Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

God’s Provision and Our Consumerism

Kerry Nicholson





Kerry Nicholson from the South Belfast Quakers reflects on the issue of consumerism in the next blog in our series on Climate Justice.

“Would you like that supersized?” 

“You are now eligible for a free upgrade!” 

“The economy grew by 0.5% last year”

“Buy One Get One Free”

Replace, renew, change, expand – these are seen as the norms in our society now. Doing well individually and as a society seems to be measured in the volume of items we have and the larger the better. Change is seen as great, and after all, we have worked hard and deserve some nice extras in life – the latest mobile phone; a bigger house with a larger garden for the kids to play in; a comfy SUV with heated seats as it will help my sore hip; that new top is just perfect and will go with my trousers.

Did you know that Friday 10th May this year was EU Overshoot Day? That’s the date by which we in Europe have used up nature’s budget for the entire year (in Ireland it is even earlier being 27th April). EU Overshoot Day is where, if everybody in the world had the same Ecological Footprint as the average EU resident – emitting as much carbon, consuming as much food, timber and fibres, and occupying as much built–up space – Friday 10th May would be the date by which humanity would have used as much from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year. For the rest of the year, humanity would have to live off depleting the natural capital of the Earth. This means more carbon emissions than the planet’s natural ecosystems can absorb, more biomass destroyed through deforestation than nature can regenerate, depleted fishing grounds, soil erosion and biodiversity loss. Recent Extinction Rebellion protests around the world have helped to remind us that we are on a collision course with this living planet, and that collision date is getting closer and closer. How can we have all these nice things around us and not contribute to Overshoot Day? How can we continue expanding and upgrading in a world of finite resources? How do we respond to these challenges? 

In the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) we have a number of ‘testimonies’ that are about the way we try to lead our lives and help us put our faith into practice. The testimonies are Truth & Integrity, Equality & Community, Peace, and Simplicity. Each Quaker searches for how the testimonies can best be expressed in their own life. One of these testimonies is ‘simplicity’, however, to live simply is not that simple!

To live simply requires effort to resist

I love technology and get excited by the latest gadgets. A new mobile will work faster, do more in a faster speed and this pleases me. But like all things, the honeymoon period of excitement, happiness and joy eventually fades. It’s a fleeting experience that is not sustained. The phone gets scratches on it and the processor slows down. So, I start looking for another newer, faster mobile, and the process starts over again. My excitement starts all over again. However sustained joy will never come from purchasing things. Our joy is temporary. However, there is a joy in doing the opposite, in trying to practice moderation and restraint, even trying de–accumulation! To live simply requires us to resist the temptation to define our place in society by acquiring possessions. 

To live simply is counter–cultural

Upgrade; Supersize; BOGOF; Because you’re worth it! – we are constantly bombarded with opportunities to increase and use more. The structure of our economy is based on this model of more is better. However, if we are to live ‘simply’ we need to focus on needs, not luxuries. We need to change our mindset and attitudes to not pursue profit or gather possessions for ourselves but to focus on what is important, and that is relationships – relationships with other people and with the living world we are part of. 

British Quaker Audrey Urry says ‘All species and the Earth itself have interdependent roles within Creation. Humankind is not the species, to whom all others are subservient, but one among many. All parts, all issues, are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, the web of creation could be described as of three–ply thread: wherever we touch it we affect justice and peace and the health of all everywhere.’

To live simply, involves us constantly challenging the way we live and what our true needs are, and especially how our own standard of living is sometimes achieved at the expense of others – all of life on Earth. It means standing aside from the fuelling of wants and manufacturing of new desires.

To live simply is needed, if you love our living, created world

Jonathan Dale in ‘Quaker Social Testimony in Personal and Corporate Life’ says ‘I have made some changes in my life, but I haven’t, for example, got rid of my mobile phone. I haven’t turned into an ascetic, nor do I think that this would be right for me. I’ve begun to realise, if only in a small way, the truth that the whole of our life is sacramental. Perhaps especially the boring, everyday bits (what we do with our rubbish, how we get to work, what we eat for our lunch).’

We are a part of this created world, so everything we do has an effect on other parts of it. When we begin to think about the way we dispose of a plastic wrapper from a packet of biscuits can be as important to this planet as deforestation in the Amazon, this brings a new perspective which reminds us that everything is interdependent. We are not an island (figuratively–speaking, though geographically we are!). We cannot continue to think that any action we take will have no consequences. We cannot just think of only ourselves anymore.

North American Quaker John Woolman said, ‘the produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age’. Believe it or not, this was written in 1772. Sadly nearly 250 years later we are still struggling to learn that ‘supporting outward greatness’ is selfish and wrong.

In 1979 Richard Foster, founder of Renovaré and author in the Quaker tradition, outlined his ten controlling principles for the outward expression of simplicity. ‘First, buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Second, reject anything that is producing an addiction in you. Third, develop a habit of giving things away. De–accumulate. Fourth, refuse to be propagandised by the custodians of modern gadgetry. Fifth, learn to enjoy things without owning them. Sixth, develop a deeper appreciation for the creation. Seventh, look with a healthy scepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. Eighth, obey Jesus’ injunction about plain, honest speech. Ninth, reject anything that will breed the oppression of others. Tenth, shun whatever would distract you from your main goal.They should not be viewed as laws but as one attempt to flesh out the meaning of simplicity into twentieth–century life.’ 

I have a fair bit of work to do to live simply and choose contentment in my life. But I encourage us all to make a start. To live simply is about acknowledging that we are part of a beautiful, diverse, interdependent created world and we care about all parts of that world.