‘Greed is good’, Gordon Geco’s infamous line in the film Wall Street, is rarely stated in public nowadays particularly by bankers and hedge fund managers - it just seems so vulgar, so insensitive. However most western capitalism still runs with an underlying assumption that we can never have enough - everybody being as avaricious as possible is actually what we all need.
A news report on the BBC shortly after the global recession started illustrated the problem perfectly. A recycling depot in the south was struggling with a lack of orders, China no longer needed as much recycled paper – it didn’t need the packaging as America had stopped buying. The whole global economy desperately needed America to start shopping again. Most families in America - in the West - didn’t need another flat screen TV, indeed probably wouldn’t even get that much enjoyment out of it, and yet if unemployment figures were to improve, someone somewhere needed to consume.
Then there was the time I couldn’t work out whether it was best to start buying Kenyan runner beans or whether to continue buying seasonally and locally. On the one hand, if we all stopped buying Kenyan beans then African growers would suffer, on the other if we all stop buying locally then farmers in this country would struggle. Clearly the most moral thing to do would be to be as wasteful as possible and buy both as often as possible – even if we ended up throwing it away.
Most of the economic commentators are united in stating that what we need is growth – we need it to deal with the deficit and we need it to bring down unemployment.
The problem is that most of the evidence suggests that as we become more and more obsessed with consuming it doesn’t make us any happier in fact it probably makes us more unhappy. Depression is one of the epidemic illnesses of the richest nations on earth. Consumption isn’t the route to fulfilment.
Let’s consider conspicuous consumption. This is where we consume to show or maintain our social status. Possessing certain goods shows that we have made it and it makes us the focus of others’ envy. Consuming may give us an edge in the one-upmanship race for material security and status, but victory is always brief. Someone else is always waiting to show that they are more secure financially, more special, by buying an even more expensive bottle of perfume or wine. Whilst we all like to think that the appeal of conspicuous consumption only affects others, the evidence suggests that we are all easily ensnared in its grip. After all how many goods do we really need?
What’s more the excitement of possessing something new lasts very little time – perhaps a couple of months if we are lucky. So even consuming purely for fun is rarely satisfying.
Not only does it fail to make us contented at an individual level, it also seems to be relatively negative for us at a societal level. Even parties of the left in the late 90s started to believe that it didn’t matter if the gap between rich and poor grew as long as we were all getting richer including the poorest in our society, and of course this could only be achieved through growth. However you can’t have growth without someone somewhere consuming more.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that forever seeking to consume more is in the long run totally unsustainable. Sadly we only have a world with finite resources - materials that nature took millions of years to produce are now being used up at an unprecedented rate. This is leading to powerful inflationary pressures on food and energy. (Let’s face it, once India and China started consuming like the west it was always going to be a problem. )
Some would argue that this worry over the poorest in the world consuming more resources, is just scaremongering. We have always in the past seen resources increase across the world to meet demand, indeed every country that has escaped poverty has had to embrace growth and consumerism. Whilst this is true it doesn’t mean that our resources can endlessly expand, it merely means that we haven’t reached any really critical limits yet. But reach them we will. It is inevitable.
After all one of the features of growing wealth is that we like to live in larger homes – we want better more spacious premises. Indeed we start to toy with the idea of having a number of houses – one to live in most of the year the other to holiday in. We may even want to have two houses where one is for the week and the other is for the weekend. Clearly this dream of having more space – to enjoy all our possessions (and store them) – is not achievable for everyone. There is no system under which we are all winners.
The pressures on the environment are also increasingly evident – the perfect storm of increased food, energy and water insecurity are already being felt by those living in the less affluent parts of the world. When environmentalists speak of there being food riots in the future this may seem like scaremongering but of course this is already happening in some places.
So consumption doesn’t make us happy in the long run and it doesn’t make us a more contented at a societal level. But it causes increasingly onerous environmental problems and I haven’t even considered the problems thrown up by climate change. The problem is that humans often make choices that don’t bring fulfilment, don’t produce happiness and don’t make life better for others.
Sadly the only answer the old one of being content with less, living more simply and getting more fulfilment out of creating rather than consuming. That might mean that the poorest countries start to catch up with us but then what is so wrong with that. If anyone needs more goods it is them, certainly not us.
Imagine a charismatic young story-teller travelling around the country telling a story of how a rich fool who had had good harvests, so he builds more barns, larger barns. Then one day God steps in to show how foolish he was by demanding his soul. The story teller goes on to warn people to ‘beware of all kinds of greed’ and that ‘life isn’t about an abundance of possessions’.
Now imagine the ridicule - how could he be so naïve? Surely the rich fool was investing wisely and providing much needed jobs. Perhaps we shouldn’t take the story that seriously, we are living in a different time. After all greed probably isn’t as rife as it was in Jesus’ day. As consumers we are probably a lot more self-disciplined than they were 2000 years ago. Perhaps we should all ignore this story. It can’t be relevant to us – after all we haven’t worked out an economic system that would work, that isn’t driven by greed yet?
(Dave Evans is an educationalist, interested in the anthropological implications of the Christian faith)