Our materialism disguises a deeper problem
I’ve been pondering religion a lot lately, what with all the kerfuffle over "Intelligent Design" (on that subject, you only need to read one thing: this).
Joel Makower’s latest references an article by Worldwatch Institute Director of Research Gary Gardner called "Hungry for More: Re-Engaging Religious Teachings on Consumption." The idea, from what I can gather, is that all the world’s major religions contain moral teachings against over-consumption and economic injustice — and faith communities need to rediscover and embrace these teachings as they try to deal with a world in which "mass consumerism in wealthy countries has already broken the ecological bank."
To which I say: good luck.
I suppose there’s no sense being coy about my distaste for religion (though I should stress that it’s my own personal hangup, not representative of Grist or of the environmental community as a whole). But as far as I can see, religion in America — ubiquitous though it may be — is fairly toothless in terms of challenging people and getting them to change their behavior. The religion I see is either the "moderate" kind that’s mainly devolved into a glorified self-help program or the "extreme" kind that mainly serves to offer its adherents objects of hate and derision (e.g., gays).
Gross oversimplification, yes. But still, the chances of religion in the developed world emerging as a genuine force in opposition to conspicuous overconsumption strike me as roughly nil.
But that’s not my point.
I wanted to say a word about materialism. Gardner references the Buddhist attitude of "detachment, a sharp contrast to the frenzied grasping for stuff that often characterizes non-Buddhist societies."
I think this somewhat imprecise. One of the professors I used to study with, Albert Borgmann, wrote several excellent books about (among other things) the fact that, for all their vaunted materialism, modern Westerners seem to have very little appreciation for material. Objects are almost entirely opaque and disposable. Where things were once hewn out of wood and metal, now we encounter nothing but shiny digital interfaces hiding workings underneath of which we know nothing.
In fact, we seem to have a thoroughgoing disrespect for material. We care nothing for it.
What’s striking about the "frenzied grasping for stuff" is not the stuff but the frenzied grasping. We seem perpetually unfulfilled, convinced that just a slightly bigger house or faster car or more flattering pair of jeans or higher-capacity mp3 player (ahem — I’m done now, hon, promise!) will fill the holes inside us.
I don’t write this off to simple greed. And though there is an advertising industry devoted to stoking and exacerbating these feelings, I don’t think it could create them from whole cloth.
Why the perpetual, gnawing sense of dissatisfaction?
Gardner (maybe even Joel, I don’t know) might say it’s a spiritual lack that could be addressed by religion.
I disagree. I tend to look toward more prosaic, worldly explanations. What do people need? A sense of purpose, security, and community; to be loved by a circle of family and friends; physical health.
It’s a bitter irony that our pursuit of the transient pleasures of consumption pushes us into lifestyles that make the things we really need more and more remote.
There’s more to be said about this, of course, but the annual Grist picnic starts in just a few minutes, so I gotta run!