Cultures around the world, from those that are “rich”, to those aspiring to be rich, seem to be more and more steeped in a value system that celebrates instant gratification and a large dose of selfishness. Citizens are bombarded on a daily basis, from the moment they wake up to the minute they go to sleep, by incessant advertisements and successful media slogans, all selling the same message — buy, buy, buy because, as the adverts go, “you are worth it”. It seems that we are living in a get-rich-quick, and live-now-pay-later society. Thinking about the future and the consequences of rampant consumerism is not a priority. This culture is fast spreading in the Arabian Gulf and is causing both social and economic unease.
This “me -me-me” attitude is unsustainable in the long run, and also irresponsible, given the fragility of economic resources for future generations. More and more, it would seem, there is a growing chasm between the noble goals of tackling climate change, recycling waste, husbanding precious natural resources, sacrificing today for a brighter future for our children, with what is happening in reality.
The pace of change facing both young and old is fast and sometimes incomprehensible. For older generations in the Kingdom and the Gulf in general, gone are the days when hard work, thrift and saving for tomorrow were the norm. It seemed ingrained into them that resisting temptation of immediate self-gratification was the most likely way to succeed later on in life. And yet the young are also under pressure to conform to current fashion and trends, mostly consumer driven, or be left behind and suffer unimaginable psychological deficiencies and self-esteem. They point out, rightly, that the older generation were more cocooned from the wider world, that there was limited choice available then, and that society was “poorer” and was obliged to chose a later consumption life style for today’s gratification. Both are right in their own way, but the question here is whether the world, as a whole, can sustain the massive exploitation of the planet’s resources at current levels, and still leave something worth behind for future generations.
The miracles of modern science and technology can postpone the inevitable exhaustion of natural resources by introducing more economical ways of resource exploitation or through the introduction of synthetics and hybrid material. The most common garments worn today by a vast majority of people are a hybrid mixture of natural products like cotton, and synthetic fibers, which ensures that cotton growing is not over exhausted with declining yields.
The real issue for both young and old is how to strike a balance between the conflicting forces of short termism such as consumerism, individualism and speculative behavior, with long-term goals of social and economic harmony.
Islamic economics has an important role to play in this, as one of the foundations of Islam is that man is but a mere custodian of the earth’s natural resources and he does not own it, but that God Almighty does.
As a custodian of resources for future generations, man is then obliged not to squander resources, but use these as productively as possible for the greater social good.
In reality, modern nations seem to be engaged in the same reckless abandon of economic growth as any other society, with increasing pressure to find new jobs for those unemployed as well as those newly entering the market. To try and slow down and strike a balance that takes into account future needs and long-term social and economic investment is indeed a Herculean task for governments. And so we have the modern-day wonders of the fabled Aladdin caves — endless shopping malls, ever larger, more opulent, and more tempting than the last one built only a few months ago. Pity the poor consumer then — what is he/she supposed to do, but spend, spend, spend? Should her or she step back and even ask the question why, then all hell breaks lose. The wheels of the whole economy, and society’s current welfare, will, it seems, be put at risk.
In this bizarre Catch 22 situation, consumers who become hesitant are tempted back by cheaper credit, “no advance payments are necessary”, as well as loans to those least likely to repay if their job prospect suffer. This is not a dream — the consequences of lending to poor credit risk households the so-called, but now infamous subprime mortgage loans are still haunting financial markets around the world today. In the UK, home repossessions are at all time record highs, with homeowners having been eagerly given loans on their home equity, to “spend as they like”, only having this new found consumer lifestyle coming back to haunt them later on.
In Saudi Arabia, banks were falling over themselves to give personal loans for stock market speculation, until SAMA stepped in, and investors even sold homes and precious belongings to speculate on the illusion of ever more riches and an easy way to satisfy a consumer driven lifestyle. The party has to stop sometimes, and the clean up must begin. For future generation’s sake, the consuming party has really got to slow down now. Most of the wealth in the Gulf is still energy resource driven, despite attempts to diversify the local economies. The more and the faster the world consumes the precious energy resources of the Gulf, and addicts its citizens with mindless consumerism , instead of creating human capital for the future, the more painful will it be when the party really stops. For Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, let us start again at the family level, with socially responsible consumerism education back at center stage.
(Dr. Mohamed Ramady is a visiting associate professor, Finance and Economics, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals)