I am away for the long Thanksgiving weekend visiting my daughter and family in Northern Virginia. This Holiday has long since lost its meaning of gratitude for the plenitude of the Earth. The major event, the family dinner, is an occasion to prepare and eat enough to last through the whole four-day weekend. But even that has been replaced as the peak experience by Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year when people gather in throngs well before the stores open. Some as early as midnight. Last year, if I remember correctly, the crush of the crowd to get into one store was so great that several people died as the doors opened. All for a chance to buy one of the very special bargains for the early birds. The label, Black, took on its saddest meaning instead of pointing to the day when many merchants’ bottom line crept into the positive side after hanging in the red for the many months earlier in the year.
The classic meaning of Thanksgiving is much in my mind these days, triggered often by the readings I have assigned to my Marlboro class on Sustainable Consumption. We have read several essays on how and why to reduce consumption, for the sake of the Earth and for ourselves. When consumption becomes an addiction as it has for many today who cannot stop seeking the latest in technology or something else, it gnaws away at the authenticity of action and dulls aliveness, enough though the first thrill of the new purchase creates a rush not unlike that of many controlled substances.
The pieces we are reading now tell the opposite story: how consumption is important, if not essential, to the psyche. The goods we own signal to others who we are or want to be. Their need may be deeply embedded in the culture to serve as gifts to show reciprocity for others, and signal our care for them. We have learned that voluntary simplicity is very difficult to achieve and that programs based on it are not likely to succeed.
Tom Princen, one of the authors we have read, defines one form of consumption as “misconsumption.” [See my earlier post.] This refers to consumption that produces ill effects along with those for which the action was intended. Overeating is one of his examples. Thanksgiving dinners end up with this form of consumption for many, including me. I learn again the lesson: it is very hard to break old habits, and how important it always is to enlist others in one’s efforts to break old habits. Sustainability, however one hopes it will come without struggle, depends on it.