Addicted to Consumption

So you've heard lots of reasons for living simply. What's more, you're convinced. Yet you find, when passing the automatic exit door of the supermarket, that you've bought the environmentally unfriendly bench cleaner again. It was slightly cheaper. It sits there uneasily balanced in the trolley on a bed of overprocessed food that you swore you'd weaned yourself off.

It's not that you wanted to. It's just a habit. Repeat this experience for the purchase of appliances, furniture, your toys, your car — even a house — and you have the diary of a frustrated wannabe simple liver.

Much ink has been spilt by many people (and I've blotted a few pages myself) arguing that

changes in personal lifestyle are vital for planetary wellbeing, global justice and our own spiritual and physical health. Such change is not necessarily a sacrifice but a reorientation toward a more fulfilling life: from 'having' to 'be-ing'. Simplicity dovetails well with other goals such as reducing stress, having more time, and finding a more reflective lifestyle.

Many of these writings follow the same recipe: scary facts as the stick, the joys of frugality as the carrot. Yet while the spirit — when reading — may be willing, the flesh remains notoriously weak. So writers on simplicity sit back in puzzled confusion wondering why enthusiastic and assenting readers continue as if little has changed.

I suspect this is because the psychological challenge that a lifestyle change poses runs deeper than we think. There are considerable obstacles to making the changes that count.

"The things I hate I end up doing"

The truth is, we find it hard to translate our values into action: to take our values to the shopping mall. We may want to live more simply so we have more to give away. We may want to be healthier and create less damage to our environment. But beneath those professed values lies a matrix of competing ones.

Like most ingrained values, the ones we don't even think about are the deepest. This can be a good thing if our worldview leads to virtues that flow out naturally when we are faced with a demanding situation. But just as often, our worldview can trip us up and trap us into living by unchallenged assumptions. It can blur our self-knowledge, blind us to others, and deafen our ears to the voice of God pulling us onward in our lives.

The habits we unwittingly fall into practising are the visible tip of what is a massive and often unconscious belief system. It's as if we have two beings inside us — the consumer on one hand, and the holistic person on the other. We act as consumers when we act instinctively to get what we want for ourselves, at the cheapest price, in the short term. That's the 'self' that kicks in at the point-of-sale. It's the self that leaves our espoused values at the shopping mall door.

But we act as whole persons when we act to promote what we most deeply believe in, and when we act to get what is best for our whole community. When we act as whole people we step out of a narrow focus on our own interests and see ourselves as players in the ethical game.

That's the 'self' we seek to have in operation when we think about how to approach big decisions, the one we tune into when we need to hear God speak to us, and the one (I hope) we take to the ballot box. To paraphrase Harry Potter's headmaster, it's the self that does what is right, not only what is easy.

So our preferences for 'stuff' are often not consistent with our judgements as whole people. We act on our consumer interests, but at the same time we have contempt for them. 'Consumer' and 'whole person' are two different creatures. This distinction cuts in whenever we find ourselves acting in a way that, on reflection, we realise isn't consistent with how we see ourselves, or want ourselves to be.

What we consume, what we waste, and which long term factors we take into (or leave out of) account, betray the powerful influence of the cultural and individual assumptions and beliefs that have residence in our minds. The 'consumer' speaks and we act. Our better nature gets trumped every time.

Such dysfunctional habits are locked into place by an underlying system of beliefs, which to a significant extent determines a person's worldview. So the common appeal to 'voluntary simplicity' may well be doomed to failure.

Those behaviours that are adopted voluntarily have little power to resist being shouldered aside by a deeper consumptive impulse. It's a bit like dieting, or giving up smoking. To agree it's a good idea is insufficient.

So the problem is not lack of exhortation, nor is it that we aren't convinced. Those who are convinced don't find it any easier to act on their newfound values. The key is the resilience of habits and beliefs embodied in our lifestyles. We need some involuntary simplicity.

Consumption as Addiction

If unreflective beliefs and desires are the involuntary sources of our patterns of consumption then we need to understand the psychology of addiction — at least the psychological dynamics if not the physiological ones.

In an addictive belief system all acts of observation and judgement are performed solely from the standpoint of the system itself. Any argument or fact pointing in the opposite direction will be rejected unless it can be justified from that standpoint. Behaviours chosen while not feeling so heavily under the addictive pull will soon be forgotten — except in the guilt-ridden aftermath — as soon as the need starts to bite.

The part of us addicted to comfort is in exactly this situation. Our view of the world knits together our identity, our preferences and material advancement in such a way that denial of preference is experienced as a mortal blow against identity. So we automatically choose the more convenient and comfortable option. When we find ourselves in the car again instead of on public transport — even though we care about pollution and public goods — this is exactly what has happened.

