Within minutes of my return to my home for Thanksgiving break, I noticed a front page article in the local newspaper stating “Planning Commission Approves Wal-Mart.” The new megastore will be built on a nearby highway corridor, joining an array of other recently built chain businesses. When I drive by this area, I’m struck by how incredibly similar it looks to almost every other suburban location I’ve been to in the entire country – paved, beige, and offering the same products. Proponents of the developments point to “job creation” and “affordable merchandise” as the logic behind their construction. I point to something slightly less tangible: cultural and economic death.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But if I can’t tell whether I’m in Oregon or Michigan, then there’s something wrong. Plenty of prose has been written discussing the various social problems with companies like Wal-Mart; poor wages, aggressive marketing practices that close local businesses, etc. These are all major issues that deserve attention, but I have seen considerably less from the philosophical side. Some analysts just dismiss these roadside malls as “America’s transition to a service-centered economy.” I can’t dismiss them. Images of Black Friday shoppers trampling each other for some useless product make me sick. To me, the building of these big-box conglomerations is an existential assault on individuality, from a human and geographic perspective. Simply refusing to shop at them isn’t enough – whether or not they stay open, the land almost always remains claimed by asphalt and bereft of nature. Most people, myself included, choose to generally ignore their issues and indulge in them, justifying them as necessary extensions of the all-powerful “economy”.
“Indulge” may not even be the correct word. This brand of consumerism, developed fully in the last half-century, is more of a self-imposed slavery to objects. Again, hyperbolic. But if converting large swaths of open land into a car-orientated shopping area selling stuff that was produced and transported using enormous amounts of energy and will likely be put into a landfill within months seems NORMAL, if not expected, then strong words are merited. The concept of “planned obsolescence,” wherein products are merely meant to be sold and not to last, has been willingly incorporated into our culture, along with the goal of unlimited and perpetual growth.
Unfortunately, our planet is decisively finite; there is a limit to how much stuff we can extract and process before we simply run out. Yet this has simply gone unheeded by the general public – they continue to amass belongings and update to the “latest” models in a vicious cycle of buying and throwing away.
Perhaps one of the most infuriating things is that for all environmental and societal destruction occurring for the sake of material fulfillment, people continue to be dissatisfied with their lives. A study by the University of Rochester in 2009 showed that among a pool of recent college graduates, nearly 80% reported that intrinsic success (relationships, health, personal development) made them happy, but only 30% found extrinsic success (wealth, fame) the key to their happiness. So why, if this is the case, do we still mostly subscribe to this system? Why do we allow our farmland and forests to be paved over only for dissatisfaction? The tsunami of advertisements and pop culture that people are exposed to 24/7 is mostly to blame. We are constantly told that endless consumption is the key to success, and images of happy, rich people provide a model for such a lifestyle. What’s more, we are told these roadside developments will provide much-needed jobs and stimulate our economy, as if getting a job at a big box store in order to make enough money to shop at other boxes is somehow ideal.
The consumer apparatus that has been created to facilitate this materialism only hastens the process of depletion, albeit in an incredibly profitable way for the few that control it. These sprawling suburbs continue to sprout up everywhere because even just building them is profitable for construction companies and municipal governments; we build as if the land will never run out. Growth for growth’s sake is the philosophy of cancer – and inevitably, cancer kills its host.
However, it is not all bad news. Local businesses and culture, if successful, can stem the tide of globalization and homogeneousness. Strict zoning laws and an informed public have prevented development in many areas, and localization movements have sprung up all over the country. Only when enough people come to realize the inherent wrongness of our status quo and utilize the resources already being developed can we as a country transition into a sustainable future, one that strives for individuality instead of beige monotony.
This editorial first appeared in The Blue Collar, Volume 4, Issue 2, December 2012, Interlochen Arts Academy’s student newspaper, under the interesting typo “The Plight of Consumerist America”.