Where on Earth will it End? - Consumerism as Theodicy

by Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson argues that consumerism is a false ‘theodicy’, a doomed attempt to come to terms with the existence of ‘suffering’ and ‘evil’ in our lives. To counter it we need to understand it and build alternatives.

Where on Earth will it end? It’s a rhetorical question at one level. Betraying a clear sense of concern about what’s coming down the road at us. It’s also, of course, a quite genuine inquiry: what is our own personal destiny? what is the fate of our kind of society? where exactly is the endpoint of all our human striving? A set of real, foundational questions about our existence, about social progress and about the human condition.

Of course the sense of rhetorical concern is not unrelated to the foundational nature of those questions. They betray a kind of anxiety, what Anthony Giddens – following Freud – described as a pervasive ‘ontological insecurity’. A kind of existential angst about ourselves. About our loved ones. About the fate of humanity. And these days perhaps – who knows? – about the planet.

As Professor of Sustainable Development you’d expect me of course to talk about the planet. These days you can hardly open a newspaper or turn on the television without being confronted by global catastrophe. But actually I don’t want to dwell on that. I want to talk about the positive side of consumerism. Or at least the side of consumerism that betrays our society for what it is. A society in search of answers. Answers to deep foundational questions about ourselves and our place in the universe. Questions like: Where on Earth will it end?

My subtitle contains my thesis. Theodicy is a difficult theological concept, and it’s telling that we have no better one to address what I consider to be one of the most fundamental issues we face. Broadly speaking, theodicy is the attempt to come to terms with the existence of ‘suffering’ and ‘evil’ in our lives. In religious language, theodicy asks the question: why should a caring God allow evil to prosper and the innocent to suffer? But it turns out that theodicy is not just a religious concept. In fact something very like it plays an absolutely vital role in our everyday lives. The broad argument I want to make is that consumerism has become a kind of secular theodicy. In some quite precise ways, consumerism has grappled and continues to grapple with deep foundational questions. And if we want to counter consumerism, I shall argue, we have to understand that.

But first I want to take you back to the middle of the nineteenth century to the year 1851. I want you to imagine if you can a windswept, stormy day in middle England. I know that’s hard from the perspective of this glorious British summer! But I want you to imagine it’s raining like it’s never rained before. My story – and it’s a true story – involves a girl called Annie who is 10 in this year. For several months she’s been suffering from stomach cramps, headaches and dizziness. So one day in late March her father prises the tearful Annie from her mother’s farewell and together with her sister Henrietta and their nurse, Fanny, they undertake the arduous journey by coach to Dr James Gully’s famous water cure establishment in Malvern.

Her father’s trust in the water cure is supreme. Only a few months previously he himself has been a patient in Malvern. What was wrong with him we’re not entirely sure. Probably some kind of nervous dysfunction. Something that was treatable by a water cure. At any rate, he is so confident that a water cure will be effective that he heads back to London to get some work done (more on that later) leaving Annie in the care of her nurse and the good Dr Gully.

Two weeks later, he was summoned back to Malvern. Annie had taken a turn for the worse. Charles – the father’s name was Charles – took up a constant vigil by Annie’s bedside, and wrote every day to his wife Emma to report on the almost hourly ‘struggle between life & death’ that Annie endured. By the morning of Wednesday the 23rd April, the girl lay motionless on her bed, wasted but tranquil, as the storm clouds gathered outside. Her father sat by the window, staring into the dull grey Malvern hills, weeping quietly, waiting for the inevitable. A little time later, as his biographers describe the scene:

"The wind picked up. Charles and Fanny moved closer to the bed. Annie lay still, unconscious. It was just twelve o'clock midday. Thunder began to sound, great peals far above them – the mighty knell of Nature. They edged nearer and heard the breathing stop. She was dead."

The story of Annie’s death is one of ordinary human tragedy. An unhappy but not uncommon tale; certainly not in the mid-nineteenth century; or even today, when a child dies through poverty every three seconds and almost every single human life is crossed at some point by personal tragedy. Annie’s death also serves to illustrate the subject matter of this talk.

Theodicy, in a very personal and quite precise way, was the challenge facing Charles and Emma in the aftermath of Annie’s death. As a devout Christian, Emma turned to her faith for support, hoping to ‘attain some feeling of submission to the will of Heaven’. For Charles, Annie’s death achieved an almost cosmological significance. Hours after the death, he was found still by the bedside, weeping inconsolably. What he later described as an ‘insufferable grief’ served to shatter his belief in a moral and just universe and convince him of the underlying cruelty of nature. In the wake of her death, he threw himself with ever greater fervour into his life’s work: the formulation of one of the most influential scientific theories of the last two hundred years; a theory in which suffering and cruelty became the engine of evolutionary progress; a theory in which, as some latter-day philosophers have declared, there was no longer any room for God.

The world after Darwin – yes, you’ve guessed it, the girl’s father was Charles Darwin – became an increasingly secular place. God was dead, trumpeted Nietzsche; religion was ‘knocked to pieces’, said George Bernard Shaw: ‘and where there had been God, a cause, a faith that the universe was ordered, and therefore a sense of moral responsibility as part of that order, there was now an utter void. Chaos had come again. The effect at first was exhilarating,’ wrote Shaw. ‘We had the runaway child’s sense of freedom before it gets hungry and lonely and frightened..’ And in those words lie the question… the same question I started with. Where on Earth will it end?

The demise of God left open the question of meaning, the function of theodicy, in the modern world. The argument I want to explore here is that some part of this function has become ‘internalised’ within consumerism itself. My starting point lies in a broadly sociological view, in which religion plays several key roles in ‘world maintenance’. In particular religion allows us to make sense of our existence in relation to a higher ‘sacred’ order (cognitive meaning). It also provides a framework for moral governance (moral meaning). Finally, by offering a transcendent reality, it allows us to confront the question of our own mortality and the loss of those we love (emotional meaning). Berger called this overarching framework of meaning a ‘sacred canopy’. And he suggested that this sacred canopy was a vital function in every kind of society.

Central to the task of world maintenance is the question of theodicy. Religious theodicy was for a long time associated quite precisely with the need to reconcile belief in an omnipotent and benevolent god with the existence of evil and suffering in the world. But theodicy can be framed in non-theological terms. Berger defined theodicy as the (religious) legitimation of ‘anomic’ phenomena – that is to say, as the attempt to defend the existing nomos or world view against the ever-present threats to meaning that assault it.

In ordinary lay terms, theodicy can be construed as the attempt to ‘make sense of’ our lives. Faced with persistent injustice, the prosperity of ill-doers, the persecution of the righteous, how should we seek to live? What kind of morality are we to live by? Confronted with our own mortality, the persistence of suffering, the sorrow of bereavement, where should we turn for solace? How are we to protect the authority of compassion and the promise of love? Where, in short, are we to find meaning in our lives?

To be effective in its role of sense-making, a theodicy must possess certain key characteristics. I want to distinguish six inter-related aspects of theodicy:

Eschatology is the study of last or final things. In fact it’s concerned quite precisely with my opening question, with ‘how things turn out in the end’. Together these functions defend us against anomie and protect the sacred canopy. First, they have to demonstrate that the sacred order does not discriminate arbitrarily between different individuals (justice). They have to offer a mechanism which dispenses compensation (reward) consistently in relation to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours.

This compensatory mechanism is challenged by the often arbitrary incursions of suffering and loss in our lives. These have two specific forms: one is related to the loss of our loved ones; the second arises from our awareness of our own mortality. So a credible theodicy must offer plausible compensatory mechanisms in the face of bereavement and suffering (consolation). It must also provide us with a working defence against the pervasive anxiety engendered by awareness of our own mortality (ontological security). Some of the compensatory mechanisms established through theodicy may operate within the constraints of this world. But the challenge of providing an entirely secular compensatory mechanism is immense. So most theodicies draw on compensatory mechanisms which operate in some other (transcendental) realm, perhaps at some future point in time (eschatology).

