Is Consumerism Consuming Us?

July 18, 2016

It was after a day of teaching, an hour commute, a rushed supper and carting kids to evening activities, and then a hard meeting about the funding of an outreach ministry. I wanted to do something to relieve stress, to do something for me.

So I went shopping.

I didn’t buy a thirty-eighth pair of shoes. I didn’t even go to the pseudo-sacred space of the mall. No, I went to the simple tin shed of a Fleet Farm, where I lingered among the wall of fishing lures and took down various rod and reel combos to feel their balance in my hand. I almost stumbled on a real steal, a Quantum combo that was on clearance but just 6 inches too long to be perfect. I finally settled on a shallow-diving fire tiger Rapala to replace one I’d lost just a few nights earlier.

I needed it.

And I deserved it.

Though we like to point fingers at certain genders, demographics, and businesses as the problem, consumerism affects us all. My weakness is fishing lures, yours may be cars, or swimming suits, or steakhouses, or housing updates, or music, or movies, or images, or . . .

Consumerism is the air we breathe. It is the controlling metaphor of our time. Famously, the U.S. makes up 5% of the world’s population and consumes between 23-26% of its resources.  We will be known as some variation of “The Age of Consumption,” an ironic phrase, bringing to mind the way tuberculosis consumed its victims.

Consumed by consuming, that’s us.

Yes, part of our nature is that, in these bodies, we require food to survive. But somehow that fact has come to be the operative metaphor of what it means to be human. Like any distortion of humanity, “consumer” as metaphor comes with a host of bad side effects.

  1. We become dazzled by packaging, fixated on the glitzy glossy surface and misled about the true value of things. Many authors have written about how consumerism paradoxically does not result in a high value of material things—consumerism is not materialism. Rather, consumerism creates a kind of abstract relationship with things so that the things we buy can become a steady stream of stuff we can throw away. (For a surprisingly different vision of things, consider how things are valued in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. Hobbits are tempted to hoard but are ultimately curators of hearth and table and home and even things well-made.)
  2. Being a good human means being a good shopper. Sure, there’s a range of skills that are valued, from thrift shopping and coupon cutting to having exquisite tastes, but knowing what we like and how to get it are at the top of the list of consumer values. The research data to support this is the importance of Black Friday to the world economy.
  3. The world becomes all about our choices. What could be more misleading to children than this?
  4. Waste, proportional to how much we buy, is necessary. What’s happening to our waste, despite a few horror stories about floating barges in the oceans, certainly remains the biggest “don’t ask don’t tell” and “too big to fail” aspects of our 21st Century lives.

But the scariest aspect of consumerism is its straight-up idolatry, its spiritual power. In buying a Rapala, I was seeking momentary fulfillment and completion. Yes, even Fleet Farm was a place to turn to for a sort of solace. My shopping excursion was a religious experience, a seeker entering the tin shed for simple revival. I could have done something quite different, retreated to the lake to pray, for example, or just enjoy the palette of the sunset on the waters. Either of these actions would have displaced me and my “needs” from the consumerist temple rather than putting myself firmly in the middle of it.

So how do we change the metaphor? The easy answer is to flip the coin, to say that we shouldn’t only be consumers but also producers. This is true as far as it goes. Rather than buying canned tomatoes, we can grow some of our own. However, to shift from consumers to producers is to keep the same coin, to make production a necessary good and to require consumers of what we produce.

Much has been made of the fact that we should instead be “culture makers.” However, because “making” seems closely related to producing-consuming—even though it’s different—for the purpose of this article I want to emphasize slightly different human roles: tending and curating.

This is where creation can help us. When we plant a garden, creation does so much work for us—or, in the case of weeds, in spite of us—that it’s hard to mistake that we are not the stars of the show. The garden grows and we work in it, but we are tenders and weeders and cheerleaders and beneficiaries. I feel something similar in my role as a parent.

Or take the churches we’re a part of.  What if we considered our churches to be rich traditions that it’s our job to tend or even curate? Thinking of the various churches we attend, each with unique treasures that we should come to value deeply, to set in the best light, and then to invite others to come in and experience in a way that changes them—this is very different than a consumption model in which church is about measurable numbers (like a church GNP) or “what I get out of it.”

“One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus cites in Matthew 4:4, perhaps the most challenging verse to consumerism in scripture, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Different translations say, “No one can live by bread alone,” or “One cannot live by bread alone,” as if living on bread alone is not actually life.

