The consumer society has an absolutely amazing and uncanny way of recuperating just about everything to turn it into fancy consumer trends – from the Dalmatian coast to the latest health fad, from simple water – one of the most fundamental ingredients of life on earth – to… spirituality. Especially in North America, spirituality has become a multibillion dollar industry, with multi-millionaire gurus and the latest fashionable spa, where you can spend thousands of dollars getting shamanic extractions, swimming with dolphins, consuming free trade chocolate which has special vibrations thanks to the meditation of Buddhist monks (no, I’m not joking, this produce is on the market). Throw in a little colonic cleansing, drinking spiritually enhanced water and the latest therapy to free you from the past and you are on the fast track to don your light body.
The consumer society has a unique way of flattering the ego, using even people’s honest yearning for spirituality to reach its goal of ever-increasing consumption. I do not wish to sound facetious, still less to judge anyone, but in our world of total confusion, discernment and alertness are key spiritual tools if we wish to avoid the siren songs of consumerism. But can there really be authentic spirituality without a deep compassion for human suffering and the plight of the poor, and a deep desire to heal our planet from the ravages of hyper-consumption?
The world now has at its disposal an extremely simple and elegant tool to measure the carrying capacity of the planet and man’s impact on the environment. The ecological footprint, as it is called, measures the impact an individual, company, region, country, etc. has on the environment. Just as the extreme complexity of a modern economy is measured in pounds or dollars per capita, the ecological footprint measures our impact (our footprint) on the planet in hectares. For the planet to survive ecologically, we should not be using up more than 1.8 hectares per capita per year. Globally, we are now at 2.2 hectares per capita, i.e. eating up our capital. In Western Europe the figure is between 4 and 5 hectares, which means we would need close to three planets if everyone were to enjoy our present lifestyle. Major Third World countries like China and India are rapidly closing the gap, which spells havoc for all in the long run.
For the past 15 years, in my workshops on simpler living, I have been using the following questions to help participants shop with discernment and compassion. I would not hesitate to say that I consider similar approaches an essential ingredient of any spirituality worth its salt.
1. Do I really need this?
More than any other approach, this very simple, basic question could start a major revolution in your life. It could transform your life as much as all the following nine questions.
2. Will this purchase help me to simplify my life?
Simplifying one’s life is an essential ingredient of the spiritual life. One cannot attempt to enjoy the innumerable goodies of the consumer society and at the same time progress spiritually.
3. Why am I purchasing this?
Is it to compensate some emotional lack? Because I think it will enhance my self-image or social status? Or have I just been tricked into the purchase by some slick advertising?
4. What ecological impact will this have on future generations?
It will not always be easy to find an exact reply. Google and other search engines are today invaluable tools, enabling any interested person to do their own research on these issues.
5. Will I get out of this object an amount of satisfaction justifying the resources used in making it? And will I use it often enough to justify the money spent on it?
If I purchase some fancy clothing that disappears at the bottom of my closet, or that I very rarely use, is this wise?
6. Can I devote to the use of this object enough time to justify its purchase, without any feelings of unease or guilt?
7. Are the people who made this object, or grew these roses or mangoes, adequately paid?
Do they enjoy decent working conditions and basic rights to organize themselves?
8. Was this product produced in an ecologically sound manner?
For these last two questions, replies are not easy to come by, but both point to the need to transfer our purchases from foreign produced goods and products (eg food) to locally produced ones, or also to purchase second hand, which not only costs much less but dramatically reduces the carbon imprint. (See the pioneering study, The Transition Handbook, by Rob Hopkins, on the remarkable Totnes experiment of ‘localising’ our economy.)
9. Will the consumption of this object, or this trip, help me reinforce my life goals?
Is it consistent with my deep convictions? This question seems sufficiently clear not to need comments, and replies will differ with each individual.
10. Can I possess or use this thing without it using or possessing me?
This raises the whole issue of stewardship versus ownership. I will return to it in another article as it merits more than a few words at the end of a short article!
Each day, we are voting for the world we wish… with our purse. With each purchase, we are sending out signals about the kind of world we want to live in. If we want instant everything at the cheapest price, we will patronize supermarket chains that bring food from the four corners of the world, at almost any ecological cost. Alternatively, we can put our money where our mouth is and purchase from local producers. We can purchase from Amazon, or choose Cygnus; vacation in the Seychelles or the Highlands. The list is endless and the choice is ours.
And remember, above all, simplifying one’s life is a source of deep joy. Uncluttering one’s existence is a very powerful spiritual tool!