The news from Porter Ranch, California was either funny, sad, or both — depending on your point of view. Apparently a female shopper pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers waiting for the local Wal-Mart to open at 10 PM on Thanksgiving Day 2011. The scene erupted in screams and chaos. At least twenty people complained of burning eyes and skin.
At another Wal-Mart — this one in Buckeye, Alabama — violent pushing and shoving in the video game section, and suspicion of shoplifting, resulted in a grandfather being tasered and bloodied by police.
On Black Friday last year in Buffalo, New York, a man was trampled by crowds surging into a Target store opening at 4 AM. The same day, in Madison, Wisconsin, a woman was arrested at a Toys ‘R’ Us store after she cut in line and threatened to shoot other shoppers who complained.
Back in 2008, in Valley Stream, New York, around 2,000 Wal-Mart shoppers waited all night for the store to open at 5:00 a.m. When it did, the crowd broke down the door and trampled a 34-year-old employee to death, refusing to stop when other employees tried to help the fallen employee. Shoppers complained that they had been waiting in the cold all night and weren’t going to wait any longer. Even after police showed up, shoppers kept pouring in, shoving officers aside. More injuries resulted, including a pregnant woman who was taken to a local hospital.
A similar stampede occured at a Wal-Mart near Columbus, Ohio in 2006, when shoppers rushing through the doors at the Black Friday opening pinned employees against stacks of merchandise. The same year, nine shoppers in a California mall were injured, including a senior citizen who had to be hospitalized when crowds rushed to grab gift certificates being dropped from the ceiling.
Are these isolated cases of consumerism gone horribly wrong? Well, as far as I’m concerned, consumerism itself has gone horribly wrong in this country.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I like a good consumer item as much as the next person; but deep down, I’m embarrassed to live in a country where people act this stupid over video games and gift certificates.
A poem by William Wordsworth comes to mind:
“The world is too much with us late and soon.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
Consumerism is bad for us. That is the message of a new book by James A. Roberts entitled “Shiny Objects: Why we spend money we don’t have in search of happiness we can’t buy.” Roberts presents evidence that obsessive focus on buying stuff — requiring many hours of stressful work — comes at the expense of well-being, self-acceptance, personal relationships, community involvement, and physical health.
I would further argue that out-of-balance consumerism damages not only individual lives, but the national economy and the environment as well.
In the USA, consumption has outpaced production for decades. We buy a lot, and produce little. As U.S. families teeter on bankruptcy, our local, state and national governments teeter on insolvency. Of course, this is reflected in our trade deficits with countries like China, where thrift is still a virtue. We try to push the Chinese towards more of a consumer-oriented economy, while they (with their thriving production-oriented economy) lend us trillions of dollars.
I think it’s fair to say that, at least in economic terms, China has been kicking our asses for decades. They produce; we consume. They are getting rich; we are going bankrupt.
However we have one thing in common with the Chinese: both of our nations top the list of countries doing the most damage to the world’s ecosystem, consuming vastly disproportionate shares of world resources such as fuels, minerals and lumber, and producing vastly disproportionate shares of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
Consumerism: bad for people, bad for countries, bad for the world’s ecosystem.
This Black Friday, I stayed home. I know, I’m a bad consumer. So sue me.