Islam, consumerism and the environmental crisis (Re-print)

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Jumada' al-Ula' 05, 1427 2006-06-01

Special Reports

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 4, Jumada' al-Ula', 1427)

Materialist consumerism has become one of the defining characteristics of western/modern societies. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses how the problem can be addressed by Islam’s ethical and moral framework

There are two different types of consumerism. One is associated with shopping and advertising, the other with consuming in general, which can include consuming ideas, thoughts, behaviours and lifestyles. So on one level a consumer society is one that likes to shop a lot, but on another level a consumer society is a derivative society, one that has no sense of itself other than what it consumes; this applies to knowledge, education, technology and many other things. Muslim societies at one time were highly productive, but in the past centuries they have become highly derivative; many have become consumer societies in both senses of the word. The main ideology of a consumer society, regardless of the religion or beliefs professed by its members, is that of “consumerism,” which states that all needs – emotional and physical – can be met by consuming, that development and survival depend on consuming continuously, and that whatever any producer has to offer is by definition desirable. In short, the consumer society is constantly shopping but seldom or never producing.

One outcome of the widespread adoption of consumerism on a global scale is what has been called the “environmental crisis.” Many people ignore this, largely because the word “crisis” has been attached to practically every modern problem, thus rendering it useless. But if anything counts as a crisis, which means a time of danger and great difficulty, then the state of the environment qualifies. In their voracious appetite for a never-ending supply of consumables to consume, consumer societies are rapidly depleting the resources of the planet upon which all humans are dependent. And the corollary of consumerism, which is the “throw-away society,” has choked the earth’s air, land and water with garbage and various chemical pollutants. This is not to mention the environmentally destructive wars that are coming to be fought in the name of protecting “the American way of life,” which is usually a euphemism for the consumer society. This type of environmental crisis is due to the modern way of life, and human beings are, in short, destroying their environment themselves.

Consumerism destroys the environment in two ways; first by depleting resources; second by piling up garbage. So the key to understanding this aspect of consumerism is to ask why a society needs to use up so many resources and why it makes so much garbage. This, of course, is not just a problem for Muslims; it is a problem for all of humanity. But because consumerism is a cultural behaviour and embodies certain attitudes, it can be adjusted at the site of culture, which includes religion. What seems clear is that, to curtail further environmental destruction, everyone has to face this problem, one way or another. Reaching into the traditions of various religions is one way to do this. In fact, if one really looks at them carefully, most religions teach frugality and a quiet, simple, pious life. Consumerism is the opposite. It is complicated, wasteful and loud. Consumerism caters to base desires, while most religions are wary of catering to desires. The danger is that people rationalize this catering to desires in terms of “progress” or “modernization,” but this is only an illusion. Some advocates of the consumer society see this way of life as a path to freedom and a way of “seeking knowledge,” but this misses the point. They are not seeing consumerism in its broader contexts, and they are missing its connection with the environmental crisis. This is a simple connection to make: consumerism depletes resources and creates garbage. It can also be implicated as a cause of global inequalities between the “haves and have-nots,” which has been consistently shown to lead to war in the name of securing resources for the consumerists.

Some people might be startled by the suggestion that many Muslim societies have become consumer societies. After all, there are many things in Islam that seem to contradict consumerism. For example, in Islamic ethics there is the concept of zuhd, which is difficult to translate directly into English with words like “abstemious”, but which in any case means in part living with the real necessities of life. As such zuhd is in many ways the opposite of consumerism, and can be a valuable concept for discussing consumerism, as well as becoming an important key to formulating an Islamic response to it. But having such a useful concept is only half the struggle, since the real difficulty is putting such concepts into practice. The consumer society offers untold luxuries for those who can afford them; once one is fully accustomed or addicted to that lifestyle, it is very hard for one to let it go. More likely than not, the new lifestyle will be rationalized into the society’s belief-system. So, rather than spelling out a plan of implementing something like zuhd, the first step is to pose some simple consciousness-raising questions. Asking “What do I really need to be happy?” is a good place to start, since consumerism (of the shopping variety) claims that it sells happiness. But are consumers really happy, or are they just getting a quick fix to tide them over to the next purchase? Seeing the quest for a solution in terms of zuhd has its advantages and disadvantages, since it is difficult to argue that living a pious and abstemious lifestyle is required by law, though it may be highly recommended. In other words, something like zuhd is difficult to legislate, so it is necessary to develop a voluntary response to consumerism that is based on the concept of zuhd but which is infused throughout the culture, because the strength – and weakness – of consumerism is that it is supposed to be voluntary.

