Is Consumerism a Curse or a Cure?

Our processed world: From potato to potato chip, cowhide to seat cover, petroleum to plastic pen

Excerpts from the recent article, Manufacturing a Consumer Culture, buy Laura Cloer and Dan Cloer from the jouranl Vision

Reprinted with permission. Read the complete article here.


Over the past 100 years, scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations have radically changed the human experience. Today the world is awash in material goods and a higher standard of living for increasing numbers. We live longer, have access to increasingly sophisticated entertainment and modes of communication, and travel greater distances. In short, we are the greatest consumers in the history of life on earth. Yet we seem to be less happy and more anxious. Has our consumer culture become a curse rather than a cure?

We are surrounded by a manufactured world. Almost everything we touch or use in our homes, our garages, our offices is the by-product of an intense and complex industrial system: from potato to potato chip, cowhide to seat cover, petroleum to plastic pen.

Ours is a world of mass production. Clothes, furniture, toys, cars, food are produced in factories—large factories—somewhere. Because only a very few of us participate in the actual making of these everyday items, we tend to take their existence for granted; it is as if they magically appear on the shelves of our ubiquitous superstores. So, just as we tend not to think of the farmer or farm worker in the field who grows, picks and sorts our fresh foods (nor the immense integrated processing systems that synthesize our common packaged foods), so we are oblivious to the story line behind almost everything we use in our daily lives.

Do we need this story line? For several reasons, we do.

The Cost of Ignorance

The so-called good life of low-cost consumer textile and technological goods—the West’s status quo—comes at a cost paid by workers in other parts of the world. The tragically poor and exploited lives of Chinese chip makers and Indian and Bangladeshi seamstresses are gaining worldwide visibility. Recent news concerning the unsafe living and working conditions of great masses of people is likely merely the tip of the exploitation iceberg. Just as the Mexican drug lords have built their empires and fractured their nation on consumptive American demands for marijuana and narcotics, so the Chinese have destroyed much of their land, peasant peoples and urban health in making “Made in China” the current worldwide label for “cheap and easily replaced.”

Getting and spending has become the most passionate, and often the most imaginative, endeavor of modern life

Having a more intimate connection with the things we use has meaningful psychological benefits. There is a certain satisfaction in making something yourself; a life seems fuller in the producing rather than just the using. To build something is participatory in a way that simply consuming a product is not. No one needs to change his or her car’s oil anymore, yet some still do; and urban dwellers appreciate having a garden, even if its crop is only one tomato plant. It’s no wonder that in a desire to reconnect with what many see as a simpler, more organic time, the hand-made and do-it-yourself movement has experienced growing popularity. It is as if we desire to take on responsibility for something more than simply going and buying.

Be that as it may, history professor William Leach argues that the development of the modern consumer culture has played on another human desire entirely: to covet, or have an inordinate desire for things. Leach describes “the concept of the human being as an insatiable, desiring machine or as an animal governed by an infinity of desires”—a view that suggests there will always be demand if supply can be created. “This concept of humanity argues that what is most ‘human’ about people is their quest after the new, their willingness to violate boundaries, their hatred of the old and the habitual . . . and their need to incorporate ‘more and more’—goods, money, experience, everything” (Land of Desire).

Covetousness is a temptation to which we are all certainly prone. What we think about, we tend to do; and when we think about “not having” we tend to respond by creating a way to get (James 4:1–2). It is no small thing to recognize that the Ten Commandments warn against being overtaken by covetousness, because its consequences quickly spiral out of control (Exodus 20:17). But the profit motive and greed for an ever-increasing bottom line turn corporate gears, ensuring that this human weakness will be exploited.

“American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods,” Leach continues. “It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture—or as one moving largely against the grain of earlier traditions of republicanism and Christian virtue—and then unfolded to become the reigning culture of the United States.”

But this wasn’t always the case…

Read the complete article here