Consumption and Culture-Making
Take a moment and look around you. Pick five things in your room, including this magazine (even if you're reading it on an iPad), and try to trace the means by which it came to be in your home. Think not only of its arrival as a finished thing, but think about its production, right down to its base elements. The reality is that you will find you are deeply entrenched in a global economy that relies heavily, if not exclusively, on oil and other natural resources. Just reading this already proves my point. Even something as simple as the pencil used by the über-agrarian Wendell Berry in lieu of a computer is the product of a vast, complicated, and global web of production. As the economist Leonard Read describes it, that pencil is:
a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire.
This "complex combination of miracles" and the relationship of the given products around us to "human necessity and desire" should give us pause the next time we encounter a protest about a pipeline or an oil-well as an effort to "reduce our reliance on oil" or to "stop oil production."
It should give us pause, first, because many of these protestors drive, eat oranges, wear cotton, and use smart phones compiled from goods and workers around the world, shipped in trucks that run on diesel, sold in stores with electricity generated from coal, and so on. Not even our protests against resource consumption are purified of resource consumption.
This points to a second, deeper concern that Berry's pencil illustrates: as material creatures who must respond to the God-given imperative to create and fashion, we must necessarily use, spend—and indeed consume— resources. And insofar as we deny this, or attempt to deny others of this, we run the risk of denying a key part of what it means to be human, and worse, deny being made in the image of God. Some forms of protest against resource consumption almost seem to lament that we are human.
If we begin from a position that recognizes just how deeply we are all woven into the global web of cooperative effort that creates things, and recognize that these efforts are brought about to satisfy human necessity and desire, we'll be in a better place to discern faithful compromises in both the production of these things and their consumption. The strength of this position is that it recognizes that there can be efforts that satisfy basic human necessities and holy desires while at the same time satiating unholy desires. Such a position recognizes the compromised position of not only our economic system, but many of our own desires, including our desires for material things. It demands humility, while still maintaining a firm ground for critique.
Take, for instance, the many in the world just beginning to experience some of the material comfort—and comfort is not a trifle—that comes with having access to the wealth we in the West enjoy. Vast swaths of the world's population are emerging from subsistence living into a place of some surplus. We are right to criticize the type of production—and the use of resources required for it—intended to satiate gluttony. But is it gluttonous for a young Chinese worker to take his wife out for a fancy meal with some of his hard-earned cash earned from making cell phone switch boards? Our condemnation of oil feels a bit less righteous when we realize that the ship that takes fruit juice from a factory in Ghana—a factory that affords a mother a wage that can feed her children and pay for a night out with her husband—to its customers in Europe is fuelled by oil.
Instead of adopting a position that seeks to totally stop oil production or transport, might a more faithful approach be to attempt to hold oil companies to the highest possible environmental and labour standards while still recognizing their importance—indeed their necessity—in our day and age? Surely, such an approach might mean you get a bit of oil on your hands, but who's afraid of getting their hands dirty?