The topic of how Islam’s ethical framework can effectively tackle the problem of consumerism is deep, and can only be addressed here with a few broad strokes. Ethics is basically about how to live in the world, and about relationships among people and between people and the environment. An ethical response to consumerism would ask some serious questions about the viability of a lifestyle that has been shown time and time again to be exploitative and destructive. For every shopping mall that goes up in one place, there are poor people somewhere else whose resources (including labour) are being exploited to feed the voracious habits of consumers in those malls. In Islam we have a strong tradition of social solidarity with all sorts of ethical guidance; an ethical standpoint on consumerism would have to move beyond the question of individual rights and responsibilities, looking at frameworks that take into consideration intertwining rights among people in different locales, as well as between humanity and the rest of nature.

But again the weakness is not with the religion of Islam, nor with any other religion. The problem is persuading people to make a commitment to put these ideas into practice. That can start with a single step. In the Islamic tradition thought and action are linked, but Muslims are sometimes out of balance, thinking too much and not acting enough, or vice versa. The answer to consumerism is in many ways simple. It does not require a lot of study; it is fundamentally a change of behaviour. Societies have to make a commitment to live a simple life, to examine how acts of consumption in the name of base desires have impacts on other people and the environment, and to ask whether it is beneficial to continue to live in that way. That is the core of ethics in action. The evil genius of consumerism is that it somehow hides these kinds of questions and keeps people focused on listening to and pandering to their immediate, short-term appetites and desires.

Consumerism is in many ways a feature of modern life, and it is based on an expansive sense of individuality, which quickly gets entangled with notions of freedom and political liberty. The Americans have been quite good at making the connection between a consumerist activity like shopping and the idea of political liberty; many people have taken that connection for granted, and failed to question it. But this notion can be taken further, to ask whether modern society is contradictory to a religion like Islam, which teaches abstinence, balance and frugality. A full analysis of this proposition is beyond the scope of this discussion, but let us consider for a moment the possibility that modern society is contradictory to Islam: if this could be demonstrated, where would it lead? For the time being it is hard to escape modernity, which seems all-encompassing and leaves little space for alternative perspectives, except to write them off as backward or reactionary, or to patronize them for the entertainment of the consumers of “nature programmes” on television. At the same time, modernity is unstable in many ways, and consumerism and the environmental crisis are among its weakest points. After all, what is modernity without consumerism? So, rather than rejecting out of hand as a matter of policy something as abstract as “modern society,” we can ask more pointed questions, such as what the implications are of stepping out of the modern system of consumption. Who are the people that have done this already, and what are their stories? Are they healthy and happy without the trappings of modernity, including consumerism? This is, in a way, a call for study and reflection coupled with action. It is one thing to recognize contradictions, but it is an entirely different matter to act on that recognition. The two strands of consumerism previously mentioned can come together here.

The shopping variety of consumerism is only the latest phase of a process that started two centuries ago with colonialism. Schooling is a form of consumerism, as are most institutional services. They teach people to be passive, to seek only what is being offered by the system, but never to explore new possibilities by moving outside that narrow structure, which is the real tragedy of consumerism. So production can become the antidote for consumption. What have ‘third world’ societies, such as Muslim societies, produced since the demise of direct colonialism? Do they know any more how to produce anything? Redefining and rediscovering different forms of education and production are good places to begin to break the chains of consumerism.

Human beings seem to be enfeebled by consumerism, and many may never ask themselves what they really need, which may even lead some to say that people in today’s world are far from their humanity. This can help to identify an important issue, that of asking what people need, not just what they want. Wants and needs are two different things, and consumerism does not want people to focus on needs. It works by creating inadequacies and desires, which are ever-changing and never satisfied, but always enticing us by means of the advertising industry. If humanity involves knowing limits, being in harmony with the rest of the natural world, and becoming aware of the difference between wants and needs, then perhaps consumerism has caused us to lose some of our humanity. If we take a wider definition of consumerism, which includes consuming knowledge and services from institutions, then we have in a sense become even more dehumanized. From a certain point of view, anything that takes people away from nature and the cosmos is dehumanizing, and anything that causes people to commit senseless or unconscious acts of violence against themselves, their fellow human beings and the biotic community, is dehumanizing. But modernity and consumerism are too clever to allow this kind of discussion to get very far, since their apologists will ask mocking and specious questions such as, “What do you want us to do, move back into caves and forests?” The very fact that people can take seriously such questions means that they have already normalized consumerism – of thoughts and practices as well as products – and are unable to imagine alternatives to the sad state of reality in which we find ourselves today.

