It must be September… or December. Or Maybe October.

Posted on September 22, 2008 by ELCA World Hunger

Today is the first day of fall. Technically yesterday was still summer, though the temperatures have been significantly cooler and the days noticably shorter for a few weeks now.

But inside certain windowless stores, there’s no telling what time of year it is. Well, maybe you can tell we’re in the back half. The clothing section included both short and long things, but darker shades indicate fall. September? A “Back-to-School” section implied August, but across the aisle were Christmas ornaments. November? December? A bit farther down were the Halloween costumes and lawn decorations. Ah, October! But wait – Thanksgiving-themed dishes. Back to November. I could safely narrow the time of year down to a 5 month range.

All of which had me thinking about how much stuff is available, how much we buy, and how we are tempted to do so by such appealing and long-lasting displays. You weren’t thinking about Thanksgiving here at the tail end of summer and beginning of fall? Well, let us remind you and offer you a lovely selections of things you might need in a couple of months…

I’ve written before about consumerism, and I’ve previously linked to The Story of Stuff, which provides an exellent explanation of some of the effects of consumption. It’s a topic that matters to ELCA World Hunger because our consumption patterns disproportionately affect those living in poverty. From the Global Policy Forum:

According to the World Bank, the 2.3 billion residents of low-income countries
accounted for less than 3% of public and private consumption in 2004, while the
1 billion residents of high-income countries consumed more than 80% of the
global total (See Figure 1.) In this same year the United States accounted for
4.6 percent of the world’s population and 33 percent of global consumption.

This matters because as we rich nations happily shop away, we are using a huge share of the world’s resources. As we exceed the ability of our own country to provide goods at a price we’re willing to pay, we look elsewhere. We buy minerals, fuel, crops and consumer goods from countries anxious for the income and willing to lower prices and regulations to get the business. Poor countries grow tobacco for Western markets instead of food for themselves. They offer cheap clothing at the expense of their employees. They accept shipments of garbage and even toxic waste into their countries because it’s a source of income. The result is often degradation of land and people, making it that much harder for them to succeed. We, in the meantime, wear the clothes for a season and then discard them for something new. In the process, we use even more resources, create more trash, and demand more from the world.

There is a capitalist argument that this is the global market. Whoever can produce an item most efficiently should. Not everyone should grow corn or tobacco or sew clothes. Countries should produce what they’re best at and trade for the things they can’t do as well. It’s good and right that some countries produce coffee beans and many more don’t. And this argument has merit – to a degree. But it requires that governments are functional and acting in the interests of their citizens, not just themselves. It requires that regulations exist and are enforced. It requires educational systems that adequately prepare people to participate in those economies. It requires equity in access to those educational systems. And it requires thoughtful management of resources – both natural and human – to ensure their sustainability. Until those conditions exist, people living in proverty will continue to work in deplorable conditions and exploit their environment because it’s how they can survive. And many of them will continue to live in poverty and to be hungry.

We in the wealthy nations can help by living more sustainably ourselves. We have to consume. Everyone does. But we don’t have to consume thoughtlessly. We can pay more for Fair Trade coffee and finance it by skipping the extra sweater. We can demand products made from sustainable practices (like certified wood) that are easier on the environment. Organizations like the Worldwatch Institute can help you figure out what those products are.

Consumption in and of itself isn’t the problem. It’s how – and how often – we go about it.

-Nancy Michaelis