Sightings is a twice-weekly publication of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. One of the newsletters is written by noted religion scholar Martin Marty; the second is an essay by another religion scholar. They are always thought-provoking, but I was especially struck by a recent contribution by one Bruce Rittenhouse:
My own research on consumerism supports the conclusion that the reason Americans remain attached to a consumeristic form of life is because it performs the religious function of providing them with an answer to the existential problem of meaning.
In my research, I defined consumerism as a form of life that sacrifices other consciously-valued goods in order to maximize the consumption of economic goods, despite the fact that this consumption exceeds any objective measure of need.
Rittenhouse offers a variety of research findings to bolster his contention that even the most economically challenged U.S. households prioritize consumption over savings, and he identifies the role that consumerism plays in the American psyche. He notes–accurately–that “economic goods are never simply objects of use.” Consumption becomes consumerism when the intent is to procure “social recognition,” when it is the way in which the consumer signals his or her “personal significance in a community,” allowing the consumer to “transcend personal mortality.”
In other words, in the absence of a different source of meaning, owning stuff serves that purpose– the consumerist lifestyle is “psychologically essential to the person who uses it to secure his or her personal significance.”
Rittenhouse’s conclusion is grim:
So long as American culture fails to provide a ground of personal meaning that calls for self-sacrifice for the common good and for future generations, the United States will remain unable to meet its current economic, demographic, and environmental challenges.
If Rittenhouse is right–and there is a depressing amount of evidence supporting his thesis–we have a very big problem, because the health of the American economy rests on our ability to generate consumption. One of the most persuasive arguments for raising the minimum wage is that consumption requires disposable income.
A change in the culture of consumerism won’t come without considerable economic upheaval. Assuming it comes at all.