A Reflection from the Headmaster
A city trader recently sent me this Cree Indian prophecy. Having published a book last year entitled ‘Would God go shopping?’, it seemed quite apt. The purpose of my book was to highlight the incredibly detrimental impact that all our consumption has on the environment, as well as the impact on those less fortunate than ourselves because of an unfair economic system. I guess the human and environmental cost could be described as the ‘true cost’ of our consumption and particularly at this time of year it is worth considering whether we can stop buying things that we/our children might want, but really don’t need.
For the last few years I have been involved with the Strategy and Education Committees at the IAPS (Independent Association of Prep Schools) of which Reigate St Mary’s is a member. It is the biggest independent school association in the country representing over 660 schools. I am delighted to say that ESR (Education for Social Responsibility) is now a central feature for IAPS schools and there is an expectation that we educate our children to understand the ramifications of over consumption and the impacts of an economic system which is often guilty of putting profit before people.
The ecological and human cost of all our developed world consumption really is colossal. My book is aimed at a Christian audience but anyone who cares about other human beings and anyone who cares about the planet we live on will probably find it an interesting read. There is an extract below which I hope will serve to make us all think before we shop.
The truth is most of our homes have things in them which have never been used or perhaps even touched. When everything we buy takes so much energy to make, putting more CO2 into the atmosphere for every second that every factory is running, and when every item produced uses up precious resources which are being depleted at an alarming rate, threatening the stability of societies and the global economy of the future, we might all agree that overconsumption is no small issue.
Below is the extract from my book and if anyone would be interested in reading more, the book is available on Amazon, but maybe this will be enough to make us think twice before buying things we don’t need, just because it is Christmas.
Chapter 1 – A Reality Check We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one. Ronald Reagan 1964
I was intrigued when I read these words spoken by Ronald Reagan when he was on the campaign trail for Barry Goldwater, some 50 years ago. The thrust of his message, known as ‘A Time for Choosing’, was to ask American citizens whether they believed in their capacity for self-government or whether the intellectual elite in the capital city could plan their lives better than they could plan them for themselves. I am neither American nor do I have a political axe to grind, but there are two highly relevant parallels here.
Firstly we in the developed world have become rich (fat) because we have taken advantage of the poor on our planet. Secondly, accepted practices which drive this system were designed by the intellectual elite (economists and business gurus) decades ago, and today we all live according to their mantra.
Back in 1955 retail analyst, Victor Lebow, articulated well the structure of the economic system which we have made the norm for developed world economies when he said – “Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.” The phrases ‘spiritual and ego satisfaction’ should not be underestimated. As I write, Sunday trading hours in the UK are about to be extended yet again, and our shopping centres have become magnificent cathedrals to the retail industry, calling shoppers to their next ‘consumption high’ and arguably to bow to mammon. The idea that goods should be used up at an ever accelerating rate is a sustainably illogical one yet this is exactly what has been happening for the past 60 years and it is now getting to crunch time in many different ways.
So, beyond the power of retailers to entice us in to buying things that we don’t need and constantly demand our attention and even our loyalty, what does all of this have to do with you, me and God? Let me explain. When we look at what we buy we tend to only look at the monetary price, but the price we pay is not the true cost. The hidden costs are what this book is all about, and when these cost are considered we can soon see that our shopping really does cost the earth.
We in the developed world live a life of luxury beyond the wildest dreams of both our brothers and sisters in the developing world and even beyond the imagination of our forebears. In many ways this is truly great. Poverty and disease have been eliminated for billions around our planet and prosperity abounds. But 20% of the world’s population still have 80% of the world’s wealth and the wealthiest 1% have 20% of the world’s wealth. We fail to see just how wealthy we are because we are surrounded by other wealthy people. If you can afford this book you certainly fall into the top 20% of the world’s wealthiest, and if you have your own home, have a car and go on an annual holiday, you probably fall into the top 1%, or very close to it.
Even when the news frightens us into thinking that things are looking bleak, that the economy is struggling to get to where it needs to be, and that we have a right to express dissatisfaction with our pensions, our pay rises and our standard of living, the truth is we have it easy – very, very easy. My grandfather’s generation worked a regular 60 hour week just to put food on the table. They had no car, washed everything by hand and a bar of chocolate was a prized Christmas gift. For billions on our planet life is still like this and yet there is currently enough money, enough food and enough resources for there to be a far more equitable global economic system. I say currently because today there are problems being stored up which could, in the not too distant future, prevent these inequalities from ever being addressed, yet we all stay on the tread mill, oblivious to the inequalities that our life styles fuel and oblivious to the ecological damage our economic system is wreaking on our only source of life’s essentials – planet Earth.
The question of why this is the case and what can be done to make it a more fair system is one which is far too readily ignored. The status quo is so easy to accept and we just carry on – as the expression goes – business as usual. This means we see no need to change, so we simply continue with the same old wasteful, polluting and unfair practices that we have followed for decades.
It is true that many people look at those in need around the world and give generously of their time and money to help alleviate suffering and build better futures. But there is a problem which most people living in the developed world fail to see. The problem is both simple and complex and it is this. In many ways, for those living well below what any of us would regard as a reasonable living standard, (about 3 billion people), and those living in extreme poverty, (about 1.4 billion people), we have actually caused much of their suffering in the first place! How come?
The way in which we buy, consume and discard our waste and the way in which we seek constant growth of our economies comes at a price; a price which others pay. Who are these others? Generally it is the poor, those whom we should have utter compassion for and those with the least power to do anything about the situation. They pay with terrible working conditions, with wages which are so low that they cannot educate their own children. Sometimes they don’t even see their children from one year to the next, having to leave home to work in terrible conditions just to send enough money home to feed their children, whilst elderly relatives bring them up. They suffer the oppression of tyrannical employers, they have to sacrifice their health, their futures and their environments; environments often clogged with waste from western industry; and they have no choice because the system forces it to be this way. I am not talking about an imbalance and lack of equality within our own societies; though these inequalities certainly exist; rather it is a global system which clothes us by leaving others in rags; which feeds us by causing others to go hungry; which gives us affluence and incredibly advanced cities by destroying the environments that others have enjoyed for centuries – and we are all involved whether we like it or not because we all support an unjust economic system simply by continuing to live and shop in the way which we do.
This has to change.