Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Consumer Options
distributed 10/13/06 - ©2006

We are at the peak of the election season in the United States. Campaign advertisements flood the airways and clog our mailboxes. News stories about the elections tell us, day-by-day, who is ahead in the public opinion polls.

In the two-year cycle of US political activity, we are at the moment when we, as a people, are most engaged with the issues and institutions of democracy.

In this distinctive historical context, I did some very informal research to explore our collective self-understanding. I went to "Google News" and searched news stories published within the last five weeks. Here's what I found:

50,500 stories included the words voter or voters
51,300 stories included the words citizen or citizens
76,700 stories included the words consumer or consumers
Refining my search a bit revealed that there's quite a bit of overlap in the political language. Together, the variations of voter and citizen appear in 73,900 stories.

Even in the heat of the political season in the US, there are more news stories which talk about consumers than there are stories which refer to our political identities. Among the news stories which use any of those words, consumer is found in 55% of the articles.

There are flaws in my off-the-cuff methodology, most notably that the computer search draws on news reports from around the world. These figures are only suggestive of the way we use language -- but I do think that it is a powerful and meaningful suggestion.

The way we describe ourselves, in our personal speech as well as in journalism, is very important. I find it troubling that we speak of ourselves so often as "consumers."

In his book, The Geography of Nowhere, James Kuntsler said, "We've mutated from citizens to consumers in the last sixty years. The problem with being consumers is that consumers have no duties or responsibilities or obligations to their fellow consumers. Citizens do. They have the obligation to care about their fellow citizens, and about the integrity of the town's environment and history."

When we describe ourselves or our neighbors as consumers, we are saying that the primary relationship which defines our identity is the one we have with products and resources. We are celebrating that our core relationship is one of consumption, of using up, of destroying. Is that really how we want to think of ourselves?

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Names are important. When we define ourselves by national citizenship -- as a Canadian, an Australian, an "American" -- we identify ourselves according to the geography, values, history and loyalties which ground us. If we refer to ourselves as Christian (or other faith affiliation), we locate ourselves in relationship with God and our religious community.

Names and naming are decisive elements of many passages in the Bible. We see that vividly in the oldest of the two creation stories in Genesis, the account of the Garden of Eden. God creates Adam from the adamah, the earthling from the earth, the human from the humus. The identity of the first person is defined by that relationship with the soil, and with the instruction from God to till, to tend, to serve the garden. So, too, when gender distinctions are introduced by the division of Adam into two beings, the ishah is brought from the ish, the woman from the man. (The derivative and relational implications of that name have had many difficult ramifications on gender relations through the millennia -- which illustrates the power of naming!)

Names not only describe us, they define us. When we describe ourselves primarily as people who consume, who purchase, who participate in the marketplace, that self-understanding defines our options and our perspectives.

Think of the various "Rs" which are part of the environmental cause. (I listed six of them last summer in Beyond Recycling.) As consumers, we can easily adopt the R of recycling, because that allows us to buy lots of things if we just dispose of them appropriately. Reducing, though, is heretical -- it goes against the instructions to buy, buy, buy. And the most ecologically sensible option, refusing to buy at all, is essentially unimaginable. Refusing to buy rejects the entire identity of a consumer.

On my shelves, there's a kid's book on environmental responsibility which, on the front cover, encouraged its readers to "join the Green Consumer Movement." When you try to be a "green consumer" you think about what to buy, what it is made of, how it is packaged, where it was made -- but you can't think about not consuming. The green consumer still consumes as a matter of self-identity. Consumer is the noun, the core identity. Green is an adjective, which modifies, but can not negate, the noun.

It is revealing -- and distressing -- if we can't find a convenient way to encourage kids toward ecological responsibility except by modifying their identity as consumers.

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In the Bible, people change their names at times of conversion or transition. In many cultures, new names are given as a rite of passage into adulthood, or on entry into a new role in the community.

I challenge us to rename ourselves by avoiding the casual use of the word "consumer." In our speaking and writing, let's find other names and descriptions which are grounded in more positive and healthy relationships. We can speak of ourselves as Earthlings, humans, citizens, neighbors, believers or voters. In doing so, we connect with our communities and affirm our responsibilities.

If we refuse to call ourselves "consumers," and if we object when that word is used carelessly as a synonym for "community members," we will be engaging in powerful acts of resistance.

I encourage you to join me in this intentional and transformative use of language.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Last week, I mentioned the documentary Troubled Waters which will air on some ABC stations this fall. Each local affiliate may decide when, or whether, to show the film. Your calls may help your station decided to run it! See for more information, and a station list.

Even if it is being broadcast locally, you may need to fire up your video recorder for an odd time slot. Channel 7 in Denver will broadcast the program on October 23 -- at 3 AM.

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