Some of us feel entitled to live lives of material comfort. Our pursuit of
happiness puts us on a treadmill of material acquisition and conspicuous
consumption. Advertising, marketing, and peer pressure keep the treadmill
turning. Perhaps our sense of entitlement comes from a spiritual emptiness; we
hope that material acquisitions will feed our hunger for deeper meaning.
The Cost of Consumption The price we pay individually for the
goods and services we consume does not reflect their ultimate cost. The hidden
cost of irresponsible consumption is often far removed from the point of
purchase or use. It is often difficult to document. The ultimate cost includes
the price we pay up-front and the hidden price paid by present and future
generations when our actions increase human suffering and lead to the extinction
of species, degradation of the environment, and depletion of natural resources.
Our planet’s natural resources are finite. We are depleting those resources at a
rate that far exceeds the living system’s natural capacity to replenish,
cleanse, and sustain life.
We have a responsibility to the earth and all of its creatures. We need to
raise to consciousness the moral imperative of responsible consumption habits at
home, at work, and in our religious communities. Our goal should be
sustainability—a balance between the human impact on the natural world and the
world’s ability to support life indefinitely. A great deal of good work is being
done by economists, businesses, and others to implement sustainability concepts,
from which we can learn to change our thinking, habits, and practices.
Individuals, groups, private interests, and government all need to change.
Sustainability is possible when there is a dynamic balance of the economy, the
environment, and the social system in a given community.
An Ethic of Responsible Consumption The emerging ecological ethic
values conservation, demands frugality, encourages saving, and emphasizes
connectedness and community. Embracing this ethic makes socially responsible
consumption more achievable. Individuals consume according to their need,
ability, and taste; nonetheless, this consumption can, and should, be tempered
by a collective ethic valuing the interests of the greater community as much as
the entitlements of each individual.
Moral values about responsible consumption can no longer be drawn from an
ethic that assumes that our planet is available for us to exploit to fulfill our
needs and pleasures. Our global dominion is limited, and we have already begun
to encounter its limits. By continuing to follow an obsolete ethic, we are
likely to cause irreparable harm to our ecosystem. We must cast away this ethic
and begin to replenish what we take. We must work to restore and preserve what
the interdependent web of life will need to sustain itself indefinitely.
Unitarian Universalism Calls Upon Us Our Unitarian Universalist
faith calls upon us to approach the ethic of responsible consumption with a
passion for seeking truth, a thirst for making justice, a vision of
interdependence, and a willingness to re-examine our individual actions and
beliefs. Becoming responsible consumers means putting into action our religious
Principles of the inherent worth and dignity of all people and the
interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
We each begin a personal journey toward responsible consumption from a
different place. Wherever we start, we must be mindful of our behavior,
attentive to the voices and needs of others, and conscious of the natural
rhythms of the world. Our journey continues through education. Through secular
and religious education programs, we must challenge ourselves to rethink the
underlying assumptions that guide our choices. Through dialogue in small groups,
we nurture each other’s environmental consciousness and examine competing claims
of what individual responsibility actually means. Our journey is fulfilled
through activism. We will work together for legislative changes that will reduce
over-consumption, environmental degradation, and the unjust distribution of
This journey will change our lives. As we talk with our children about
advertising and peer pressure, we will discover with them innovative ways to
adjust our consumption levels, to conserve the earth's finite resources, and to
simplify our lives. We will learn more about the hidden costs of the foods we
choose to eat and the clothing we choose to wear. We will stretch the lifespans
of our appliances, computers, and cars. Before buying, we will ask ourselves if
we really need to make the purchase. When purchasing something new, we will buy
the most energy-efficient model. We will extend the recycling circle by buying
items already made of recycled materials. We will avoid purchasing products that
are wastefully packaged or produced through the exploitation of animals or human
labor. We will consider living closer to work or to public transportation. We
will ensure that our individual and congregational pension funds are invested in
socially responsible enterprises. We will pursue designation of our
congregations as "green sanctuaries."
As more of us become responsible consumers, we pave the way for systemic
change. Individual actions are not enough to reverse the relentless tide of
reckless societal consumption. Government efforts are needed to ensure the
equitable balance of private interest with the public good. Recycling,
environmental and fair labor standards, reduction of suburban sprawl, accessible
and affordable mass transportation, and reduction of the causes of global
warming—all these require the cooperation of public and private authorities.
We need to acknowledge the discomfort of accepting limitations on individual
freedom—whether voluntary or statutory. A responsible consumption ethic requires
personal as well as collective sacrifices. Many people have already simplified
their lives. They confirm that it has been a liberating process, that their
lives are more intentional, more meaningful, and happier. Prices, subsidies, and
incentives may change as a consequence of this ethic. Entire industries may
develop to utilize alternative natural resources such as wind energy, geothermal
power, and solar power. We need to lobby government officials to end subsidies
that promote the conversion of open spaces to housing subdivisions and to
increase funding to rejuvenate inner-city neighborhoods. We need to advocate
zoning that promotes a mix of retail business and residential land use.
By modeling the change in behavior that we wish to see in other people, we
not only reinforce our own enduring commitment to this ethic but also help
others to see the value of thinking and acting together. People can learn to
relish simplicity. They can learn to rely less on possessions for filling the
void in their lives. They can come to understand that socially responsible
consumption depends upon hearts, minds, and hands.
The Unitarian Universalist Association hereby urges member congregations,
affiliate organizations, individual Unitarian Universalists, and the wider
communities in which we live to embark on this noble journey. We are called to
act courageously and to tread more lightly upon the earth.
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.
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