February 10, 2011

In the Land of the Giants

It is a well known fact that the rise and fall of civilizations can be tracked in their art and architecture.  I learned about this in my art history courses in University and found it utterly fascinating.  The wealthier and more powerful a civilization became the more decorative and ornate its art and architecture and the more trampled upon became its lower classes.  Think European rococo architecture with its elaborate ornamentation in the 18th century and the subsequent French Revolution. Think the Roman Empire with its coliseums and palaces and its equally famous decline and fall.  And there exist countless examples amongst the Central and South American civilizations as well.

I have heard grumblings recently in the media and other places about our place as a civilization in terms of the aforementioned lifespan.  We in the western world and to some degree those in parts of the east exist in a somewhat blinding swirl of excess.  Everywhere we turn there are examples of bigger, more, higher, faster, stronger, fancier, busier, richer, but chewed up and spat out from that swirl are equally noticable examples of the lesser, smaller, slower, weaker, disenfranchised, disillusioned, poorer and more desperately in debt. The phrase, "Something's gotta give" springs to mind. While I wouldn't say this excess is necessarily expressed in our art - I don't know enough about the present art world, it is expressed in our architecture:  endless luxury highrises, big box stores and mega-casinos, and in our technology and design:  cellphones that do everything but tie our shoes for us (although I am sure there is a app for that), personal hot drink machines which read the barcode of each single serving plastic 'pod' and concoct the perfect cappucino for us, and endless disposable cleaning products with the catchy phrase:  'just use, and toss!' (without a thought for the landfill).

I fear that this swirl of excess is causing our society to lose our footing and our perspective.  Last week I delivered a letter to my municipal council expressing my concern about the amending of a bylaw which would allow the opening of another liquor store in our community.  While I used the fact of the well known local problems with addictions in our community and the drawing away of business from the several other liquor outlets, not to mention the downtown core in the area, to support my argument, in my heart of hearts I knew that my objections to the new business mainly stemmed from my sometimes puritanical aversion to excess, ie:  did we NEED another liquor store?  No.

I feel exactly the same way about the brand new Walmart Supercenter in the nearby mid-sized city.  There are already several large grocery and department stores serving the city, with some of them Canadian owned with good reputations for treating their employees well.  It's not like any of these large stores have ridiculously long lineups at any time but Christmas and summer long weekends.  Did the area need yet another supermarket/department store to serve the population?  Absolutely not.  But people will shop at the new Walmart because they are convinced the prices are lower - at what cost, though?  Their produce is often overpackaged as if it were something other than food and trucked in from faraway lands, and their clothing line cheaply made in sweatshops.  I know senior citizens and sleep-deprived moms might appreciate the one-stop shopping of a Walmart Supercenter, so I will concede on that point if I must, but I would argue that our Canadian Superstore offers almost all the same products and services with more of an emphasis on groceries.

Furthermore, many people I know will forgo the Walmart entirely in favour of driving even further west to the nearest Costco, where a membership for the privilege of shopping there will cost fifty dollars.  Costco shoppers are a dedicated lot.  They buy their clothing, televisions, computers, bulk-sized food products, furniture, garden supplies, all at Costco.  Once on the way back from an event in Abbotsford, the friend I carpooled with, a Costco member, stopped there to pick up a few things.  I had not been in a Costco for many years.  My thought was immediate:  if I owned a restaurant I might want to shop here, for everything was in huge quantities, but for my family of six?  It would be too easy for me to lose perspective.  Years ago my eldest sister once warned me against the buying of groceries is such large quantities.  'The more you buy, the more you'll eat', and it is true!  When I bought the 2 kilogram bag of tortilla chips and the 2 litre jug of salsa, I ate much more of it than was good for me.  Everywhere I looked in Costco there were triple sized boxes of everything from cereal to diapers.  I felt like I was in the Land of the Giants.  I half expected to see Hagrid come around the corner with a triple package of chicken legs to feed his pet dragon.  For a nation of overeaters, these supercenters do little to help, though for the truly organized and disciplined I suppose the value can be good for the money, even with the extra fuel needed to get there (?).

