Pulling out and washing shelves and crispers, wiping sticky bottles, checking expiration dates and putting everything back neatly in the refrigerator gives a person time to think. So I pondered lots of things yesterday, as I began to make good on my Christmas promise to give my sister a day of cleaning help.

I thought about my agenda, which is to get people to see things differently—to question why they are driving to a nearby store, or turning on a faucet and turning away to do something else, or buying something they don’t need—so they will imagine and practice alternatives like walking or car sharing, respecting water instead of wasting it, or considering the environmental and social impact of the entire lifecycle of a product instead of just exclaiming over its low, low price.

Those thoughts led me to remember an idea I once read about: the idea that a truly “advanced” society stops being mesmerized with tangible “stuff” and invests its assets in intangibles like education, personal development, the arts—so that instead of having homes full of extraneous gewgaws, we have fully developed and expressive people.

Someone has articulated this concept very concisely—someone whose ideas are in a folder in a banker’s box on a shelf in a shed on a farm in Washington State, along with all the rest of my stuff. Alas, that someone is still a mystery—but my internal musings on this subject triggered me to type “hierarchy of needs and consumerism” into the world’s favorite search engine, and lo and behold, up popped a FANTASTIC article along these lines: “Spent: America after Consumerism” by Amitai Etzioni, published in The New Republic last June. Click here to read the whole thing, or consider this Anne-made summary:

Responding to the current economic crisis, Etzioni says that reforming our economy requires us to get over consumerism (“the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life”) and internalize and act on a new “sense of how one ought to behave.” Etzioni’s two candidates for replacing consumerism are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones.

To Etzioni, communitarianism means “investing time and energy in relations with the other, including family, friends, and members of one’s community” and includes community service. However, it’s not centered on altruism, but mutuality, “in the sense that deeper and thicker involvement with the other is rewarding to both the recipient and the giver.” (The two-way street of engagement is an important part of the methodology of mission called accompaniment that the ELCA uses in global mission.)

Transcendental pursuits are something Lutherans understand: “spiritual activities broadly understood, including religious, contemplative, and artistic ones.”

In order to urge people to skip the mall and go hiking or cook a meal together, we have to help people see that limiting consumption is not failure, but “liberation from an obsession.” And the way to do so is through “moral megalogues.” Etzioni says that societies are constantly engaged in mass dialogues over what is right and wrong that focus on one or two topics; recent topics include “the legitimacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and whether gay couples should be allowed to marry.”  (Since June: health care.)

“Megalogues involve millions of members of a society exchanging views with one another at workplaces, during family gatherings, in the media, and at public events. They are often contentious and passionate, and, while they have no clear beginning or endpoint, they tend to lead to changes in a society’s culture and its members’ behavior,” says Etzioni.

What Etzioni calls “the megalogue about the relationship between consumerism and human flourishing” is just beginning, but could get much bigger if “public intellectuals, pundits, and politicians” started to focus the megalogue on this subject and invite people  “to reconsider what a good life entails.”

Forget the wine, the gift cards, the sweaters—this article is what I wanted for Christmas! Now I see how small individual steps, humble articles, blogs with small audiences, church basement discussion groups on simple living can ramp up a megalogue that can shift our society!

I close with my new hero, Professor Etzioni: “Societies shift direction gradually. All that is needed is for more and more people to turn the current economic crisis into a liberation from the obsession with consumer goods and the uberwork it requires– and, bit by bit, begin to rethink their definition of what it means to live a good life.”

Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born, and that the good life is about to be redefined!

Anne Basye,

A great communitarian activity: cooking New Year's Eve supper together

A great communitarian activity: cooking New Year's Eve supper together

“Sustaining Simplicity”