Consumerism and the cycles of grace

Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being is the new book from Alastair McIntosh, Quaker author and activist. The book provides an overview of the latest climate science, before summarising responses to climate change and ending with an appeal to compassionate communities of belonging.

While there are lots of interesting aspects to the book that are worth highlighting, one that caught my eye is how McIntosh explores consumerism as a hollow substitute for connection to place and to each other. He uses a definition that I found useful:

“I define consumerism as consumption in excess of what is needed for dignified sufficiency of living” he writes. That does not mean minimalism or asceticism, but living well with what we have. “We need to learn the grace of counting blessings in all their cornucopia, otherwise we sabotage that which I’ve come to think of as the cycles of grace.”

‘Cycles of grace’ is a beautiful phrase, and McIntosh describes how “gratitude brings further grace”, whereas selfish accumulation eventually leads to exploitation. “The cut-off point when healthy consumption tips over into consumerism is when we start to grasp at things with such addictive avidity that we no longer care about the social and environmental relationships embedded in them.”

Things are not just things. They are the products of somebody’s labour. They come from somewhere, and so do the materials they are composed of. When enjoyed with thanks and respect, the relationships embodied in that thing are honoured. Conversely, consumerism breaks those relationships and creates injustice – ‘the wages you failed to pay the workers are crying out against you’, as the book of James puts it. 

“To pay a proper price for something is to ensure that right relationships, both with producers and with nature, have been followed through the supply chain. When we say ‘that’s too expensive’, we must be on guard lest what we might really be saying is that the cost of social justice and environmental sustainability is too high.”

How do we live and work in ways that preserve the ‘cycles of grace’? How can we remind ourselves of the web of relationships that lie behind our choices?

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