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05 February 2009

Waking up from the consumer dream

It’s 07:49am and I’m standing on an escalator, flanked on both sides by streaming commuters and flashing LCD screens. Easyjet suggest I go skiing. Armani want me to know that their new mobile phone has ‘night effect’, whatever that might be. I deserve more TV channels, and Virgin would love to supply them to me. I am barely an hour into my day, and already I have seen dozens of these visions of commodified happiness. Where, in all this buzz of hype, is the promise of real life?

The consumer dream is, in essence, the promise that happiness will come to us through our consumer choices. I will be a more fulfilled person if I have a larger house, a faster car, and newer clothes. I will feel better about myself, and others will like me more.

On paper, it looks patently false and insulting to our intelligence. And yet somehow we’re all drawn into it, to one degree or another. The advertisers, after 60 years of their dark arts, are well practiced at picking up our every insecurity, tapping our hidden desires, and appealing to our deepest needs to be loved and accepted.

Needless to say, consumerism offers us happiness, value and glamour, but delivers only dissatisfaction and craving for more. And in that brief moment between the promise of happiness and the reality of dissatisfaction, something has to be consumed – used up, spent, wasted - another tree, a pint of oil, a bucket of water or an hour of a sweatshop worker’s time.


As Christians, we have a different reality, a higher purpose than this endless cycle of distraction and gratification. We know who we are in Christ, and we express that identity through our love for each other, not our choice of logos. We are at liberty to live simply, because our sense of value doesn’t come from what we own. It comes from the knowledge that we’re made in the image of God.

The first step to living more simply and more sustainably is to see the consumer dream for the hollow promise that it is. Then we can refuse it, and as we turn from it, we find something a whole lot better.


Consumerism runs on dissatisfaction, on convincing us that we’re inadequate and lacking. In consequence, we spend more time mourning the things we haven’t got and making plans to acquire them than we do enjoying what we already have.

What if we slowed down a little? Took the time to look around us, to live in real time and with all our senses - to savour life in all its multi-dimensional fullness? When we appreciate and value what we have, the things we haven’t got have no power over us. Simple living is not about sacrifice, denying ourselves and doing without - it’s about freedom.


I spend as much time relating to objects and machines as I do to fellow human beings. I type, text, call, press buttons, operate appliances. I am online, and the world responds to the click of my mouse finger. The offline world is in danger of seeming clunky and frustrating by comparison. My shoelaces knot themselves, it rains, my keys evade my fingers at the bottom of my bag for just a nanosecond longer than I’d like. I have so little patience with the world, let alone other people and their needs.

I need to connect more, to be present to each moment. I need other people. A friend offline is a friend indeed. I need community. It is only in community with others that we are really ourselves, only here that life happens.


Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us live with untold luxury when compared to the billion people who struggle to put food on the table. Generosity changes our perspective on that inequality, and gives purpose to our wealth. As Paul tells the Corinthians, they have been “made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.”

We can open our homes, offer the spare seats in our cars, cook an extra portion or two. Our money, our time, our things, all take on a new dynamic when we embrace generosity. They become opportunities to bless, ways to extend a welcome, resources for living and loving.


The consumer dream is best resisted together, which is why the Breathe network exists. It’s a place to meet and share stories about simpler, more generous living. If you’d like to be part of it, join us for the Breathe Conference 2009 on April 25th, at St Paul’s Hammersmith, London. See www.breathenetwork.org for details.

Jeremy Williams is a friend of Breathe, a writer, blogger and seeker of a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle. He lives in Luton with his wife Louise and divides his time between programme development for SGM Lifewords, and writing on social and environmental issues.