Religion & Liberty Online

How humans became consumers

consumption-foodConsumption is arguably the first (or maybe second) economic concept mentioned in the Bible. After creating Adam and Eve and giving them the cultural mandate (“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”), God says to them,

“I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” (Gen. 1:29)

Although we are all descended from these first consumers, we often take a dim view of the idea of consumption. Even the term itself has taken on ugly connotations. (Since the Middle Ages, the word “consumption” has referred to wasting diseases, such as tuberculosis, which “consume” the body.)

But consumption plays a vital role in our lives—a role that was largely unappreciated until the 19th century. In The Atlantic, Frank Trentmann has a superb short history of consumption and how the moral assessment changed, due largely to the influence of Christians:

In the 1630s, the Dutch polymath Caspar Barlaeus praised trade for teaching people to appreciate new things, and such secular arguments for the introduction of new consumer products—whether through innovation or importation—were reinforced by religious ones. Would God have created a world rich in minerals and exotic plants, if He had not wanted people to discover and exploit them? The divine had furnished man with a “multiplicity of desires” for a reason, wrote Robert Boyle, the scientist famous for his experiments with gases. Instead of leading people astray from the true Christian path, the pursuit of new objects and desires was now justified as acting out God’s will. In the mid-18th century, Smith’s close friend David Hume completed the defense of moderate luxury. Far from being wasteful or ruining a community, it came to be seen as making nations richer, more civilized, and stronger.

By the late 18th century, then, there were in circulation many of the moral and analytical ingredients for a more positive theory of consumption.

Read more . . .

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).