Chapter 12: Case Study: Consumerism
12.2: Religious perspectives on over-consumption in America
The introduction of the NRPE Consumption Project summarized the reasons why religious-spiritual attention to consumption was needed and why it could be helpful:
-Significant numbers of people seem dissatisfied with the current materialist ethic. They connect it to a whole range of forces driving social and moral decay.
-Many Americans feel their lives are stressful and out of control, caught in a cycle of “work and spend.” People’s concerns about family life, economic security and “quality time” may be entry points for them to start questioning current consumption patterns.
-People are searching for happiness and well-being but have largely failed to find it in more consumption. Our religious traditions offer an alternative vision of happiness and well-being which might help guide us to different paths.
-Responsibility toward future generations resonates in our religious teachings, as does the scriptural call for better stewardship of God’s creation.
-Most Americans, religious or not, believe in certain ethical values which, when more fully explored, can be viewed as antithetical to current patterns and pressures for consumption. Among these are frugality, moderation, self-control, and temperance.
-The great imbalance in consumption between different groups of people — in the US and globally — offends shared values of particular importance to religious communities, including equity, social justice, charity, and generosity.” 
The points above do not exhaust the possibilities of how religious perspectives can shed light on or promote alternatives to consumerism and overconsumption, but they can provide some important beginnings to point a direction. The Consumption Project drew from multiple American religious perspectives and highlighted the following key and critical concepts from different religious communities to address consumption:
-the holiness/sacredness of the created order and material reality
-use of resources should be for the common good
-biblical adherents have a call to be “the people of God” in covenant
-preferential option for the poor
-idolatry and over-consumption
-frugality and temperance
-scriptural perspectives on wealth
-an ethic of solidarity and authentic development
These points are considered in greater detail in the commentaries from different faith perspectives that were included in the Consumption Project report, starting with a supporting essay from Michael Brower, titled: “Looking for Balance: Materialism, the Environment, and Our Way of Life”:
Brower’s comments were drafted to complement the report’s different faith-based essays. Brower went on to publish a book on consumerism, so he expanded his arguments there, but he encapsulated many of the moral dimensions of his argument in the essay.
Brower notes that America is a land of contradictions – lots of wealth, but also great income inequality. Lots of religion, but a seeming breakdown of moral and religious values across the culture. Brower said that Americans react against what seems a greedy materialism all around us, but we nonetheless pursue our own careers seeking money to buy what we need, and often get caught up in the status and appeal of acquiring more and better goods. He notes that America has always seen itself as a land of opportunity. He quotes de Tocqueville as observing of America: “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men.” He says our culture is preoccupied with “physical comfort and pleasure, with glamour and youth, with having more goods this year than last and more next year than this. It preaches the gospel of the free market, with nearly unrestricted consumer choice and nearly unrestrained corporate autonomy.”
Brower points out that American personal income levels doubled twice in the 20th century, so the rise of consumerism has come with parallel increases in income, and also increases in life expectancy, educational achievement, and home ownership. But at the same time, Brower notes that critics have said that Americans’ increasing attachment to material goods “undermines families, friendships, and communities,…distracts from higher moral and spiritual pursuits, and…rarely brings lasting happiness.” It appears to also widen the gap between the rich and poor, and heighten anxiety among workers about losing jobs and livelihood, and yet, says Brower, these downsides have not dissuaded Americans and government policy from a path of maximizing consumption. Brower claims that “the United States remains one of the most consumer-oriented societies in the world.”
Annie Leonard, the creator of the Story of Stuff, argues that this is no accident. Her research revealed that advertisers in the 1940s and 50s, in concert with the coordinated efforts of the military-industrial complex and policymakers, explicitly sought to make consumption the American identity, like a religion. Although de Toqueville already had observed materialistic tendencies in American culture, the experience of the depression in the 1930s had helped much of America re-discover the virtues of frugality and moderation in its return to national economic health following the excesses and market crash of the 1920s. It would take well-funded marketing efforts and changes in economic policy to shift these American ideas away from these less consumptive and more contented patterns to patterns of overconsumption and rising materialism. Notably, this is also the point in time when American levels of well-being and happiness began to decline from a high point in the 1950s to the present day. Simply put, the agenda of getting Americans to link their well-being with ever more consumption may have resulted in economic growth (and a good deal of profit from those who control and supply consumer markets), but it also directly reduced the well-being of Americans.
Brower writes that unease with this situation has not faded – we are still living through the legacy of declining well-being that comes with over-consumption. Many working Americans have expressed growing dissatisfaction with the quality of their lives. The “American Dream” seems to be diminished: “where one income was enough to support a family thirty years ago, two incomes now seem barely to suffice.” And even worse, “growing numbers of people – especially people of color – feel altogether left out of the American Dream, dehumanized by brutal hours spent in minimum or sub-minimum wage jobs, incapable of providing adequately for our children, increasingly unable to hope for a better future. The marginalization and alienation of the poorest segments of society are widely perceived as a major cause of family breakdown, drug abuse, and violence, but few draw any connection to our consumer culture and to the individualistic ethic that underlies it.”
Brower wrote these lines in 1995, but more than 20 years later, this sentiment has only been reinforced as income inequality has risen, and issues of racial equity have become even more intense in America. These problems relate in several direct ways to environmental concerns. Indeed, just by virtue of being Americans, our average ecological footprint (or carbon footprint) is much higher than that of people from most other countries – double that of Japan and Germany, for instance — we consume twice as much energy per capita than the average German or Japanese, while our standard of living is lower than theirs. So while other developed nations have become more efficient in energy use, reducing their emissions two-fold compared to the US, more wasteful and more polluting patterns of energy use have been maintained in America, and low-income Americans have borne the greater proportion of burden in the form of air quality and toxic waste exposure (and at the checkbook level, it seems we are paying for twice as much energy consumption as we need to be equally well off).
Brower is careful to add that even though we need to give careful attention to consumer culture and its role in social and environmental issues in America, it would be a mistake to blame a consumer philosophy for all that ails us. But, says Brower, “we must recognize its influence and consciously seek to relate it to other moral, religious, and social values we hold dear.” The remainder of the NRPE Consumption Project draft papers did just that, commenting on Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Black Church, and Evangelical perspectives on consumption.
- Archives of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. National Religious Partnership for the Environment: Consumption Project: Stage One Proposal, August 5, 1994, p. 3-4 ↵
- Archives of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Proposal to The Pew Global Stewardship Initiative from The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, March 3, 1995, p.4-5. ↵
- Richard Florida examines recent trends in American well-being in the following article, and it remains somewhat unclear what drives these trends: https://www.citylab.com/life/2018/03/the-unhappy-states-of-america/555800/. ↵