Throughout the past week, in honor of Thanksgiving and in protest of Black Friday, we’ve been taking a critical look at excessive consumerism and the consequences it portends for ourselves as a society and planet Earth.
We’ve covered the plight of Wal-Mart’s underpaid and poorly treated workers (some of whom have gone on strike), talked about the tremendous environmental damage that’s been caused by our “use it up and throw it out” culture, and expressed our displeasure with major retail chains like Target for making employees come into work on Thanksgiving instead of observing the holiday.
The videos depict people shoving, pushing, and screaming incessantly at each other as they scramble to get their hands on a crate full of smartphones (presumably being sold by Wal-Mart at very low prices).
It’s an ugly, pathetic, and embarrassing scene. This is apparently what we’ve been reduced to: a society so obsessed with greed and instant gratification that we’re willing to toss patience, politeness, and common courtesy out the window for handheld computers ensconced in brightly-colored boxes.
What stood out to me as I watched the footage was the people shown turning back into the crowd with merchandise in hand, eager to push others out of their way in their hurry to get to the checkout line (or perhaps to snag other items for sale).
To me, the behavior captured in these videos symbolizes the selfish, uncaring attitude so many people seem to have these days. There’s so much screaming and yelling in this video that I can’t make out any coherent dialogue. But the body language is clear: I’ve got mine, now get out of my way!
Whatever happened to humility? Goodwill towards others? Has consumerism so consumed us that we’ve forgotten the message of timeless works about the true meaning of the holiday season – like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?
Those of us who consider ourselves to be Christians would do well to remember what Jesus said about the accumulation and worship of worldly possessions. Like this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
— Matthew 6:19-21
Or this passage from Luke:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
— Luke 12:13-15
More than a decade ago, our good friend John de Graaf sought to give a name to our modern epidemic of greed and instant gratification. He came up with affluenza, which he defined as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”
Affluenza is particularly bad this time of year – and has been since before the turn of the century. As de Graaf writes in the first chapter of the book of the same name:
Most Americans tell pollsters they want less emphasis on holiday spending and gift-giving. A third cannot even remember what they gave their significant other the previous year, and many cannot pay off their Christmas debts until the following summer, if then. Yet the urge to splurge continues to surge. It’s as if we Americans, despite our intentions suffer from some kind of Willpower Deficiency Syndrome, a breakdown in affluenza immunity.
And it’s only getting worse. Wal-Mart is triumphantly claiming tonight that this year’s Black Friday sales were the strongest the megachain has ever had. It seems the urge to splurge is more powerful than ever.
And no wonder: Just look at how heavily “Black Friday” has been promoted on the news and in television, radio, print, and Internet advertising. Americans have been constantly encouraged to go shopping for weeks, and millions did just that, thinking today was the day to score the best deals (except it wasn’t, as we know thanks to research by outfits like Decide.com).
Modern mass media equivocates the pursuit of stuff with the pursuit of happiness. But stuff – whether it’s electronics, cars, clothes, toys, big houses, or anything else – won’t make us happy. We believe true happiness comes from living a purposeful live, from alleviating suffering, from learning to be selfless, and from improving the human condition. That’s why our objective, as an organization, is to raise America’s quality of life. We all do better when we all do better.
And we can start doing better by rejecting the unsustainable tenets of consumerism in favor of the values that have made our nation great.