Islam, Consumerism and the Environmental Crisis
  • "Materialist consumerism has become one of the defining characteristics of western/modern societies. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses how the problem can be addressed by Islam’s ethical and moral framework.
    There are two different types of consumerism. One is associated with shopping and advertising, the other with consuming in general, which can include consuming ideas, thoughts, behaviours and lifestyles. So on one level a consumer society is one that likes to shop a lot, but on another level a consumer society is a derivative society, one that has no sense of itself other than what it consumes; this applies to knowledge, education, technology and many other things. Muslim societies at one time were highly productive, but in the past centuries they have become highly derivative; many have become consumer societies in both senses of the word. The main ideology of a consumer society, regardless of the religion or beliefs professed by its members, is that of ""consumerism,"" which states that all needs – emotional and physical – can be met by consuming, that development and survival depend on continuously consuming, and that whatever the producer has to offer is by definition desirable. In short, the consumer society is constantly shopping but seldom or never producing.
    One outcome of the widespread adoption of consumerism on a global scale is what has been called the ""environmental crisis."" Many people ignore this, largely because the word ""crisis"" has been attached to practically every modern problem, thus rendering it useless. But if anything counts as a crisis, which means a time of danger and great difficulty, then the state of the environment qualifies. In their voracious appetite for a never-ending supply of consumables to consume, consumer societies are rapidly depleting the resources of the planet upon which all humans are dependent. And the corollary of consumerism, which is the ""throw-away society,"" has choked the earth’s air, land and water with garbage and various chemical pollutants. This is not to mention the environmentally destructive wars that are coming to be fought in the name of protecting ""the American way of life,"" which is usually a euphemism for the consumer society. This type of environmental crisis is due to the modern way of life, and human beings are, in short, destroying their environment themselves.
    Consumerism destroys the environment in two ways, first by depleting resources and second by piling up garbage. So the key to understanding this aspect of consumerism is to ask why a society needs to use up so many resources and why it makes so much garbage. This, of course, is not just a problem for Muslims; it is a problem for all of humanity. But because consumerism is a cultural behaviour and embodies certain attitudes, it can be adjusted at the site of culture, which includes religion. What seems clear is that, to curtail further environmental destruction, everyone has to face this problem, one way or another. Reaching into the traditions of various religions is one way to do this. In fact, if one really looks at them carefully, most religions teach frugality and a quiet, simple, pious life. Consumerism is the opposite. It is complicated, wasteful and loud. Consumerism caters to base desires, while most religions are wary of catering to desires. The danger is that people rationalize this catering to desires in terms of ""progress"" or ""modernization,"" but this is only an illusion. Some advocates of the consumer society see this way of life as a path to freedom and a way of ""seeking knowledge,"" but this misses the point. They are not seeing consumerism in its broader contexts, and they are missing its connection to the environmental crisis. This is a simple connection to make: consumerism depletes resources and creates garbage. It can also be implicated as a cause of global inequalities between the ""haves and have nots,"" which has been consistently shown to lead to war in the name of securing resources for the consumerists."