses shopping to soothe him/herself rather than dealing with life’s challenges head on. Obsessive shopping ultimately leads to worse problems than the ones from which the person is seeking relief. In many incidents the compulsive shopper’s behavior puts his/her family’s welfare in grave jeopardy, which often leads to divorce. Caveat Emptor!
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!
In the words of Lao Tsu, whom I mentioned above, “She who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.” Here’s another quote, this time by an “unknown author, “When having more leaves you empty, you’ll discover true happiness lies in enough!” Or how about this one from Gandhi, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” Or as we used to say in the Bronx, “enough already”!
Although all of these quotations are though provoking, they don’t provide a black and white answer to the question, what’s enough under every situation. We need to determine whether we’re concerned about how much stuff we need versus how much stuff we want, or whether we need to buy a new car because our car is just obsolete and doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a new model versus because it’s dying on us. I believe we don’t need a bureaucrat to figure it out for us; but sometimes we need help to motivate us in making the right choice, in answering the question; What is Enough for Me?
Here’s a story that helped me revaluate how much stuff I needed. It’s a book by Bob Perks, entitled I Wish You Enough. [LINK]I was very moved by his story. Youmight recognize the story because “…those words have been read at graduations, weddings, funerals, award ceremonies, and even engraved on stone.” Bob wrote the story after watching a father and daughter saying goodbye at an airport. If you’ve never read this heartwarming story, or even if you have, you can reread it on the link above. Pay special attention to the Seven Wishes that father shared at the end of the story, they are antidotes for our tendencies to accumulate more stuff then we need, and to keep us conscious of the effect too much stuff has on the environment.
The more I thought about Bob’s story, the more I could imagine that, I Wish You Enough being one of Jesus’ parables that was meant for our times; the Seven Wishes could be His 21st century Sermon on the Mount; and if we put the words to music, it could well be the national anthem for an anti-consumerism, sustainable society.
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” ~ Edward Abbey
The good news is that there are a number of change organizations and programs and must read books that are already fighting the cancer of consumerism. Thebad news is that consumerism has metastasized to the point that if we continue to have the attitude to let George do it, our legacy for the next generation could be disastrous. So, to paraphrase an old call to action, “Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their galaxy.”
With that in mind, I’m going to focus on just one icon of our generation, who has a theological and scientific background, who devoted his personal, religious, and professional life, among other things, answering the key question, what’s enough! He taught us not only by what he wrote, but by being a model of how to live the New Story, or as some refer to it as, the Great Story of the universe, and our place in it, without jettisoning the entire Old Story.
If there were a Hall of Fame for individuals who have made significant contributions to our sense of responsibility to one another, our sense of the divinity of the universe and our place in it, how we can make a difference in our environment; how we can see beyond the myopic
views of our planet earth that many of have, the late Fr. Thomas Berry, would be a shoo-in for induction. He was a pioneer in the field of spirituality and ecology; some called him a monk, a cultural historian, an author, a teacher, and a mystic. He wrote or co-authored twenty books, but for this commentary, I’d just like to consider several of his most popular ones.
His book The Dream of the Earth, which was published in 1988, has had an impact on historians/ecologists/ecotheologians, as well as spiritual seekers. The president of the Northern America Conference of Religion and Ecology praise his book as being “…quite possibly one of the ten most important books of the century.” The book suggests that the ecclesiastical establishment, along with empires, corporations, and nation states, have controlled western nations in their becoming progressively more destructive of the earth.
I’m sure he aggravated the Vatican when he wrote, “…the primary ‘pro-life’ act is to support planet earth, which sustains all the life we know.” He was not a pro-abortion advocate, but he was in a subtle way, trying to awaken the hierarchy to their need to get their priorities straight. He believed that the Church needed to be more proactive about preserving the environment. Think about it, rather than spending their time and our money on pushing an agenda of contraception and abortion, our planet might be facing more than the loss of unborn children if they don’t put more energy into fighting for the survival of mother earth.
In Berry’s own words in the Dream of the Earth:
“We have a new story of the universe. Our own presence to the universe depends on our human identity with the entire cosmic process. In its human expression, the universe and the entire range of earthly and heavenly phenomena celebrate themselves and the ultimate mystery of their existence in a special exaltation. Science has given us a new revelatory experience. It is now giving us a new intimacy with the Earth.”
Equally powerful was another book that he co-authored with Brian Swimme, a renowned physicist/cosmologist, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Cosmos. This book’s major focus is on interrelatedness of the whole universe and our place in it. They point out that for most of the 14 billion years of creative evolution, we humans were not around until the Ecozoic Era, the era when our ancestors realized that they were the result of a long story, and they needed to understand that they could be overseers of the earth with all its wonders. I think Connie Barlow captured their reverence for our planet when she wrote on her website The Great Story, [LINK]“The more we learn about Earth and life process, the more we are in awe and the deeper the urge to revere the evolutionary forces that give time a direction and the ecological forces that sustain our planetary home.”
But if you really want to get to know Thomas Berry, as both a man and scholar, I found that Carolyn W. Toben’s memoir, Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry, published in 2012, offers an intimate sense of Berry beyond his books and essays.
For ten years Ms. Toben spent hours with Berry in deep discussions about his fundamental thinking. She makes it clear that for Thomas the relationship that we humans have with the earth, is the primary experience of the divine, and the pain that Berry had for the destruction of our eco-system. But despite that pain, the conversations give us more than a little hope; it gives us a workable path to the future.
You may want to check out my website for more information about the Fr. Berry and the Great Story under the title Creationism and Evolution and scroll down to # 16, [LINK] In addition to videos of the Cosmic All Stars singing their songs, We are the Cosmos and The Cosmos Blues, there is a wealth of information from experts on the new cosmology and the New Story. To mention a few: Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, # 4; Brian Swimme’s, website, The Center of the Universe, # 5; Teilhard de Chardin’s position on suffering from a cosmic perspective #14; Connie Barlow, the creator of the website the Great Story, # 15; Matthew Fox and his story of the Original Blessing, #17; and many more.
I must confess that I am a recovering “shopping sinner”. It wasn’t until my early sixties that I changed my shopping habits and became a more conscious consumer and more concerned about the damage we were doing to planet earth. I grew up at a time when a new car cost between $1,200 and $1,600. So it seemed natural to me to trade my “old” car for a new one every other year, whether I needed a new car or not. I had a fixation for buying wrist watches. How many wrist watches did I need? Certainly not a half a dozen! And then there was just stuff! Stuff that I didn’t need; stuff that ended up in a closet for years; sweaters that were taking up space in drawers. I’d clean out my closets and drawers, just to make space for more stuff. I never told the priest in confession that I was guilty of buying too much stuff: “Bless me father for I have sinned, I just bought a new watch and sweater that I didn’t need.” At that time, I didn’t think that I was an evil person or that the Lords of Consumption, the corporations, who were profiting from my purchases, or the hucksters who were promoting hyper-commercialism were evil. It was just the way things were.
I suppose most of us had, or has at least a touch of the shopping sinner’s syndrome. So, now’s a good time for us to reflect on how we can change our wicked ways, and as the eighth step in the 12 step programs say, make amends. My “aha moment” was when I first was exposed to the Great Story of the Universe. From there it seemed an obvious next step to become involved with the Green Movement [LINK] . The movement“… advocates the sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the environment through changes in public policies and individual behavior.” The movement is centered on ecology, health and human rights.
In my next commentary, I will focus on specific ways we all can become involved both personally by changing our consumer habits, and through change organizations by advocating for sustainable social policies for saving mother earth us and for future generations.
I wish you all enough for 2013!