Living in a spiral of escalating affluence is no longer experienced as a fortunate option but as a matter of absolute necessity. This belief instils consumption in the heart of identity as a core trait.

Instead of being the servant of survival (which is only part of our identity) consumption is now its master. As soon as our ruling passion was no longer survival it became comfort. The idea of not continuing to consume in the same style can only be experienced as loss, threat and withdrawal.

Trouble is, this is true even when the conscious, voluntary mind is convinced of the need for change, and is announcing to others and ourselves the intention to change. We can be paralysed into inaction — like the mosquito in a nudist colony: we know what to do, we just don't know where to start. We are trapped into a system of beliefs and habits which we could, with a bit of thought, see as being inconsistent with our espoused beliefs, but which acts to prevent us recognising this.

So the attempt to change will be experienced as painful — as a deprivation of what is needed. The decision to change is made when we are not feeling needy, but it is overwhelmed when the need-rush floods back.

Any attempt at 'voluntary' simplicity is doomed if it is overlaid on an embodied belief system to which it is opposed. So 'selling' simplicity and advising on 'how to' is a waste of time if, for the majority of the audience, the addiction is not treated.

Turning it around

There is an important difference between beliefs which are 'espoused' and those which are 'embodied'. Systems of embodied beliefs constitute traps, in the sense that they set, invisibly, a person's motivational agenda, and bias perception against their own detection.

The unacknowledged belief that one more item of clothing will make us happy feeds the addiction to the over-full wardrobe. The unchallenged belief that we must be able to drop into town on a whim creates the addiction to the second car.

Can we raise our ruling passion to something higher than just comfort? When looking for solutions we contemplate changing just about anything on this earth except ourselves, but that is exactly where the challenge lies. Conversion includes a process of reframing the embodied beliefs, not just the espoused ones.

Because we find it hard to give our espoused values the day-to-day attention and practice to sustain them and have them grow, we will want to bring our automatic thinking and involuntary practice to the point where the day-to-day does reflect the values we espouse, but don't always show.

Here are two suggestions for fighting the addiction beast inside.

Mindfulness

Musician Brian Eno talks about the 'short now' (where each decision is made in isolation from the others, and so in isolation from the more enduring life commitments we espouse) and the 'small here' (where we are blind to the effects of our actions beyond our own noses), and suggests we live in the 'long now' (where the precise moment you're in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future) and the 'big here' (where we look up and see the consequences of our actions).

Cultivating a mindfulness about the 'here' and 'now' can enable us to apprehend the consequences of our lifestyles and to bring into focus the beliefs and behaviours we want our lives to embody. Cultivating a mindfulness about the way we want to behave in the light of the way Christ behaved, can allow those beliefs and behaviours to put down deeper roots. Finding identity in Christ rather than in things and status is a long-term project that focuses our individual moments on something bigger.

Creating 'special contexts' through community

Those of us who enjoy tramping in the New Zealand bush know that a much simpler existence — and even deprivation — can be put up with for a purpose. A purpose that is framed in such a way that the materialist trap is deactivated for a while.

The trouble is, you need that context and that purpose to last a long time to reset your beliefs and needs. With a short term 'time-out' there is little carry-over into the rest of our lives. Humans, it seems, can happily manifest different priorities in different contexts without feeling obliged to achieve any reconciliation.

So why not create that 'special context' in your everyday life? From what I just said above, this may not seem possible. But what I have in mind is 'group power'.

We can keep our espoused beliefs alive and functioning until they burrow themselves down to the level of embodied beliefs, by a kind of positive peer pressure. This makes clear the important role played by small groups of like-minded people. Relationships and routines we already have act to reinforce both each other and the beliefs that underpin habits of consumption.

If routines and relationships can be used to promote the addiction of consumption, they can equally be marshalled against it. So why not seek out relationships that will help point you in a new direction? The power of mutual example and support, in the suspension of this package of self-reinforcing life structures, is formidable, and certainly much greater than trying — yet again — to bring it about by individual resolve.

Religious communities have long known the power of congregation in resisting assimilation into dominant beliefs. The same is true of dominant lifestyles, behaviours and everyday choices.

Having started on this journey with a group of friends we're finding our lifestyles challenged and yes, actually changing. We meet deliberately to focus on how we want to live and on how to embody Christ creatively in our own locality. We are more in touch with our own hearts, and are seeing some of our old habits shaken and changed.


In the Western world the drug of consumption has replaced the God-inspired need for community. Needs we can only truly meet through community are repressed, only to spring up again as the need to be comforted by material things. Through groups of like-minded people we can start to reverse this.

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