I have a crazy,
crazy love of things.
I like pliers,
I love cups, rings and bowls –
Not to speak of course, pf hats….
Oh irrevocable river of things:
No one can say
That I loved only fish,
Or the plants of the jungle and the field…..
It’s not true:
Many things conspired to tell me the whole story.
Not only did they touch me,
Or my hand touched them:
They were so close
That they were a part of my being,
They were so alive with me
That they lived half my life
And will die half my death.
Pablo Neruda, ‘Ode to Things’
My mother, whilst not by any means wealthy, loved things. She had a gift for making whatever home, however small it was, that she lived in, a ‘nest’ for things that bought delight. I also love ‘things’. Like many of us no doubt I am often tempted by them. And there is no doubt that those ‘things’ can take on a kind of embodied sense of the presence of the person who loves them. At mum’s funeral we spread her coffin with a favourite hand sewn quilt made by my sister-in-law. We gave away her collection of tiny animals as people left the service. Such well- loved things matter.
Nevertheless, I am afraid that the ‘irrevocable river of things’ that constitutes our consumer economy may sweep away the very thing of which they are made, namely the natural life of the earth – fish, jungles, fields.
Perhaps the problem is that we have become possessed by things and the desire for them. We have become a consumer economy. The human being seems to have become a socially, economically constructed ‘consumer’. Heavens knows we are constantly referred to by that label. However, put very simply, some may say simplistically, there are too many of us wanting too much in material terms. The earth cannot afford our expensive life-style yet we are caught up in the myth of limitless material growth. And what I am suggesting is that our perspective, that of the socially constructed human person as ‘consumer’, needs to shift. Others are saying that our economic and social policies must change before we destroy the planet.
When I walk through large supermarkets and other retail outlets I can’t help but think we are living in great ignorance of the cost of the consumer economy in which we live and ignorance of our true identity. Acres of plastic toys, clothing and built in obsolescence in the form of various appliances to rare earth captured in the latest technology to various foodstuffs overwrapped in plastic. What was once wild and free and beautiful is now pre-packaged for our convenience and the profit of share-holders which, whether we actually own shares in corporations or not, is all of us. We are share-holders of this one earth. It’s just that a few of us reap significant financial gain from the commodification of creation. The gap between rich and poor grows. And the whole earth community is diminished through habitat and species loss, pollution of ocean and rivers and of course the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
That we have become self-identified as ‘consumer’ seems on the one hand obvious yet also subtle. We have obeyed the commands and demands of an economy that appears to be driving us in pursuit of continuous material growth; economy as an end rather than means for living the ‘good life’. These words from Victor Labow, a retailing analyst, speaking shortly after WW2 are a blatant expression of the consumer consciousness that we are in thrall to:
"Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate."
The consumer revolution that finds its roots around the 15th century really went into overdrive after the second World War. To a certain extent we have indeed made consumption our way of life. And as someone who loves ‘things’ I am confronted by the subtle layers of infiltration of this consumer consciousness in myself. So, it seems important to explore these layers of consumerism in myself and in our society. Particularly as we reach a climate tipping point, fill the ocean and marine life with our discarded plastic and see more and more loss of habitat and species extinction we must ask ourselves, ‘who are we’, ‘who are we becoming’ and what is a ‘good life’ for the whole earth community. Our human perspective, I suggest, must undergo a shift from consumer consciousness to contemplative consciousness, first to even ask those questions, and then to live into a way of life that contributes to the flourishing of life rather than its diminishment.
As I write we are on the countdown to that great consumer festival and ritual called Christmas. There is already an ‘irrevocable river of things’ being bought and wrapped. The fruitcake has just gone into the oven. I used mum’s old mix-master to make it. It is a precious thing. So many Christmas’ it has served our family by way of mum’s incomparable cake. Our family gave up exchanging gifts years ago probably due more to busyness and pragmatics than any great ecological virtue. I hope however that Christmas may give us pause to wonder about just how irrevocable our life-styles may have become. Will we be able to change the way we live so that others may live? The greatest gift of Christmas is the Christ consciousness that waits to irrupt into our ordinary awareness at any moment. Let us make space for that contemplative consciousness to bring new life for all.