Addicted to Consumption: The Complex Relationship between Earth and Human Dignity

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In 2003 I participated in a college course in which we spent several weeks on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  One of the community leaders was telling us about the particular struggles of men on the reservation.  He described the malaise, the waywardness, and the anger among the men.  He paused.  Deep in thought, he turned from us. He swiveled in his chair and gazed out the window over the plains. We waited in the silence.  Still looking out the window he said, “It is as if we haven’t known what to do since the bison were slaughtered.”

Earth. Human Dignity. Public Justice. 

A circle?

A twisted knot? 

A web?

I do not know which image best captures the reality of the connection.  But I do know that there is a connection, a relationship.  It is a profound relationship.  It is a dysfunctional relationship.

We do not need to look far for examples:  rare earth mining in China and Africa; the destruction of the rain forest in South America; aspects of migrant farm labor in the United States.  Here on Shared Justice, Hilary Sherrattelucidated the nuances, and problems, inherent in the relationship between Earth, Human Dignity, and Public Justice (she calls it a “tricky relationship”).  She compels our attention to a problem that is ubiquitous, severe, and contentious.  The article tackles this topic in a manner that avoids the usual pitfalls of minimizing the problem or being heavy-handed.

We often minimize the problem by oversimplifying.  We frequently hear conversation about the ways that humans trample on other humans’ dignity.  We talk about the ways that humans trample on Earth.  But too often we fail to make the more critical connection between Earth and Human Dignity.  We too often fail to make the connection partly because the discussion becomes so quickly complicated.  We can hardly have productive conversations about the environment or about human rights.  How are we supposed to agree on anything when we try to combine those huge issues?

If you are hoping that I will brilliantly answer that question, you are going to be disappointed.  If anything, we first need to complicate the picture further.  My purpose is to ask a related question: what is it that makes this relationship so tenuous and intractable and dysfunctional?  Think of some of the environmental/human rights issues that you are familiar with.  There are countless factors involved:  everything from cruel bosses, to corrupt corporations, to lack of environmental regulation.  But what drives the relationship between Earth and Human Dignity into the mire in the first place? 

   " ...too often we fail to make the more critical connection between Earth and Human Dignity."

 " ...too often we fail to make the more critical connection between Earth and Human Dignity."

Consumerism.

The slippery concept we know as consumerism is one of the driving forces that causes so much friction between public policy, the environment, and the marring of human dignity.  Consumerism is what takes a fragile relationship, aggravates it, and turns it into destructive dysfunction.  Do not misunderstand me – without the modern excess known as “consumerism” there would still be a “tricky” relationship between humans, dignity, and Earth.  This is not a new problem for humanity.  But our population, technology, and consumer-driven growth all make this particularly relevant to us.  Our default is to be parasites, not stewards.

“It is as if we haven’t known what to do since the bison were slaughtered.”

“Did I hear that right?” I thought.  “That was, like, over 100 years ago.”  But pain persists.  The pain that can only come from a relationship fractured by sin passed down through the years.  We can only understand this if we acknowledge the frightening power that Consumption has between Earth and Human Dignity. Perhaps the best analogy for this connection is a web; webs are made to function as nets.  Earth was abused.  Human dignity was abused.  Public justice was a mockery.  Consumption had its way – it (and its wanton destruction) was the guiding principle of our policy.  And, even generations removed, human beings are snared in the brutalizing effects of this destructive dysfunction.

To be sure, we do not see human dignity under attack every single time we misuse Earth.  We see a lot of ambiguity – consumption of goods also provides jobs, sometimes vast improvements to people’s lives.  But we often let the ambiguity distract us from facing the clear examples of injustice and tragedy set before us.  It prevents us from crying over the literal scars we have made on the earth and the dignity-assaulting work some are forced to do.  Consumerism leads us to think in terms of minimizing the desecration of human dignity or minimizing environmental destruction instead of seeing the vast interconnections.  In our willingness to come to the defense of consumerism we ignore the positive calling we have – to be stewards, to be champions of human dignity.

I leave writing about the good news to someone else.  Pointing the finger at consumerism puts the problem at a fundamental level.  The reforms that are needed stretch from policy to individual habits to the very core of our hearts. 

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t share one broad hope:  there are already people working to restore a healthy connection at every knot in the web.  Hopefully, you find that your own calling and skills intersect at some point.  Our great challenge is to see the connections so that we can name reality correctly.  Christians, in particular, can find in this challenge yet another opportunity to draw from their rich traditions to contribute compelling vision, deep compassion, and wise policy.  It is also my hope that in the process we can begin to experience God-given freedom from our own consumption addictions.  What a beautiful thing it could be to say that we are no longer defined as consumers, but as culture makers.    

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org