Pope Benedict has used his annual New Year’s addresses to talk about care for the environment, one of the reasons he is sometimes called “the Green Pope.” Part of his address this year focused on the need to overcome consumerism in advanced economies, as a prerequisite to creation of green economies.
“…the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view,” Benedict wrote. “We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”
The Pope Contemplates God's Creation
Concern over consumerism has been a feature of papal encyclicals on economics for decades. But such concern has traditionally focused on the degrading effect of consumerism on the human spirit. Benedict has added environmental decline as another reason to center economic policy around something more humane and fulfilling than consumer demand.
The critique of consumerism should be home turf for religious leaders. Of all the issues on the sustainability smorgasbord, consumerism is the one most familiar to the world’s religious traditions, as noted in this year’s State of the World report. Religious leaders, after all, have warned for millennia of the dangers of excessive attachment to the material world. Moreover, consumerism is perhaps the most intractable issue on the sustainability agenda; religious people and institutions advocating for simpler lifestyles would be seen as contributing constructively and substantively to the effort to build sustainable economies.
The challenge now for religious leaders is to take seriously their own teachings on consumerism and to do so in a sustained, culture-changing way.