Perspective

Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism

In Brief: 
  • Cultural norms and values that promote consumerism at all cost need to be examined and revised
  • These include conceptions of human nature, development, economic crisis, technological development, and education
  • Each crisis — be it climate, energy, food, water, disease, financial collapse — has revealed new dimensions of consumerism’s burden
  • What’s needed are new and broader visions of human purpose and prosperity

Against the backdrop of climate change, environmental degradation, and the crippling extremes of wealth and poverty, the transformation from a culture of unfettered consumerism to a culture of sustainability is now widely understood as a necessary step.

To promote such a transformation, which implicitly challenges cultural norms and values that have promoted consumerism at all cost, a number of underlying conceptions will need to be examined and revised. These include conceptions of human nature, development, economic crisis, technological development, and education.

The narrowly materialistic worldview underpinning much of modern economic thinking has contributed to the degradation of human conduct, the disruption of families and communities, the corruption of public institutions, and the exploitation and marginalization of large segments of the population — women and girls in particular.

Human nature: The question of human nature has an important place in the discourse on sustainable consumption and production. It prompts us to reexamine, at the deepest levels, who we are and what our purpose is in life. The human experience is essentially spiritual in nature: it is rooted in the inner reality — or what some call the “soul.” The culture of consumerism, however, has tended to reduce human beings to competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and to objects of manipulation by the market. Commonly held views have assumed the existence of an intractable conflict between what people really want (i.e. to consume more) and what humanity needs (i.e. equitable access to resources).

The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order — moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice, and service to the common good — have too often been dismissed as naive ideals. Yet, it is these and related qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.

Vision of development: In a similar manner, the articulation of a vision of sustainability must emerge from a public discourse on the nature and purpose of human development. The transition to sustainable consumption and production must be seen as part of a global enterprise which enables all individuals to fulfill their dual purpose, namely to develop their inherent potentialities and to contribute to the betterment of the wider community.

Ultimately, the transformation required to shift towards sustainable consumption and production will entail no less than an organic change in the structure of society itself so as to reflect fully the interdependence of the entire social body — as well as the interconnectedness with the natural world that sustains it. Among these changes, many of which are already the focus of considerable public discourse, are: the consciousness of world citizenship; the eventual federation of all nations through an integrated system of governance with capacity for global decision-making; the establishment of structures which recognize humanity’s common ownership of the earth’s resources; the establishment of full equality between men and women; the elimination of all forms of prejudice; the establishment of a universal currency and other integrating mechanisms that promote global economic justice; the adoption of an international auxiliary language to facilitate mutual understanding; and the redirection of massive military expenditures towards constructive social ends.

Crisis in the current economic system: The dominant model of development depends on a society of vigorous consumers of material goods. In such a model, endlessly rising levels of consumption are cast as indicators of progress and prosperity. This preoccupation with the production and accumulation of material objects and comforts (as sources of meaning, happiness and social acceptance) has consolidated itself in the structures of power and information. The unfettered cultivation of needs and wants has led to a system fully dependent on excessive consumption for a privileged few, while reinforcing exclusion, poverty and inequality, for the majority. Each successive global crisis — be it climate, energy, food, water, disease, financial collapse — has revealed new dimensions of the exploitation and oppression inherent in the current patterns of consumption and production.

The narrowly materialistic worldview underpinning much of modern economic thinking has contributed to the degradation of human conduct, the disruption of families and communities, the corruption of public institutions, and the exploitation and marginalization of large segments of the population — women and girls in particular. The shift towards a more just, peaceful and sustainable society will require attention to a harmonious dynamic between the material and non-material (or moral) dimensions of consumption and production.

It is also important to emphasize the relationship between production and employment as a critical dimension of a strong economy. Sustainable production is not simply about ‘greener’ technology but rather, should involve systems that enable all human beings to contribute to the productive process. More than simply the means of generating wealth and meeting basic needs, work has a role in developing one’s talents, refining one’s character, rendering service, and contributing to the advancement of society.

Technological development: The majority of technological development is driven by market forces that do not reflect the basic needs of the world’s peoples. Furthermore, the emphasis on the transfer of technology without accompanying efforts to increase participation in the generation and application of knowledge can only serve to widen the gap between the rich and the poor — the ‘developers’ and the ‘users’ of technology. Developing the capacity for identifying technological need and for technological innovation and adaptation — in light of societal needs and environmental constraints — will be vital to social progress.

Education: Education must be based on a clear vision of the kind of society that we wish to live in; and the kind of individuals that will bring this about. It needs to help learners reflect on the purpose of life and help them to step out of their cultural realities to develop alternative visions and approaches to the problems at hand and to understand the manifold consequences of their behaviors and to adjust these accordingly.

Schools themselves must become participants in the social transformation processes. The curriculum cannot simply aim to impart relevant knowledge and skills; rather it should aim to develop the vast potential inherent in the human being.

The Bahá’í community’s approach to transformation: For over a decade, the worldwide Bahá’í community has been endeavoring systematically to effect a transformation among individuals and communities around the world — to inspire and build the capacity for service. The framework for action guiding these activities has been rooted in a dynamic of learning — characterized by action, reflection, and consultation. In thousands of communities, Bahá’ís have set into motion neighborhood-level processes that seek to empower individuals of all ages to recognize and develop their spiritual capacities and to channel their collective energies towards the betterment of their communities. They have started children’s classes that focus on laying the foundations of a noble and upright character. For youth aged 11-14, they have created a learning environment which helps them to form their moral identity at this critical time in their life. People of all ages are invited to take part in small groups of participatory learning around core concepts and themes which encourage individuals to become agents of change in their communities within a dynamic of learning and an orientation towards service.

Around the world, new and broader visions of human purpose and prosperity are moving from the periphery to the center of public discourse. It is becoming clear that the pathway to sustainability will be one of empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action. It will be shaped by the experiences of women, men, children, the rich, the poor, the governors and the governed as each one is enabled to play their rightful role in the construction of a new society. As the sweeping tides of consumerism, unfettered consumption, extreme poverty and marginalization recede, they will reveal the human capacities for justice, reciprocity and happiness.

[Editor’s note: The following Perspective editorial is adapted from a statement of the Bahá’í International Community to the 18th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. The full statement is at: http://bic.org/statements-and-reports/bic-statements/10-0503.htm ]

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