Saturday, December 7, 2013
Consumerism and Spirituality
These are some very interesting Buddhist concepts to ponder this holiday season. This is a portion of an interview by John Elder of Stephanie Kaza. It was sent to me by a friend. I found these thoughts very helpful.
A student of Zen for over thirty years, Stephanie Kaza has been … a professor [since 1991] in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont. Buddhist environmental thought and the role of activism in social change have been central both to her teaching there and to her writing…. Her most recent book, “Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume” (2005), is an anthology of provocative essays from dharma teachers and writers that explore Buddhist tools for engaging the challenges of modern consumerism.
I spoke with Kaza last January over tea in my living room in Bristol, Vermont.—JOHN ELDER
How would you define consumerism? In a practical sense, consumerism is a belief system and culture that promotes consuming as the path to self- and social improvement. It’s a complete political and economic ideology, sponsored by sophisticated marketing techniques that generate significant profits while stripping the earth of resources. As a dominant cultural force, consumerism offers products to address every dissatisfaction, while actually creating social conditions that undermine equity and environmental stability….
And do you view this as a new ideology, above and beyond the impulse to buy, sell, and trade goods that has always existed in human society? I won’t say it’s new, it’s just more exaggerated now. It’s much more sophisticated, more technological, more effective, more codified. And it’s much more accepted as an established way of doing business. So that now elections, for example, have a lot of the hallmarks of the consumer society, as evidenced by how candidates sell themselves through sound bytes and advertising. Military recruiting is about selling the army to young men. A lot of fairly complicated ethical dilemmas—public dilemmas that could be discussed in public forums—have been boiled down to what seem like competing consumer products.
If consumerism is indeed on the rise, why is that? Did consumerism as an ideology increase along with the rise of capitalism? For one thing, extraction and production technologies have become extremely efficient at harvesting resources and generating material goods. In early history, most people did not have disposable income. There was not an option to go and buy luxury goods. You were happy if you got some salt and butter, or something like that. But with the acceleration of communication and transportation in the twentieth century, even a small amount of discretionary income could then be spent on things like TVs, autos, trinkets—goods that reduce our discomfort in life, and that are attractive and entertaining. So the scale of consumption, and its acceleration, is more rapid in the last quarter century than any other time before….
How has the increase in consumerism affected the human psyche or consciousness? Kalle Lasn, the author of a book called Culture Jam, speaks of “microjolts of commercial pollution” that flood our brains—about three thousand marketing messages per day. This has a tremendous impact on our consciousness. It’s a mass cultural experiment that may have penetrating effects we can barely imagine. One of the biggest impacts is the widespread disease of greed, status envy, overstimulation, and dissatisfaction. Children are especially vulnerable to brainwashing from commercials. We find them developing a sense of identity based on brands before they can barely read. The Buddhist writer and scholar David Loy suggests that the drive to consume has displaced the psychic space once filled by religion, family, and community. More time spent on personal lifestyle pleasures tends to mean less time spent in civic engagement and public life….
So what unique insights does Buddhism have to offer in critiquing and countering consumerism? … I suggest three fundamental Buddhist critiques…. The first focuses on the process of personal-identity formation. The usual idea of self is seen as a significant delusion in Buddhist thought, yet consumers are constantly urged to build a sense of self around what they buy. Consumer goods become symbols of status, political or religious views, social group, and sexuality—all of which solidify a sense of self….
What are the other two? The second leg of the Buddhist critique of consumerism is that consumerism promotes and condones harming. The foundational principle behind all Buddhist ethics is non-harming or ahimsa, expressed in the first precept as “Do not kill” or “Do no harm.” While consumer goods manufacturers may not intend to cause harm, the extraction and production processes often leave death and injury in their wake—clear-cutting forests, polluting waterways, abusing workers. Producers justify tremendous harm to many forms of life to meet the bottom line of profit and gain.
But any time we consume anything we are harming to a certain extent. We eat animals and plants, cut down trees, mine ore. Does that mean that consuming anything is problematic? Or are we again just talking about a matter of scale? It’s the conundrum of the precepts: A human being cannot survive without causing harm. But you try to cause as little as possible. If your bodhisattva vows are to reduce suffering, then you don’t want to cause excess suffering.
And the third aspect? The third aspect of the Buddhist critique is that consumerism promotes desire and dissatisfaction, the very source of suffering, as explained in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. The state of dissatisfaction—clinging, craving, impulse, thirst, attachment, compulsion—is the very opposite of contentment and equanimity. Marketers stimulate desire and dissatisfaction very effectively, offering a plethora of products to relieve almost every form of human suffering. What is unique about the Buddhist approach is that it goes to the very root of the urge for more, the desire, the hook that keeps us constantly searching for what will relieve our dissatisfaction.
What kinds of changes do you suggest that people make in their consuming habits? I did not want this book to be prescriptive. I didn't want people to seize on some standard that any of the authors put out there as the only standard. Because I don't think that's skillful means. I think it's much more skillful just to enter the struggle. Don't just adopt some easy thing like "I'll be a vegetarian," because then you won't look at the source of your plant food. And you won't really think about the ecological impact of shipping your mangoes, say, from South America so you can enjoy them in Seattle. So if there's one recommendation that's consistent throughout the whole book, it's "investigate, go deeper, ask questions about every single thing you consume."
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#2 December, 2013