Material World – The Challenges of Consumer Culture
I am going to skip forward a few chapters. Hsu spent a couple of chapters discussing the rise of the suburbs and how American has developed into a commuter culture with the proliferation of the automobile.
Here he begins discussing the consumer culture of suburbia. As we have moved away from an agrarian society and then away from an industrial society, our present society seems to be built on consumption. If consumption is inescapable, are there ways to moderate or mitigate our consumption? Is there a way to consume more Christianly?
Today, production is so far removed from consumption that consumers make their purchases with no knowledge of the context or human cost of their consumption.
If we as consumers knew that our toys and sweatshirts were being created by a permanent underclass enslaved by industrial exploitation, we’d think twice about what we purchase. Also, in terms of impacting our local economy, shopping at national chains and big-box stores tends to take money out of a local community. Studies show that chains return an average of 13 to 14 percent of dollars spent in their stores to local economies, and much of the rest departs to the national office and suppliers. On the other hand, locally owned, independent stores recirculate 45 to 58 percent of their dollars to the local community.
Countering Consumerist Ideology
Consumer culture wants to create addicts. Instead we must “rein in desire…stay away from malls and upscale shops, knowing that such exposure inevitably creates desire.”
Children growing up in the suburbs may have a distorted sense of what the average family “needs” to own.
Hsu then lists 9 principles for countering consumerism that he has adapted from Juliet Schor (The Overspent American). Here are a few:
1. Control desire: avoid things that make you want more.
2. Control ourselves: Participate in community efforts to reduce consumption.
3. Learn to share: Both a borrower and a lender be (This is so hard, I have tried this with a lawn tool, making it available to my neighbor whenever he wanted, but he went out and bought his own).
4. Become an educated consumer.
These are a few of the more practical pieces of advice from the list. Hsu then reminds us to practice the discipline of fasting, not just from food, but as a rhythm of relinquishment that reminds us that our desires don’t always need to be sated.
To counteract suburban consumerism, Hsu offers three main alternatives. We need to reclaim the Christian spiritual practices of creativity, simplicity and generosity. I will devote a new post to these alternatives.