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August 29, 2016

Last year in his encyclical Laudato Si' (LS), Pope Francis challenged every aspect of society that contributes to the threat, not only to sustainability, but to human life on the planet - the "throwaway culture," the system of production and consumption, and the system of power and domination which creates consumerism. He urged that reliance on fossil fuels needs to be progressively replaced, "without delay."

Lifestyles need to change, but will it take a global catastrophe for than to happen?

Erik Assadourian, in the 2010 edition of the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World, argued that consumerism is not a natural state of affairs; it is a modern creation. "Businesses found ways to coax more consumption out of people," he wrote. In France, by the late 18th century, goods once considered luxuries - soap, coffee and sugar - were seen as necessities.

A vast expansion of consumerism came after the Second World War when governments chose to fill the gap created by the disappearance of the massive war economy by stimulating consumption. Since then, economic growth has become an article of blind faith.

Yet, the belief that the economy can go on expanding indefinitely needs to be overthrown. So does the assumption that having more stuff makes a person happier. As does the belief that a high income, large home and frequent overseas travel are sure signs of success.

Assadourian contends that just as the culture of consumption was created over a long period, it can also be gradually replaced through the same institutions that created it - media, education, government and business.

The issue has been widely recognized, but to date the response has been more rhetoric than action - what another Worldwatch author, Michael Renner, calls "sustainababble."

The impetus for a sustainable economy will come less from government regulation and shifts in business behaviour than from a new culture arising from a changed mindset. The media and school system must unmask the unquestioned beliefs that underlie the consumer mentality and foster an ethic of living together in communion.

The emphasis on communion comes from Pope Francis who sees consumerism as rooted in individualism. "When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases" (LS 204).

Humans, however, are able to rise above ourselves and start anew. We have the ability to form bonds of community and to act for the common good, rather than individual desires.

This is a spirituality of respecting God as creator, of creation as a gift and of ourselves as stewards, rather than owners, of that gift. But will that spirituality spread through global society? People must buy into it and form bonds with like-minded others. Whether that happens is up to us.