I Consume

COMPASS is pleased to introduce today’s guest blogger, David Radcliff. David is director of New Community Project (NCP), a faith-based nonprofit organization with a big goal: to change the world. He lives near Phoenix, AZ; has a bicycle instead of a car; leads NCP Learning Tours to Asia, Africa, the Amazon and Arctic; and is a regular speaker in schools, colleges and churches across the country.

Fatima  (D. Radcliff photo)

My friend Fatima (D. Radcliff photo)

“I consume, therefore I am”—to me, that sounds pretty much like the identity statement of our North American society. The success of our entire economy is graded not on whether no child in our country goes to bed hungry, whether our over-consumption is hurting the environment, or whether those around the world who contribute to our economy are paid a living wage. Instead it seems that our economy is graded on whether we spend enough money to keep the stock market rising. To ensure this, advertisers spend $1000 a year on each one of us to remind us that we’re not quite good enough—but could be with one more purchase. And we ourselves seem to buy into (note the terminology!) the me/more/now mantra of our culture, our sense of self-worth hinging on whether we have the latest, fastest, and coolest thing and version of it as well.

So there’s a lot to think about anytime we get the urge to spend. Here’s some of what goes through my mind:

Perhaps like me, you have friends in far places—Asia, Africa, Central America. How do my consumer choices compare to theirs or perhaps directly impact them? As a coffee picker near her home in Alegria, El Salvador, my friend Fatima (pictured above) tries to pick 100 pounds of the small red beans per day—for which she is paid $3-5. Retail price of that much java back in the USA? As much as $42,000. “How is this job?” I asked, “Is it adequate for you and your family? “No,” she said, getting a grim look of resignation on her face I’ve seen on the faces of women around the world. “I can barely feed my children and keep them in school, but what choice do I have?”

For what most North Americans spend eating out in a week—around $30—a girl in South Sudan could go to school for 30 weeks. In South Sudan, 99 percent of girls don’t even finish high school. And when I read the “Made In” label on a clothing item, I think of my friends who are former sweatshop workers in El Salvador. “Many of the women sweatshop workers suffer dehydration,” they told me. Why? “Drinking fluids might mean a restroom break—which would put them behind on the production line—which could get them fired.” Around the world, these workers earn 15-60 cents an hour, while the CEOs of the clothing companies make $11,000-17,000 an hour.

 (D. Radcliff photo)

(D. Radcliff photo)

Also, everything we consume has a hidden environmental price tag, here in North America and around the globe. The spruce trees in the Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah (pictured at left) have been destroyed by bark beetles, which are decimating forests around the world. Climate change has created the perfect storm: warmer winters mean record numbers of beetle larva survive the winter, while drought conditions weaken the trees. The American Pika used to live here—they had to move to higher elevations. With a thick fur and internal thermostat, when temperatures rise above 78 degrees, these small creatures tend to “explode,” according to a park ranger.

It takes 1400 gallons of water to produce a typical fast food meal (mostly for the meat) and a little more than that to grow the cotton for a single pair of jeans. Palm oil is in everything from peanut butter to cosmetics—most of it is produced on land that was formerly rainforest. Cell phones? We’ll toss 135 million of them this year. On the front end, most phones contain conflict minerals from war zones; on the back end, our electronics and their hazardous components are dissembled in back alleys in the Poor World by people without protective gear. Climate change threatens life as we know it, yet every day we all add more fuel to the fire by how we travel, what we eat, where we live and what we buy. All of these choices, intentional or unintentional have consequences and impacts.

South Sudan women given a chance to succeed. (D. Radcliff photo)

South Sudan women given a chance to succeed. (D. Radcliff photo)

We can’t stop being consumers, but we can resist being sucked into this consumer vortex with all its repercussions for planet and people. It helps if we have a community—virtual or actual—who shares our values. It helps if we’ve had up-close-and-personal experiences of our world and its people to help us see what’s at stake. And it helps if we really believe the song we learned as kids, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Since consumerism is based in some degree of self-loathing—we lack something our society tells us we need, so we buy.

We’re more than that, and for the sake of people, planet and soul, we need to figure this out—and fast.

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.