Acedia and Consumerism

I am sitting in a board game café as I write this month’s column. I have my phone on the table in front of me, and I am surrounded by young people, most of whom are using computers and/or are holding phones in their hands. Our phones and our computers – not to mention our clothes, our cars, our homes, and even our leisure activities – tell the world who we are.

David Wilson from Oak Park, Illinois, USA [CC BY 2.0 (]

To use Marxist language, the commodities we use and put on display for others to see and, hopefully, admire (whether they are phones or designer label sweatshirts) are both status symbols and part of our self-identities: they tell others what we can afford, what we value, and they tell us who we are, and serve as signifiers that distinguish us from other people.

There is something entirely perverse about this: the stuff we own should not tell others so much about us, and it should certainly not make us feel better or worse about ourselves. That my phone is an iPhone tells those around me something about who I am, whether I like it or not: either that I rank among the “sheeple” who will pay a premium price for a mediocre product, or – if they have an iPhone themselves – that I am a fellow traveler down the same consumer highway.

That I have the phone I have because my old flip phone finally died and Koodo gave me the one I am now using for free is irrelevant for their instantaneous judgments about me. And I, of course, entirely unconsciously, make similar judgments about them, based on the phones they use and the clothes they wear. That our possessions are both status-signifiers and part of what constitutes our personal identity indicates yet another way in which acedia has come to characterize our present cultural moment.


I have been exploring acedia – a strange lack of care that can afflict us when we recognize that most of our activities are unimportant, our achievements ephemeral, our lives finite and death inescapable.

Winning photo in the Black Friday #OptOutside Photo Challenge 2015, taken at Chippokes Plantation State Park, Virginia. (Virginia State Parks [CC BY 2.0 (

Winning photo in the Black Friday #OptOutside Photo Challenge 2015, taken at Chippokes Plantation State Park, Virginia. (Virginia State Parks, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris argues that acedia has come into its own in contemporary North America, and that one of the ways in which we try to shield ourselves from its effects is through frantic activity – classes which purport to teach us how to breathe, on-line poker games, endless texting on our cell phones – and rampant consumerism.

Norris, who grew up in Hawai’i, reports that she:

…once heard a woman say that she didn’t like the island of Kaua’i, because ‘there weren’t any places to shop.’ The tragedy of her hubris goes deep: she is the sort of consumer the tourist industry avidly courts by inserting generic shopping malls into breathtaking tropical valleys.

Norris asks:

How can we grow so insensitive to the world around us? Acedia is at work in us when we prefer buying things to witnessing the beauty of nature, ‘reading’ catalogs instead of books, or lingering in a museum store instead of touring the museum itself.

The focus on our possessions – buying them, caring for them, finding space for them in our homes, imbuing them with a deeper meaning than they are capable of sustaining (my iPhone doesn’t really have anything at all to do with who I am) has at least three harmful effects, each of which has an ethical dimension.


First, investing meaning in consumer objects sets us up to run on a never-ending hamster wheel of shopping and then displaying what we have bought: my new phone will be out-of-date when the next model comes out, and will ultimately become obsolete, so I will have to buy another… and another… and another.

Black Friday shoppers. Photo by Powhusku from Laramie, WY, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Black Friday shoppers. (Photo by Powhusku from Laramie, WY, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Moreover, the pleasure we get from buying something new is fleeting, and we will quickly have to shop again if we want to experience it once more. It is this rampant consumerism – which partly results from the period of late capitalism in which we live, which produces far more goods than any of us could ever need, and partly from the acedia which afflicts many of us and which has turned shopping into a leisure activity – that has also spawned a multitude of consumer products designed to help us organize our stuff.

The irony is inescapable: we need to buy more stuff because we have too much stuff.

Second, as Norris observes, when we are consumed by buying things (and the connection between “consumed” and “consumer” is no accident) our attention is drawn from more important things. As Norris puts it:

When acedia has so thoroughly possessed us, making life seem so dull that only artificial stimulation [like the stimulation we get from shopping] can get our attention, it may be crazy to suggest that the ordinary rhythms of time, the passing of day and night, have something to teach us, or that there is a world to be revealed when the mall is closed, the electric power has failed, and it is too dark to see anything but shadows and stars. Cast back on our lonely, raw, and wounded selves, we may find that nobody is home.


Third, our consumerism is a prime contributor to the environmental crisis it is increasingly clear we are now facing. From plastic microbeads in the oceans — killing the tiniest organisms in the food chain which means the deaths of creatures higher up the food chain, which results in ocean deserts — to our continued dependence on polluting fossil fuels to climate change, our world is becoming increasingly contaminated, and may eventually become unlivable.

Mugisha, a 12 year old working in a coltan mine, Numbi, DR Congo - Copy rights: Carlos Villalon /

Mugisha, a 12 year old working in a coltan mine, Numbi, DR Congo – Copy rights: Carlos Villalon / Coltan is an ore used in consumer electronics like cell phones.

From this perspective, my phone – and all our phones, and our cars, and the junky knick-knacks that clutter our homes – are not only not items from which we should derive our sense of who we are, they are commodities that are contributing to the destruction of our planet.

A cell phone contains rare metals that people will kill for, resources that can never be replicated or recycled, and their manufacture requires those who make them to work with toxic chemicals that are making them sick.

That I will have to replace my phone at some point because it will become obsolete and unable to work with the new networks that will have come into existence since it was made is an environmental tragedy; that many of us replace our phones long before they have become obsolete simply because a newer version has been released and we desire to own it because we have tied our selfhood, our sense of who we are, to the kind of phone we use, is an environmental crime.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.