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To Buy or not to Buy

If thinking is something you like to do, read on. Garth Brown argues that our modes of consumption and production present “the great moral problem of our time.” As I finish mindlessly stuffing another piece of Halloween candy into my mouth, I greatly appreciate this call to consider. Do we live purposefully? Do we make our choices with real usefulness in mind? -Editor

We should all provide our bodies with food. This has to come first, but the goal is to have a sound mind in a sound body. We also ought to provide our mind with its food, that is, things that build intelligence and judgment; but the goal is to be in a state in which we can serve our fellow citizens, our community, our country, the church, and therefore the Lord. (True Christianity 406)

Consumption is the great moral problem of our time. I say this not because it is the most obviously evil, but because it is the most opaque. History texts claim, or they did when I was in eighth grade, that industrialization standardized both the process of production and the product itself, and that this so increased efficiency that it led to more; more was produced more cheaply, and more people made enough money to buy more. I don't doubt the truth of this narrative, but it does not examine how, by moving labor and production from small shops to factories, from communities to industrial districts, it obscured the material and human conditions requisite to making a given product. And in the years since the continuation and acceleration of this trend have rendered production so complex, distant, and hidden that we are now unlikely to know in any real sense where a single thing we own came from.

This opacity is problematic beyond the egregious labor conditions and environmental degradations it can allow. The fragmentation of the economy so effectively separates the consequences of any purchase from the act of purchasing that consumption appears to be amoral. Items simply appear on racks or in orderly rows on shelves. With everything but the end product hidden from view, it is impossible to evaluate the impact that buying something has on the community and country that produced it. So while I try to consider my family, friends, and neighbors, and can see how to serve them, it is near impossible to envision communities worlds away from my own, even though my daily choices have a profound effect on them. I don't deny that some of these effects may be good, and independent certifying agencies and other entities public and private attempt to provide an accounting. But they are a poor substitute for individual conscience informed by living with the consequences of choices, a mode of life that cannot be abstracted or certified.

The broader question of how much I should consume is both easier and harder. It is easier because the criteria for evaluation are less nebulous. Will a purchase nourish the body, soul, and mind, with the aim of serving fellow citizens, the community, country, church, and God? Eggs from the farm down the road: yes. Freeze Pops from the Price Chopper: probably not. It is harder, for me at least, because trying to apply this standard to my daily life implies such radical change, and because it is exhausting, in a society predicated on consumption, to hold every choice to such a rigorous standard; of the many things I want, precious few have service as their goal, and I am ashamed when I consider how many of the purchases I make do not stand up to this basic scrutiny.

The obvious critique would be that, while there may be instances of exploitation, economic activity is generally a good in that it produces more wealth for more people. Purchases, even frivolous ones, benefit the workers in the Freeze Pop factory and the supermarket I patronize. This may mitigate the harm, but it seems a poor substitute for a society in which all work is useful in the deepest sense, and the point remains that I have no way to verify the effects. I can take it on faith that the Freeze Pop factory is good, or at least not bad, but I cannot judge for myself. I do not consider it right to abdicate meaningful reflection on a choice based on a vague faith in the immense system of which that choice is a part.

I am not certain I would be happier living in a community that operated by principles more aligned with what I view as just, a community that would, by necessity, provide most of its own goods. I would have less than I do in every material way, though I do not think it would necessitate returning to the often terrible conditions of two centuries ago. And I believe I would be living in a more truly human manner. Just as I know my life is more deliberate, even saner, when I do not own a television, I suspect giving up or limiting any number of other conveniences that currently strike me as necessities - cars, the log splitter, the tractor for that matter - would yield a similar result. Even, or perhaps especially, the internet, which is a truly amazing tool for communicating and learning, would be better limited to a corner of my life. The more I consider, and as uncomfortable as the conclusions I reach make me, I believe that the mode of consumption that is the norm is an immense moral problem, for it defines in large part the impact I have on the world, even if I have a hard time seeing it.

Garth Brown

Garth lives in central New York with his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law, and assorted animals. He enjoys writing, fiction, cows, thinking, good eggs, and sleeping. He looks forward to making cheese.

Reader Comments (9)

Thanks Garth,

This is eloquently written and just plain true. I like the idea that we can bring humanity back from industrial obfuscation by the daily choices we make. It is an inspiring and timely idea.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlanna

Thanks for your thoughts Garth! I go back and forth often with this issue, feeling like it is important to work towards the "known" purchasing and face-to-face interactions with people and production, and then on the other side, feeling like doing the quickest and more convinient thing is what sometimes enables me to "be in a state in which we can serve our fellow citizens, our community, our country, the church, and therefore the Lord." As a mom with a young child, I have occasionally delighted in quickly picking up a few things at Target or whereever, not at all because I believe that shopping there is a wholesome choice to make in itself, but because at that moment in my life it felt like a greater good to not stress myself out chasing down the products I wanted at other stores second-hand or whatever; I just wanted to get the things I wanted so I could go home and be with my son and focus on being a peaceful mother instead of a stressed and frazzled one.

Another thing I have found peace in at different points is having faith in a gradual process of change. It is a daunting task to totally take on healthy consuming all at once, but I do believe whittling away at it and choosing areas to focus on one by one can slowly get me to a more ideal place. Whenever I learn new information about my options it rocks my world for a little bit and I have to re-pattern my life. Eventually what I am focusing on becomes more second nature and I can move on to another area. This approach has worked in the past pretty well. I hope to keep working it though! Thanks for the reminder!

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanine

Dear Garth,
Thank you for this. It is a constant issue! I was impacted by the You Tube called "The Story of Stuff" which describes the hidden costs of cheap goods we buy, and the hidden system in place that is designed to make us continually buying more stuff.
I do love two small ways of changing these crazy dynamics: buying second hand, and teaching kids how to make things. I never tire of the magic that happens when I help kids to make a rope, or a quilt, or a handbag, especially if it is re-purposed materials (which I have plenty of)
Thank you for articulating this dilemma.
Love Lori

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLori Odhner

I really enjoyed this article Garth, and I have been pondering this idea some. We moved out to the country to live "off the land" and live gentler on the earth posing less harm to the planet and ourselves. I struggled for years being a conscious consumer, buying less, recycling, reusing, buying organic and ethically raised food, liking the idea of growing as much of it as we could.
After 9 years, I feel like we were so isolated from our fellow man and neighbor by our choices, We chose to move to a remote area living very differently from the few people around us. I wondered how it was really leading us towards being a useful contributing member of society, being in "a state in which we could serve our fellow man". I questioned what impact the act of 1 vs. millions could really have. Our choices felt like a divider as opposed to bettering anything. We felt very alone, both geographically distant from our philosophical neighbors and culturally distant from our immediate neighbors by our choices.
I am still struggling with all of this. Is it beneficial for my own personal regeneration to make choices that make me have a clear conscience, or is better to live a less "pure" lifestyle where I am able to interact more with individuals and help them on a daily basis? Perhaps if we had chosen to live in a community of like minded individuals all trying to live like us, it would have been not so complicated.
I am sure there is a balance to be had and we could all benefit from consuming less. thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertavia

Hello Garth,

Is consumption really the problem, or is it the means of production? Or is it the underlying fundamentals of needlessly wasting precious and finite materials, and human potential, for the purpose of driving an economic system which is sustainable only by perpetuating a delusion which sadly you "don't doubt the truth of this narrative"? I encourage you to doubt everything, and to measure *all* things against what we are taught from the threefold Word.

As part of the current NC Journey program, "Pause", we were asked to consider why God created us. Thank you for noting that it was not for the purpose of consumption, or of production, or of developing a tolerance for exploitation. It's clear to me that mankind's "dominion" (Gen.1:26) over this precious, indeed heavenly, planet and all of its diverse life forms and finite resources, declares our "responsibility" to see the Lord in this His creation, and to first and foremost take care of it; not to "dominate" it. This is our heaven.

Accordingly, I see far greater moral hazards in our active and passive support of all things contrary to this divinely ordered mandate. Obvious examples of our failures to this objective include the illegal, immoral, and insane invasion of other countries, destroying the lives of hundreds of millions of the Lord's innocent and precious human beings; the reckless poisoning of the air, water, and soil upon which our lives, all the lives, and this heaven on earth depend; the political willingness to pursue these sins against the Lord at the expense of collectively providing for the basic care and needs of each other; and just about everything else on the GOP and "Tea Party" platforms.