To some extent it is correct to say that consumerism, especially in the sense of shopping and advertising, is a feature of modern life in many places around the world, regardless of religion or culture. But the interesting thing about consumerism is that, while it can be seen as a dominant culture in some ways, it is rarely (if ever) openly forced. Because consuming is voluntary, for the most part, we have to ask why people have become so attracted to it. Part of the answer is that consumerism sells a whole way of life and, for those with the money,almost anything they want (or think they want) can be bought. But it is not entirely a class issue, either, since one can find the poor in some places clamouring for consumption just as much as the rich, though by different means. In other words, consumerism is an attitude. As for changing this attitude or avoiding it, the answer is not difficult to find, but it is difficult to carry out. The way to avoid consumerism is learning to live without so many things, learning to live a simple, straightforward, unassuming, unostentatious, non-competitive life, focusing on needs, not desires. In fact, desire is at the core of a lot of this. Owing to the highly paid psychologists and public relations experts they employ, the consumerist industries have learned how to manipulate old desires and create new ones. Muslims have to fend off this assault on their personalities. This can only be done if they are convinced that life is better without consumerism. That is not easy, since consumption, broadly defined, is putting down stronger, deeper roots in Muslim societies, primarily through satellite television and its experiential cognate, the American shopping mall.

In addition to the shopping sort of consumerism, which emerged in America during the past half-century, the broader sort of consumerism is also pervasive. Look at the history of theOttoman Empire, or other Muslim territories such as Egypt or Iran in the nineteenth century. They all sent students to the West to “consume” the latest knowledge and technological developments. In fact that era was a major turning-point for Muslim history. Muslim societies learned to be consumerist, becoming derivative and dependent in terms of knowledge, education, technology, culture, manners and habits. So it was only a matter of time before, with the emergence of advertising-based consumerism, they became fully converted to the material consumerism of large-scale shopping and spending.

So what can be done? Many will ask, when discussing this topic, whether the modern Muslim consumer society can affect or influence Western producers, through boycotts and other collective pressures. This is not difficult, because the prevailing situation is that the Western supplying powers are influencing the rest of the world by what they provide. So it would be worthwhile to consider whether Muslims, by the fact that they are a huge consuming power, can have a direct effect on the suppliers. This is, of course, an allusion to the politics of consumerism, which has been gaining momentum in recent years. In the absence or deterioration of other forms of political action, including the erosion of meaningful political participation in modern democracies, consumer activism is one way to fill the void. In places where there are few outlets for organized politics, but where there is a relatively large population, such as in the Arab world, the possibilities are huge. The key is not to frame this political action as that of a political party or movement, because that will immediately raise suspicions and get it labelled and even banned as being in opposition to the often paranoid ruling elite in many non-democratic societies. The advanced democracies are not immune from this, either, as in America, where consumer activism and the anti-war movement are being met with increasingly brutal police actions. One way of avoidig such brutality is to use the weaknesses of consumerism as points of informal leverage.

Because it relies on enticement, nobody can really be forced into consumerism. Imagine the absurdity of people being herded to some junk-food giant to consume their weekly quota of greasy burgers and gaseous soft drinks, or being required to go to shopping malls every month to buy the latest fashions. It won’t happen, and if it does it means it is no longer consumerism. So an important step is to define who are the consumers. Who are they and why do they do what they do? And if you are going to ask people to stop consuming, can you offer them a convincing reason or alternative? In recent years, consumer boycotts have become effective ways to send political messages in the absence of, or in addition to, other channels of political participation. But these are not directly addressing the problem of consumerism and the environmental crisis since, when the political problem is solved or forgotten,people usually go back to the malls. To harness the political power of consumers properly, one must move beyond boycotts, though they remain effective tools. What we are talking about is a shift in lifestyle, especially in the affluent societies, that is based on a sense of mutual responsibility to one’s fellow humans and the world everyone shares. In one sense (this goes back to the question of ethics and simplicity), consumerism is based on selfishness and greed, which are not looked upon kindly in any religious tradition. So can Muslims move away from the notion of individual privilege and into the realm of voluntary and collective responsibility? Health and education are two important areas that need exploring in terms of this discussion, and which need to be developed in addition to the obvious tangentially related political tools such as organizing boycotts and sanctions.

To the extent that the dominant global powers rely on the enticements of consumerism for their own economic progress, other peoples of the world potentially have great power in their hands. But to organise, coordinate and exercise that power is more difficult. First we have to wake from the drunken slumber of consumption, and this has to be done in a way that will not become overtly political (even though it is about politics), nor too directly confrontational (as a survival tactic in the face of an increasingly paranoid global order). In the struggle between putting a negative or a positive spin on actions and events, the pro-consumerist forces have far greater resources to make it seem that those of us who are challenging the politics of consumerism are somehow boring and dull people (“party-poopers”, as the slang term is), or that we are “anarchists”, “communists,” or even “terrorists”. In our media-driven age that could be the death of any movement. To sidestep these labels a wide variety of creative responses is necessary, and there have to be many movements that can make use of all the tools available to consumers worldwide, which includes creating solidarity with our fellow humans and the natural world we all share, as well as the use of boycotts and sanctions, and also finding and supporting alternative lifestyles that are outside the matrix of large-scale production by a few and greedy, selfish consumption by the many.

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