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Money Cannot Be Eaten

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As the last of the Occupy encampments are swept away across the nation, few can fail to recognize that whatever the future of this movement, its activists have successfully “occupied” public discourse. Some see President Obama’s recent speech in Kansas as an indication of this success. The speech, which focused largely on the theme of economic inequality, nicely captured the essence of the “American Dream,” which for so many has become a dream deferred.

If you gave it your all, you’d take enough home to raise your family, send your kids to school, have your health care covered, and put a little away for retirement.

Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress describes how the problem of economic inequality existed long before the Great Recession and actually contributed to it. She argues that stagnating incomes resulted in increased borrowing facilitated by an unregulated financial industry flush with cash. This unsustainable dynamic would eventually blow up in the 2008 financial crisis.

While increased discussion of economic inequality and the importance of reducing poverty and strengthening the middle class are encouraging, analysis of the influence of materialistic values on this crisis remains largely on the margins. A short film called, The High Price of Materialism, produced by the Center for a New American Dream, offers a corrective. In highly accessible language and informed by social science, the film describes the negative psychological and social consequences when materialistic values become dominant in our lives. It’s an excellent companion to, The Story of Stuff, which discusses the dynamics of consumerism and the system that supports it. These short, yet profound films suggest that Americans need to dream much bigger.

Moving the critique of materialism from the margin to the center of discourse about a new economy is a contribution that religious leadership and communities of faith can and should make. This will require more than denunciations of Wall Street, its political enablers, or the so-called one percent. We need to begin to recognize the ideology of materialism and its institutional manifestations as being just as oppressive as the other “isms” humanity has been struggling to free itself from. ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921 framed the challenge in these terms:

All the Prophets have come to promote divine bestowals, to found the spiritual civilization and teach the principles of morality. Therefore, we must strive with all our powers so that spiritual influences may gain the victory. For material forces have attacked mankind. The world of humanity is submerged in a sea of materialism.

Such a process should not be confused with asceticism or denial of the material realities of life in the 21st century. What is required is learning how to  harmonize the spiritual and material dimensions of civilization so that both progress in a sustainable, just, and unified fashion conducive to real prosperity. Otherwise, our children’s children may live to see fulfillment of that grim prophecy of an indigenous people whom, like so many others, clearly saw the inevitable consequences of soul-less consumption:

Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten. 

Cree Prophecy

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, taken by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and considered in the public domain


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About Phillipe Copeland

  • The family farm is becoming a dinosaur. We need to re-institute farming at the local level to reduce unemployment and bring down commodity prices.

    We need to bolster the Section 8 program instead of making loans to people who may not be able to pay back.

    Lastly, we need to complete the exits from Iraq and Afghanistan to bring the national budget back into balance.

  • Dr Maresca, do you even know what Section 8 is?

    I ask because what you seem to be arguing is like comparing apples to oranges.

    I like that prophecy: I have it on a t-shirt.

  • John Lake

    I’m not clear as to how the bane of consumerism ties in with the occupy movement. Class warfare is nothing new, but your sources depict it in a vile new light. The Baha’i article says in part, “Apparently pepper spray will be this year’s most popular gift. Peace on earth, good will toward men, only $19.95 if you call right now (plus shipping and handling). It’s an excellent time,…”.
    But it is said in such sarcastic manner as to suggest the unbearable greed of the ugly Americans who make such purchase.
    We do live in a capitalistic society, and we all benefit from consumerism. Thank the stars for the holiday season. The rich prosper, but so do the poor, and all those in the middle. As I recall, the holiday seasons bring happiness to young children, and gives meaning and beauty to life.
    The occupy movement, if we believe what we see on our flat-screens, is being highjacked by profiteers. But the young, the college students, the new era intellectuals have had time to study matters such as corporate control, and the related Citizens United decision, and they won’t soon forget.
    If matters become worse, if we let the fools we watch debating on the stage of the Heritage Foundation, (some don’t remember where Libya is; some didn’t bother to research Ponzi schemes)…if we let these folks follow their whims with deregulation, and preemptive strikes, we will see more than occupation. I’ve personally sat in on occupy committee meetings, and some of these students are internally debating how much more we can take. I humbly submit I was a voice for constraint.
    I like consumerism, but I don’t like immoral politicians. I don’t like newscasters who hear someone mention millions of dollars paid to contestants and don’t report the mention.
    If that goofball says “I will repeal healthcare my first hour in office!”, or “We must defeat Barack Obama!” one more time, I may scream.

  • @2

    Explain. Section 8 is a form of subsidy, no? A loan is definitely not.

    Where is the comparison?

