Today I’m talking about something a little different from my usual blog posts. I’m touching on American consumerism and specifically about Black Friday. Most Americans have to some degree or other bought into the myth that more is better; that buying can make you happy. We’ve moved from being citizens to being consumers. We’re taught subtly that being a consumer serves the higher good. We’re told more and more often that not just consumption but even greed can be a good thing.
Really these ideas are the heart of capitalism and capitalism is the heart of American society. We’re more about free market than we are about any other sort of freedom. Make no mistake either, capitalism is entirely about self-interest, it’s about using riches to make yourself richer. Capitalism is about exploiting every resource (including human resources) to its maximum usefulness, not matter the cost on the resources themselves.
Considering these things is what gives me big pause with the rise of things like ecotourism and volunteerism being heralded as potential solutions to our world of woes. Using greed, using consumption; selling vapid, shallow experiences is at it’s very essence counter to conservation. Conservation should be about celebrating the free things, the beauty of the universe and every living thing in it. Conservation shouldn’t be about being coddled in a five-star resort at the cost of the environment. It should be about as John Muir said about the best way to prepare for a trip, “To throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.”
To me conservation and outdoor recreation in general should be a spiritual pursuit (I hesitate to use the word spiritual but it seems the only appropriate word available). It should be about chasing the truly sublime, about striving to transcend the confines of your individuality and even the confines of rational mind. Sometimes it’s even about letting your body start to die a little, so that you can feel true life. This quote from mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev is a great example of what I mean, “I wanted to achieve something essential in life, something that is not measured by money or position in society… The mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambitions to achieve. They are my cathedrals, the houses of my religion… In the mountains I attempt to understand my life. They are the way I practice my religion. In the mountains I celebrate creation, on each journey I am reborn.”
Keeping all of that in mind, I saw in the news today that REI is closing on Black Friday and encouraging people to go outdoors instead and post their outdoor activities on social media. I personally have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s encouraging, it’s positive. On the other hand, a more cynical part of me feels it might be another gimmick, just a way to get inside the heads of consumers and make more money. Still, I am a member of REI and I feel in some ways, they reflect my view of the world better than most retail stores. Sure, I feel they sell overpriced items and along with other outdoor retailers are part of the push for more and more gear being used in the outdoors and even being considered necessary for outdoor pursuit. Still though, we’re all humans with different capacity and whatever you need to get you out there, the most important thing is that you are out there.
I read an excellent book about the founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company a while ago called, Let my People go Surfing. The book talks a lot about the focus on sustainability, quality and workers benefits that Patagonia has pioneered. Further I know they’ve pushed for a 1% for the earth movement where companies give 1% of their net profit to environmental non-profits. Patagonia and other outdoor companies even own a reserve (in Patagonia). So clearly they do some good things and I am happy about those things. Still, the connection between money and conservation makes me nervous. The more we say we need money to buy land for conservation, the more we confirm the message that every thing is for sale. It’s the same when conservation biologists argue that organisms have useful compounds that can potentially heal disease. We’re playing a dangerous game, saying that the value of the outdoors, of animals and plants is in money.
The value of the world around us is something deeply embedded within us. The value is that holy fire inside you the first time you look out from a mountain or the rim of the grand canyon. The value is when you see another organism and feel a deep, inexplicable kinship to it. The value is the shade of trees on long summer days and the sharp sparkle of stars on long winter nights. If you can’t relate to that value, it means you’re sick. It’s the sickness of consumption that is eating us and our planet alive. So in that spirit I salute REI for closing on Black Friday and I truly hope that everyone reading this can find a way to get outside on that day and just for a little while pretend that shopping malls don’t exist.