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