Shopping at the End of the World

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 11/29/07


In a consumer culture life is all about you. What are your immediate wants and needs? How do you feel? Are you comfortable? Thirsty maybe? Mood okay? Happiness comes in a box from the mall. Or a pill from the doctor. Whatever. Just as long as you buy it. Forget about where things come from, who made them, under what conditions—or how the raw materials came to be in the manufacturer’s possession. And forget about where things go when you’re done with them. Leave those worries to the bleeding hearts, the tree-huggers and all the other America-haters. You work hard. You deserve creature comforts. End of story. Let’s shop.

This year’s Black Friday shop-a-thon bested last year’s sales numbers by more than eight percent. This might seem weird, given the collapse of the dollar, the epidemic of mortgage foreclosures, the expanding pension and healthcare crisis, peak-oil-induced soaring energy costs and the overall meltdown of the economy.

End Times Environmentalism

And then there’s end times environmentalism—the fact that most of the world, including we Americans, seem to have just discovered global warming, acid rain, habitat destruction, collapsing fisheries, oceanic dead zones, deforestation, drought-induced wildfires, climate-change-induced floods and so on. After years of listening to network weather forecasters predict “another beautiful day” without ever mentioning the phrase “global warming,” Americans finally began to get it this year.

Most are concerned, if not outright scared shitless, about dying oceans, burning forests and highways clogged with tractor-trailerloads of trash heading no place in particular. And we’re all pretty much aware that the dollar is now a soft currency whose value is held hostage by our Chinese economic masters—because, well, we gave them all our dollars in exchange for a lot of shit that’s mostly now buried in landfills, incinerated or floating around in some ocean trash vortex. We now know, like we never did before, that our shopping is killing the planet. But, like the pale gray, semi-lifeless forms that clog the doorways of public buildings, sucking off of what they all know to be their executioner, we just can’t help ourselves.

For many, living a responsible, low-consumption lifestyle is a fate worse than death—so perhaps, like the smokers in the doorway, they’ve opted for death. This scenario paints Black Friday hording as an act of collective suicide—shop till you drop. Then there are the nihilists. They don’t want to die, and they certainly don’t want to commit suicide. They just have no hope. To them, our damnation is a foregone conclusion. So why not at least have a good time on our collective way out? The world’s fucked, so let’s shop.

Then there are the believers. Almost all of these folks believe we’re going to be saved. They fall into two categories—the God’s-gonna-save-us tribes, and the scientists-will-figure-it-out cults.

The God Crowd

The God crowd itself falls into two general categories. The first group believes that some nonterrestrial force will ultimately save us from ourselves—hence we can carry on playing with matches and eating all the candy we want, waiting for our parents or the hall monitor or some other surrogate grownup to come scold us and make things all right.

The second group is a bit nastier. They believe that their own deity will show up at the end of time and save people like them, and only people like them, whisking them away on the Rapture Express to their own gated community in the sky. The rest of us mud people can stay behind on a spent core of an earth, waiting to face a fiery Armageddon. To them, environmentalism makes no more sense then painting a house right before an arson. Black Friday is like an eviction party for this crew.

Whatever you do, however, don’t write these folks off as fringe nut jobs. Their ranks include current and former US government officials who are or have been responsible for our environmental and economic policies. Notable among them is the former Reagan administration secretary of the interior, James Watts—the man responsible for axing Jimmy Carter’s sustainable energy and environment initiatives a generation ago. Folks like him aren’t just waiting for the apocalypse—they’ve been actively working to bring it on.

George W. Bush hangs with this crowd as well. At the White House, rapture-ready end-timers aren’t viewed as fringe lunatics—no. White House records show that they’re regularly received in the Oval Office as religious advisors. Their religion, however, feels like it’s lifted from an Indiana Jones film. The rapture they so impatiently await, it seems, won’t come until the state of Israel occupies all of its Old Testament stomping grounds and rebuilds the ancient Temple of Solomon on the site of the 1,300-year-old Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosques. With all this heeby-jeeby going on, who needs to worry about global warming—especially when the Israelis are only about 10 years away from firing up the rapture escalator to the heavens—which of course the Israelis won’t be allowed onto, but that’s another story.

This all fits with the Bush administration’s modus operandi. Their plan for the Iraq war is to leave office and let the next administration sort out their mess. Likewise, their plan for the environment is to leave the planet. Of course, however Bush leaves the planet, there’ll be someone here to have to deal with the mess that’s left behind.

The Techno-Fundamentalists

Then there are the technology worshipers. They’re out in their SUVs cruising the Big Boxes, secure in their belief that no matter how much they fuck up the world, science will find a way to fix it. If the rapturites are all about Indiana Jones, these techno-worshipers are diehard Trekkies. They meditate to mantras like “fusion energy.” They follow charismatic preachers such as Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, who offered $25 million to anyone who figures out how to get this carbon dioxide stuff out of the atmosphere and back into soda bottles where it belongs. In the meantime, well, his company’s fleet of jet airliners are belching out the death gases like there’s no tomorrow.

That’s the beauty of the techno-fix. We don’t have to do anything—especially anything that feels like a sacrifice. We can consume and befoul while indulging in all the hedonistic whims we feel. We’ll eat candy all day and never be fat. We’ll flip the channel and watch Britney freak out while we wait for scientists to perform liposuction on our bloated planet.

The techno-fix is a fantasy. It’s atoms for peace and a work-free robotic utopia all rolled into one. The techno-fundamentalists are putting all of their faith in this one hand. When they fold, we lose. End of game. This hand’s not real. It only works on TV and in the movies, where replicators materialize food while trash just sort of disappears into endless space. This isn’t real. This ain’t our world.

The Grownups

There’s one more group out there, but numerically they seem to be the smallest. That’s the let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-deal-with-it crowd. The truth is that the technology exists for us to deal with our environmental problems. It always has, throughout all of human history. But it involves scrapping the fantasies most people still cling to. We can’t count on scientists or gods to save us from ourselves. We’re the problem. So we have to be the solution.

And I hate to be the bearer of difficult news, but switching brands just isn’t going to save us. Lowering the thermostat in your McMansion or putting ethanol into the SUV won’t do it. An overpopulated world full of people buying Energy Star air conditioners isn’t going to be our salvation. Buying a different product won’t cut it. A different lifestyle, however, might. But we have to act fast, because one of these years there won’t be a Cyber Monday following Black Friday

ęCopyright 2007

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