I have now been in Canada for over two months. It has been an interesting experience coming into a country for a longer period of time. I am realising how superficial my engagement has been when I have come in and out.
One of the things that I was surprised by was how much more consumerist the culture is here. It might just be Edmonton, but huge shops are everywhere and every week a forest of trees are sacrificed to produce catalogues that no-one ever reads. I was surprised at how different this all has been, because I would describe Australia as a fairly consumerist culture too.
For a subject I have taken on the Christian Worldview, I had to read Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, and the author William T. Cavanaugh makes a point that I had never really thought about before.
I had always thought the danger in a consumer culture was placing too high a value on stuff. He points out, I think rightly, that just the opposite is true.
What characterises consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.
On the next page he writes:
Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.
Drawing on this insight he then suggests that;
Consumerism is not simply people rejecting spirituality for materialism. For many people, consumerism is a type of spirituality, even if they do not recognise it as such. It is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.
He draws his argument to a close with the suggestion that:
The problem is not people deliberately choosing their own comfort over the lives of others because of their skewed values. The problem is a much larger one: changes in the economy and society in general have detached us from material production, producers and even the products we buy.
Cavanaugh goes on to explore what the detachment from production, producers and products means for us, and as I was reading lightbulbs kept going off. I think I have often gone for the quick response to consumerist culture that decries what looks like a love of stuff… As I think about the way that treasures that would be handed down from generation to generation in the past, I now realise that perhaps as a result of consumerist culture we don’t value stuff enough.
There is an excitement in getting the newest and the latest, which lasts about as long as it takes for there to be a newer or greater… I have a couple of friends who have put off buying technology because they keep waiting for the latest and best version… its just that the moment one is released, news of the one soon to come devalues the one available now.
There is something about allowing yourself to deeply enjoy the stuff you have that is profoundly revolutionary – and healthy. The consumerist economy would die quickly if we could value the stuff we have more highly. It makes sense…