Chapter 12: Case Study: Consumerism

12.8: The Ongoing Challenge of Consumption in America

At the same time that NRPE was gathering the perspectives of theologians from multiple traditions, it was also conducting focus groups to verify the perspectives of Americans about these issues. The key findings from the focus groups included the following points:

-There is a widespread feeling among religious Americans that we’re on the wrong track — that our whole society and culture are out of whack, out of balance.

-People readily connect their concerns to the issue of consumption in two ways:

  1. They see many of our problems as rooted in materialism (some prefer to call it excess or greed) — a tendency to want too much, to go overboard.
  2. They feel that our cultural emphasis on buying and consuming things has displaced the more enduring values of family, faith, and community.

-At the core of this issue is how to define the “good life” and what values lie at the center of it. Material things are failing to fulfill us or make us content.

-As people explore this issue, they struggle with deep ambivalence. They are proud of and accustomed to the material achievements of our society, even as they decry materialism and question the priorities we have set.

-People are looking for balance, not self-deprivation or asceticism.

-People feel trapped, unable to live their beliefs. Their own lives do not correspond to their aspirations for what life should be about.

-People are looking for a sense of possibility – a chance to think and talk about how things could be better. [1]

Even though the NRPE’s Consumption Project never reached maturity, it holds important insights for us today. A more widespread and successful project was a curriculum developed by Mike Schut that led to the development of the book: Simpler Living, Compassionate Life.  Written from a Christian perspective as a study book for communities seeking to reduce their consumptiveness and lead healthier lives, Schut’s book took inspiration from the voluntary simplicity movement. While this topic remains a challenging one for Americans, one might think about challenging issues of the past, such the abolition of slavery. You might say America, at least the American south, was addicted to the slave economy, just as we are now addicted to oil. In that campaign for sweeping social change, both secular and religious communities complemented each others’ efforts to build new models for communities and economies. This is likely to be an unavoidably long-term struggle to shift to less consumptive ways in America, and it may come at a cost. It may be that religious communities will need to play a key role if our chances for change have a prayer.

“Me and my friends were picking up trash out of a forest for class extra credit and we stumbled across this glass jar with plants growing through it, showing how even when we treat nature bad it still finds beauty in the forgotten treasures such as this glass jar being home to new life.” Photo credit: Mikayla Benjamin

  1. 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.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.