Avoiding the evil of consumerism

Published September 14, 2020, 10:00 PM

by Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas

(Part 1)

There has been much criticism levelled against capitalists and business people who have exaggerated the virtues of free market capitalism.  At least the last three Popes have exposed the very pernicious  results of a system which gave free rein to market competition and the maximization of profit by business enterprises  In fact, Pope Francis has even gone to the extent of saying that untrammelled  free market capitalism can kill, that it can lead to great inequity in the distribution of income and wealth within a country and between countries.  Business people are being  advised to balance  their desire for profit with other objectives such as environmental sustainability and a more humane existence for workers and farmers.  There are now fortunately more people in business who are seriously balancing the three P’s:  People, Planet and Profit.  In our country, many more large and medium-sized business firms are practicing what is known as Corporate Social Responsibility.  Especially among the millennials, there is a noticeable trend towards  the creation of what are known as social enterprises, businesses which are for profit (to assure sustainability over the long run) but the main purpose of which is make a contribution to solving a social problem or to contribute to the common good, like eradicating poverty, protecting the environment or to promote some desirable human or spiritual values.

It must be recognized, though, that the extreme desire for material gain can also occur on the side of the consumers.  Now that the Philippines is poised to attain the status of an upper middle income economy in the next three to five years (this was delayed because of the pandemic), it is timely for those who are already enjoying middle income status (those with a per capita income equivalent to US$4,000 to $10,000 per annum) to avoid becoming  prey to an equally evil human weakness, that of consumerism.  I first was introduced to the dark side of consumer spending by my Harvard professor, the famous John Kenneth Galbraith, who in the 1950s through the 1970s was one of the most widely read economists in the United States.  The year before I entered the Ph.D. program in economics at Harvard, Professor Galbraith (who taught us the subject of Economic Development) wrote his best seller “The Affluent Society.”   In that book, he introduced the phrase “conspicuous consumption” that tends to predominate in a society that has reached the level of affluence, in which the vast majority are already enjoying upper middle income status.  Once individuals have satisfied their basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, health and wellness and education, they tend to satisfy “wants” that are created artificially through aggressive advertising and marketing.  People become victims to the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome.  Galbraith was especially critical of the contrast between the affluence of the private sector and the squalor of the public sector.  He criticized a system in which human wants are created by the production process itself:  “If the individual’s  wants are to be urgent, they must be original with himself.  They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him.  And above all, they must not be contrived by the process of production by which they are satisfied…One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.”

What Galbraith perceived in the 1950s in the United States was the origin of what has been labeled as “consumerism” by St. John Paul II in his Encyclical  Centesimus Annus.  In that encyclical which celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the first papal encyclical on social issues by Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum in 1891), St. John Paul II wrote:  “Side by side with the miseries of underdevelopment, we find ourselves up against a form of super-development, equally inadmissible. This super-development consists in an excessive availability of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups and makes people slaves of “possession” and immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication of continual replacement of the things owned with others still better  This is the civilization of consumption or “consumerism”, which involves so much throwing away and waste…All of us experience the sad effects of blind submission to consumerism.  In the first place it represents crass materialism.  At the same time it represents a radical dissatisfaction because one quickly learns that the more one possesses, the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.”

Consumerism does a great deal of damage to the individual by bringing him or her to the path of intemperance, to the insatiable greed for material goods.   But it also has adverse consequences for the physical environment.  Already anticipating the Apostolic Exhortation of the future Pope Francis entitled “Laudato Si,” St. John Paul II referred to the ecological damage that results from consumerism: “A second consideration is that natural resources are limited;  some are not  renewable.  Using them as if they are inexhaustible endangers their availability not only for the present generations  but for generations to come.  When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace,we  can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere  are telling us:  that there is an order in the universe which must be respected.  The human person has a grave responsibility to preserve the order for the well-being of future generations.”

Pope Francis, in a homily he delivered on November 26, 2018, in the chapel of his residence, descended to even more concrete details about the evil of consumerism:  “Consumerism is a great disease today.  I  am not saying that we all do this, no.  But consumerism, spending more than we need, is a lack of austerity in life.:  this is an enemy of generosity….it’s the little things.  For example, take a trip to our rooms, let us go to our closets.   How many  pairs of shoes do you have?  One two, three, four, 15, 20—everyone can answer.  A bit too much.  I knew a bishop who owned 40 pairs.  But if you have so many shoes, give half.  It is a way of being generous, of giving what we  have, of sharing.”  He called on Christians to be generous with those in need and to pray to God “so that he can free us from the dangers of the evil of consumerism which is a psychiatric disease that can enslave.” ( To be continued).

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