According to Hartman, the goal of her book is to use Christian tradition and historical and contemporary sources to look for “an effective and explicit practical ethics of consumption” (5). She says what many of us already know, that for conscientious consumers, shopping can be fraught with difficulties, and that most of us still enjoy that which we consume.
Hartman distinguishes between consumerism, an ethos that places great value on shopping and consumption with attention to their moral dimension, with consumption, the physical flow of materials and goods in our lives. Insisting that consumption is morally relevant, the author seeks to explore how buying, having, or using something has an impact of our spiritual state and on our relationship with others. “One act of consumption may have morally relevant effects on the nonhuman biosphere, on other humans, and on consumers themselves” (16).
Hartman describes dismissively the approaches of David Schwartz (author of Consuming Choices) and David Goleman (author of How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything), while claiming that “a particular body of accumulated wisdom, the Christian tradition,” is the real answer. She then lists the four considerations of Christian consumption, viz., to avoid sin, to embrace creation, to love the neighbor, and to envision the future. These considerations form the basis of the book’s four chapters (19-21). I must admit that both the dismissive attitude and the insistence on the wisdom of Christianity alone raised rather large red flags. Hartman admits that she considers her audience her “fellow consumers who are affluent enough to have abundant choices” when consuming (28-29).
Throughout the book, Hartman draws on “virtuous exemplars,” e.g., Francis of Assisi and John Woolman in the “to avoid sin” chapter, where the emphasis is on the renunciation of luxury. The “to embrace creation” chapter is more challenging, since the author draws on diverse sources, including proponents of “prosperity theology.” As one involved in the link between ecology and spirituality, I found this approach questionable. More than half of the chapter is given to a presentation of various approaches to this “consumption is good” approach; this made the reading quite tedious.
The opening of the “to love the neighbor” chapter is far different, a summary of the work and thought of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker Movement. The Workers seem appropriate here since, to this day, they both serve the poor and embrace voluntary poverty.
The “to envision the future” chapter tackles head-on the critique that the way Christians view eschatology leads to a “use up the planet” mentality. Hartman observes (and I agree) that such a mentality is in conflict with the biblical view of creation and humanity’s place in it. Here Hartman uses Sabbath-Keeping and Eucharist as templates. Although they work for her purposes, this is another instance that seems to reflect exclusionary thinking.
While there is much to applaud in Hartman’s effort to design an ethics of consumption, it is hard to recommend it unconditionally. As she herself notes, this is a book directed at the more affluent among us; it is also nearly exclusively Christian. The author also seems to think that those who might pick up this book know nothing of consumerism, of the meaning and value of fair trade, and of the rich wisdom traditions outside of Christianity who provide us with deep spiritual guidance in these matters. The blurbs on the back cover come from people who have this reviewer’s great respect. Perhaps they saw more here that I do.