It’s not about the money

Published in the Courier Mail 1 October 2007

SITTING on the desk next to me is a small, blue iPod nano.

Two months ago I joined the ranks of the MP3-listening population.Then, having owned it for all of three weeks, I caught myself wondering why on earth car manufacturers haven’t put an iPod dock in every car stereo. Seriously, CDs are so last month.

It’s been of interest to me how quickly I’ve become accustomed to having a not-inexpensive accessory as a part of life. I had resisted buying an iPod, even though my husband kept telling me how great they were. For several years I held off until I was sure I personally would use one and wasn’t just committing an impulse buy. (I’m quite glad I did – they come in great colours now.)

I say all of that to lay my cards on the table before I get accused of blatant hypocrisy for what I am about to say. After all, I am well aware that I don’t need an iPod. Life would continue quite well without one. I could continue to buy, listen to and then misplace CDs. I’m also aware that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with buying an iPod. For me however, the act of delaying a purchase, and saying no, even for two years, was a small step towards a revolution of moderation.

Many nations, including our own, are in the insidious grip of the appropriately named “affluenza” – the epidemic of overconsumption. While there are several vaccines for equine influenza, “affluenza” continues to spread unabated. We have inherited a world with easy access to credit, and spiralling personal debt.

There is a staggering array of personal consumer items. We’ve been told that our happiness is the most important thing. We’ll be happier if we have the latest and greatest anything.

Yet materialism has failed to deliver on its promised fulfilment. As I have been reflecting on this over the past 12 months, and discussing such issues with a large number of young adults, I find resonance in the hearts of many. We realise our society is drowning under the weight of consumerism and we find ourselves also mired within it. So what does one do?

Conversation around this issue is comprised of many questions, with varying degrees of confident answers. What is the response of generally comfortable people in a world of poverty? Is a hermit-like, rag-wearing, guilt-based response the only way of rejecting rampant consumption? And if we answer no, is that just because we don’t want to admit it? Or is there a way we can live in this society without worshipping at the altar of materialism?

I realise that the conversation we find ourselves engaged in is a continual one. However, I am encouraged by what I see bubbling into life around me, as people attempt to relearn to live moderately, instead of indulgently.

A friend recently held a birthday dinner party with a difference. Her birthday present from her family was the cost of the party, and she asked guests to bring money for gifts. This money wasn’t so she could buy jewellery, but to help refugees in Ghana – where she will be volunteering in a refugee camp at the end of this year.

Other responses to “affluenza” are less spectacular, but reflect a quiet and resolute changing of habits. One person has decided to lay-by most purchases as a way to combat the pull of immediate gratification. Small steps – but significant.

Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer