Emo Ergo Sum?

America is a country of consumers. We live in a consumeristic society that believes in the age-old maxim: Emo ergo sum—I buy, therefore I am. In his new essay in Harvard Magazine [.pdf version], Jonathan Shaw discusses the risks of this capitalistic American dream—a dream that could easily become a nightmare (and some might say already has). He begins by writing:
Consumerism is as American as cherry pie. Plasma TVs, iPods, granite countertops: you name it, we’ll buy it. To finance the national pastime, Americans have been borrowing from abroad on an increasingly stunning scale. In 2006, the infusion of foreign cash required to close the gap between American incomes and consumption reached nearly 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), leaving the United States with a deficit in its current account (an annual measure of capital flows to and from the rest of the world) of more than $850 billion. In other words, the quantity of goods and services that Americans consumed last year in excess of what we produced was close to the entire annual output of Brazil.
Shaw focuses on the problem of sustainability: how long can this continue? He quotes Stanford professor of international peace, Jeffry Frieden, who puts the problem in a concrete way:
The United States, for example, was “the world’s biggest debtor for a hundred years,” Frieden notes, “but the money was used to build the railroads and the canals and the factories and to improve the ports and to build our cities. It was used productively, and it worked. The question to ask now is not, ‘Is the country living beyond its means?’ The question is, ‘Is the money going to increase the productive capacity of the economy?’ Because if it just goes to getting everybody another iPod,” he warns, “then unless iPods make people more productive, there is going to be trouble down the road when the debt has to be serviced.”
While economists and politicians focus on whether this “brave new world” of globalism and consumerism run amok can last, I think it raises a whole different set of ethical-theological questions for the church. It is often quite easy for Christian pacifists to argue against war, since they aren’t on the battlefield (not that this detracts from the pacifist position). But it is not nearly so easy for American Christians to argue against consumerism, since we are all complicit in the idolatry of Stuff. In our own different ways, we conform to the maxim: Emo ergo sum.

So what do we do about it? I honestly don’t have an answer here. We certainly cannot say, “Don’t buy anything,” like we can say, “Don’t commit any violence against another person.” But what can we say? How can the church embody a communal life which witnesses to the God who gives gratuitously—the God who forgives debt and gives abundantly beyond all need or measure? How can we live in such a way that our lives expose the emptiness of “emo ergo sum”? How can our life in community embody the alternative axiom: Christus vivit ergo sum?


WTM said…
Thanks for this, David. I've been growing increasingly concerned about these matters over the past few years. It wouldn't be so worrisome except that politicians and the American public in general seem to have no desire to address the issue with any seriousness.