How do these functions work in practice? A response from a participant in a study carried out at the University of Surrey illustrates how theodicial functions operate even on a day-to-day level for religious people:

You know, sometimes, something that really opened my eyes the other day driving on the M3 motorway. Traffic terrible, and my husband is not going to go this Sunday to church, or my eldest daughter baptise my grandchildren, and that makes me very, very sad, very unhappy. And on the motorway near Winchester, going past and these grey skies, a horrible time, raining. And there is this little bit of light, and there on the motorway there is a cross somewhere on a hill, and the light was shining on this cross and I was sitting down there under the rain, I have a meeting at nine o’clock, and I am sitting down there watching and this light shining on this cross and I say, yes you are there. – Female, Roman Catholic, 50s

This response incorporates a number of theodicial functions. For instance, it suggests access to consolation for life’s woes. The curious other-worldly quality of the light on the cross has elements of transcendence; and the symbolism of the cross as a metaphor for the redemption and future salvation of ordinary sinners also evokes a kind of eschatology. But if religion in general, and theodicy in particular, are so vital to world maintenance it is an obvious question to ask: what happens to these functions in a secular society? How does consumer society establish cognitive, moral and emotional meaning in the world? And how are these meanings legitimated in the face of suffering and loss? In other words: is there a consumerist theodicy?

I want to argue that modern society has internalised a number of specific functions of world maintenance within the dynamics and organisation of consumerism. At first, the idea that material commodities play some quasi-religious functions is an odd one. One thinks of material goods mainly as fulfilling certain essential physical or physiological tasks in the world. Psychological and social tasks are more obviously construed in terms of less material constructs: thoughts, conversations, norms, institutions perhaps. How is it that goods themselves can be asked to do this work?

This is one of the key lessons that has emerged from the sociology of consumption. Material things are deeply implicated in the social and psychological aspects of our lives. This role depends heavily on the human tendency to imbue material artefacts with symbolic values. And this ability of sheer stuff to take on symbolic meaning provides an extremely influential ‘osmosis’ between the physical and the cultural world, between material and ‘non-material’ aspects of our lives.

Consider this example from one of the respondents in Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s delightful study on the construction of meaning through everyday domestic objects. It illustrates my point perfectly. The respondent, an 8 year old North American boy, is asked by the interviewer: ‘What do all your special objects, taken together mean to you?’. He replies:

‘They make me feel like I’m part of the world.’

‘How do they do that?’

‘Because when I look at them, I keep my eyes on them and I think what they mean. Like I have a bank from the First National, and when I look at it I think what it means. It means money for our cities and our country, it means tax for the government. My stuffed bunny reminds me of wildlife, all the rabbits and dogs and cats. That toy animal over there reminds me of circuses and the way they train animals so they don’t get hurt. That’s what I mean. All my special things make me feel like I’m part of the world'.

Material goods, as Mary Douglas has remarked, are deeply implicated in the task of building and maintaining the social world, in a psychological as much as in a physical sense. So how does the consumer society address the critical question of theodicy? In particular, can we find evidence in consumerism of the key functions that I identified above from religious theodicy?

Perhaps surprisingly, we find such evidence everywhere. For example, concern about justice runs like a constant refrain through consumer society. It is evident in the language of consumer sovereignty, of equal opportunity, of fair trade and freedom of choice. Evidence of the importance of fairness is also uncovered in qualitative studies of consumer attitudes. At the macro-economic level, the entire ethos of consumerism is ‘legitimated’ as former US President JFK once remarked, by allegiance to the idea that consumption growth is a ‘rising tide’ that will (eventually) ‘raise all boats’.

The idea that consumerism offers to reward people for ‘good’ behaviour is also very widespread. A meritocratic society heralds high consumption lifestyles and celebrity status as the pinnacle of social achievement, as the following example from a North American respondent illustrates: ‘My Cadillac has become to me a thing I deserve. I wonder if others say things. I’ve had comments: “You’re rich,” from customers. They may even resent it – I don’t care. It shows you make so much more money. It represents my right to own something associated with successful people.’

Even those with religious backgrounds tend to use the metaphor of reward to legitimate consumption behaviour, as the following response from our qualitative study of religious groups illustrates: ‘But I find myself standing in the middle of a shop and actually praying, having an argument with God, I really don’t need that. No you don’t need it, but you’re allowed to treat yourself sometimes.’

The link between consumption and ontological security – the management of deep underlying uncertainties about mortality and our place in the world – is also well-supported by the evidence. ‘The human animal is a beast that dies’ said Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. ‘And if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys. And I think the reason he buys everything he can is that in the back of his mind, he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life ever-lasting.’

There is even some fascinating scientific evidence of this link. Modern psychological experiments show that when people are exposed to cues that make them more aware of death they strive to enhance their own self-esteem and protect their cultural world view. In a consumer society, self-esteem striving typically has profoundly materialistic outcomes. Just like George Bush asked them to in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, people ‘go out shopping’. (Fascinatingly, there is also evidence to suggest that this ‘urge to splurge’ is moderated in people who possess some religious faith.)

Our apparent addiction to material things cannot entirely be construed in hedonistic or materialistic ways. Material goods also facilitate consolation. Sacred goods remind us of those we love, of dreams we hold, of our hopes for the future. At a more mundane level their seemingly endless availability consoles us for the temporary nature of our lives, for our disappointments and failures. It assures us that society holds out the promise of better lives (for us and for our descendents) in the future.

The endgame offered up by consumerism is one in which the ability to go on consuming for generation after generation is the ultimate goal. A kind of heaven on Earth, if not for us, then for our descendants. Vincent Miller has argued that consumer desire has completely ‘derailed‘ eschatology by allowing desire itself to become the object of human striving. ‘Consumer anticipation,’ he argues, ‘is at heart a way of accommodating the endless repeat of the same, of finding pleasure in a world without hope.’ The consumer eschatology in this view is a kind of anti-eschatology – a study in denial of the fear that things will ultimately turn out badly – for us, for our loved ones and perhaps even for the planet. But the point is this, that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that consumerism has appropriated at least some of the functions of theodicy through the role that material commodities play in our lives.

As I’ve indicated, this theodicy is not entirely pathological. But it is clearly flawed. Its conceptualisation of justice is tenuous, its framing and disbursement of rewards is iniquitous, it is deeply but perhaps perversely seductive in offering a rather fleeting kind of ontological security, one that needs continually to be reinforced by engaging in yet more consumption. It does provide for a form of transcendence, but the degree to which this facilitates any real hope or consolation for our losses is suspect. Far from creating a credible eschatology, consumerism appears to be a continuous exercise in denial of our own mortality and of the widespread suffering in the world.

The implications of all this for the planet are quite profound. Consumerism may be destroying the planet, but in the final analysis, it’s clear that it cannot be countered by simple exhortation, religious or otherwise. If consumption places such a vital role in our lives, then asking people to give up material commodities is asking them to risk a kind of social suicide. People will resist threats to identity. They will resist threats to meaning. They will ask quite legitimate questions of the motives of the moral persuaders.

So the task of countering consumerism must start with the building of alternative theodicies: the construction of meaning structures, communities of meaning (like Sea of Faith perhaps), that lie outside the realm of the market. This process must also entail a deep re-engagement with ‘theodicy’, with the ‘problem of pain’ in its wider sense. It demands credible answers to the deep foundational questions that continue to haunt us. Where on Earth will it end?

Interestingly, no one knows exactly what Annie died from. The most likely explanation is that she died (ironically) from consumption. It was a specific story. A personal tragedy. And our lives are full of those. The Buddhist obsession with suffering is of course profoundly distasteful to modern western attitudes. Which may be why we hear much more about the upside of Buddhism, about enlightenment. But the contemplation of death serves a very useful purpose. It emphasises the emptiness of consumer society, of consumerist lives. And it also serves to remind us that there’s more at stake here. The suffering of others. Persistent poverty. The extinction of species. The health of the global climate. The fate of this ‘disappearing world’ still hangs in the balance, alongside our own more parochial concerns.

Whatever theodicy (secular or religious) we come up with – and let’s hope we manage to – this probably has to be our starting point. For as Kenneth Surin has remarked: ‘A theodicy is not worth heeding if it does not allow the screams of our society to be heard.’


Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey. He edited 'The Earthscan Reader on Sustainable Consumption' (Earthscan, London 2006). His latest radio play, based on a late Beethoven piano sonata, was broadcast on Radio 4 in March 2007.

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