Consumerism: our biggest blind spot?

Back in 1997, I took a trip to Auschwitz, a WWII prison camp where nearly 1.1 million people were killed by the Nazi machine. On the tour, one of the first areas they took us in the main building was where so many Jews and dissidents were stripped of their clothing, possessions, glasses, and even their hair. Piles and piles of shoes, glasses, and human hair remain there to this day.These piles were sobering reminders that we were not seeing the effects of facts and dates, but that real human beings were treated as animals in this very spot. More shocking to me was hearing of how some German and Polish businessmen (most likely knowingly) purchased some of these items, including human hair, in order to make their own products. How could people make economic profit at the cost of great evil done to other human beings?

Yet, in our society today, are we much different?  This is the dilemma I’m currently trying to think through. I don’t have very many answers, but I wanted to include all of you in my thoughts.  So bear with me on this.  In our consumerist society, the drive is to lower costs as much as possible so that as many people as possible can have what used to be attainable by only the wealthiest in society. In many ways, this is what has made America so great.  We have an extremely large middle class, whereas in most countries there is a small elite and large amounts of the poorest classes.  The problem comes when such a large group of people are living a high-consumption lifestyle that used to be lived by only a small percentage.  Where do we get the materials?  How do we get them at a cost cheap enough to market to the masses?

The drive for producers to get nice goods to you at cheap costs has moved certain ones to skirt the line of morality or even to jump over it. Some companies have moved their production to countries without regulated labor laws.  Some of these “sweat shops” regularly take advantage of workers in third world countries, often women and children.  Our food industry to keep up with our food tastes has put animals in such awful conditions that any of us would call abusive. Some farmers are often driven to stretch the well-being of their land with fertilizers, pesticides, tilling soil, and forgoing historical crop rotation for the sake of keeping up with the demands of consumers. To drive the costs low, industries are pushed to make decisions with the bottom-line in mind and not necessarily the well-being of society.

One example will suffice at present: chicken breasts.  As consumers, we have decided that we want the most robust, healthy part of the chicken, its breast, and not its other parts. To keep up with this demand, some companies have genetically modified chickens to have much larger breasts than normal chickens to the point where they have difficulty standing up.

This is my line of thinking: 1) I have a desire for a certain lifestyle, 2) my lifestyle of owning certain things, eating certain things, and wearing certain things requires them to come at a lower cost on my limited budget, 3) in order to provide those items at the low cost I require, industries, stores, and companies are pushed to lower the cost of producing those items, and 4) sometimes, industries push the line of morality in their ethical treatment of laborers, animals, or the environment.

I’m sure there are several reasons I tolerate #4: there are so many problems to deal with in life, what can I really do about it, I don’t really want to change my lifestyle, how could I even figure out what to do about it.  But, I’m also convinced that one reason I do is because of the distance between myself and how the products are produced.  I don’t see any abuse that is taking place, much less even know if any abuse is even taking place.

But, I can’t escape the Auschwitz comparison.  So many were complicit in an atrocious evil, and so few stood against it.  We’re not talking the same degree of evil, but am I complicit by my indifference?  Do I need to change my lifestyle? Do I need to put more work into investigating what I consume?  These are the questions I’m pondering.  I’ll write more in weeks to come.

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About Ryan Wampler

Much of my thinking is trying to connect the dots between the Bible, the lens through which I see the world, and the way I actually live my life. I’m a Mizzou grad, and got a theological education at a post-grad school in St. Louis. My particular areas of interest are: reflecting on books and films and connecting theology and culture.
This entry was posted in Art and Culture, Global Mind, Gospel Lifestyle. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Consumerism: our biggest blind spot?

  1. Liz says:

    hi ryan! this was great. some friends and i (more so them) are working on a project called WikiChoice. It is essentially a (semi) open platform for information regarding products and companies in regards to their fairness, justice and sustainably. It has not launched yet, but they are looking for more “WikiFarmers”-people to help develop content. (wikichoice.com) Also, you can check out knowmore.org. I like your thinking. please keep sharing.

    -liz bohannon

  2. Jake Wandel says:

    I hear you on this one, Womp. I have found myself thinking that same thing when it comes to putting in more work to investigate what I consume. Unfortunately, I’ve tried and failed in this endeavor, but I think the problems aren’t just my own. Let me not play the blame game and take full responsibility where my actions (or lack of) are concerned, but let me also question the powers that influence my decisions so I can fully understand the extent to which I AM responsible and for what? Being mindful of the what, where, why and how’s of my decisions to partake (be it: food, faith or entertainment) will for sure be helpful in reducing dishonest, immoral consumption and help restore an otherwise apathetic lifestyle, but how can I be mindful without proper and valuable resources? Who then is responsible for providing those resources? I look forward to this continued conversation, Ryan. Keep the questions coming!

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