I urge you to bear in mind that while our consumption of armaments and pesticides may in fact provide many people with activities within which individuals can care for each other, and finance local community causes, the armaments and pesticides are not required in order to achieve this beneficial objective. Nor is profit motive required to inspire humans to conceiving solutions to our problems, or imagining (with a nod to our capacity for perception of the Divine Will) how to fulfill our Divine mandate to sustain and care for this precious heaven on earth.

in Peace,

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaynard

Thanks for the comments!

Janine and Lori - I agree that incremental change is a good way to go about diminishing mindless consumption. I'm always a little surprised by how little I miss most things once I've decided to try going without them.

Tavia - The situation you describe is the reason that I think a community is necessary to live the sort of useful life I'm trying to describe. I don't think it's ideal to live a pure but totally isolated life, but I also think that it's impossible to participate in society without complicity in its excesses. I certainly don't have any good way to resolve this dilemma. I suppose I hope to keep working on myself and the farm with these goals in mind.

Maynard - I think you may have misread my article. When I say that I don't doubt the truth of the narrative, I am referring to the idea that the industrial revolution created massive gains in efficiency, which allowed far more people to own far more stuff than ever before. In the rest of the article I am trying to suggest that each purchase has a moral aspect to it, despite the fact that thoughtless consumption has become the norm. The conclusion I reach is hardly that it's okay to "dominate" the world.

Thanks again.

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlanna

The above post was actually me.

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGarth

Thanks, Garth! Very timely with the Holidays approaching. Makes me cringe in a very useful way!

I find it true for myself that the effects of my mindless consumption on the global community are probably the most overlooked part of my spiritual life. I like how you say that since it would require such radical change to your daily life to apply such a rigorous standard, the idea of doing so is exhausting; this feels true for me too and is the main (even if pathetic) reason for keeping my blinders on.

One thought that comes to mind reading your article and particularly Janine's comment about gradual change, is that maybe I could trick my lower or outer self into compliance by suggesting that any change would be temporary. Like, maybe I could challenge myself to consider the effects of my food purchases just for one week and commit to making conscious and deliberate choices only for that week. Like you mention, the end result (maybe not after only a week) could be that life may feel fairly manageable after all.

It reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which her family commits only to one year of sustainable, local living. I can only imagine after living for a year making those choices, that some would certainly stick and not feel as difficult as they did in the beginning. Anyway, all this to say that maybe I could try a week of conscious-consumption and I could coddle my outer self by telling it I can live "normally" afterwards. And maybe with enough weeks like this and I'll actually change.

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChelsea


I valued this article and the thinking it leads me to. One of the conclusions pushes me toward thinking about how a small-scale society is the only one in which we have enough information to make moral choices about our consumption and interaction with people. Beyond a certain scale, we lose our ability to sufficiently crunch the complexity of data and therefore cannot make educated, thoughtful decisions.

Another line of thought (not intended as a rebuttle to your piece) is as follows:

Human interaction, in some ways, is always too complex for us to fully comprehend and act on perfectly. (for example a parent's interaction with a single child involves numerous, subtle psychological factors which are passed over due to the limits of our consciousness.) All the more so, a global economy of interactions.

I can't put my hand to it, but there is a teaching (probably in Heaven and Hell) which talks about how Swedenborg could see, to some extent how communities and societies in heaven are in the human form. He knew that the whole of heaven was also in this form, but he could not actually comprehend the whole of heaven.

Again, too much complexity to be computed in one human mind. There is no doubt that our methods of production and consumption are full of terrible harm and unfairness. However, I find that there is also something very beautiful (potentially) about the idea of a globably connected economy (or internet). The complexity of interaction is far too great to be understood, let alone controlled by any one human being. And yet, it works as a unit (sort of), to provide goods and services for the individual players, from the individual players.

What Adam Smith called the "invisible hand" is one of my favorite ideas. When I purchase a simple shirt today, it calls on the labor, creativity and intentionality of thousands of people working together. In just one simple action, a "commoner" like myself, can call on the efforts of more workers than the richest landlords in the England prior to the industrial revolution.

Not to undermine the basic, important question of how to respond morally to the terrible excesses and destruction of our age, I'd like to suggest that there can also be beauty within broad, global interaction far beyond our ability to track.

Heaven and Hell 71 describes something of this: "It is worthy of mention that the more there are in one society of heaven, all acting as one, the more perfect is its human form, for variety arranged in a heavenly form is what makes perfection, as was shown above (n. 56) and variety results from plurality"


November 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian
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