Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhist Reflections on "Consumer" and "Consumerism"

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhist Reflections on "Consumer" and "Consumerism"

Article excerpt


"Consumption:" in the nineteenth century, this was the name for a wasting disease, especially pulmonary tuberculosis. Now it is a term for the key focus of human economic activity in many lands. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines "consume" thus: "1. v.t. Destroy; use up; eat or drink; spend, waste (time, trouble, etc.); (in p.p.) entirely preoccupied (with envy etc.); ... 2. v.i. Waste away ..." The word does not actually have positive connotations, yet we seem to have forgotten this. It is interesting that the act of purchasing goods and services, as "consuming," is likened to an act of eating. This in part suits those who sell goods and services, of course, for when we eat something, we destroy it, and have to come back for more. Moreover, we need to eat, so likening purchasing goods to obtaining food implies that we have a genuine need for such goods, just as we do for (sufficient) food.

When people are referred to as "consumers" or "the consumer" what does this imply about them? In part, it implies a false reduction of people into consuming-units. On the other hand, it implies an uncomfortable truth about us: we consume the products of the environment and human transformations of natural resources--and in doing this, are increasingly coming to threaten the world's biosphere, our shared home. Buddhism sees the roots of the world's problems as "greed, hatred, and delusion," and the latter can sometimes be in the form of shortsighted stupidity. As Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, human societies, such as that on Easter Island, have been quite capable of blindly destroying the basis of their own survival; let us hope that we do not do this on a planetary scale.

One also sees a steady trend towards the businessification of everything; the model for any human interaction is the financial transaction. So, for example, students are now "customers" rather than, say, "clients." Education is seen by some as primarily an avenue by which to make people good producers and consumers. We even see a range of spiritual traditions being plundered so as to be broken up for the saleable tokens and feel-good factors that they may be able to provide.

That said, certain aspects of what is called "consumerism" are positive, as when it leads to campaigning for the protection of people from exploitation by businesses, or from harmful goods, or for the ethical sourcing of goods. But do such things need to be seen as aspects of "consumerism" at all when they are simply about responsible action and seeking to ensure others are responsible? Of course, from the point of view of those who sell "consumer goods" they do come across as "the consumer," biting back instead of just using their "teeth" to chew the cud they are provided.

In Buddhist terms, responsible buying can be seen as buying with both eyes open; not only do sellers need to have an eye for both their profit and the ethics of their enterprise (AN.I.129-230), but buyers also need to have an eye for the benefits and possible knock-on harm of what they purchase.

What do people hope to gain from their "consumption"--and do they actually get this? A "consumerist" economy focuses on such things as clothes, cars, houses and home improvements, electrical goods of various kinds, and sources of music. None of these have much wrong with them in themselves, though such things as "gas-guzzling" cars are a selfish and self-indulgent threat to the world's climate. Consumer goods can be useful, and can bring a certain amount of passing pleasure and happiness to people--but that is all. If they brought genuine satisfaction, people would not need to buy any more until what they had bought had worn out--but a consumer economy actually depends on people not being satisfied with the goods they buy, or at least not satisfied for long.

Of course, it is a fact of human psychology that when we buy something, we may be pleased by it for a time, but then it becomes taken for granted, or damaged, or we become bored with it . …

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