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A Necessary Evil?

September 25, 2008

Is shopping the only way to save the economy?

‘Should I buy the jeans, or not?’ It’s a perennial question (especially if, like me, your jeans expire too regularly for comfort). ‘No I will not buy the jeans’, we decide. And walking away from the store we feel (eventually) a sense of liberation and maybe just a little pride. Until another, more disturbing question rises from the deep, capitalist, recesses of our minds, ‘Oh no! Have I just done a clothing worker out of a job?!’

It all sounds so attractive – the simple life, slowing down, less junk and more care for the environment. But what if consuming less leads to a drop in demand and then, as a result, loss of jobs and damage to the economy. Despite much charitable work since the mid-20th Century, there’s a case for saying that what has lifted most people out of poverty in the last 50 years is in fact the industrialization of China and India. And what drove this progress? To a large extent, western consumer demand. If this fact wasn’t enough, the current tilts and shudders of the world economy should remind us all how many jobs rely on the fluctuations of the global market.

The great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wisely quipped, ‘seek simplicity, and distrust it’. Living simply must never be merely a self-justifying middle-class hobby, a cause of economic catastrophe, or naïve escapism. So then, what’s the answer?

It’s Not The Economy, Stupid!
The first thing to point out is that simplicity is not first and foremost a matter of decreasing economic production. Rampant consumerism affects the heart more than the wallet, and it is there that the fight back begins. Often God’s first work in us isn’t necessarily to buy less but to pray more, dream differently, pause more regularly, appreciate what we can buy more fully, and share more freely. It’s not the economy that first needs to change; it’s us.

The second point is that simplicity isn’t always about whether we consume, but what and how. There’s a whole host of ways we can use our buying power to promote the good. We can buy quality, long-lasting products. For example, buying a washing machine with a steel drum from a reliable supplier will pump more money into the economy than a cheaper model, but it’s a better use of resources because it will last longer and it rewards companies who make their products well. We can buy from companies that demonstrate integrity and ethical values (including ‘green’ and Fair Trade producers). We can make sure our investments don’t benefit from currency speculation or arms dealing. Even giving to charity stimulates that sector of the economy (presumably gratifying our desire to give is just as acceptable to free trade economists as gratifying the desire to buy a limousine!). My suggestion for die-hard capitalists is this: buy outrageous gifts (but not for your friends); insulate your house (this creates work and increases efficiency); and invest in micro-finance among the poor. Capitalism should never be a cover for greed.

There are in fact innumerable ways we can stimulate the economy while also pursuing ‘justice, mercy and faithfulness’ (Matt 23:23). The key is this: picture every pound you have as a vote. As you spend your money, what kind of world are you voting for? Money saved by living frugally or refusing unethical purchases doesn’t simply disappear (unless you hide it under a mattress); instead you can invest it somewhere else – in a company that doesn’t encourage child labour, for instance. The more of these messages the market receives, the more companies will seek to clean up their act. As Julian Gough put it, ‘capitalism will give us what we want…If we cease to desire a product, the producer changes, or ceases to exist’ (Prospect magazine). In this way we can use as much of our money as possible to create, not just any old jobs, but sustainable responsible jobs in industries that respond to, rather than ignore, ethical concerns.

A Bigger Vision
Lastly, we need to remind ourselves that the present world system doesn’t work as well as is sometimes claimed. The New Economics Foundation estimate that it takes $166 of global growth to generate a single dollar of poverty reduction for those living on under $1 a day (The Ecologist, April 2008). Psychologist Oliver James points out that ‘Selfish Capitalism’ is ‘the cause of our depleted, materialistic, spiritually, bankrupt, ethically non-existent, hopelessly amoral, individual, and collective lives’ (quoted in Church Times, Feb 2008). Current consumption patterns have led to recurrent debt crises, at international and personal levels. And we have long known that our planet cannot support all its inhabitants on an affluent western lifestyle.

So maybe it’s not such a bad thing to question the current status quo, and its consequences. After all, the market, though powerful, isn’t God. Christians are allowed to dream of a better model. We are allowed to see beyond desire-driven hyper-consumption. We are allowed to have a bigger vision. In fact, when you think about it, we have to.

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