February 10, 2011
In the Land of the Giants
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.