  • John, I’m sorry if you experienced my humor as sarcastic but it has nothing to do with greedy Americans. A person does not have to be greedy to engage in consumption that is less than thoughtful and which ultimately can do great harm. Also, the class warfare issue is I think a distraction from deeper issues, namely all of us, rich or poor need to think more about what we do with the resources we have which is different than just talking about having them be distributed more broadly. Is the happiness of the holiday season really about giving and receiving material things or is that simply what we have been told is the best way to demonstrate generosity by a constant bombardment of advertising? Do we really “benefit” from consumerism, or is that simply what we’ve been taught to believe by those that truly benefit from it? As for OWS, my point is that this movement got people talking about some important things, there are just other things that we need to discuss as well. Materialism is one of those things.

  • ” … and we all benefit from consumerism.”
    #3, John Lake

    I find this article of faith most puzzling of all.

  • If we need to balance our spiritual and material values in order for their to be equality then whats the solution? Plus their are people of different faiths; both pagan and nonpagan, so where can the line be drawn? Is having faith important? I think so; especially if you want to survive in this world. The real question is what is more important then the value of money? Depending on what you want to believe to me its going to be spiritual/material health. Therefore without being in good health it becomes much harder to work for a living. People are going to try all kinds of things to survive; hopefully its the right things such as growing your own food which Native Americans have done for centuries.

  • Igor

    2 – Dr Dreadful
    “…like comparing apples to oranges.”

    An irritating figure of speech, since it’s obvious to even a child that, indeed, we CAN compare apples to oranges. For example, 3 oranges is numerically greater than 2 apples. Also, upon comparison we find that the oranges are orange in color and the apples are red: they are easily compared. Also, some people prefer apples to oranges and it’s quite easy for them to compare the fruits at the store and discover their favorite. Etc.

    Why has this lame expression taken such a prominent place in daily life? People always look as though they’ve said something profound: “Hah! Your argument is invalid because you’re comparing apples to oranges!”. (Well, THAT rapier-like thrust of my cliche ammo should settle the hash of my opponent, the knave!)

  • Igor

    I agree with Roger in his disdain for ” … and we all benefit from consumerism.”

    How can that even be? More consumption means more deterioration of our world. It also means we have to work more, and we have demonstrated no ability to usefully apportion work and the fruits thereof.

    It’s like a treadmill, a treadmill to nowhere. Maybe the shared experience makes us feel as though we belong to a community. Like all those people running side-by-side on treadmills at the gym. An army of treadmillists.

  • One might add another oft-cited “benefit”:

    If you’re depressed, go shopping.

  • Igor: A cliche, I know, but apt in this case. Apples and oranges and kind of similar in that they are both fruit, but are pretty different in most other ways (one’s red, the other’s orange; you can eat the peel of one but not the other; one’s segmented, the other isn’t; etc).

    Dr Maresca suggests expanding Section 8, a rental program designed to assist low-income families who might not otherwise be able to afford to rent, let alone buy. These families are hardly in the same position as those who have lost the homes they own due to predatory lending and/or economic bollocks-ups.

    Both Section 8 and mortgages are ways of putting roofs over people’s heads, but they don’t have a lot else in common.

  • My read wasn’t that Dr. Maresca was suggesting replacing one with the other, only that the focus of the governmental action ought to have been different.

  • Re “3 oranges is numerically greater than 2 apples. Also, upon comparison we find that the oranges are orange in color and the apples are red”.

    Sorry for being picky, but is not the former comparing numbers and the later comparing colours rather than the intrinsic qualities of the fruits in question?

  • Igor

    And both compare apples and oranges.

  • Igor

    After lunch today I wondered “should I have an apple or an orange for desert?” Comparing them I found that I had 1 apple and 5 oranges, so my first temptation was to have an orange, to sortof level the opportunities for tomorrows quandry. But upon further comparison I found the oranges comparatively unripe. I also have a banana available. But I comparatively prefer a banana for breakfast. On the other hand I have several home-grown persimmons, but they are comparatively unripe.

    After all these comparisons I had a delicious desert, though I can’t remember what it was.

    Am I a Master Criminal for all these proscribed comparisons? Should I be shunned or banished to some intellectual prison for all my transgressions?

  • That was a philosophical approach to the problem, Igor. You should continue with these deliberations just for the hell of it, if only to see what obtains.

    That’s, in fact, how we do test the the limits and the cogency of a concept. You’ve picked it up intuitively. Good for you.

  • zingzing

    there was an orange. i thought of the orange. not of what the orange truly is, in my ingestion of it, but of what it could be, my idea of which was based upon the condition of its skin. by opening the skin and peering inside, i suppose i could better judge the bulk of what i want out of the orange, but by doing so, i would partially destroy its future edibility if i found it less than desirable at the moment.

    there was also an apple. so i poked two holes in it and, while still pondering the orange, smoked a small amount of marijuana using my apple-fashioned pipe.

    in my haze, i thought that all this thought of an orange (as screened through my use of the apple), was rather useless, and now i was hungry, and the orange was all i had left. i used the apple and the orange for what i wanted out of them, threw away the rest and waited for them to reemerge, so i could ponder them some more tomorrow.