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Letting go of wealth

30 November, 1999

If we are to share the earth’s resources with everyone, we must accept a reduction in our standard of living, writes Peter McVerry, SJ

The standard of living that most of us enjoy in Ireland is beyond the dreams of the majority of the human race. We have – most of us – access to accommodation, education, income, transport, opportunities, travel, and a level of material comfort that is the envy of most other nations in the world. In case we overdo it – overdo it even by our standards – we have access to slimming classes, keep fit classes, relaxation classes, mediation classes and, if we so choose, we can study astrology and how to read the future in our tea leaves. Now, all things being equal, it is better to be comfortable than poor, better to have many opportunities than to have few.

The price of our comfort
But all things are not equal. First, our material standard of living is not accessible to much of the rest of the world. The economic growth that would be required to allow everyone on the planet to enjoy what we enjoy would smother our atmosphere, pollute our water, and heat up our planet to such an extent that life on earth would no longer be sustainable. We can only enjoy our material standard of living as long as the rest of the world remains poor. Their poverty is the price that is being paid for our comfort. Our standard of living is essentially exclusive.

Second, our standard of living is not sustainable. The economic growth required even to maintain the standard of living of the minority of the world’s population to which we belong cannot continue indefinitely. The depletion of the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, global warming, and the exhaustion of our non-renewable resources must be halted, even reversed, if we are to continue to enjoy what we are now able to enjoy. Unless we find a willingness to do so, the human race will not exist to celebrate the Third Millennium. Future generations will pay the price for our comfortableness, maybe even with their lives.

Sinful structures
If, then, our standard of living is essentially exclusive and unsustainable, if it is incapable of being shared with the rest of the human race, and if it has the potential to destroy us and everyone else on the planet, it is fair to say that we live in an immoral economic structure – a sinful structure.

‘Letting go’, then, is the essential requirement for a spirituality for the Western world. If we are to share the earth’s resources with everyone, both now and in the future, then our standard of living in the Western world must reduce – we must let go.

But the radical ‘letting go’ that is necessary is not really a serious option for us as individuals, except perhaps for a very select few. ‘Letting go’ is a recipe for poverty, homelessness and marginalistion for us as individuals. Those with families and children cannot impose such a lifestyle on their loved ones – unless they want to lose them! As individuals, we are trapped in this sinful structure and we are unable to escape from it. ‘Letting go’ is something that we as a society must do together. More and more of us must be converted to the belief that we must live more simply if our world is to become more just. We in the West must join in solidarity with one another in order to let go.

Resist consumer temptation
However, that does not mean we can do nothing. What we can do, as individuals, is to resist the consumer temptation to buy more and bigger and faster and better, to resist the pressure to find our happiness in the purchase and consumption of material goods.

We need to do this, not only that others may live, but that we too may live more authentically, because the consumer culture seeks to convince us to seek our security in our material wealth – in our house, our job, our car, our bank balance. Of course, this is a massive con job, as some have found out to their cost. We do not have total control over our house, our job or our income, and we cannot guarantee their future. To find our security in our material possessions is to build our house on sand.

Our security, if it is to be a genuine security, must be rooted in something that is unchangeable. Otherwise, it is a false security. And what is unchangeable in this world? Nothing, except that I am loved, infinitely and unconditionally, by God. Throughout life and into eternal life, that is the one unchanging reality. To live simply is to allow ourselves the possibility of rooting our security in the love of God. To be trapped in the ethos of the consumer culture is to seek, with an increasingly restless heart, to find our security in what is always changing, in what is always insecure.

We must let go so that all people can live, and live life to the fullest. In the process, we will find our liberation.

This article first appeared in Reality (April 2003), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.