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Is Big Business Bad? (A Dialogue)

December 22, 2011

A while back I entered into a dialogue with Edward about Breathe and the world of big business. We’d sent out a piece from Dave Bookless (A Rocha) which spoke strongly against the mass production of quickly obsolete products, and Edward sent a provocative reply.

Thanks to Edward for these thoughts, but also for agreeing to their being published (in slightly shortened form):

1. Vaccines – Is mass production bad? (Edward to Mark):

I’ve just come back from the vaccination plant that makes millions of vaccinations for children and prevention of some horrible crippling diseases. You will never know who made the mass produced, disposable, obsolete products but they may already have saved your life. Thank goodness for mass production Regards Edward

2. Accelerated obsolescence (Mark to Edward):

Hi Edward,

I think your basic point is a good one: mass production should not be vilified just because of its size; industrial development brings unquestionable benefits for humanity. It is important that any questioning of consumerism take this into account. The poorer nations of the world, I would agree, often need more mass production, not less.

However, just because a system has benefits doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved. Obsolescence is one example of this. I’m not sure that a vaccine qualifies as ‘built to be obsolete’, as I think what Dave had in mind was accelerated obsolescence (can vaccines be continuous-use?).

I, too, am grateful for the many mass-produced things that benefit my life. But I agree with Dave that it is harder to receive such things as a gift. Do you know of people who find it easier to receive such things as a gift? Is your home full of mass-produced, cheap and deliberately short-lived products which you know have been unnecessarily designed to break so as to give you only a marginal use of them? Mass production can be good. But is it always a good in itself? Could we be close here to the meaning of ‘Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil’ (Proverbs 15:16).

The debate should continue. But thank you for raising it in such clear and compassionate terms.

God Bless Mark

3. Challenging Questions (Edward to Mark)

Hi Mark Thank you for your thoughtful reply

– I do agree that the original point being made is not fully addressed by the example I gave of vaccines – which aren’t deliberately obsoleting. Thank you for being gracious enough in answering so thoroughly. I goes without saying that mass produced things can a) alienate the maker (a Marxist idea), b) offer little of the ‘giver’ who is also alienated in the production/provision process (your point) – we all know that from our Christmas presents – no one wants plastic or mass ones. I think that there is a sizeable minority of Christians and secular who aren’t just endlessly looking for ‘more, faster’ – in a way Breathe’s view is rather mainstream, rather than outsiders!

A much more challenging set of questions which I would love to have you answer are:

a) The entire premise of your, my material existence, as it is today is based on mass production and automation – your use of the internet, your being able to write books as a normal person and yet eat and sustain a family, your use of marketing techniques in your logo and strap-line……. is underpinned by wealth creation, marketing and production processes which are not honoured or credited by theologians and academics – without it (i.e. the “mass world”), a small elite would still live those lives, but the vast mass would be engaged in back breaking struggle for physical survival (ie. history of man since the beginning of time except last 100 years). My strap line as a business person would be ‘stop kicking us, we’re feeding/connecting/protecting/providing/housing you all’.

b) We are past the point of return on the mass world we live in. The type of agrarian life (hugely attractive), that Breathe may slowly encourage, is not possible in a world of 7 billion people, or 70 million Brits – we need mass to keep us alive. Where are you leading us? Isn’t this a spiritual journey not a physical one?

c) We all want to lead the lives you suggest, “less things, more time” etc etc. However most of us have to work hard in a process/mass economy to eventually afford the lifestyle that would allow us to grow our own food/spend less time working and live lives less dependent on the ‘machine’. Arguably the richest in our society live closest to the Breathe model. It is the poorest socio-economic groups that are most dependent on mass production, plastic and MacDonald’s etc. There is evidence to support this (obesity levels are higher in the poor, because they eat mass presented food).

I am really engaged in the discussion that Breathe is creating, thanks for this. I am yet to be convinced that it is based in life’s realities. Regards Edward

4. The Good Life? (Mark to Edward):

HI Edward,

I think there’s a lot in what you say. Let me respond a bit more to your points :

– I agree that most people are looking for something other than ‘more, faster’. In this good sense I hope that Breathe is indeed mainstream.

– One of Breathe’s key themes has been, and continues to be, thankfulness. We should be thankful for vaccines, rawl plugs and big macs, just as much for sun, moon and stars. I think you are right about the need to credit this, and those involved in the process. Obviously more than that is going on at the present time. What sometimes passes for wealth creation is not always such. There are legitimate debates about the structure of the economy, the extent of financial legislation and the morality of salaries. One could argue precisely that those who feed, clothe and house us all are the migrant workers, industrial labourers and fruit pickers who can get such rough treatment at the hands of the global economy. Thankfulness extends to them, also.

– Breathe does not, and should not, encourage an agrarian life as an ideal. There may be things we can learn from the past; there may be new syntheses of rural community and urban vitality (rather than just embracing everything ‘modern’ as perhaps we see in the case of 1960s architecture!). The question is: what kind of urban life should we live?

– So I would want to resist the idea that Breathe is promoting ‘the good life’ and certainly not the easy life one sees in magazine features – the kids playing on the lawn, I gave up work so I could grow my own veg and read the paper, etc. People may have plenty of time or not enough – the question is how we spend it and how open to God’s gifts we are in the midst of it. People may have high income or not – the question is what we do with what we’ve been given. Breathe is about transferable values: generosity, thankfulness, building community, finding sustainable ways to live. Yes, it is easier for the middle class to ‘buy green / fair trade’. But it is easier for the ‘working class’ to get to know their neighbours. So it’s about how we live ‘within the system’ wherever we find ourselves; and it’s also about transforming the system so that it works better (obesity being a perfect case in point).

5. Hating the tree you’re sat on (Edward to Mark):

Dear Mark

I would like to strive to be committed to 2 things: one is following Christ (most importantly), the second (a subsection of the first) is a truthful and clear understanding of what unpins the lives that we lead in the here and now.

It is the second point where my thoughts and challenges have focussed.  Namely that we exist in a capitalist system (we are in the world, even if not ‘of’ it) and that the lives and wealth and space/peace that we enjoy are a strange fruit of an amoral (rather than immoral) system.  On that basis, bankers (for example) are simply working within a system that exists, and any attack on them is like hating a tree (capitalism) and rather than trying to uproot it, simply ripping the fruit off it and stamping on it in  a temper – it would be a superficial response. Christians are often as wise and gentle as doves.

In a way, I think it is about our “response” (thankfulness, thoughtfulness, local caring, not seeing individuals just as economic units, knowing what matters [knowing the value of everything rather than the price of everything]) – to the world we live in that is where Breathe could impact us to live more Christ-like.

Please carry on stirring us up to live lives worthy of our calling in Christ

Best Christmas wishes

Edward

Some reflections: Mark

It’s a good while since these emails were exchanged, but reading them now they seem as relevant as ever. It was good to be challenged about the purpose of Breathe. It was good, too, to try to get beyond shooting at easy targets to a genuine discussion of our lifestyle today.

At the end of the day, I still want to resist the idea that the system we live in is ‘amoral’. Complex, yes. Amoral, no. To call it amoral might in fact lead us to shirk the hard work of disentangling the good, the bad and the indifferent elements of consumer capitalism. When Jesus told stories of rich farmers who lived in luxury while the poor died at their gates, he didn’t express a view on exactly how the wealth was made. Merely to possess the wealth made it a moral issue. Old Testament law also contains plenty of economic legislation which suggests that keeping Christianity ‘in our hearts’ or even simply ‘in our communities’ is not enough.

As we enter 2012, has the banking system earned back the trust it has recently lost? I don’t believe so. Now, still, we need to hold the debate open. We need to hear the difficult questions about our lifestyle; but we must also be free to ask the difficult questions about the businesses that (should) serve us and our planet.

Thank you Edward for a gracious dialogue.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2011 6:10 pm

    Two observations
    1) We may never all attain the agrarian lifestyle but we can all grow some more food, in fact it is important as numbers increase to eke out more and more space for growing food.
    2) We would all be better off if spent more on less stuff and paid people better for making it.

  2. Ian permalink
    February 17, 2012 7:27 am

    Mark & Edward

    Thanks for an interesting exchange.

    Joanna – is we spent more on less stuff would we just have less people working and earning more?

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