Financial Crisis and the Ethics of OverConsumption

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Jan. 12, 2009, p. A9, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “We have no option but to change our overconsuming society”) 

 The news about our current financial crisis seems to be getting grimmer by the day.  Factory lay-offs and closures.  The auto industry struggling to survive.  Growing fears about losing one’s job.  Consumer confidence decreasing.  Recession.  What next?

 And what solutions are being proposed?  Encourage consumer spending.  Sales, and bigger sales.  Lower interest rates so that people will borrow to buy more.  Reduce taxes so that taxpayers will have more to spend.  Provide a bail-out to keep the auto-industry and its many auxiliary industries afloat. Why?  Failure here means thousands of workers unemployed, and therefore unable to buy things, thus further escalating the recession. 

 What I find significant is that both the cause and the cure of the current financial crisis are seen as tied to consumption.  Regarding cause, the media carry story after story about consumers who are limiting their buying to the basics.  The purchases of big ticket items are being postponed.  The SUV market has plummeted.  Even the market for corporate jets has gone into free-fall.  But of course, these cautionary responses only escalate the crisis, we are told.

  The solutions proposed again relate to consumption. We need to restore consumer confidence so that people will again buy new houses, new cars, new big-screen television sets, and more toys for grown-ups and children alike. Do we need all these things?  No.  But having a “healthy” economy is dependent on our buying things that we don’t really need.

 Surely, there is something fundamentally wrong with all this.  We are addicted to consumption, but addictions are never healthy. Obviously some consumption is necessary, but not over-consumption.  One cannot live by bread alone.  The desire to consume more and more can never be satisfied.   Indeed, a preoccupation with owning things is dehumanizing.  Persons become mere “consumers” to be manipulated by retail advertising or by government encouragements to increase spending.  Over-consumption is also not sustainable.  It rests on over-production, and the exploitation of the environment and of people.  Surely there is something terribly wrong with 20% of the world’s wealthiest people consuming a massive 86% of the planet’s resources.

 But if there is something fundamentally wrong with over-consumption, then there must also be something fundamentally wrong with an economic system that rests on over-consumption.  Unfortunately noone is talking about this aspect of our current financial crisis.  Everyone simply assumes that the key to recovery is to restore consumer confidence so that all of us will once again consume more than we need.  We refuse to ask the more basic questions.  Should we, for example, let the auto-industry shrink because we simply have too many cars?  We refuse to see this crisis as a wake-up call to invest in public transportation systems that will be much more ecologically friendly.  We continue to evaluate our governments simply on the basis of their ability to get everyone spending money once again.  And what is curious here is that all the political parties agree on these spend-more solutions.  None of them seems capable of really progressive thinking on this matter.

 So, what is the solution?  For a start, we need to begin questioning what is universally taken for granted.  One possible guide might be E.F. Schumacher’s, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  Schumacher would have us look at “Buddhist Economics” as an alternative to modern economic theory.  The essence of civilization, for the Buddhist, is not found in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.  Self-centredness and over-consumption are evils to be overcome.  Simplicity is a norm, and it is the only way to counter the violence against other persons and against nature that is inherent in modern economics. 

 Impractical, you might argue.   But, our present system isn’t exactly working very well either, is it?  And it never will be.  We need to rethink the basics.  We need to explore other alternatives.  We need an economic system that is stable, sustainable and more equitable.

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