That would explain why, in a world of consumption, we seem to be wasting away.

How might we wean ourselves, our brothers and sisters, our culture from the empty calories of consumerism to the truly filling, truly satisfying Bread of Life?

About the Author
  • Howard Schaap came to the study of literature and writing because he found it intensifies life. Putting words with experiences makes sense of those experiences, heightens them. Reading stories and poems--especially those recounting experiences different from your own--can crack open the dry, old shell of your life and allow you to grow into something new. Thus, his areas of interest include creative nonfiction (the focus of my MFA study), poetry writing, and ethnic American literature. He also has a passion for place, especially putting new words with old places in an effort to revitalize and renew our understanding of and care for those places.

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  1. Appreciate your thoughts on this, Howard. But I also think its worth pointing out the clear connection between the Rapala and the shovel or hoe that you use in the garden. I think it is easier for all of us to associate some things and places with consumption than others. To me, nothing goes better with fresh vegetables than fresh fish. And experiencing the joy of catching fish, and the effectiveness of the Rapala in doing so – while also taking in a beautiful Midwestern sunset – makes me even more grateful for and humbled by the goodness of God’s gifts. And these gifts include not only both the bounty of the soil and lake, but the creativity of fishing lure manufactures and the stores that make them convenient and affordable!

    1. Thanks, John. Yes, there’s some “use-value” to that Rapala, certainly. And as such I used some restraint and even maybe exercised some savvy shopping skills in buying it: It wasn’t an impulse buy but a replacement of one I’d lost a week or so earlier (due to the cheap line I use); I know what kind I need for the type of lakes I fish, etc. What bothers me in retrospect is the way I used it as a reward for myself. I don’t often shop to fill a spiritual need but this time I did–I could feel it. I would have loved to open my wallet and fill the car with stuff. I guess my point is that the siren call of consuming calls to all of us.

  2. I’m less concerned with how much or exactly what people buy as I am with how they use what they buy, and secondly, the kind of quality they buy, whatever the product.

    Consider this. If we all “lived simply,” in way that would certainly avoid for us the charge of “consumerism” or “materialism,” there might be a lot of people who would have no work to do. After all, it takes but a fraction of the population to produce all the “necessary goods and services.” If “we” (whoever “we” are) don’t buy beyond the “necessary goods and services” list, the economic circle is going to get pretty tight and exclude a lot of people.

    Should I buy a tractor, city resident that I am? Yes, but that’s because I intend to and will use it for good reasons, to help care for a neighborhood park, to keep my extra big lot in good condition, and to help neighbors when they could use the help only a guy with a tractor to share could give, etc. Should I buy that tractor merely because I covet one (raised on the farm that I was)? No. In other words, it will be what I do with that tractor that decides whether I should have bought one or not.

    Assuming I have good reasons to and should buy a tractor, should I buy one that is cheaply built? Probably not, just because that means I’ll be one of the people who helped to waste all the finite supply of raw materials it took to build that tractor. Also, my purchase is part of the “economic demand” and I don’t want to encourage tractor manufacturers to waste finite resources building cheap tractors. Rather, I want to encourage them to build tractors that last.

    If we become “materialists” or “consumerists,” what we’ve really done is succumbed to the temptation of coveting. But buying things, no matter how much, does not NECESSARILY mean one is a “materialist” or “consumerist.” Certainly we should avoid coveting but we can’t assume that buying a little is good or buying a lot is bad. The question requires a more complicated answer.

    My two cents at least. 🙂

    1. Good point, Doug. You’re right that there’s a big difference between consumerism and materialism. I’ve heard it said that Americans are not really materialists because we actually value our materials very little–the fact that they end up in landfills so quickly illustrates this. I also wanted to make reference to J.R.R. Tolkien on this point, who, in his works, has a lot to say about “a thing well-made.” As Neal writes in his article on porn, consumerism messes up a lot of our relationships, and this is true with things as well, so I definitely think there is a place to appreciate and purchase things that are well-made. However, I’m hesitant to say that we must join “the economic circle” simply because that sounds like the consumerist imperative that we hear so much about–there’s a suggestion out there that we must buy to be good citizens, to keep the economy up, and that feels like consuming is then becoming an end in itself. Trade can be a great thing, but often time consumerism hides exactly WHO has a job at the other end of what I buy and how those workers are being treated, etc. If you’re interested, William T. Cavanaugh has written about this in, “Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire,” or James K.A. Smith discusses it a bit in his recent book “You Are What You Love.”