More, more, more…
I’ve been thinking a lot about consumption lately, and not just because of the current state of the oil market. Two things on our recent vacation got me thinking about it. First, when having my usual very enjoyable intellectual discourse with my backwoods friends, the idea was put forward that essentially all that humans do is consume and that there’s not really anything we can do to stop our inevitable consumption of all the resources in the world short of ending the species.
This really gave me pause. I still think that there’s more to humanity than just consumption, but I have to admit that there’s something to this idea. Pretty much any example of what we do or what we need to survive comes back to some sort of consumption. On top of that, so much of our history was spent trying to figure out ways to make consumption easier, and then when it became easier so much of our society seemed to be aimed at making us consume more. This is where the state of the oil market comes into play. Consider that in a little over 100 years we have essentially consumed over 800,000 years worth of vegetation that then also took an additional 200,000,000 years to turn into what we now call oil.
The second thing that got me thinking about this was a throwaway statistic in the book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick, which we listened to on CD on the trip back. In it Philbrick mentions that in 17th century America a European “town of two hundred homes depended on the deforestation of as many as seventy-five acres per year” (p. 186).
This statistic stuck out for me because, while helping my stepdaughter learn to drive on the New Hampshire backroads, I was telling her about how all the woods we saw around there had only grown up in the past 100 years or less. Prior to that most of New England had been completely deforested. In other words, this consumption problem is nothing new. We’ve been dealing with it for hundreds if not thousands of years. The Greeks even had a word for it: pleonexia— the desire to have more.
But does that mean that all we do is consume? If you look around at our culture today it’s hard not to think so. Even as I try to justify our existence by looking at art and literature and science and education, they all seem to be pointless in the face of our consumption of everything around us to the detriment of the overall ecosystem. We also have to fight the consumer culture that has grown up here in the last 60 years. We need to come to a place where our response to a terrorist attack isn’t “go out and buy stuff or take a vacation.”
I’m also troubled by the view I’ve heard put forward by some religious people that since in Genesis God gives humans “dominion” over all the world, that we’re entitled in some sense to use it all up. That’s not only shortsighted, but it also gets the text wrong. A king who enslaves and kills all his subjects for his own ease and enjoyment is not a very good king. It also ignores all the passages that come later suggesting that we should sacrifice ourselves for the good of all. Consuming everything in the world does no good for anyone.
But I am an optimist, and I still believe that any trouble our brains can get us into, our brains can get us out of. I’m not naïve enough to think that we can remove ourselves from the ecosystem entirely (which I have heard some suggest), and I’m also not suggesting that we should use up the Earth until our brains find a way to leave it. But surely there’s a way that we can live and continue to produce all the things that we value in a way that works with the world rather than against it. The only catch is, we all have to accept this and live into it.