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.

But noth­ing we’ve pub­lished so far this week sums up how we feel about Black Fri­day as ably as these videos, which were shot inside of a Wal-Mart in Moul­trie, Geor­gia ear­li­er today. 

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

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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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