People will argue with me that it is all about choice, not consumptiveness.  I agree, some choice is good and democratic, but too much is just confusing and wasteful.  One only needs to go in a liquidation store to see what happens with all the junk nobody needed to buy when it was first new.  The number of large second hand stores such as Value Village also reflects the amount of cheap quality throw-away clothing that is produced in the world.  While some people must routinely clear out their accumulation of clutter, still others have psychological problems which cause them to buy and hoard stuff until their homes are bursting at the roof joints.  I don't want to come across as hypocritical, because I am a dedicated buyer of second hand books, vintage dishes and clothing, so I benefit from other's purchasing and am just as guilty as many other people purely by association and habit.  My objection is not to people having what they have and enjoying it, it is against buying what we truly do not need for happiness or survival and placing too little value on quality versus quantity.

I am not about to join my voice to the doomsday club, I have great hopes for society as more and more people are choosing to live in humbler dwellings, grow their own food, walk or take public transit, etc., but with the rumour of forty more Walmart Supercenters going up in Canada, there is cause for concern and activism.  Globally, I am afraid, unless something happens to stop it, we will continue to be the giants, greedily stuffing our faces and plundering the earth to fill our coffers while stomping on or ignoring the 'little people' down below while they only ask for a dignified way to carry on living.  We shouldn't be surprised when little Jack and his magic beanstalk infiltrate our cozy swirl and run away with the goose that lays the golden eggs.  It might even be good for us in the long run.

When I was looking for an image for this post I found the one above - the ad for an actual television show from long ago called The Land of the Giants - so I used it. 


  1. This post conveys a lot of authentic concern. It seems that if the almighty dollar (Canadian or U.S.) is honoured (honored) everything is right with the world. I like how you point in new, vital directions.

  2. You need to think how cash revolves in the local society for the why of Walmart, and the other superstores for that matter. What they do by lower prices they actually expand employment. This even though they cause the closing of many small shops.
    The danger with them is in the siphoning of that spare cash that allows entrepreneurial spirit.
    Say it takes 80% of available cash to run an area, it's that 20% that causes new business OR the existence of the Rococo and Baroque. All the same though, re Walmart and the Superstores, the small shops were as likely to bleed all the liquid cash out of an area as are them.
    On the local pub. Is it not better that people can walk home rather than drive. While, if it's a bottle shop. Is it not better if a bottle or two of beer or wine is consumed that it be done at home.
    I hope that the local food movement gets a hell of a lot more traction. And that people really cop on to the fact that they are eating twice too much. Remember as a kid when a chicken would feed a family. Now people buy a frozen bag of breasts and cook two and a half per person.
    Ever notice that there are three such in a tray. The one person portion by their standards.

  3. Paul: I am concerned! But my knowledge of economics is limited. I can only discuss what I observe, and that is, these giant stores are taking over and we are letting them.

    Vince: Thanks for all your thoughts - glad to see I've at least spurred more than a line of comment this time ;) But wouldn't those small shops provide variety and employment just the same, if there were enough of them? The siphoning of entrepreneurial spirit is one of the dangers I am trying to include here - though you say it better.
    Very few people could comfortably walk home from this proposed liquor outlet. It would be at the junction of two highways.
    As for your last paragraph, I heartily agree.
    Cheers, mate.

  4. Actually no, to the small shop. And mostly due to the way our town centers evolved.
    Take an average shop 2000'sq. It has to much of a draw on it by way of fixed costs. Normally the owner has his salary as a manager pitched at a level where his life is upper middle class. Kids in private school, the biggish house and a possible pony for Tamsin. The BMW for the wife, etcetera etcetera etcetera. The shop also has rent, rates and general tax to pay. All very high, and substantially higher than that of the superstore.
    You should ask in your town for the fun of it. How much it will cost to open a store. Just the basics.
    Anyhow, all these require that the shop runs the low cost assistant rule. Minimum wage all the way. And the lower school-leaver one at that.
    Basically what I'm saying. The superstore generally offers higher wages. And offers a path, for those bright enough, into management. Something that will never happen in the High st.
    It also smashes the monopoly of the local shop owners on the local government. For if market conditions were operating properly, there would be expansion and contraction of the size and number of High st shops. But the current lot are taking a profit margin well beyond what the general population could sustain without impoverishing themselves. Superstores do not enter a market that hasn't much fat. And where they do enter the first to go are those shops that have been fleecing you for decades. Hardware first. Then the gents clothes. Then the butcher. Next the general grocers. And last the Veg&Egg shop. Being replaced by the £-shop, and for some reason, the candle/incense and smelly bath-crap shop and coffee shops.
    What stays are the Chemist, the book shop, numerous ladies clothes and shoes.

