Pray with the Pope: September 2021
Pope’s prayer intention: We pray that we all will make courageous choices for a simple and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, rejoicing in our young people who are resolutely committed to this.
I really hope this intention is not too starry-eyed. While some young people are indeed resolutely committed to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, not every young person is a Greta Thunberg. Not that I would blame them too much; we, their “wise elders”, have so structured the world towards consumerism and endless growth that it’s now extremely difficult for any of us, young or old, to conceive of an alternative.
“A different world is possible” is a beautiful phrase, but to put it into practice means challenging very powerful interests and deeply entrenched ideas.
Take Google and Facebook. These titanic organisations with which our lives are so intertwined, are fundamentally massive advertising agencies fuelling the engine of consumerist growth. We should remind ourselves of this every time we log on. The fatal pact that we have made with them is that they give us access to their social media platforms and their information-gathering systems in return for us relinquishing our privacy.
Our data is then analysed by algorithms, and we receive all those adverts we find so surprisingly interesting. Google and Facebook are the contemporary “hidden persuaders”, working relentlessly on us. They don’t want us to opt for an environmentally sustainable lifestyle but for an unsustainable one by appealing to our insatiable urges. They would deny this or say that they are simply presenting us with choices, but their huge influence as drivers of consumption is undeniable.
Consumers must consume
The title of a recent book by Jason Hickel, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, illustrates the problem. Imagine putting the idea of “degrowth” or trying to reduce a firm’s output to the board of any business or to a meeting of its shareholders. Imagine putting it to any meeting of a parish finance committee. Try suggesting the “degrowth” of a four-day week; it makes people very nervous. I mean, it might encourage laziness or drunkenness!
The real reason why we get nervous is because economists, politicians and advertisers have dubbed us “consumers”, and consumers we have become. Hence, if we are not working for the money which enables us to consume, or spending the money-consuming products or “consuming” vacuous entertainment, we don’t quite know what to do.
In other words, we are dealing on one level with a spiritual problem of pandemic proportions.
Consumerism is a mental illness, but we are hardly even aware of it, and the advertisers are drugging us into ignorance and unconcern by ever-greater doses of their new opium of the masses (the worship of things material).
A spiritual pandemic
In the notion of infinite growth, we have imbibed an idea that is coming into collision with hard science. It is an idea that is held by politicians and economists across the spectrum, and it is only a very small group of thinkers that are beginning to question it. Common sense and hard science tell us that nothing grows forever, and the environmental data these days is arriving thick and fast to remind us of this fact. In order to have an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, we will have to avert the environmental crash that the hell-for-leather drive for endless economic growth is already causing.
This means that we will have to relinquish the fairytale of endless growth and come up with an economic system that won’t destroy our one and only, beautiful, bountiful planet Earth.
And no, this does not mean that we have to go back to living like hunter-gatherers, but it does mean that we will have to rediscover the hunter-gatherer values of sharing, conservation, and spiritual awe for our living, breathing Earth, of which we are part.