Friday, November 28, 2008

Consuming thanks

One day post-Thanksgiving and I'm thinking about what a weird (and sometimes lovely) world we live in. One day post-Thanksgiving and I'm not shopping.

Black Friday, indeed - a clerk at a Wal-Mart in Long Island was trampled to death and a shopper had a order that the families of these mad shoppers could have the latest techy toys and High School Musical pajamas? What is this sick thing within us humans that pushes us to externalize our wealth and make it a symbol or replacement for love? This drive to consume, is it evolutionary? Has it gotten mis-translated and warped by modern times as many other evolutionary safeguards have? (Update: thank god the pregnant woman and her baby are both okay, the reports of a miscarriage were false.)

In another post on ecopsychology I pondered the implications of a brain that evolved in concert with nature now feeling the brunt of a technological divorce from that shaping force. For instance, we have an incredibly effective internal alarm system called the fight-or-flight response which triggers a whole host of bodily responses in case we need to get the hell out of dodge. Breathing increases, heart rate increases, the blood rushes to the core to support increased heart-rate and organ activity to facilitate fleeing or standing to fight. Highly adaptive over millions of years, no doubt. And still adaptive in times of true need. Yet highly inconvenient if triggered by a rude motorist who cuts you off in traffic, or if set into effect before an exam in the form of test anxiety, or if made more susceptible to triggering as is the case in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

Is our drive to consume similar?

It was at one time highly adaptive, certainly. We needed protections against the future - food, warmth, fuel in the form of firewood. Consuming could be seen as a hedging of bets and a protection against terror, simply put. Bringing things under one's dominion, leading to a prosperous life full of the illusion of control, probably helped people sleep easier at night and did help get them through lean times. Even gaining weight - at which we are spectacularly adept now - was an evolutionary advantage against hunger. People from the colder Northern climes gained easier and those of us who are their descendants still do!

There is a similar drive to amass within the peak oil movement, although it's metaphor is the squirrel storing winter nuts, rather than useless gadgets and new plastic crap from China. But nonetheless - we have within us a need to gather things for our protection. It affords us a greater illusion of control in an uncontrollable life. It helps us to feel okay in a world on the verge of considerable change. And there are many unscrupulous folks out there who would take advantage of this potential weakness - indeed there are a lot of people making money off the threat of peak oil, hocking expensive wares through manipulative fear.

I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't be thoughtful about potential shortages and therefore take time to save useful items, or even to consider purchasing a few new things (preferably used!). It would be imprudent to suggest that we shouldn't prepare. It would be impossible - an nonsensical - to suggest that we stop consuming.

But I think it's hugely important to be honest with ourselves. Is our consumption coming out of fear? Has an evolutionary advantage been kicked into hyperdrive by the availability of 32 kinds of ketchup and 18 types of maxipads and an infinite variety of clothing and toys? Are we being wise when we purchase out of misplaced anxiety? How much are we controlled by our instincts to hedge our bets? Is uncontrolled, mindless consumption of clearance junk from Target or Black Friday "deals" from Macy's a sickness? When does it become one? At what point have we lost our balance?

At what point can we feel okay without lists and lists of things we can turn to to protect us? At what point do we realize that our true wealth, security, and comfort is internal and interpersonal?

At what point do we have enough?


Meryl said...

I've been thinking about this post for a few days now. I tend to be very proud of the fact that we are limiting our buying of "stuff" just for the sake of having it. I suppose I never thought of it as some kind of evolutionary thing--although that makes sense. And if that's the case, I have to wonder if all the people out there like me who are kind of rebelling against this culture of having stuff are the next stage of evolution? Or do we just not have the sense to know that we might need some of this stuff someday?

Lewru said...

Hi Meryl,
Excellent question! And, of course, I have no idea. I think mindfulness is a key, however...Being aware of why and how we purchase, rather than having the knee-jerk "let's go to Target and see what we see" phenomenon.