  5. But I'm not objecting to the Superstore - I shop there quite happily! It's Canadian and the employees are unionized. But we also have a greengrocer here in my town - good prices, very fresh produce and as much local/organics as they can get their hands on, so I support them almost daily. Apparently, a decade or so before I moved here there were plenty of nice shops, but now people are willing to drive anywhere to get what they want. We do have a smaller chain grocery store which has some very silly (read: expensive) prices - but I don't see any shop owners here driving BMW's...maybe a Toyota. We have neither a book shop nor a ladies clothing shop, just a Fields which is a low-end department store and a Shoppers Drug Mart. I am very happy we have a coffee roastery/pottery studio/ antiques shop, an artisan cheesemaker, an herb farm/gift shop, and a good independant farm/garden center for these help make a community unique and interesting.
    There is a place for supercenters, but I am trying to argue against there being so many of them! And now an American chain, Target, has bought 200 of our Canadian chain stores.

  6. Heck you've an opening there for a secondhand bookshop slash coffee shop. No money in new books these days with Amazon. And I-Tunes did for the record shop. And you wont be hitting the antiques woman either. If you have one coffee when you're out there is nothing more certain than you will have a second.
    And the BMW was how it used to be for such small shops. At one point not so long ago, a yard of counter was worth a hundred acres of farmland.

  7. ...endless disposable cleaning products with the catchy phrase: 'just use, and toss!' (without a thought for the landfill).


    personally i find it highly offensive that these same companies prey on environmental sympathies by packaging these throw away products as "green."

    businesses no longer care about the consumer. priority one is making money - after all the man with the most cash at the end of the game wins right?

  8. Vince: We already have two coffee shops, but I do think Stella could take one over and sell books as well, don't you? (remember Stella from my post, 'All Hail to the Coffee Shop"?

    E.P.: Agreed on all counts! The whole 'green' thing is a marketer's dream, isn't it?

  9. i share similar concerns...i think another thing that speaks highly of our civilization are the number of homes that sit vacant or on the market for months or years waiting...one can only speculate beyond the economy but...ugh i cant stand walmart...gimme home grown any day...

  10. I love our local, small, quaint shops. They make our town unique and keep the local people in business. But I must admit that I also like the convenience of the large stores, too. I guess I want my cake & eat it, too.

  11. I avoid Wal-Mart, but love Target. It is about convenience. Those local stores will have a hard time competing with Wal-Mart, and that is sad. It's not impossible, though. If they offer a good product and good service, they can survive.

  12. I gladly support the little market stalls that spring up in the warmer months, but am very guilty of Costco shopping:( I do try and exercise some self control...but in bulk and freeze!

    PS Found you through Kate today!

  13. So nice to see more comments on the topic here!

    Brian: Yes, I agree. Home shouldn't really be just another commodity...but it is. I live in one of the most expensive regions in North America and most people I know is mortgaged to the hilt. It has become a way of life.

    Lady Cat: I don't object to the large stores...please don't get me wrong, I shop in them too! It's just that there should be a limit on how many of them built in a region, I think.

    Jen: You're right Jen, they can survive, but if I have my facts straight, Walmart has a way of sucking a previously viable downtown core dry of business. I know people value what the downtown offers here, but half of it sits vacant and is getting rundown so for how long will the other shops stick around?

    ModernMom: Thanks for stopping by! If you support the market stalls along with the Costco and that works well for you and your family then...who am I to judge?

  14. Hi Neighbor, Thanks for stopping by, and thanks to Kate for the intro. We come up your way a couple of times a year.
    I have clicked on follow and will look forward to your well thought out and wonderfully written Blog.

  15. Legend: Thanks to you too! So glad to see you here. When you clicked follow did you click 'done'? I don't see your little picture there...

  16. You have a WELL FOUNDED concern here. I find if very sad that the smaller stores continue to get PUSHED out by the MEGA centers. I much prefer to buy local and from local merchants.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!