Joan Bakewell: Conspicuous consumption is emptying life of meaning

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The Independent Online

It took just 10 minutes to shift 8.9m from one owner to another. Compare and contrast with how long it takes the UN to get resources to the starving of Darfur or Bangladesh. Imagine the difference one Faberg egg could make to the economies of many countries. Instead, at auction this week, a Faberg egg in screamingly bad taste was bought by a private Russian collector, setting a world record price for a Russian art object. There's a hot market these days as Russia's richest seek to return to their homeland the paintings and artefacts created for the czars.

The extravagence of the world's wealthy strives to reach ever greater heights, and is in full spate at Christmas. How often do we see the headline/advertisement/poster proclaiming "for the person who has everything!" It's usually a come-on to buy things we can't afford for people who don't need them.

How did it get this bad? It seems that once everyone in a particular group (bankers, film stars, czars) has satisfied the need for food, clothing and a roof, they differentiate their social status by the command they have over non-essentials. Thus, film stars compete to see how many of their hair stylists, manicurists and the body-image mob go with them on location; Russian oligarchs collect football clubs. Eventually there's so much of everything washing around in such circles that crazily exotic items are invented, their number controlled, their prices extravagant, and their sales built on human gullibility. Hence the Faberg egg. Hence also the thousand pound handbags, and Damien Hirst's diamond skull, Hirst no doubt claiming his 50m artwork is an ironic comment on the whole business.

Peter Carl Faberg wasn't being ironic at all. He created a workshop of brilliant and inventive craftsmen who fed the middlebrow tastes of the Russian court with dazzlingly clever creations that reflect skill without art, creativity without inspiration. Stalin sold off a job lot of them when he had the chance. The real irony, and one for our times, is that these Russian eggs were originally created as Easter eggs to be presented as gifts on the great festival of the Orthodox Church. Thus was consumerism conflated with devotion long before our own day. We have simply moved further along the same path. Christmas today is witness to the total triumph of consumerism over belief.

I write as a non-believing member of the Church of England, and citizen of a largely secular country. The religious curriculum in schools now embraces the need to teach all faiths, and has less time for the detailed study of the Christian narrative. Even so, everyone, of any faith and none, knows that the Jesus story tells of him humbly born, preaching simple virtues, extolling the selfless life of love and service. He also lost his temper with the traders and put down the mighty from their seat. This is not a message whose significance is lost simply because the virgin birth and Christ coming back from the dead are no longer credible. We need an ethic to live by and the Christian message is better than most... indeed has much in common with other faiths, and with its own secular successor, humanism.

Extravagant consumerism is the enemy of us all. Look around at the damage it is doing at all levels of society. It is producing a people in hock to their credit cards, who fear their flimsy savings will be swallowed by banks themselves taking unwarranted shortcuts to wealth. The housing market boomed because people strove to move ever higher up the property ladder, scarcely pausing to pity those heaped at the bottom for want of social housing. Taxation is seen as a social evil, rather than the fair way to provide collectively what we all need roads, schools, hospitals and such.

I am no killjoy: buying things is fun, giving presents feels good. I live in a nice house and enjoy life's comforts. I intend to enjoy Christmas. But to see it merely as the occasion of buying and spending, wrapping and swapping, is not enough.

For six years I have been broadcasting interviews with people about their beliefs. I have talked with Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and more. From them I have learned of the infinite number of ways that the need for a meaning to life finds expression. For the current series, going out over Christmas, I interviewed Jim Crace, author of the remarkable Quarantine, about Jesus' days in the desert, a novel that fluttered the dovecotes among many Christians.

Crace speaks of the need for a mystical atheism, a belief system that embraces the inner thoughtfulness of faith without its supernatural assumptions. Atheism is too often thought of as negative, a soulless absence of believing. For him it isn't so: it is full of love for humanity, and the world we live in, the wider universe, the miracles of science. If Christmas loses its sense of awe at all things, and becomes merely an orgy of self-indulgence, we are all losers believers and non-believers alike.