Living with startling abundance

This blog started with a fairly simple premise and topic that I’ve long since wandered from. I saw (and still see) consumerism as a massive problem in our societies and churches because of the way it forms and shapes people. I was going to write, think about the problem and the rich resources that the Bible offers us in learning to live differently: against the tide. Lives marked by simplicity, generosity, hospitality. I still believe that.

But because I find staying focused an incredibly hard thing to do I started writing about church planting, gender, technology, whatever it was I was reading and so on. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t have been more disciplined in keeping a single focus here but that ship has long sailed. Today I’m returning to the original theme.

Consumerism remains a massive issue on a whole host of levels. It really matters on the biggest level of all – planetary! It’s long been recognised that it may be impossible for the whole world, all seven billion of them to enjoy the standards of living that the developed rich nations currently enjoy. The demands on water, power, food, resources and so on would be just too great. Daniel O’Neill puts the problem this way:

Imagine a country that met the basic needs of its citizens – one where everyone could expect to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life. Now imagine that same country was able to do this while using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.

Such a country does not exist. Nowhere in the world even comes close. In fact, if everyone on Earth were to lead a good life within our planet’s sustainability limits, the level of resources used to meet basic needs would have to be reduced by a factor of two to six times.

In other words we’ve created a way of life that (currently) could not be shared by everyone without also destroying our planet. So in this case inequality becomes a feature not a bug to the system and creates huge resistance to change because no-one wants to give up better for worse.

A shift away from consumerism would also be absolutely catastrophic for the world economy: it is designed around constant & increasing consumption. As a result it has created whole new industries. Nowhere is this more evident than in America, the real pioneer in storing the excesses of consumerism.

One in 11 Americans pays an average of $91.14 per month to use self-storage, finding a place for the material overflow of the American dream. According to SpareFoot, a company that tracks the self-storage industry, the United States boasts more than 50,000 facilities and roughly 2.311 billion square feet of rentable space. In other words, the volume of self-storage units in the country could fill the Hoover Dam with old clothing, skis, and keepsakes more than 26 times.

Another way of thinking about it would be if the US put all their self-storage units in one place they would create a city the size of Seattle. Which is an astonishing amount of surplus to requirements stuff.  It’s a literal city of junk (not just an artistic one).

Although businesses are trying to adapt to consumers awareness of the environment, supply chains and so on they are still consumers. Our shift from malls to Amazon may be hurting malls in the same way they hurt town centres but none of it means we’re buying less stuff. Far from it.

And of course it’s the personal level where the damage is really done. Apparently there’s been a war on clutter but if so that’s us going to war with a pea shooter up against a million tanks.

“You can’t stop it,” said Lisa Ouellette, a mother of three in Winchester. Like many, she feels powerless — over friends and family who ply her young children with gifts, against the paperwork for appliances that came with their new house, admittedly even against herself and the stuff she buys online.

On a recent afternoon she was preparing to give away five bags. “It’s starting to make me and my husband ill,” she said.

Not only does the owning of too much create problems for those that have too much but the process of buying too much is inherently stressful. Because we buy so much everyone wants us to buy from them which is why in part we can choose from over 200 different kinds of air freshener when we go to the supermarket.

If my wife doesn’t give me very specific instructions as to what she wants when she sends me shopping, I find the vast array of choice overwhelming and paralysing. I can stare at the endless varieties and struggle to know which one is the right one or best one. It’s some relief to know I’m not alone.

But the idea that choice is bad for us flies in the face of what we’ve been told for decades. The standard line is that choice is good for us, that it confers on us freedom, personal responsibility, self-determination, autonomy and lots of other things that don’t help when you’re standing before a towering aisle of water bottles, paralysed and increasingly dehydrated, unable to choose.

We can recycle, we can repair, we can reuse but until we actually cut the rate of consumption these problems will not go away. So some people are trying just that. I love how Ann Patchett here describes excess stuff:

The things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: We can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss life’s details. It’s not as if I kept a ledger and took the money I didn’t spend on perfume and gave that money to the poor, but I came to a better understanding of money as something we earn and spend and save for the things we want and need. Once I was able to get past the want and be honest about the need, it was easier to give more of my money to people who could really use it.

It’s also an article littered with great throwaway lines like:

  • The unspoken question of shopping is “What do I need?” What I needed was less.
  • The idea that our affection and esteem must manifest itself in yet another sweater is reductive.
  • Once I stopped looking for things to buy, I became tremendously grateful for the things I received.
  • The trickier part was living with the startling abundance that had become glaringly obvious when I stopped trying to get more.
  • If you stop thinking about what you might want, it’s a whole lot easier to see what other people don’t have.

In theory churches should be prophetic places of resilience with communities that are “marked by simplicity, generosity and hospitality”. Sadly that’s not always the case. I’m no fan of the prosperity message for a whole host of reasons but I don’t think I could have observed it any more sharply than the following by Sarahbeth Caplin:

What does it say about their religion when the most compelling reason they can give people to go to their new church campus has nothing to do with the sacrifice they say Jesus made for us, or because their preaching will change our lives, but because they’re bribing us?

And the final nail in the prosperity coffin:

In this case, the lesson is clear: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but maybe drive home in a new Ford Escape.

Ouch. But also right on.

Jared Wilson correctly identifies the problem that lies in the human heart:

Our failure to fast from crass consumerism stems from our failure to say “Enough.” For those hooked on the drugs of materialism and consumption, there is no such thing as enough. Instead, our mantra is “More,” a command that by definition cannot be satisfied.

He also correctly identifies the solution:

You will not be able to say “no thanks” to everything that belongs to the world if you are not already full, as Jesus was filled with the joy of communion with God.

Christians live simply so we can share generously because God has been generous to us. We are hospitable because God has been hospitable to us. We are not tempted by more because we have learned the secret of facing both plenty and need (Philippians 4:12).

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