Unsustainable Lifestyles and the Culture of Consumerism

We live in a consumer culture. Wherever we look, no matter where we turn, an advert screams at us – compelling us to buy, buy and buy. They remind us constantly of how much we need product X to keep up with society, to stay cool, or to make our lives meaningful. Hi-tech gadgets our parents never dreamed of, clothes and shoes to fill a whole garage, even health supplements that promise to keep us young forever. Human society has never been so filled with affluence in all of its history. And this is not just an urban, Western problem. We from the developing and third world countries are not spared from the clutches of consumerism. And the message is clear- thou shalt NOT be satisfied with what you have.

But is this sort of lifestyle sustainable, not just for our planet (I will come to that in future posts), but as an individual person and as a family?  Does having more guarantee a better life? Does it lead to a meaningful life? We toil and work hard to earn more, only so that we can spend more and hoard our possesions, only to find that we can never be satisfied. And so we end up in this vicious cycle.

A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand. ~ Dorothy Sayers

The consumer lifestyle demands an enormous amount of work, worry, strife, and struggle by instilling a deep sense of longing and discontent. If all of us were suddenly happy with our homes, for instance, how many decorating magazines could be sold? ~ J. Matthew Sleeth, Serve God, Save the Planet

The person who begins the day by asking, ‘What will I wear and how will it look?’ may work just as hard as the person who asks, ‘How can I serve God and save the planet?’ It is not the effort put into their actions but the meaning derived from their lives that will vary greatly. ~ J. Matthew Sleeth, Serve God, Save the Planet

Which of the items invented in the past fifty years add to our lives, and which subtract? Which enrich our souls, and which only generate background noise? ~ J. Matthew Sleeth, Serve God, Save the Planet

J. Matthew Sleeth, in his book ‘Serve God, Save the Planet’, shares his experience of shedding half his belongings – choosing a simpler life for his family – and ending up with a fuller life. In his own words, “Spiritual concerns have filled the void left by material ones. Owning fewer things has resulted in things no longer owning us.” Of course, the contrast between ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ here is not to be misunderstood as a physical/spiritual dichotomy in the Platonic and Gnostic sense. It is a very down to earth spirituality, since the whole book is about environmental stewardship and creation care anyway!

Today’s sermon at church was based on one of Jesus teachings at the Sermon on the Mount: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ~ Matthew 26: 19-21 (NRSV)

I’ve read this passage so many times, but never have I ever paused to reflect – What is this treasure in heaven anyway? Could it be some reward that God is giving us in heaven based on how we live, so that we collect more and more ‘brownie points’ as we get along in life? What could Jesus possibly be referring to? What can we ever hope to bring with us into the next life in the new heavens and new earth? Our minister gave a very poignant answer. To her, WE were her treasures. The only thing that can be brought along into God’s new world, are relationships, and the legacies that we leave in the lives of others.

So what does it all mean for my own life? Is my lifestyle sustainable? Am I contributing to this society of consumerism? What is more important to me – material possesions, or relationships? Where do I spend the majority of my time and energy? What is my treasure?

At the end of a materially rich day, Consumerism says, “Buy more.” At the end of a spiritually rich life, God says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” ~ J. Matthew Sleeth, Serve God, Save the Planet


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